A Burning Church

Posted: November 18, 2013 by Todd in Sermons
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Source: http://www.alabamas13.com/story/23098076/firefighters-battle-jasper-church-fire

Source: http://www.alabamas13.com/story/23098076/firefighters-battle-jasper-church-fire

I preached this sermon on Sunday, November 17, 2013 as the third sermon in our church’s series, “Finding Our Place in the Covenant Story,” focusing on God’s covenant with King David.  The scripture is II Samuel 7:1-17 and it is integrated throughout the sermon.  Here’s the audio:


The Spanish anarchist, Buenaventura Durruti, has famously said, “The only church that illuminates is a burning church.

While this statement is understandably offensive to most Christians, one theologian, Peter Rollins, has provocatively tried to reframe this obviously offensive quote into a statement of faith of sorts.  The church, at times, has had to abandon things it previously thought essential to the faith in order to find new life in a new age.  Rollins calls these things circumcision questions – named after the first such debate in the church, when Christian leaders struggled over whether or not male believers had to be marked by circumcision to be faithful.  At the end of the day, the church decided that life transformation was more important than the visible marker of circumcision.  Part of being a faithful church, Rollins says, is that the church should always be ablaze refining itself from the unnecessary baggage that tends to accumulate.  Rollins suggests that the church must “[burn] away the rot to reveal that which cannot be consumed.


There is a fancy theological word for this extra, unnecessary stuff:  Adiaphora. In theology, something that is considered adiaphora means that it is not essential to faith, but neither is it prohibited by faith.  My suggestion here is not that all adiaphora within the church should be burned or removed.  But sometimes we confuse the adiaphora associated with our faith with what God truly wants.    Not everything that has a Christian flavor to it, is of God.  I believe this is what is going on in our Scripture this morning.

This morning’s scripture focuses on the covenant God made with King David.  It is from II Samuel, Chapter 7 and we’ll read the 1st through 17th verses (NRSV).  Now, that’s a lot for you to have to pay attention to.  So, I’m going to break it up for you.  Here’s the first three verses:


David’s House for God

 7:1 Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2 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.’ 3 Nathan said to the king, ‘Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.’

King David and Israel have finally achieved a bit of peace and prosperity after a long history of various kinds of struggles – most recently in war with the Philistines.  We learn in our Scripture that King David had settled in his house “made of cedar,” which to put in modern terms meant that King David was “living it up.”  He was comfortable.  But being a pious, man after God’s own heart, in his comfortable house, he got to thinking, “I’ve got this state-of-the-arc facility.  There are no battles to fight.  It isn’t right that I should have such a nice house, while God sleeps in a tent.  I’ll build God a grand temple.  That’s only fair.  Besides, the people really want a temple for their national God – like the other nations have.”  Hearing the righteousness in David’s intention, Nathan blesses David’s vision to build the Lord a proper house.  Nathan says, “The Lord is with you.”


God Doesn’t Want a House

 4 But, begins our next few verses of Scripture, that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: 5 Go and tell my servant David: Thus saith the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? 6 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.  7 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?’ 8 Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: [#6] Thus saith the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; 9 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. 

Thanks, But No Thanks

Having heard what David wanted to do, God breaks in and says, “Thanks, but no thanks. I’ve been traveling around in this tent for years.  I’ve never complained.  I haven’t talked with a Realtor about moving out.  I haven’t said, where is my cedar house?  Here’s what I have done.  I’ve been with you.  I’ve protected you.  A portable residence has made that possible.  I’m more of an R.V. sort of God.  As you’ve moved all across the land – it has enabled me to be with you.  All I really want,” God says, “is to be with you.  In the hearts of my people.”  The Scripture goes on:


No, I will build YOU a House

10 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, 11 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. 


Picking Up the Tab

Before I started working in churches, I was a waiter at several different restaurants.  One of the things that you have to get straight as a waiter is if the bill is to be all together or separated in some way.  Often, people would want to pick up the tab for one another.  On one occasion, a man took me aside and made it clear to me that he wanted everything on one bill and that he was going to take care of it.  I told him that wouldn’t be a problem and that I would take care of it.  The only thing was – it was a problem, because a few minutes later, another man from the same table took me aside and told me he wanted me to bring a single check to him.  This time, I didn’t say it wouldn’t be a problem, I just said, “I’ll take care of it.”  So, at the end of the meal, I explained the situation to the table and told them I had prepared one check, but it was their job to figure out who was going to pay for it.  I dropped the check on the table and they both immediately dove for the check, knocking over a drink in the process.

