In the center of Jerusalem is a large, flat expanse that both Jews and Christians refer to as the Temple Mount. Fourteen American football fields would fit into the space that allows views down into the Jewish and Muslim quarters of the Old City on one side and up toward the Mount of Olives on the other. To access the Temple Mount today, it is necessary to pass through an inspection station that looks and feels exactly like airport security. In the center of the Temple Mount is the enormous Islamic mosque known as the Dome of the Rock. A shining golden dome rises over the ancient structure that is entirely covered with colorful ceramic tile. Tourists scurry by, taking photographs and hoping to be allowed inside the mosque after removing their shoes. In the center of the mosque is a large rock which is said to the spot where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac.
Below the temple mount, under the venerable mosque, beneath the flat, football-field-like surface, near the x-ray security machines and armed guards, is a long, tall, rock wall perpetually lined with Jewish and Christian pilgrims. It is called the Western Wall and is more commonly referred to as the Wailing Wall. Everyone approaching the wall, Jew or Christian or otherwise, is required to don a yarmulke. Many write prayers on tiny slips of paper and slip them into the narrow cracks between the massive rocks.
The wall is the only visible remnant of the protective structure built around the second temple which replaced an earlier temple commissioned by King Solomon himself. The second temple was constructed of stone. Solomon’s temple was built of cedar.
King David wanted in the worst way to be the one to build that temple. He had his own, big cedar palace, and he was a little embarrassed that God was still living in a box called the ark contained in a movable tent called the tabernacle. Who could better provide a worthy dwelling for God than David, and even David’s spiritual advisor Nathan thought the building plan was an excellent idea until God interrupted and said “no.”
Pretty much everyone wants to have a home.
The address of our church home is 2650 Table Mesa Road. At 4747 Table Mesa Road, just down the street, is a familiar but re-configured building that is just now opening to house 48 currently homeless women and men. Bridge House’s “Ready to Work” program has been established to assist people with training and work opportunities while also providing the necessary element of stable housing. It’s hard to succeed in establishing or re-establishing financial independence if you don’t have an address or a place to rest. One of our own vital ministries, the Community Compassion Corps, is considering ways for us to actively support and interact with this very nearby effort to serve the homeless.
God did not have stable housing in Second Samuel. God was not quite homeless, but the housing provided by the Israelites to that point was certainly marginal. The box known as the ark might have been richly decorated, but it was still a box and it was pretty tipsy when it was carried across rivers like the Jordan. The tabernacle was covered with beautifully dyed blankets of goat hair, but like any tent it had to be put up and taken down frequently as worshippers moved from place to place.
When David became king, Jerusalem was established as both the political and religious home base of the Israelites. The days of nomadic wandering were over, at least for the time being, and building monuments that represented stability were a priority for David and others. It’s not surprising that David wanted to be sure God was well taken-care of and comfortable in a new home.
But God said “no.” Why?
Well, some folks say it was because David was a busy man with too many God-given priorities to spend his time building a temple. Others point to scriptures indicating that the bloodshed characterizing his reign was excessive and offensive to God. Either way, God said “ixnay” to a new home during David’s time in office, but later allowed David’s son Solomon the privilege of building the temple.
It’s pretty clear from the words of God to Nathan during a dream that God had bigger plans than David. While David was concerned with building a house for God, God’s concern was about building a household for David. David was not without the kind of ego that we associate with people a great achievement. Perhaps building a fancy temple was high on his list of accomplishments that would make him look good. Maybe it wasn’t so much about God after all, but was really more about him.
God had big plans, and they went far beyond the plans of David himself. The reading today about greatness, quoting the Buddha, is a reminder that greatness is achieved in ways that are sometimes counter-intuitive. Daily actions are critical, but not necessarily the actions we think are most important. God shifted the focus from buildings to people and in doing so established a covenant that is of monumental importance in Jewish and Christian history. God promised “I will make you a house.” Not a house make with cedar or stone, but a household of people who would continue a legacy of faithfulness for countless generations.
Where does God live? In a box or tent? In a temple? In a church?
Maybe there was another reason for saying “no” to David. Maybe God was just reluctant to be confined in a temple. Maybe God liked the open road and maybe God wasn’t even dwelling in that tent, let alone a box, in the first place.
What is it about human nature that wants to capture or domesticate God in ways that define and confine?
Looking at photos of Pluto generated by the New Horizons mission this week, while also trying to comprehend a three and a half billion mile distance, caused me to think more about perspective. Things that seem so big and important and certain close up and nearby seem less so in light of an unimaginably expansive universe. How can we contain unlimited truth and goodness in finite containers?
The assigned Gospel reading for this Sunday, which we did not include today, tells about Jesus leaving the disciples and taking a boat ride to find a quiet place for rest and renewal in the midst of some very busy days. It’s a little like what we’re trying to provide on Monday nights here this summer. Jesus didn’t leave the crowds and go to the temple in Jerusalem or to a local synagogue. He often climbed a mountain with a view of the lake and caught a gentle breeze and undoubtedly left with a stronger connection to the Creator. God does not just live in boxes or tents or temples.
Religious dogma is another box. When you are close up and parsing words and the finer points of doctrine, difference seem exceedingly important. From the distance of Pluto, most differences aren’t even visible. Can God really be confined or adequately described by words created by human beings?
I wonder what it is that we can discover when we let go of the need to build impressive structures and embrace what is more mystery than certainty. What can we see with new lenses when exploring previously unknown territory, even if it seems three billion miles from what feels like home?
God disappointed David. But the covenant that opened up a new world of possibility for generations to come was much better than a temple made out of wood.
About thirteen years ago, I came to a point in my own life where I felt deeply disappointed in God and was no longer sure about anything that I had been taught to believe about faith. I knew that many pieces of dogma and expectations from the religious system I was part of no longer fit who I was. I realized that questioning had been discouraged by others and that fear of a place called hell kept me from considering other sources of truth. When I was finally able to let go of that fear and begin to form my own questions, I was faced with a dilemma. The Christianity I had embraced throughout much of my life did not look like the message of Jesus as I had begun to understand it in new ways. Over a period of years, I reclaimed my Christian faith, but realized I could only do so within a very open and progressive framework. For me, that has opened up a world of new possibilities for discovering truth and experiencing grace.
Is there any institution or structure or worldview or dogma or voice that keeps you from experiencing something new and big about God? If so, consider why that is. Is it fear? Is it the desire to stay comfortable or to try to remain in control of what cannot be controlled?
When we let go of the need to define and contain, there are Pluto-like discoveries, rich with new information and new promise for us and even for future generations. We live in covenant with God who is not afraid because God has a perspective far greater than our own. May we live each day with big questions, with great expectations, with enormous hope, and with spirits always open and ready to receive. Amen.