Reflection and Prayers
One of the great things about welcoming visiting worship leaders is hearing different voices and experiencing different styles of worship. Perhaps we can view it like looking at different facets of a diamond. Today’s worship leader – Revd Malcolm Shapland – has a wonderful and natural conversational style of worship leading. This means that he doesn’t write out a lot of the service in preparation so today, our script comes from the United Reformed Church’s Daily Devotions website which contains good quality daily reflections and complete Sunday services (in print and podcast). It is highly recommended so if you would like to sign up or find out more, please visit – https://devotions.urc.org.uk/
URC Sunday Worship
Good morning. My name is Sarah Moore, and I am a United Reformed Church Minister currently serving as Transition Champion for the National Synod of Scotland. I also support the work of the General Assembly as its Assistant Clerk. I live in Dunblane in central Scotland, and my work base is the Synod Office in Glasgow. As I came into post just before the start of the pandemic, my ministry in this place has been bound to my home rather than out and about across the country. As our service today, in part, is about the building of a home for the Lord, this is an interesting juxtaposition of circumstance. It is a privilege to lead worship with you today.
Reading 2 Samuel 7.1-14a
Now 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. 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. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.
Those property programmes that are a regular feature of both daytime and primetime TV schedules fascinate me. To name but a few, there is, Homes under the hammer, which is about people buying a wreck of a house at auction, doing it up with a view to renting out or selling on and making a profit. Or, for those after a holiday home, A Place in the Sun which has both home and international options. The genre has shifted slightly in recent years, perhaps reflecting people’s financial situations and the broader economic climate with more programming about renovating or revamping the homes the participants currently have with Love it or List it and Your Home Made Perfect.
Particularly interesting perhaps are the people who sign up to appear on these shows. Some have huge expectations about what sort of house that they can afford or where they can live. Sometimes people are looking for something that doesn’t exist and part of the task of the presenters is to find a way to show people so, usually by starting kindly and becoming more blatant if they don’t get the point. However unreasonable it might seem that someone is being, what perhaps is most important to remember is that often a person or a couple or a family are buying a home. A place to rest and to play. A place that can serve as the centre of their life and this is perhaps particularly the case for those intending to settle in a place for the long term.
In the passage that we have just heard from the second book of Samuel, we encounter one of the most famous kings of Israel, David, in a reflective mood. David has finally made it to the top, he has become king, and he lives in the place was promised to him. He has come a long way since the day when the prophet Samuel had his older brothers call him down from his father’s fields, away from looking after the sheep to tell him that one day he would be king. He has come a long way from his life playing music in the court of king Saul, from fighting countless battles on the side of his own guerrilla army and having to hide out in the open countryside. Now, David is king. Now, David is living in a house made of cedar. Cedar was one of the most expensive building materials available in the ancient near east so it was right and proper for a king to build his palace out of this wood. Elsewhere we read in the Bible about the cedars of Lebanon and how much the wood from those trees was demand.
Much to David’s embarrassment, the ark of God continues to be kept in a tent. In the society and culture that David was part of, gods had to be treated seriously and with due reverence. One needed to keep one’s god on one’s side as one never knew when their blessing was next going to be needed. Building a house, building a place of residence for God was for David, in some ways, an act of worship. What more could David offer? David had his dream house, now he wanted to give his God his.
Before we jump to criticise David too harshly, it is worth our remembering some of the history of church, chapel and place of worship building in our culture. We live in a country and continent that is littered with grand cathedrals. These were built to be places of worship but they were too built to reflect well on the person who had given the money for their building. There was a sense of ‘look at me, look how much I love God and see how much money I have’ buried in the architecture of some of these truly grand buildings. Even among our own non-conformist forebears there was often an element of competition in terms who could build the biggest chapel either or both in terms of largest number of seats and tallest tower.
Enter the prophet Nathan. Initially, Nathan’s response to David is “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.” And it is not difficult to understand why Nathan advised David in this way. David had become king of Israel against all the odds. He started out as a shepherd boy. The previous, usurped king, Saul had put a price on David’s head for a long time so you can be fairly sure that there were mercenaries out there who would have been only too pleased to deliver David to Saul, either dead or alive. According to human understandings of blessing, it is not difficult to believe that David must surely have God’s blessing and favour. If he did not, he would be dead. Period. And was it right that the king of Israel should live in a posh house built of cedar when the creator of all things, the life-giver, the energy behind all that is should be seen to reside in a tent? And why should not the ways of mortals match the ways of God?
