God dwells with us: Advent 4

By Matthew W. Humphrey, Director of Theological Education

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.” But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.

2 Samuel 7:1-11

As we approach the final week of Advent, we are ever mindful of how this Christmas season feels different.   Here where I live in Victoria, BC our churches remain closed with strict orders not to gather (the same is true in many places, I realize) and warnings against gathering beyond our immediate families for meals.  As we think ahead to Christmas dinners and gift exchanges, we are re-orienting our plans to be smaller, to be more focused in our family units.  For many of us this brings some difficulty or loneliness.

And as we anticipate all this, we discover this wonderful reading from the lectionary for the fourth Sunday of Advent – of David offering to build a great cedar house for God.  God effectively says, “thanks but no thanks,” refusing the offer and instead pledging to build David’s ‘house’ not of cedar, but of a great multitude of descendants, which spans forward to include you and I.

We should read David’s impulse as a rather natural one.  He has strengthened Israel to its height as a monarchy and lives in a large house (though small compared to the palace his son Solomon will build!)   He looks around thinking how is it that the God he worships, the God of all Creation, is stuck camping out in a tent!  So, he decides, better to build a great house of Cedar for God to dwell in.   And yet the unsettling word comes for him – it is I who build for you!

At the core of this exchange is the strange question: Where does God dwell?  And why, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, are we pondering this very question together through this reading?

The opening prologue to John’s Gospel brings the great pronouncement, “And the word became flesh and lived among us.”   Or, as Eugene Peterson translated it, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”  Where does God dwell – right here among us!

God doesn’t need a cedar building to enter into Creation – but in some mysterious way has already entered decisively in the person of Jesus Christ. The ‘house’ that God dwells in is all of Creation – built and provided for by the loving hand of God.  Perhaps we would be reminded, like David, that God is the one who has built the whole world and indeed has brought us from where we began unto this very day.  “I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep… and I have been with you wherever you went.”  

And so as the children get increasingly wild with anticipation, as our angst about how to do Christmas dinner without our family and friends grows, as we grieve not being able to gather with our Church family for Christmas eve, may we hear this word of promise once more:

“The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being…’”

Acts 17:24-28

May we – in every small moment of our days – have eyes to see God at work in our world.  May we have ears to hear the whisper of Christ who plays in 10,000 places.  May we have hearts filled with the Hope and Peace and Joy and Love that comes from God alone, who has built a home among us by the Spirit, as we await his coming once more.

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