Preacher: Canon Nigel Uden
18 December 2005, 10:30 (Advent 4)
II Samuel 7.1-11, 16 Romans 16.25-27 Luke 1.26-38
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
I am delighted to be here this morning. Greetings from the churches served by Southern Synod of the United Reformed Church, and most especially those that fall within the bounds of Rochester Diocese. Our partnership in mission is pivotal to our effectiveness as The Church and insofar as this is enhanced by what we do together this morning, I value the privilege of sharing with you in this way. Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come.1 Amen
II SACRED SPACES
I have been paid to go to church ever since I was six. First I was a Chorister, then an Organist, later a United Reformed Church ordinand and finally, since the mid eighties, a Minister. Unsurprisingly my life has been punctuated by the impact of sacred spaces. There's Christ Church Brockham Green, nestling beneath Box Hill where I sang a hundred Alleluias a year and the seeds of faith were sown through the Psalter, the hymnary and a treasury of anthems. Then there is Westminster Cathedral, in the shadow of which I worked as an office clerk. Lunchtime after lunchtime I went there to rail against God and a nagging call to ministry. Eventually that barely-completed nineteenth century monolith was where I realised that in Christ God had said 'yes' to me and therefore, I could safely say 'yes' to God. Regina Mundi Catholic Church, in the depths of Soweto, became a rather different sacred space for me during seven years service to the church in South Africa. There, where countless Masses and Rallies spurred on the struggle against apartheid, I learned indelibly about the unavoidable juxtaposition of faith that revels in God's love and deeds that demonstrate God's love. You cannot love God whom you have not seen if you do not love your brother or sister whom you have seen.2 Such has been the impact upon me of particular buildings dedicated to God: the beginnings of the faith, the answering of vocation, the defining of mission – and, of course, throughout my life, the feeding of my following at both points and lower.
It becomes easy then to think that holy things can only happen in specifically sacred spaces.
But in the sixth month the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, most probably at home.3 True the angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah in the Temple, and the infant Christ was presented there at eight days, but other than that, little of the Jesus narrative involves the Temple – not even a synagogue.
The vast majority of his life and work is not in obviously holy places, but in fields and homes and on green hills outside a city wall.
IV DAVID AND NATHAN
At the heart of the reading from II Samuel this morning we find this tension between the relative significance of sacred buildings and ordinary places within the purposes of God. For the Israelites the nub of the matter was, 'where shall we keep the Ark?' For us it is, 'when should we be in the sanctuary, and when should go from it into the world?'
For the Israelites, the Ark was the symbolic heart of both their faith and their self-understanding. It has been variously defined, but essentially The Ark was a box, a sort of portable throne, taken with them wherever they went, not least into battle, symbolising God's presence with them, God's commandments to them, God's goodwill for them. When the people rested, the Ark was placed in a tent.
In II Samuel chapter seven we find King David wanting to build a permanent Temple for the Ark of the Lord. He is grateful for his increasing influence as King and for his success in battle. And he is embarrassed that the Lord's Ark is in a mere tent whilst he as King has a highly desirable house of cedar.4 So he suggests to Nathan the prophet that he should build a house, a fitting Temple for the Lord. After an initial word of support, however, Nathan hears the Lord saying that God is not interested in a house for himself,5 at least not yet –6 but rather that David and his people should first be built into a household of faith.7 It's a subtle play on the Hebrew words but it is rich in meaning.
Here in a chapter that scholars regard as one of the defining theological moments of the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures,8 the tent is seen as a symbol of God's freedom and mobility, whilst the Temple would be a human construction to box God in, designed to preserve our confidence that God will not depart from us. It's as if the tent's mobile flexibility liberates God to be what God thinks God should be. The Temple, by contrast, confines God to be no more than our interpretation of God should be.
And Nathan discerns that God will not be controlled or domesticated in such a way. As one commentator has it: 'Something we can understand and adequately account for in terms of our human categories is not God.'9
Which does the birth of Jesus mirror – Tent or Temple?
