God the Builder

 Inspired by 2 Samuel 7:1-17

So, since last week’s reading it looks like we’ve skipped a lot of material but really, in the grand scheme of things, we’ve only skipped a few major events. Last week we read about the conception of the prophet Samuel and he did indeed grow up to become one of the greatest prophets of the Bible. He anointed their first king, Saul, which went horribly wrong! I mean, Saul was a real piece of work! In Saul’s defense, it’s pretty clear that Saul was suffering from some mental health challenges. When it was clear that Saul was not going to lead God’s people the way they had hoped, Samuel anoints a new king while Saul was still on the throne mind you! This book is like a season of Game of Thrones! To add insult to injury, this new king was just a boy. Well, just a boy who can slay giants but that’s besides the point. Saul eventually commits suicide and that boy then grew up to become the ruler we now know as King David. Was David an upgrade from Saul? Absolutely not! He turns out to be just as bad but thankfully we don’t even have to get into any of that because today’s passage is from the beginning of David’s reign, before the plethora of bad life choices ensued.

Here, in these first few chapters of 2 Samuel, we get to enjoy the young and naïve King David, a king with all the hopes and dreams ahead of him that he could possibly imagine. And with that in mind, in walks the prophet Nathan, stage left, into this scene with a message from God like no other. This is the prophecy of all prophecies and we get the privilege to watch this scene play out from the audience. So, David begins a conversation with the prophet Nathan by telling him that he’d like to build a house for God. For a little background on this idea, you see, their worship life had centered around the Tabernacle, which was a portable, large but portable, worship space for God, which included the Ark of the Covenant, remember that big gold chest from Raiders of the Lost Ark. That chest and that portable worship space were thought of to be the closest you could get to God on Earth. So, wherever the Tabernacle went, God went and vice versa—or at least, that’s what they believed.

So, David thinks that it’s high time that God got a temple of God’s very own. A central and permanent place for God to dwell and watch over God’s people. After everything God had been through with them, David figured God deserved this. Which, if you think about it, is kinda arrogant in and of itself on David’s part but let’s move on. Nathan tells David to do whatever he wants to, probably thinking that everything else that David has done has been blessed by God and prospered so why not, build God a house. However, that night, Nathan gets a visit from the almighty, and God says no. And if you read between the lines here, it’s almost as if God is doing everything possible to not be offended by this idea! Again, David is young and naïve and a bit egotistical, and so, maybe God keeps that in mind and chooses not to flip out too badly. What God does do is remind David of a couple things. One, God has never needed a permanent residence before. And two, God has never once asked for one.

Then God launches into a monologue of all the things that God has done and will do: “I took you from the pasture; I have been with you every step of the way; I have eliminated all your enemies; I will make your name great; I will provide a place for my people; I will plant them; I will protect them; I will give them rest; I will make a dynasty of you; I will raise up your children; I will establish their kingdom; I will be their father; I will discipline them; I will establish this throne forever.” The key word in all that is forever but we’ll get to that in a minute. Before that however, did you notice where the focus was in this monologue of God’s? That right, it was on God. I lost count of how many times God used the pronoun I! This reading began with David saying what he was going to do and God’s response was, “That’s cute. But let me briefly remind you of what I have done and what I plan to do.” David thought he was the builder of this story, and God was there to tell him that, no, God is the builder, always has been, and always will be. And you’d do well to remember that, little David.

Believe it or not, this passage has been thought of by scholars and theologians for millennia as the lynchpin that the entire Biblical narrative hinges upon, for both Jews and Christians alike. Scholar Tony Cartledge put it this way, “This chapter is the ideological and theological climax of the books of Samuel, as well as of the entire Deuteronomistic History. All that follows is an extended denouement.” This is what draws and binds all the strands of the overall narrative together. Why? It’s because of that one little word, forever. You see, this was written long after the rise and fall of King David, it was written long after the rise and fall of the kingdom itself in fact. And yet, the author believed that somehow, God’s promise to establish David’s throne forever, would still be fulfilled, even if all the external evidence seemed to prove otherwise! The fact that they would even write any of this down, knowing how the kingdom fell, is a testament to their faith in a God who was a masterful builder, so masterful, that God can build anything out of anything, even out of nothing.

