You are the House of God
Sermon Preached at St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA
by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, December 20, 2020
The Fourth Sunday of Advent (year B), 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Luke 1:46-55, Luke 1:26-38
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 When the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 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.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”
But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? 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. 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?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; 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. 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, 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. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
Luke 1:26-38 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Today we celebrate the Fourth Sunday in Advent. We hear the angel’s words to Mary that she will bear a son to occupy the throne of David, Jesus, the Son of God. We said together the song of Mary, Mary’s praise to God who brings light to the world in Jesus, fulfilling his promise to his people.
Today’s Old Testament reading caught my eye. David has become king in Israel and is at peace, settled in Jerusalem. He speaks with Nathan the prophet about building a house for God—building a temple for God instead of having just a tent for worship. Then God speaks to Nathan and tells him, essentially, ‘do I really need a house? I’ve been in a tent for centuries and done just fine. Did I ever ask for a house?’ God does not need a temple to be God for his people. But God continues, telling Nathan, essentially, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do, however: tell David I’ll give him a house—a house that will last forever.’
Of course, God, and the writer of Samuel, are having some fun with words. We know what a house is, a building in which you live. The house for God is a Temple, a place to worship God, because we feel God’s presence there, as if God lives there. This is probably where we get the English word “Church,” probably derived from words that mean “house of the Lord.”
But the word house was also used to mean family, or lineage or heritage. You can hear the phrase about Joseph going to Bethlehem to be registered “because he was of the house and family of David.” The house of David in this case is not a building, but a heritage, not a place, but a people, not just a name, but the legacy of relationship with God, in God’s kingdom.
This lesson appears in today’s readings because Jesus’ birth fulfills this promise. As the angel says, God will give the child “the throne of his ancestor David.” It is true that God later instructs Solomon to build a temple, and that the temple in Jerusalem becomes an important place to unify Israel with God at the center. But God’s greater temple is God’s people themselves. The House of God is God’s people. And in Jesus, we are part of that house of God, that family of God.
In English Bibles, we read the word “church” quite a bit. We often think of the church as a building—a church building. But when we read about the church in the New Testament, the word doesn’t mean a building. It means an assembly. The “ekklesia” is the assembly of God’s people, the Christian community, united in Christ, where his word is proclaimed, where his sacraments are celebrated, where, by prayer and devotion, his people follow him as Lord and savior. For centuries, the Christian Community had no buildings. The church gathered in people’s homes or in public places (if it was safe to do so).
St. Paul uses the metaphor of a building to describe the church. He calls us to build up the church and declares that Christ is the head and cornerstone. But Paul also uses the metaphor of a body for the church—a living body whose parts unite to make up the whole, the living breathing body of Christ.
I believe that Church buildings are very important for the life of the church. We certainly feel that now more than ever. But they are, of course, buildings. The true church is that house of God, that heritage of God’s making, the people of God, the family of Christ, the body of people in relationship with God in Christ, and in relationship with each other in Christ. God is less concerned about the Temple made with stones, and more concerned with the temple made of hearts and minds and relationships.
Throughout the Bible, God is concerned with his people’s faithfulness to him, their love for him, their actions that follow his commands, and extend his blessing to the world, their lives that openly honor God above all else. There came a time when God’s people had turned away from him for generations. Then the great Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and his people were taken away from their holy land. They were in exile for a generation.
But there, God was still alive and at work in their lives, calling them back to him, forming and shaping them for deeper faithfulness. So they learned how to live faithfully as God’s people without the Temple. They may not have been able to gather in great numbers in Babylon. But they must have found a way to continue to pray, to study the Torah, to teach their children, and to observe the sabbath to the Lord.
Then, having re-learned faithfulness, God brought them back to the land, and then rebuilt the temple building. They were ready because they themselves had already become a temple to the Lord, the living breathing house of God.
Fast forward to hundreds of years later. An angel appears to a girl and tells her that she too will be a temple to the Lord. That she will bear in her body the one who is the Son of God. Mary is willing to embrace God into her very body, to bear and care for Jesus in service to her Lord.
How can we embrace God’s call and follow Mary’s example? How can we open ourselves to be a temple to the Lord—part of the Lord’s house, the Lord’s heritage for his people?
Right now we are somewhat separated from our building, and in some ways we are separated from each other. But not entirely! It is easy to get discouraged and to let those relationships drift. Keep the faith! Nothing is impossible with God! Keep praying, keep reading the Bible, keep reaching out to others. Keep celebrating the glorious things God is doing!
How can we continue to be the House of God in this time? We can be that living house of God by continuing that legacy of worship, prayer, study and care for one another, and by sharing that good news with others. Our small groups and online services have welcomed new members since last March, and our in-person services in the pavilion have welcomed new faces to our family. The house of God continues in this place because the people of God are still in relationship with God and with each other in Christ.
Gathering together as the church is important. In fact, that gathering is essential to being the church. Our present conditions are extreme circumstances due to the pandemic, and they reflect the sacrifices that we make to care for each other. But I think that we are right to work hard to stay connected in this time. To gather to the extent to which we can, in person or online. We are right to continue the work of the church as much as we can and encourage each other as best we can.
When the angel visited Mary, Mary found herself in completely new territory as a child of God. This isn’t the normal routine for a calling from God. What would this mean for her? Her life was disrupted and this calling started in disruption. They went to Bethlehem, then they fled to Egypt to protect Jesus. There was struggle and distance from family and friends. But they were able to return. The daily faithfulness of Mary and Joseph was the sacred work of God to which they were called and which raised Jesus before his ministry. And for it, Joseph is seen as a saint, and Mary is esteemed above all women.
In this final week of Advent, remember that you are the house of God. Remember that you are part of something far greater than St. Peter & St. Paul, far older than our building, far grander than any temple, and far more beloved by God than any monument.
Jesus himself has built you into a living house, alive with the Holy Spirit, thriving with the power and joy of God! Rejoice in this ancient legacy and look with expectation for the new ways God is at work in your life!
We the Lord’s people,
heart and voice uniting,
praise him who called us
out of sin and darkness
into his own light,
that he might anoint us
a royal priesthood.
This is the Lord’s house,
home of all his people,
school for the faithful,
refuge for the sinner,
rest for the pilgrim,
haven for the weary;
all find a welcome.
This is the Lord’s day,
day of God’s own making,
day of creation,
day of resurrection,
day of the Spirit,
sign of heaven’s banquet,
day for rejoicing.
In the Lord’s service
bread and wine are offered,
that Christ may take them,
bless them, break and give them
to all his people,
his own life imparting,
John E Bowers