God in a Box
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them!”
This proclamation, found in one of last chapters of the last book of the Bible (Revelation 21:3), helps to resolve one of the recurring questions of the Bible—and certainly a major theme in our Old Testament lesson of 2 Samuel 7. That question is, “Where is God’s dwelling place?” We’re now coming into the fourth and final week of Advent, which means that for the past 3 weeks we’ve been anticipating, through Word and Sacrament, the coming of the Kingdom of God. And although this anticipation is exciting and joyful, it’s also frightening. We don’t know when Christ is returning to establish God’s Kingdom; we don’t know what it’s going to be like; we don’t know what’s going to happen to everyone—our friends, our family members, the billions of people around the world, or even ourselves! And when the fear of the unknown grips us, we try to come up with answers on our own. We try to put God in a box.
In our Old Testament lesson today, King David tried to put God in a box, too—quite literally, I might add. David, along with his prophetic advisor Nathan, had their own ideas about how God was to dwell among God’s people. So David wanted to put God in a box. Now, it would have been a beautiful box—bright and grand! Built from majestic cedar and adorned with gold. A temple fitting for the one true God, right? It would make sense. After all, the other nations around Israel had temples to prove that their gods were dwelling among the people. A beautiful temple dedicated to Yahweh would prove that Yahweh was dwelling among Israel. Some scholars claim that this was a shrewd political move for David to assert Israel’s viability among the nations. Some simply believe that, like the passage says, David wanted to worship God and express his gratitude for God’s provision throughout David’s trials. But whether it was for the right reason or the wrong, whether it was out of political ambition or true worship, it was David’s—not God’s—idea. David allowed himself to have a limited view of God’s coming and God’s presence. David wanted to put God in a box.
Sometimes we are guilty of trying to put God in a box, of trying to make God conform to our ideas of what God should be, of where God should be. More than that, I think we’re guilty of putting words in God’s mouth, of claiming to know the mind of God. Just like David, sometimes our box for God is quite literal. We equate God’s approval with physical church statistics: “That church must be doing well; they’re getting ready to build a new sanctuary.” “God must really be blessing that church; look at all the people that attend every Sunday.” Our ideas of God’s dwelling place, just like David’s, are big, grand, beautiful, and ornate. Fortunately, many people have recognized this thinking as “Prosperity Gospel;” unfortunately, many others still think that this is what it takes to have “God with us.”
People throughout history have also tried to box God in regarding worship—not just where, but how. In the story just before the one we read today, we see David thinking outside the box, and his wife Michal trying to keep God in His box. As the Israelites are bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, David is in pure celebration of God’s arrival; he’s dancing and jumping and just having a plain good time! Michal must have assumed it should have been a solemn, silent procession; and she belittled David for such an embarrassing exhibition. Now, I’m not saying we should be dancing and rolling down the aisles, but when we come to church, we know we’re going to meet God. God has promised to be here, to be present in the Word and in the Sacraments. Isn’t that a reason for celebration? As a Lutheran, I’ve been jokingly called, by my Anglican classmates back at seminary, as one of “God’s cheerleaders.” Even though we’re similar in so many ways, they notice that our services are often bright and cheery. And personally, I don’t have a problem with that moniker!
But sadly, it’s often here in Advent when we’re most guilty of putting God in a box. When we think about Christ’s coming—and the frightening mystery around it—we try to dictate just how, when, and what this coming will be like. Some believe that it takes some achievement on our part—but that’s us trying to go to God, not God coming to us! Some believe that God is going to yank a select few from the bounds of humanity and leave the world in a wake of violence and destruction—but that sounds more like a vengeful clandestine operation instead of a full-scale arrival! And people for the past 2,000 years have tried to pinpoint the date of this Advent, only to be disappointed time and time again. These are some very small and human-sounding boxes, indeed!
Fortunately for us—all of us, God never fits into any of our human-constructed boxes. It’s fortunate, because God’s idea, God’s plan, always goes far beyond our wildest imagination. Was David disappointed when he learned that it wasn’t in God’s plan for him build a temple, a house for God? Probably! If it was for political reasons, he was probably disappointed that he wouldn’t be part of showing off the power of Israel under Yahweh’s guidance. If it was for reasons of worship, he was probably disappointed that he wouldn’t be worshipping God in a grand and beautiful structure. But David’s ideas were limited—not just limiting to God, but to himself and humanity, too. Sure, a temple would have been a fine way demonstrate God’s glory—until a bigger and better temple was built somewhere else. Sure, a temple is a fine place to worship and celebrate God—until you walk out the door and you’re right back in the commonness and brokenness of the world. You see, it wasn’t too much later until David was wrapped back in sin, violence, and grief. If David had built the temple and believed that God’s presence was localized in it, where would his hope have been when he fled Jerusalem in fear from Absalom?
Even in David’s sin and brokenness, God was with him. The promise, the covenant, of God’s presence here in Chapter 7 goes well beyond the confines of time and space. In this covenant, God recalls the Exodus, showing how God was with Israel even in the most God-forsaken of times and places. God reminds David of David’s own life, how God was with him since his days as a young shepherd. But it doesn’t end there, because God reaffirms the future—not just David’s future. In fact, this covenant tells of David’s death. No, God reaffirms God’s future! God will establish the kingdom God’s way, not David’s way. These are God’s terms and ideas, not David’s.
During this Advent season—and as we get ready to go into Christmas—this Davidic Covenant, this promise of God’s presence, should give us reason to celebrate, not to fear or worry. David had a very limited view of how God would and could dwell among the people of Israel. Like David—like any other human—we have limited ideas of the Advent, of Christ’s coming, of the establishment of God’s Kingdom. Once we understand that, I think we can stop worrying.
The Scriptures are full of God’s surprises. David himself was a very unlikely candidate for king: a youngest son with a dirty, humble job. Yet God promised that his lineage, his house, would endure forever. What’s more, God promised to be present through this lineage. The ultimate fulfillment of this promise for Christians, of course, is the birth of Jesus—also an unlikely candidate for king, Messiah, and Savior. Another example of God’s refusal to be put into a box.
Why should Jesus’ next coming be any different? God has surprised us over and over again; I don’t believe that Christ’s new Advent will be any different. We can speculate, we can predict, and we can fear; but I don’t think there’s any reason to do so. When David heard God’s promise, he didn’t fear…he responded with an awe-filled prayer of praise and thanksgiving! He realized how limited his thinking of God had been.
We’ve heard God’s promises, the promise that Christ will come again, that God’s kingdom will be established for eternity, that, like it says in Revelation 21:3, God is going to dwell among his people! We don’t know all of the how’s, the when’s or the what’s of these promises; but neither did David. Yet it didn’t fill him with fear; instead, it filled him with hope—especially when his times were at their darkest. Because he stopped putting God in a box, he was able to trust, hope, and experience God in otherwise unimaginable ways. We have the same promises—and even more—than David. Why should our response be any different? When we stop trying to put God in a box—whether that box be the church building, a worship style, a certain time period, or any limitation of our own minds—we will begin to experience God in unimaginable ways. And that’s what Advent is all about: anticipating Christ’s return followed by the joy of celebrating his birth. If Christ’s first coming brings us such joy, I believe that the second one should bring us even more. God has already promised it; all we have to do is think outside the box.