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2 Samuel 7:1–11, 16 | Romans 16:25–27 | Luke 1:26–38
Shelter is one of those basic human needs—this time of year with the cold and long nights especially being a reminder that walls and a roof and heat are critical for survival and comfort. We often take our housing for granted, but it’s not a given: It takes income or family—or perhaps a shelter or tent. Although historically people had less options for being indoors, we can perhaps think about how important it was to have at least a tent and even better, a house “built of cedar” like we hear that King David is now dwelling in—2 Samuel: Stronger, more permanent than the nomadic tents—a sign of growing personal, social, political stability. This confederation of 12 tribes did what many were doing around the world in those days—for the sake of both survival and prosperity: They unified, centralized, increased the hierarchy to include a monarch, built strong houses and city walls. This discouraged small-scale raiding; with the landscape becoming one of large-scale war. But for now, the new king of the new nation feels snug and safe. And starts thinking beyond his own house: What about God? The concrete vessel of God’s presence—that is, the ark of the covenant that has been carried since Mt. Sinai—is still in a flimsy tent (called a tabernacle).
Now, it’s strange for us to think of God living in a tent, or even a building. Although to some degree, we expect that God is somehow more present in a church building: Because that’s where we go to “worship” God, after all. (When there’s no pandemic.) That is where we usually have the sacraments of communion and baptism where we believe God specifically shows up. I think we also tend to picture God all around us— which is fine—but in the Old Testament days, there was a sense of God’s humanness that connected to our humanness: (Why else would God “need” a tent?) God had conversations with people like Moses and Abraham; gave directions; spoke through prophets about specific issues. This rootedness in the particular that has long been the experience of God—lest God become so amorphous and infused in the “air” that God kind of disappears. God’s house—God’s shelter—WAS the tabernacle or tent. If you wanted to experience Presence, that’s where you went… At the same time, God was perfectly free too, with otherworldly glory— sometimes summoning humans to an audience in the heavenly courts; showing up in fire and wind and cloud. No one, it was said, could look at the face of God and live: So beyond our comprehension, finally, is this One that fuels creation. But a tabernacle—a tent, really—is built in the wilderness wandering to capture both the particularity and the mystery of God’s presence—with its inner tent or “holy of holies” where only one priest was allowed to go once a year.
King David—with his own upgrade—thinks God needs a better house like his, too.
Nathan the prophet and kingly advisor says “great idea!” then gets a dream from God, who says, “Wait a minute! This is YOUR idea and not mine. I’ve been journeying around with you all this time, raising up good leaders for you and now you’re deciding what I need and where I’ll live?” (My interp.) “The Lord will make your house.” Apparently God’s dream is not a fancy, unmoving house built of stone. And also—this isn’t what the people need either: God’s movability and vulnerability have been a part of what has formed them and what will continue to be an important part of the story of God’s people—for the sake of the whole world.
It’s no accident that we hear in John that the Word became flesh and “tented” or “tabernacled” among us. Incidentally, this didn’t happen in a permanent home, but a borrowed stable. God shows up in this way as particular, vulnerable and movable: In the midst of us in a way that doesn’t allow any one person (like a king) to have ownership. Also, God’s home for 40 weeks is literally inside a human being. Mary becomes the literal shelter or “house” of God as the child Jesus gestates in her womb. Mary—who is one of the common people—we hear is “favored.” This implies that she is chosen and given grace (from charitas)—NOT that she was somehow pre-qualified. Now Mary—as a woman in those days—is also vulnerable from the start—but being pregnant makes her even more so. Bearing a child was incredibly dangerous in those days; many women dying in childbirth. But she is also unwed and therefore liable to being abandoned or stoned: Even in the best of circumstances, she will always be the “talk of the town”—along with her betrothed, Joseph. “Do not be afraid” is an apt way to preface what she is called to endure in the months and years to come regarding this untimely pregnancy. Yet her answer is a good one to grace: “Here I am, your servant. Let it be as you say.” Mary who is moveable and vulnerable.
In time, the child will be born and God will continue to take this “dwelling among people” thing to another level. In a person now, to BE a lively and effective presence among us—to work on that age old project of God’s: Human beings. In this space, God can work on us. (As God worked through a flawed king whose “house” (a word that also comes to stand as “dynasty”) will contain God’s presence.) God is interested, it seems, in making us into God’s dwelling place as well. Rather than us building God a house, God will build us: “Are you the one to build me a house to live in?” Or, perhaps, are you the house that I am building?
This week we talk about love, I think it appropriate to think how this is the nature of love: To receive, it cannot be contained or coerced. It is freely given. To give, it is in the pattern of the God who loves us indiscriminately and not for God’s own gain. It is the house that God is building.
And we are left with the wise, wise words of Mary on our own lips: “Here I am. May it be so.” For God would have us house and bear—if not the child—then the message of Christ to all those who dwell on the earth; this great home of God’s. Thanks be to God. Amen.