The church in which I grew up, Broadway Mennonite Brethren in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada was a plain building, white stucco walls inside and out, very small separate entryways for men and women, space for the choir behind the pulpit, a mother’s room at the back between the entryways, accessible only from the women’s side, a balcony above for overflow, and a basement for children’s Sunday School and wedding receptions. It was built on the edge of town in the late 1940’s by first generation German speaking immigrants who had come to Canada from the Soviet Union in the 1920’s. Like many other Mennonite churches of that era, the facility was very adequate for the times.
But things change. Only 20 years later in the late 1960’s, a large education wing was built, and next came a new structure replacing the old. Before the building projects were commenced, I had already left home, and when Donald and I were married there in 1970, many things had changed besides the physical structure. Some folks who I remembered from my childhood and teenage years had left for various reasons, among them issues over language (English vs. German), leadership, and theology. But the congregation flourished nonetheless. Last week I checked it out on the web and was delighted to discover that this first church of which I have conscious memories is still thriving, under the same name and in the same location.
Soon after the new building was completed, the pastor of the congregation was walking to the parsonage and met a young boy from the neighborhood, seven or eight years old, on the sidewalk. Looking up at the new building, which must have been in a child’s eyes an imposing, even magnificent structure, the lad asked, “Mister, is this where God lives?”
The text just read from II Samuel finds the young nation of Israel and their shepherd boy turned guerilla fighter, now King David, in a very good place. He had brought the 12 tribes together, subdued the surrounding nations, occupied Jerusalem now known as the city of David, made it the capital, and amassed quite an empire and a fortune along with it. Reading from chapter 5 – “And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him. King Hiram of Tyre sent messengers to David, along with cedar trees, and carpenters and masons who built David a house. David then perceived that the Lord had established him king over Israel, and that God had exalted King David’s kingdom, for the sake of God’s people Israel.”
Now that he had time, it was King David’s devotion to his God Yaweh, the One to whom David attributed his success, that initiated his musings concerning the Ark of the Covenant, that icon of Hebrew faith, which represented the very presence of God. If you recall the Ten Commandments, constructing objects representing God was strictly forbidden, and worship of “graven images” is harshly condemned throughout the Torah. But in the history of the Jewish people, there was one exception. One man-made object was considered intrinsically holy – the Ark of the Covenant.
This modest sized chest, built during the Israelites wanderings in the desert and used over centuries, the Ark was the most important symbol of the Jewish faith, and served as the only physical manifestation of God on earth. The stories associated with it – and the harsh penalties ascribed for anyone who misused it, even accidentally – confirm the Ark’s centrality.
From its construction at Sinai until King David’s time, the Ark was kept in a special tent, the Tabernacle. One of the first orders of business for David after making Jerusalem the capital was to bring the Ark of the Covenant into the city, and housing it in a brand new Tabernacle. But, a tent is still a tent. Was it guilt that prompted David to have a chat with Nathan, his personal court prophet? It just didn’t seem right that he, King David, should be living in a luxurious cedar palace, while the Ark of God, embodying the very physical presence of Yahweh was housed in a tent!?! So David wants to rectify this situation by building a more permanent structure for God, a real house, a temple like other nations have for their gods, a more worthy dwelling for the Lord of Hosts. After all, doesn’t the God of the universe, the God of all gods, deserve the best of the best? Nathan agrees, and gives his blessing to David’s ideas and plans.
But that very night, the Lord has a talk with Nathan. It seems the Almighty is a little taken aback, perhaps offended. “Have I ever required anyone to build me a house?” God asks. And then God changes the meaning of “house”, declaring that yes, although David wants to build a house for God, more importantly, God is going to build a “house” for David, in that his descendants will rule over Israel forever – a dynasty that will have no end. Furthermore, God says, “I will be a parent to David – he will be my child and I will never withdraw my love from him.” After receiving this news from the prophet Nathan, David humbly offers a prayer which ends: “And now, O Lord God, you are God, and your words are true, and you have promised this good thing to your servant; now therefore may it please you to bless the house of your servant….for you, O Lord God have spoken, and with your blessing shall the house of your servant be blessed forever.”