In one of Charles Wesley's hymns, he sums up the Incarnation like this:
Let earth and heaven combine, and joyfully agree, to praise in songs divine the incarnate Deity, our God, contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man. ... Unsearchable the love that has the Saviour brought; the grace is far above the power of human thought: suffice for us that God, we know, our God, is manifest below. 10
That's not God confined to a Temple. It's the mobile God of vulnerable availability. The birth of Jesus is not about a God being hidden away, nor is it about a God being restricted to our poor reach of mind. Jesus is God bursting onto the world-scene in new and life-giving ways. As this morning's Epistle suggests, in Jesus 'the mystery that was kept secret for long ages ... is now disclosed.' 11
VI CHURCHES TODAY
How ironic then, that the church buildings upon which we – certainly I – tend to lavish both affection and money, too often to take us away from the world. I remember frequently leading worship in Congregational churches throughout Soweto and as soon as one said, 'Let us pray', a zealous Deacon leapt-up to shut the chapel door. The world and our intercessions for it were, it seemed, incompatible. And how counter-incarnational it is that we put so much effort into bringing people into the church building, but so relatively little into taking-out into the world the one who sacrificed everything to come and dwell with us 'here in the dust and joy of human life'. 12
None of the hymns we are singing this morning, with their Advent longing, O come, O come Immanuel, even hints at Christmas being about confining Christ in his Church. Every one of them, in its own way, puts into our mouths the longing for God's gracious kingdom to become the hallmark of our world; to make a difference not to the church but to all creation. It's as if sub- consciously we have sung the very message of the Lord to David: 'I am less interested in a house for myself, and more concerned that humanity should be built into a household of faith and love, of integrity and dignity.'
And amidst trade talks, and earthquake aftermath, and post-war re-construction and broken homes and life-robbing poverty what more do we need than 'to be built into a household of faith and love, of integrity and dignity'?
VII INSTITUTIONAL OR INCARNATIONAL
All this leads me to ponder a deep question about the nature of the church today: are we to be institutional or incarnational? The institutional church is pre-occupied with its own structure and politics, sustainability and self-preservation; trapped in models and practices for yesterday – not just learning form the past but still living there; and tripped-up by such theological banana skins as scriptural authority, postmodernism, sexuality and gender. The incarnational church, on the other hand is more about the Kingdom of God than the church, consumed with helping those who want to find God to realise that in Christ God has already found them; concerned to offer worship which is both winsome and profound, bringing folk to the very gate of heaven; committed to a life style that models community before self. Being an institutional church will keep us locked away, inward looking and increasingly irrelevant. Being an incarnational church will take us to where life is being half lived, there to offer the indefatigability of God’s love, the depth of God’s wisdom and the reality of God’s transformative presence as the source of life in all its fullness.
In truth, we face the same issue as David faced. Are we to be Temple or Tent? The birth of Christ, donkey-borne and cave-bound, is the clearest message we could hope for, that as the church today we need the freedom and mobility that God sought when urging David not to build a Temple. God grant us the wise perspective that sees our sacred spaces as places of sustaining, inspiring worship that nurtures our discipleship; as springboards for tireless mission, till all shall know the love of God for themselves and let it shape their love for one another. Thus shall we be built into the people God calls us to be – a Christmas present to the world 13- successors to Mary, whose obedience offers a pattern for our own: 'Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.' 14
So be it with me, and with you. And to God alone be the glory. Amen
1 Revelation 1.4
2 cf I John 4.20
3 Luke 1.26ff
4 II Samuel 7.2
5 II Samuel 7.5f
6 II Samuel 7.13 – Solomon will be allowed to build the Temple
7 II Samuel 7.11
8 Brueggemann, Walter First and Second Samuel (Interpretation Commentary) Louisville: John Knox Press 1990 p 253
9 Placher, William C. The Domestication of Transcendence Louisville: John Knox Press 1996 page 10
10 Charles Wesley 170788 Rejoice and Sing 190.1 and 3
11 Romans 16.25f
12 Geoffrey Hoyland 18891965 Rejoice and Sing 533.4.4
13 Williams, Archbishop Rowan December 2005, when amongst those switching on the Christmas lights in Lambeth
14 Luke 1.38