That very same night, Nathan has a dream. Dreams are significant in the faith and spirituality of the Hebrew Bible; it is not unusual for God to communicate with his people in this way. The word of the Lord comes to Nathan. Nathan is directed to communicate a message to David. The word can be summarised as follows. This is God speaking. “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel. I have been moving about in a tent and tabernacle. Did I ever ask why I had not been built at house of cedar. David, I called you from being a shepherd to being a prince over my people. I have been with you everywhere you’ve been and fought your battles for you. In the future I will make you a great name with all the great ones of the earth. I will provide my people with a place to live and they too will not need to worry about their enemies. After you are gone, your offspring will build a house for my name. I will be a father to him and he will be a son to me.
The onward story is fairly straightforward. David was not allowed to build a house to house the name of God but his son, Solomon, when he became king built the first Jerusalem temple. It was promised to David that he would be the beginning of a great dynasty. David’s son, grandson and various degrees of great grandsons apparently did rule the land for several generations although how successful this was is open to question.
We can read passages like these and find them interesting but most significant question we can ask here and of any passage from the Bible is what we can learn from this story about our faith and our relationship with God today. The person who I think is most worth having a second look at today is the prophet Nathan.
At the beginning of the story, Nathan it would seem pretty much had matters sown up – or he thought that he did. David wanted to build a house of cedar to house the name of God. Fair enough. A house for God would offer a focal point, a place where worship could be offered and the community could gather. It would be a place for people to go and do their religious and spiritual stuff, even if, as would most likely have been the case, all they could do would be to stand at the gate and look.
Nathan has his dream and what he dreams is not what he was expecting. The message that he must give to his king is detailed, and, it is the complete opposite of what Nathan had thought. What we learn from this dream of Nathan’s is, like Nathan did, is to realise that our God is not quite the God we thought we had.
We realise that we have a God that we encounter on God’s terms and not on ours. David had fallen into the trap of believing that perhaps because he had become king, he might be able to approach God as a fellow king in his land and show hospitality. David had attempted to relate to God on human terms. He wanted to build his God a house. Only problem was that God was going to build David a house, but not one made of wood, rather one of people that would stretch down through the generations creating a truly lasting legacy.
Many denominations and the local congregations that form them in 2021 have a complicated relationship with our buildings. On one hand they can be a legacy of our past containing many memories that provide a focus for mission and witness in our localities. On the other they can be a black hole that continually demands time, energy, and money to the exclusion of other concerns. Further to all of this our fellowships have spent much of 2020 and a significant slice of 2021 unable to physically gather for worship or to do other work of the Lord together. In my own ministry I have encountered a number of congregations who for a variety of reasons find themselves with no fixed abode realising that this situation itself can very much be a mixed blessing.
Whether the building of a Temple by the Israelites to provide a home for the Lord, the construction of the buildings of the past, or church building in our time is a good thing brings a wide variety of views. It is fair to say that in the traditions that make up the URC we build, buy or renovate our buildings to provide a place for people to meet and as a base for mission rather than as a place for the Lord to live.
But perhaps a deeper takeaway from this passage is a simpler one? I notice that David wanted to build a house for the Lord because he thought that he should. Some interpretations of this passage chide David for putting God in a permanent box. I wonder how it would go if we recognise the warning here as being about the danger of reducing God to human terms; to human ‘shoulds’, to what we believe to be right and proper?
We follow a travelling Lord for whom the way is always onwards, for whom a tent is more convenient than a house. Our buildings are useful treasures but as with some other matters we must take care that they stay helpful tools for mission rather than morphing into masters of our destiny.
Prayers for the World
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognised him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed. Mark 6.53-56
Gracious One, we recall in your presence the breadth and depth of need around the world, in the nations of the United Kingdom, in our own churches and communities, and with those who we love.
Gracious One, as Jesus did with the disciples, we begin by praying for ourselves and for our own needs and concerns.
We pray for those known to us who are bereaved, both recently and longer ago. As we read in the Gospels about communities bringing those among them who were sick to Jesus in the hope of wholeness, we pray for those among us whose health is not good, asking for your gift of healing.
Gracious One, we pray for the world, particularly for equity of healthcare provision. We pray for the continuing vaccination programmes and for the research taking place in vaccine science.
Gracious One, we pray for the Church, particularly for the United Reformed Church. We pray for the work of synods and ecumenical networks, and pray particularly today for our local churches.
As we remember the story around David’s desire to build a Temple for the Lord, we pray for those who are charged with the care of our church buildings and manses. We pray for the work of property committees,
for those who advise us about listed buildings, for church caretakers and cleaners, for those involved in the administration of the URC Trust and the of the synod trust companies.
Help us and those for whom we pray to remember that our buildings are tools to live out our love of you and our love of our neighbour.
Gracious One, as we remember so many needs before you, more than we can name, we ask for your gift of compassion. Compassion for the Church, for the world, for our communities, and for ourselves.
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.