This seems to be what David and God are doing.  They go back and forth arguing who is going to build who a house.  “I’m going to build you a house,” David says.  “No, I’m going to build you a house,” the Lord of Hosts says.


A Tricky God

But God is tricky.  And God tends to get God’s way.  So next, God both delays and inverts King David and the Israelites’ desire to make a grand temple, while at the same time, giving the illusion that God is letting them give the gift they wanted to give God.  Pay careful attention to this divine sleight of hand.

12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 

God’s Language Game

In verse 13, it sounds like God is going to eventually give the Israelites what they want.  One who comes after David, presumably his son Solomon, will build a house for God.  But God didn’t say a house where I will dwell, but a house for my name.  Then God goes on to say, I will establish your kingdom forever.  In other words, I’m going to make you a house.  In fact God plays a little language game in this passage that reminds me of one of those classic scenes with Buggs Bunny tricking Daffy Duck with a similar language game.

Let’s take a look –

The Hebrew word for house, you see, can mean a dwelling place, but it can also mean a dynasty (.  God is using a play on words here, but also, still distinguishing between what it is the people want – a house for a namesake and what God wants – to be present with God’s people forever.  God makes it sound like God’s relenting, but like Buggs Bunny, God then pulls a bait and switch.  The Israelites think that God has now accepted the grand temple as the divine dwelling place.  But God still knows that home is where the heart is.  Let’s continue:

King as God’s Son

14 I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. 15 But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. [#11] 16 Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever. // 17 In accordance with all these words and with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David. 

In the ancient world, it was common for people to see the king as the adopted son of the the national God.[1]  This too, played right into what the Israelites wanted out of their God.


Sound Like a Fortune 500 Company


Source: http://grasshopper.com/

I ran across an ad for a phone service that was marketed to small business owners helping give them the appearance that they are big companies.  The phone service has lots of options for different departments and such, when in reality, the business may just be a guy at home in his pajamas.  I don’t know, perhaps there is some business advantage in certain situations to this kind of thing, but I have to admit, I’m tempted to think this is a play on the hopes and desires of small business people to erect a veneer of success for show.

Israel too, wanted to be a big and powerful nation.  One feared throughout the land.  One that had made a name for itself.  One that had a powerful and mighty God behind them.  They wanted a grand temple for a mighty God, like the other nations.  One that would help them centralize their power in Jerusalem.  If that’s where God resided, that would ensure that this was an important place on the map.  And if they were the sort of people who valued that, God seemed to know, they would also salivate at the possibility of God adopting their king as God’s own son.  Then, they would be on their way to being like the mighty nations that surrounded them.  They wanted something like a phone service that would give them the appearance of being a bigger deal than they actually were in the eyes of the world.


The Rocket Pen

At my son Carter’s school, they have a fundraiser each year that is a marketplace where kids can shop for presents for their parents for Christmas.  Last year, I helped to setup this store and so I knew all the cheap, overpriced, plastic junk that was in this store.  Carter, of course, was excited to be able to shop on his own for our gifts when we couldn’t see what he was getting us for Christmas.  Six-year olds have no other way to buy surprise presents for their parents.  Carter didn’t know I had helped to set the store up.  So when he asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I told him that I wanted a rocket pen.  I didn’t really want a rocket pen, but I knew he could afford it given what money he was taking to school and what I knew was available in the store.  Sure, enough, Christmas morning, Carter gave me a rocket pen.  He was so excited.  He said, “You said you wanted a rocket pen.”  Now Carter is in Children’s Church, so don’t go tell him that I knew about the rocket pen ahead of time.


God Permits a Temple

I think this is something like what God was going through with Israelites and their kings.  They wanted to honor God by building a permanent temple.  David planned to do so.  Solomon did so.  It was their pride and joy – the most protected and sacred place in all of Israel.  So much so that scholars now divide ancient Israelite history in to “First Temple Judaism” for the period when Solomon’s temple stood and “Second Temple Judaism” after Solomon’s temple was destroyed and rebuilt.  The Israelites were just itching for God to commission them to build a divine house.  In this story, God was doing what God is always doing, subverting our will – finding ways to weave our broken intentions and desires into something whole again.  The people weren’t going to let God be with them on God’s own terms, so God gets sneaky about being present in a way where the people think they have gotten their way and that they are honoring God in the process.  God finds a way to ask the people for a rocket pen for Christmas.  “I know you want to build me a house.  So be it.  Out of your ancestors, a house shall be built.  An everlasting house.  A house that cannot be consumed with fire.  It isn’t a physical thing, but a spiritual legacy.”  David seemed to understand this, but his son did not, nor did most of the Israelites.  Through this play on words, God lets Israel think they are building a temple out of their faithfulness to God.  On Christmas morning, God opened a present from the Israelites.  They were so excited.  They said, “You said you wanted a grand temple.”


