Sunday, July 19, 2015

A House not Made by Hands

Proper 11b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ himself as the cornerstone.

We continue our readings from the Court History of ancient Israel with an incident that tells us a great deal about God, and our relationship with God. King David by this time has settled in and settled down as a comfortable monarch secure on his throne. He has wiped out the few who continued to support Saul that remained of Saul’s friends who still considered David to not deserve the throne. He has conquered the Jebusites who held the heights of Mount Zion and he has renamed that part of the Jerusalem as his own: the City of David. He has defeated the last few outbreaks of Philistine resistance, as Second Samuel tells us, from Geba to Gezer, whipping their tails back to the seaside, away from Jerusalem. His neighbor to the north, King Hiram of Tyre, no doubt wishing to curry favor with this new powerful ruler on his borders, sends a small army — not of soldiers, but of carpenters and masons, with a supply of cedar-wood, and builds David a beautiful house, a palace to live in. This is the act that finally convinces David that he has it made, and one of the first things he does in this new settled kingdom, as we heard in last week’s reading, is to fetch the Ark of God from where it has rested, to bring it into the City of David with dancing and rejoicing.

And so we come to today: David reflects on the fact that he has a nice house to live in, but the Ark of God is still camping out in a tent; and he tells the prophet Nathan about his plan to build God a house of wood and stone. Nathan at first gives his OK, but then God speaks to the prophet and tells Nathan to tell David to hold his horses. God tells David through the prophet that he hasn’t asked for a house to live in — just as God had never asked any of the tribal leaders, judges or prophets before David to build a house as a dwelling or resting place. On the contrary, God has clearly preferred the outdoor life — traveling with the people of God in a tent and a tabernacle. God moved about, enthroned upon the cherubim adorning the Ark of the Covenant — the Ark that had rings built right into the side so that carrying-poles could be slipped through and put in place at the drop of a hat, and the Ark could be carried by bearers and move as God willed. This moveable Ark has served for centuries as the sign of God’s presence — a presence that moves with God’s people.

But then, after declaring no need for a house, God takes it one step further. Not only does God not ask for a house, but God will make David a house — and here is a play on words, for God is not speaking (in David’s case) about a house of wood and stone, which David already has thanks to King Hiram of Tyre. God is talking about making David into a royal house — like the House of Windsor or the House of Hanover. God will set up the House of David as a royal lineage.

That became a reality, attested not only in the Scripture, but in an artifact discovered just over 20 years ago in an archaeological dig in the Holy Land. It is an engraved stone war memorial dating from about one to two hundred years after the time of King David On it, the King of Damascus celebrates a victory over the King of “the House of David” — Beit David. It is the only archeological find (so far) that mentions David by name, and one of only four that mentions Israel. Not all scholars accept that this war memorial actually means what it appears to say, and there are other different interpretations. (One of the problems about Hebrew writing is that it is open to many interpretations — which is one of the reasons the Scriptures themselves have received so many different readings down through the centuries. For instance the letters that spell the name of David in Hebrew can also mean “uncle” or “beloved.” It all depends on what you mean. Just look at the two different meanings of the word “house” in our present example — David intends to think about a physical example, the house built of stone and cedar, but God provides him with the another meaning of “house” — the house of flesh and blood in his descendants stretching on through time. )

And this is the important thing for us about this House of David: this is not a matter of engraved stone war memorials, or even of the Scripture, however interpreted, but of David and his descendants forming a new living house — a house made not of wood and stone, but of human flesh and blood. For that is what God intends to build: a house not made by hands.

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Flash forward a thousand years and we find the Apostle writing to the Ephesians in much the same tone: God is doing a great new work of construction. God tears down the dividing wall that separates Jews from Gentiles, and is in the process of building “one new humanity in place of the two.” This has a strong architectural reference, also, and may even refer to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem — which had a literal dividing wall between the outer Court of the Gentiles and the inner parts of the Temple into which only Jews were allowed. With the literal destruction of the Temple, that dividing wall has been torn down.

More importantly, what God is doing in this new construction project is similar to what God did with David — that the house God really desires is not made of wood and stone, but of flesh and blood. In this case, it is in Jesus — who is the flesh and blood heir of the royal House of David — but in whom God has also acted once and for all to lay the cornerstone of the new temple of God’s presence, in which the Gentiles have now come to be full and equal citizens, no longer aliens and strangers, but heirs with Christ and members of God’s household, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ himself being the cornerstone. And, as the Apostle affirms, this whole miraculous construction project is God’s new Temple — the human Temple not made by hands, but by the will of God, as the many members are joined in one as God’s dwelling place.

This new Temple is the Church. Not the church building — this is still made of wood and stone. The new Temple of God is the people, held together not with nails and mortar but with the water of Baptism and the flesh and blood of the Holy Eucharist. This church building has stood for almost 150 years (give it another couple of months!), but the Church of Christ has stood for more than a dozen times that, and it will continue to stand, long after all the memorials and temples and sanctuaries have become as fragmentary as that war memorial from the King of Damascus, as lost and gone as the Temple of Solomon and the Temple of Herod, as lost and gone as some day even this beloved little church building will be, for wood decays and stone dissolves, and, as the hymn we will sing at Communion says,

Though with care and toil we build them,
tower and temple fall to dust.
But God’s power, hour by hour,
is my temple and my tower.”

In Ephesians, the Apostle assures us that the union of the two in one — whether the two peoples, the Jews and the Gentiles, or two spouses, as he also teaches — all represent the new humanity that finds its new life in Christ, as a great mystery, the greatest mystery, the mystery of God’s will established in God’s adopting us as his children from before the foundation of the world. And not just us, as the Apostle affirms, for God’s plan for the fullness of time will gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.

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That can sound a bit overwhelming, as I’m sure it did to the church in Paul’s time. But this is what we are part of, my friends, not just caring for this sweet, little church of wood and stone, but helping by our own extended hands reaching out beyond these walls, helping to grow and to build the house not made by hands, as we join hands with brothers and sisters newly adopted into God’s great family, the church of God, to fulfill the mystery by which the many become one in God, who is One: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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