My family and I are hooked on a few HGTV shows. One of our favorites is Home Town. It follows a couple who is trying to revitalize their small Mississippi town one house at a time. They are truly masterful house restorers. The husband is known for his carpentry work and he always ends up in some abandoned barn or shed, and when I say abandoned I mean abandoned for like a hundred years! We’d pass by them and just see trash and a demolition site but not this guy, he sees treasure each and every time he goes to one of those abandoned barns, leaves with a truck load of old wood, takes it to his shop, and makes some of the most beautiful wood pieces you’ve ever seen! It’s truly astonishing what he is able to see, when most of us would just see trash, or at most, something that was once beautiful but is no more.

God is in the process of building something bigger, something grander, than our tiny little minds could ever comprehend. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we should just sit on our hands and let God do all the building! No, we have a part in this too, we have a responsibility to put on our own tool belts and be ready for whatever God needs us to do, co-workers with God, side by side! But if this chapter tells us anything, it's that God has never stopped building for our future, no matter how hard it may be for us to recognize. Because you see, when God says forever, God means forever! Don’t mind the dust and ashes that you may be sitting in! God is still building! You see, they didn’t know this, but they had faith that God could somehow fulfill God’s promise of forever. And oh boy did God ever! Because one of David’s children, many generations after, would become royalty like the world had never seen, and would use that royal influence to form this world into something a little more like it was intended to be. And that work, still isn’t finished yet, that same work continues—because God never stops building. Never. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Beautiful Things

 Inspired by Exodus 32:1-14

Last week, you and Sara Wilson read the story of the first Passover, when God saved the Israelites from the Pharaoh and a lifetime of slavery. They then escaped Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, and ended up in the desert wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula. They eventually find themselves at the base of Mount Sinai, but not before a few key events had already taken place between the story of the Passover and today’s story. In between that time they had been fed with manna and quail, they got water from a rock, God saved them from an invading army, they then arrive at the base of Mount Sinai where God gives Moses the Ten Commandments as well as instructions on a wide variety of topics like slavery, human violence, animals and property, and social and religious matters. Moses then comes down the mountain, gives them all these commandments and instructions, and makes a covenant with God that they will obey them all. Moses then goes back up the mountain and gets a truckload of more teachings, mostly around the construction of the Tabernacle, which was basically a portable worship space, and even instructions on building the chest, or Ark of the Covenant, which you will know from the first Indiana Jones movie!

It is at this point of the narrative that we jump in because Moses was up on that mountain downloading all these blueprints from God for a long time, God must have had really bad WiFi up there because Moses ending up being there for 40 days! But the Israelites down below didn’t know that, we as the reader know that but they didn’t. So, as we humans often do, they got restless and impatient. And this wasn’t new behavior for them. Before God fed them with manna and quail they accused Moses of leading them out to the desert to die! And God’s response was not punishment, though that would have been my response if I were God, but no, God instead fed them. This time around, they get so impatient that they asked for Aaron, Moses’ brother, to make them some gods to lead them, and by asking Aaron it also sounds like they’re looking for some new human leadership as well because they’ve seen neither hide nor hair of God or Moses for who knows how long! What is very surprising about this turn of events is that it occurs after they had experienced so much with both God and Moses at this point! And yet, they turn on them both.

Now, like any Bible story, there are a lot of different ways we could go with this, as it’s such a rich story ripe with lessons. But when I read this story as I began to prepare for this sermon, there was a detail that really struck me, one that I hadn’t noticed before. Many a sermon has been preached about sin using this story, and that will be the basis of this sermon too but maybe a little more nuanced than normal. So, the detail that really stuck out to me was this, the jewelry. Did you catch mention of the jewelry when I read it? Now I remembered that Aaron asked them to gather their gold for the calf but I never noticed that the gold they gathered was their jewelry. Earrings to be precise! The author wrote that Aaron said, “’Take out the gold rings from the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took out the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron who collected them and…made a metal image of a bull calf.”