Legitimating a Divine Kingship


Source: http://www.preteristarchive.com/ARTchive/1850_roberts_destruction-jerusalem.html

Indeed this very passage and the Davidic Covenant it contains were looked to for centuries – seen as a divine foundation for the Davidic line of kings.  It fueled piety and the sacrificial system at the temple that Solomon built.  But eventually, 350 years later, the line of Davidic kings would come to an end with the rule of Zedekiah.  In fact, interpreting this text as divine legitimacy for Israel’s kings had been abandoned for over half a millennium in the time of Jesus.  But the New Testament writers pick up on what God seemed to be up to here.  They go to great length to say how Jesus comes from the line of David.  “Out of your ancestors, God will build a house.  An everlasting one that cannot be burned down.”  The Davidic line of kings faded away.  Solomon’s grand temple was destroyed in 586 BC when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem.  A steadfast God found a way to get what God wants – an everlasting way to make a home for the divine in the hearts of the people. 


Jesus and the Davidic Covenant

  • Is it any wonder that Jesus had such a hostile relationship to the second, rebuilt grand temple and its system of sacrifices?
  • Is it any wonder that Jesus so intimately refers to God as Father, even “Daddy.”
  • Or that God adopts him in words that echo other ancient divine-king adoption dedications, saying, “This is my son with whom I am well pleased.”
  • Is it any wonder that when asked for a sign by the religious leaders, Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
  • Is it any wonder that at the moment when Jesus died, the curtain in the temple that marked where God resided in the temple was torn in two?  And at that same moment, Matthew’s gospel tells us, that “the bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.”  God gets what God wants.  A house that began with the ancestors of David.
  • Is it any wonder that Jesus, through the resurrection, revealed himself to be that which cannot be consumed?


The Covenant Made Good

The covenant God made with David really wasn’t fully understood until Jesus came.  That’s not the covenant the people wanted from their God.  In its own day, it was theological propaganda used for the purpose of legitimating Israelite power and empire.  But God makes beautiful things from our broken intentions.

God wants to be present with us in the most intimate of ways.  To make a home in our hearts.  This is the truth that Jesus died for, yet even that death could not consume Jesus.  This is the everlasting covenant that will withstand all fires and flames that destroy everything else.  The covenants of God stand.  Sometimes, they’re just misunderstood.


An Everlasting Covenant

Covenants are everlasting.  Abraham’s family tree continues to grow.  The divine will, initially enshrined on clay tablets through the Mosaic Covenant is now to be written on our hearts.  And the grand house God promised to David has shown itself not to be one of cedar or even a bloodline of a powerful kingdom.  It is a kingdom of a different sort – proclaimed by Jesus and still unfolding in our own day.  Just as God subverted the compromised desires that the Israelites projected onto God, God is still finding creative ways to be known today in spite of our compromised desires.  God gets what God wants.  As one former preacher of this church often said, God wins.

But do we understand?  If we’re honest, I think we know that much of our faith and its structures are filled with adiaphora.  It isn’t wholly bad.  Grand temples aren’t necessarily bad.  But they aren’t good either.  They are just what we want for God, not what God wants for God.  When we’ve confused what we want for what God wants, it is easy to confirm the so-called will of God with our own echo chambers.  We hear Nathan’s own first words spoken back to David, “Go and do all you have in mind, for the Lord is with you.”  But, that’s all we hear.  Nevertheless, the Lord is indeed with you.  Eventually God will get where God wants to go.  But sometimes, God is with you on a route that was not of God’s own choosing.


A Church that Burns

It may just be that we’ve come to a point in our lives and in the life of God’s church that we need to set things on fire.  Let fires “burn away the rot to reveal that which cannot be consumed.”

“The only church that illuminates is a burning church.”

The covenants of God do not burn.  That which is of God cannot be consumed.  Moses met God in a burning bush that was not consumed.  The grand temples that the Israelites built were eventually consumed by pillage and fire.  Yet the everlasting God always finds a way to make a home in the ashes of our adiaphora.



Let us pray.

Lord, forgive us when we give you gifts with an agenda.  Forgive us when we use you as another tool to get what we want.  Forgive us, for we know not what we are doing.  Help us see the distinction between what we want for you and what you want for you.  Help us to see that this might just start with us letting go of our agendas attached to things related to our faith.  Only then can we be a people, a church, a divine house and kingdom set ablaze.  Only then will we see that the God who has made a home in our hearts cannot be consumed.  Amen.

[1] New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. II, pg. 1257.


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