Initially and for awhile, all was well, but the glory days didn’t last, certainly not forever. In spite of Israel’s political supremacy, King David’s personal and family life tragically fell apart. Upon his death, Solomon succeeded and made a promising start, building the first temple. Kings and queens and dignitaries from all over the then known world came to behold this wonder. But the seeds of the nation’s demise had already been sown.
Fast forward about 500 years. The nation that had shown such promise divided soon after Solomon. Then the Northern Kingdom was taken over by Assyria, and eventually the Southern Kingdom became part of the Babylonian Empire. The temple destroyed, the Ark of the Covenant lost, and the brightest and best of the nation exiled to Babylon. Although hopes were revived when the exiles returned and some rebuilding took place, Israel would never again attain the status of a great nation and King David’s dynasty was but a fading memory. But what about those promises, spoken by God? What on earth happened?
In the interval after the return of the exiles, hope revived periodically, only to be dashed, again and again and again: another invasion, another takeover, another disaster. But the collective memory, although dimmed, never quite died, kept alive by the faithful as they worshipped God and lived in obedience to the Torah in spite of the political chaos all around.
Fast forward about another 500 years from the time of the exile, to the familiar story that we celebrate every Christmas, found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Did you catch the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary? Jesus, the son she would conceive and carry in her womb “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him, Jesus, the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” The promise to David made a thousand years before is repeated and will be fulfilled in Christ Jesus.
John’s gospel says it another way. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” God, the Creator of all from the beginning becomes human, entering the world like we all did, an utterly helpless crying baby, maybe even with his fist in his mouth. Immanuel, God with us. And so year after year for the next 2000 we tell and retell “the old old story of Jesus and his love.”
So where does God live? It must have been confusing, even heart breaking for the Jews of Jesus’ time and later the followers of Jesus to contemplate the question. The Ark of the Covenant cloistering the Shekinah glory, the very presence of God? Lost! Solomon’s magnificent temple? Destroyed! The second temple, grand as it was? Well, it was hard to even imagine that God lived there with all its corruption. Instead of a house of prayer for all nations, Jesus would call it a den of thieves. In any case, it too was reduced to a pile of ruins, as predicted by Jesus himself. The nation of Israel was but a faint shadow of its former self. For a time, there was the hope that Jesus the Messiah would miraculously restore Israel to its previous glory as in the time of King David. Just before Jesus ascension, the disciples ask, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Similar questions and speculation continue even to the present day.
Paul’s letter to the churches at Corinth, and what a fractious lot they were, give us a clue to the question: Where does God live? He writes, “…you are God’s building…..built on the foundation of Jesus Christ…….Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you….” “You” is both personal and corporate. Paul goes on to describe the church, us, in all our flawed humanity, being Christ’s body on earth, where we use our individual gifts and abilities to build each other up in love and demonstrate God’s presence within and among us, revealing God to a world waiting for some sign of hope.
God lives wherever God’s people are, meeting for worship in tent and temple, doing God’s will and work during the week as the Holy Spirit directs. When love and compassion are made visible, when enemies are reconciled, when forgiveness is offered and received, the living God is present. There is something to be said for respecting sacred spaces, but at the same time, God will not be confined to tent, temple, or institutional boxes of our own making. As Mary carried Jesus in her body, we as followers of Jesus are to embody God’s character of love and justice and peace and mercy. We mennos too are a confused and fractious bunch. But may the words of the angel Gabriel ring in our ears this day. “The Lord is with you!….Do not be afraid…..” So God is revealed, most perfectly in Jesus, on occasion in the miraculous, but most often in the ordinary, even the mundane, as we reflect God’s love from day to day in our families, our work, our neighborhoods and communities, our congregations, and in the wider world. May it be so among us. Amen.