Houses of Cedar
Psalm 23; 2 Samuel 7:1-14a
Sermon Houses of Cedar
Good morning! Question: How many of you have received gifts that you didn’t really want or need? I’m not talking about gag gifts. I’m talking about bigger gifts. You know, the kind of thing that makes you ask, “Does that person even know me?” Think of Ralphie, in A Christmas Story, when he gets the bunny costume from his Aunt Clara. I love that moment when the narrator says, “Aunt Clara had for years labored under the delusion that I was not only perpetually four years old, but also a girl.”
It’s funny when we hear the line. It’s even funnier when we see Ralphie in the bunny suit. But sometimes it’s more problematic. After a divorce, sometimes one parent showers the children with gifts. It can be an attempt to make the kids feel better, or it can be a bribe to gain the affection of the kids.
I’ve also heard stories of younger married couples, where one set of in-laws is constantly giving gifts to the couple, sometimes extravagant gifts. At a bare minimum, that gift shows up the other set of in-laws; it makes them look cheap. At worst, it’s a control mechanism. There’s an implicit threat with an extravagant gift—if the couple doesn’t do what the in-laws want them to do, the in-laws will cut off the gifts.
That’s not to say that every gift is sinister or an attempt at manipulation. But the truth is, sometimes the gift is about the giver. Sometimes it’s too much about the person who is giving the gift. That can be symptom of a relationship that’s out of balance.
We see that in our reading this morning from Second Samuel. David wants to build a house of cedar for the ark of God. You remember the ark of the Lord, right? From last Sunday? From the movie… The text tells us that God had given David “rest from all his enemies.” That is, that David had defeated all the enemies of Israel, because God was with him. David realizes that he’s got it pretty good—he’s living in a house of cedar! But the ark of God sits in a tent.
David doesn’t like that.
He thinks a tent isn’t good enough for the ark, the vessel that contains the presence of the Lord. So, David goes to the prophet Nathan and tells Nathan that he wants to build a permanent house for the ark. David wants to get the prophet’s blessing on his scheme. And Nathan actually thinks it’s a good idea!
Then Nathan hears the voice of the Lord.
God is less than pleased with David’s scheme. Speaking through the prophet Nathan, God tells David that their relationship is out of balance; God didn’t ask for a house of cedar:
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?”
God is not being subtle! He is rebuking David. God is telling David that God is the one who will provide for David and Israel, not the other way around.,
In this story, God is reorienting the relationship between God and David. Let’s be clear, David’s offer to build a house of cedar for the ark of the Lord—that offer was about David, about what he thought was appropriate for God. Whatever David’s motives might have been, he was trying to take the initiative.
Usually, it’s God who takes the initiative. God created the world in love. God created us in love. We are called to respond in love and in faith and return that love to God and to all of humanity. When God wants us to change, God takes the initiative. In Old Testament times, God spoke to the people through the prophets. God speaks to us today through the Holy Spirit. And, of course, the greatest example of this is the incarnation. That is, when God entered the created world in the person of Jesus. That was the ultimate example of God taking the initiative.
We have a problem when we try to take the initiative—whether we’re doing something for God or for some of God’s children. That problem is sin. I’m not talking about any specific sin, but the general sinfulness that affects all of humanity. This is what John Calvin called the total depravity of man. I know that phrase sounds awful; it would be a good lead-in if I were going to give you a bunch of fire and brimstone, but I’m not.
Calvin didn’t say that we’re all awful beyond belief and completely hopeless. What he meant is the effect of sin is pervasive. It is so present in all of us that we fail to realize it. We see ourselves first. We do things that we think are kind, yet are often self-serving.
Sometimes there’s no apparent harm. Let me give you an example.
Almost every church I’ve ever been in has a box for the local food pantry. Members drop in canned goods and non-perishable foods, like pasta. Our collection box is in the back of the sanctuary. We have several different volunteers who take donations to the Open Door. Sometimes, the folks at the Open Door will tell us what items they really need, but of course they’ll take other things.