Now, why do I find that significant? I find it absolutely fascinating that they gathered those beautiful things, things that held value to them, that they adorned themselves with, to commit one of the biggest sins recorded in the Bible. And that’s no exaggeration. This sin, the sin of the golden calf, was thought of by Jewish theologians over the past few millennia, as thee sin, the chief sin of God’s people, even worse than the sin of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the sin that got them kicked out of Eden! Yeah, that bad! And if you think about it it makes sense. At least Adam and Eve could blame it on a snake or their naivete. But in this story of the golden calf, there was no snake to blame, and not only did they know their God well by this point in their history, but they had also just experienced God’s majestic rescuing from the hands of the Egyptians. Not to mention the fact that they had just made a covenant with God claiming that they would adhere to the Ten Commandments as well as all those other instructions! They had run out of excuses. This, hurt God far worse than any forbidden fruit incident. But let us return to the jewelry.

It makes you wonder doesn’t it, that as all those men and women were removing their earrings, none of them stopped to think how ironic it was that they were offering up something of beauty and value in order to commit the most grievous of sins. I mean, it’s one thing to get impatient with God right, we all do, we the people of this current pandemic are now masters of being impatient with God! But to commit a sin the way they did, I mean this was so premeditated, with plenty of time to reconsider. You don’t just collect pounds of gold, melt it down, and form a calf in the blink of an eye! No, this took time, and at no time did anyone think that was a bad idea. Not even Aaron, Moses’ own brother! Wow! To be fair, maybe some of them did reconsider, but were too afraid to speak up. Whatever the case, the deed was done and we are left with this sobering account of the sin of all sins committed by God’s own beloved people.

So, a common question that preachers are asking their congregations today is, “What are the golden calves that we create today?” And it’s a valid and worthy question to be asking. But you know me, that’s just too easy. The reason why the jewelry, the earrings, caught my attention, was because it caused me to ask, “What are the things that we value today, that we adorn ourselves with, that we then turn into sin?” Especially without even realizing that we’re doing it! Take, for example, pride. Pride isn’t inherently sinful. We adorn ourselves with pride for our country, for our heritage, for the color of our skin, for our gender, for our sexuality, for our children, all good and wholesome things that aren’t inherently evil. But how quickly that pride can come at the exclusion of others, can’t it! I was recently talking with my dad about how Hitler came to power in Germany, because apparently that’s what children and parents talk about these days. Anyway, we talked about how their pride for their country and their heritage was warped into something ugly, or as I’d put it, something sinful.

I’d love to hear the examples that you come up with. What are other things that we adorn ourselves with, that we value, and turn into something sinful? There’s a bit of a teaser for this Wednesday’s Bible discussion! For now, I just can’t leave you there. I can’t leave you thinking about sin! Because there’s an even more powerful act at work here that must be proclaimed and celebrated. For those of you who have attended my Ash Wednesday services of the past few years, know that our last song for today is one of my favorite songs to use on that night. It’s called Beautiful Things. And though it’s not Ash Wednesday, I couldn’t help but think of this song. It proclaims and celebrates God’s ability, no, more than ability, God’s willingness to make beautiful things out of things that we certainly don’t find beautiful—our sin, our pain, our loneliness, our anger—you name it, God can make something beautiful out of it. Even if it’s you, your very being, your very existence, that you don’t find beautiful.

But that’s not our next musical selection, because, well, I’m a Lutheran pastor and we Lutheran pastors can’t just be all good news. We are trained to also acknowledge the brokenness around us, especially when we are at fault for that brokenness. So, this next hymn is a wonderful, if not alternative version, of a familiar hymn we’d usually hear during Lent called Our Father, We Have Wandered. But have no fear, Beautiful Things is where we will end, because God’s willingness to transform us, and our deeds, into something beautiful is never-ending. Thanks be to God. Amen.