An Open-Ended, Unsettled Relationship
Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
July 18, 2021
Scripture: 2 Samuel 7:1–14a
The idea that God would bind God’s self to us can be positively exhilarating and empowering. A host of expectations and presumptions about God and what God wants comes with being in covenant relationship with God. One theological presumption is that with God on our side, there is nothing we cannot do. With God committed to us, surely now all is well, and we can settle down happily ever after, secure in the knowledge that God is with us, present and generous. We may even presume to do all we have in mind because we know for sure that God is with us.
This appears to be how David feels. He is on the cusp of realizing all his desires and ambitions, chosen by God to lead the people Israel, defeating Israel’s enemies, and uniting a divided nation under his leadership. Now, David proposes to the prophet Nathan his intention to build God a house . . . a temple, a place of honor, something befitting the God of Israel who has done so much for them. But there is a tension here. David wants to honor the God who chose him, lifted him up, and cared for him. But this is also a bit of a political victory lap, an attempt to codify this covenant relationship with some visible marker for all the world to see that David and Israel are in a relationship with God. And even now, we have inherited from our forebears this tension between faithfulness and triumphalism because God is with us.
David’s idea of a house or a temple for God reveals the hazards that accompany God’s covenant fidelity and solidarity with him. He assumes to know and speak for God with certainty, talking of God more than to God and setting the terms of the relationship. David operates under the misapprehension that covenant and relationship with God means settling down in comfort and security. God can now be housed where they can always have access to God and where they can always go to be in God’s presence.
But what if covenant with God is just the beginning? What if God still has more building to do? There is an incredulity in God’s response at the very idea that David would build a temple for God. Are you really proposing to build God a house? Did God ever ask anybody to build God a house? The covenant that prompted God to take David “from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over [God’s] people Israel” demonstrates the action of a Holy One who is active, open, moving. It is a covenant relationship forged, not in what David or Israel can do for God, but in righteousness, justice, loyalty, mercy, and faithfulness—all of what transforms them into God’s people . . . not because God needed somewhere to settle down, but because God is building something. God did not submit God’s self in the bonds of covenant with David to bind God’s will and freedom to act. On the contrary, God binds Godself to them so that God can build.
God does not need a house in which to settle down or to be controlled or domesticated. God is still working, still appointing, still pledging God’s fidelity not only to David but to David’s offspring, still promising to establish an everlasting kin-dom. God has something bigger and more lasting in mind than a temple. Many temples to God will get built as the future unfolds. God reserves the right to move and work newness into people over generations so that Divine love, peace, and justice will prevail. God is not concerned about where God will be housed; God is in the business of the building a kin-dom. That’s why God declares that God will make David a house.
David could not see it, but his idea of building God a house was answering God’s radical grace with the normalcy of civilization. In the civilized word, the faithful build temples to honor and house their gods. But God’s covenant with us does not follow the norms and conventions of the world. God still has work to do. God has some more houses to build for David, David’s posterity, and—yes—for us. God has some more building to do within each of us. Covenant relationship with God is open-ended and unsettled. God cannot be locked down nor locked in to prove that God is on our side. There are too many things left for God to do and many more people and places for God to build.
Can we perceive the new thing God is doing in us? Or are we focused on the next project or edifice or thing we can build for God? Do we see God’s favor and abundance to us as natural and automatic such that we feel compelled to build God a house of cedar? But what if this relationship is about letting something big and new from God be born in us? Yes, covenant relationship with God comes with expectations and commandments . . . expectations and commandments about love, peace, and justice that leave things a little unpredictable, open-ended, and unsettled. When we love, when we work peace, when we pursue justice, we join God in the new thing God is doing and building in us and in the world. And it may have nothing to do with us building anything at all. It may just be about letting God build something in and for us.
In this open-ended and unsettled relationship with God, we simply cannot assume that our settling down in this house of God means that our work is done or that the work to be done is always here within these walls. Perhaps this place of Divine presence, guaranteed and unquestioned, calls us out of our comfort and into unsettled and unchartered territory. Over the last year, we discovered that the edifice in which Plymouth worships, gathers, and communes is not solely constituted by brick and mortar nor the power and privilege of our tradition and abundance. Rather, God has built something within us individually and communally that cannot be housed in a building. God has built something more lasting than our physical location.
We still live in the tension of competing claims of faith and ideology on our time, talent, and treasure. Even with God on our side, we exist with all the other faithful in an uncomfortable and ambiguous mode of existence. We acknowledge and appreciate the radical God who can take a shepherd boy and make him shepherd of God’s people, and yet it is the normalcy of civilization where we feel most at home, with its wealth, temples, and logical distribution of reward and punishment. And so, we can only think to build God a house of cedar and settle in, but what if we are willing to allow God to build something within us?
I know it looks like all the big questions have been answered and that what is left to be decided in the world is a matter of will and our own expertise. But God is still appointing, still building something within us, and still seeking to make us into a house or a temple. Our relationship with God is not fixed or settled. In God’s radical love and freedom, something new is always being birthed in our midst, even when it does not follow our expectations. And so, we are not invited to relax or settled down or put God on lock down as evidence of Divine favor. Let God move within, and join in on the new thing that will unfold.