One afternoon—this was at one of the other churches I served—I looked through the collection bin. I found a can of cherry pie filling.
Cherry. Pie. Filling.
I’m trying really hard to imagine the situation in which a person who’s going to a food pantry for groceries really, really needs a can of cherry pie filling. If a person can’t afford groceries, what’s the likelihood that the same person has all the other ingredients on hand for a cherry pie, but is somehow lacking the pie filling?
More than likely, the person who donated the cherry pie filling was cleaning out his or her cupboard and said, “I guess I don’t need this; I’ll give it to the food bank.” They probably thought they were helping, too.
I asked the director of a food pantry if they got lots of donations of things like pie filling. She said they did, and then the pie filling would sit on the shelves of the food pantry until it expired, and then a volunteer would throw it out. Even worse, lots of the food that’s donated is already past its expiration date. Food bank volunteers spend a lot of time checking the expiration dates and throwing out food.
Yet the person who brought that expired can of soup probably thought they were doing a good thing. They thought they were helping. Maybe they didn’t even look. And that’s the best-case scenario.
Maybe they really just wanted to clear some space in the pantry, and it didn’t matter that the food was expired. “Those expiration dates are just a suggestion,” someone might say. Or even worse, “if they’re really hungry, they’ll eat it.” Those aren’t the voices of people who are responding in faithfulness to God’s call—even if those same people thought they were doing something good.
Now, I’m not accusing any of you doing this. Nor is this sermon about cherry pie filling. I raise this up because it’s an example of how we can twist our thinking and redefine our own self-interest as doing God’s will. We all do this from time to time. We all tell God, “I want to build you a house of cedar.” That’s what Calvin meant by the “total depravity of man.”
Our reading this morning is very important for a number of reasons. First, we see King David begin his drift away from God. We’re going to see more of this in the next couple weeks. God’s response to David’s drifting is interesting. God offers a rebuke, and then God offers another promise, another covenant. God says to David, “Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house” (2 Samuel 7:11).
The Hebrew word for house is beth. In English, we often read it as Beth; you see it in the names of synagogues. Beth Israel, Beth Shalom, Beth El. I’m certain there are synagogues out there with those names. The word beth has three different meanings:
1. A house, as in the houses where we live.
2. A royal dynasty, as in the House of Windsor.
3. A temple, as in the House of the Lord. In Hebrew, that would be Beth El, or Beth El, or Bethel.
And God promises all of these things in this passage. In the Christian tradition, we read this as pointing toward Jesus:
I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. (2 Samuel 7:12-14)
We believe that the human Jesus is from the House of David. And we believe that Jesus built a house for God’s name, the Church.
Even though King David will eventually fall short and fail to live into his covenant with God, God will remain faithful to God’s promises. King Solomon will eventually fall short, yet God remains faithful. God’s chosen people, Israel, will fall short. Yet God remains faithful and sends Jesus into the world. We, too, must respond in love and faithfulness.
And if you’re wondering what to give to the Open Door Food Pantry, we post a list every month of the items they need most. It’s posted in the hallway behind the sanctuary. You can also go to the web site or Facebook page for the Open Door. But this isn’t a sermon about cherry pie filling.
In a couple weeks, the Session is going to have a retreat. We’re going to discuss some big issues in the life and finances of this congregation. In particular, the mortgage and the boiler. Our goal is to draft a plan to present to the congregation in the fall.
In the meantime, we need your prayers. We need your continued stewardship of this particular house of cedar. And we need your creative thinking. Please, be in conversation with me and with all the members of the Session. Ask questions. Listen to one another. I believe that this congregation has all the human capital it needs to live faithfully into Christ’s call to be the Church. Please pray for the Session and ask for the Holy Spirit’s creative energy. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Beloved, as you depart from this place, remember to respond to Christ’s call. Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!