Sunday, October 25, 2020

Phil Kniss: So what does God need from us?

“God’s enduring Kingdom”

2 Samuel 7:1-17

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Before I focus on today’s text,

let’s catch up on the Old Testament narrative.

We have to jump over a lot of material,

to get from Genesis to Jesus in three months.

So two weeks ago, the Israelites were in the wilderness,

wandering and wondering who this God was,

and thinking they might be better off with something tangible,

like a Golden Calf.

God and the people sort out their differences,

establish a moral legal framework,

with rituals and practices for worship,

and a portable tent-like tabernacle at the center.

They continue moving from place to place,

eventually conquering whole regions,

and setting up a geo-political base in Palestine.

They did all this without a king.

After Moses and Joshua,

they were ruled by a series of judges.

One of the last and most influential judges was Samuel,

the boy given to Hannah,

in last Sunday’s story.

And there were many other judges.

But the people grew tired of not having a king, like other nations.

They felt low-class.

Other nations had royalty living in huge palaces.

But Israel’s rulers were ordinary people,

and their God lived in a tent.

God finally gave in, allowed Samuel to anoint King Saul,

which didn’t pan out so well,

and the young upstart David was anointed King.

And there’s a whole set of stories

on how Shepherd Boy David—

not even related to Saul—

ended up King David.

Lots of intrigue, and scheming, and violence,

and Saul ends up a one-generation dynasty,

and David sits on the throne of Israel.

And now comes today’s story.

There is a king living in a very fine palace.

And there is still the moveable tent-like tabernacle for God.

And there are prophets who speak for God,

who especially try to keep Kings in line with God’s ways.


So in today’s story, David frets over God’s humble house.

He says,

“Here I am living in a luxurious house

made of the finest cedar,

and God is living in a tent.

That’s not right!

God deserves more respect than that!”

Now . . . isn’t that just one of the nicest things a king could say to God?

Wouldn’t God be pleased to hear David say that?

David wants to honor God,

build God a beautiful temple,

so that not only Israelites can see

what a wonderful and powerful and holy God they have—

but also the nations can look at that temple,

and admire, and maybe even come to worship, Yahweh,

the God of the Hebrews.

So God says, “Well, of course, David.

How sweet of you to think of that.

That would be lovely. Go right ahead.”

Actually, God didn’t say that.

The prophet of God, Nathan, said that.

When David brought up the idea,

Nathan, without even bothering to go home and sleep on it,

was so sure that God would want this, too,

that he told David to go right ahead.

It was only when Nathan went home and slept on it,

that God spoke to him quite sharply.

This was his message.

I’m paraphrasing verses 5-16 of 2 Samuel 7.

I’ll call it God’s thank-you note to David.

“Where do you get off wanting to build me a house, David?

I haven’t lived in a house since the day

I delivered you all out of slavery in Egypt.

I have been moving with you from place to place ever since.

I like it in my tent.

Have you ever heard me complain to any of Israel’s leaders,

‘Why haven’t you built me a house of cedar?’

No! Just forget about the idea!

“But while we’re on the subject of houses . . . David . . .

let me tell you this—

I’m going to make your house last forever.


You have led my people well.

I have helped you defeat your enemies.

So I will let you rest from your enemies.

And I will build you a house.

Not out of cedar or stone,

but a house, a kingdom, that does not end,

and that will one day save all the nations of the world.

My love will never be taken from you, David,

like I took it from Saul.

Your house and kingdom will stand forever.

“How do you like them apples, David?”

I added that last line.

But the rest of that speech was in the text,

in God’s thank-you note.

This tells me that there was more than meets the eye,

behind David’s seemingly generous offer.

Usually when I read this story

I key in on the idea that God prefers tents over temples,

and David just didn’t realize that.

God prefers we worship in a space

that reminds us we are on the move,

instead of a place that ties us down, or gets institutionalized.

And yeah, that’s part of the story.

But there’s more.

David’s offer was not so generous and self-less.

There something more insidious here.

If David’s political power was to have legitimacy,

he had to have that power underwritten by religion.

It is no accident that in just about every Empire in history,

there is a deep entanglement between politics and religion.

The so-called “Holy Roman Empire” is maybe the most obvious,

but it’s true in

empires ancient and modern, eastern and western.

By building state-sponsored temples and religious institutions

kings and emperors—and democracies—

are better able to influence the theological framework

that supports their own power,

that keeps the status quo in place.

I’m not saying David had a consciously evil scheme in mind

when he made this offer.

But I do think that political psychology played a part.

It’s the psychology of gift-giving that we all know.

If I give you something you really value,

you will feel beholden to me,

and will be more likely to act favorably toward me.

Granted, that’s the dark side.

Many of us give entirely selfless gifts to each other,

just for the joy of giving.

But there is a shadow side.

Especially when there is a power imbalance,

gift-giving is, by definition, a political move.

And in this text,

God recognizes David’s power move,

and cuts him off at the knees, so to speak.

God completely undermines David’s effort to ingratiate himself,

and says,

“No, I won’t accept this so-called gift of a house from you.

But I’ll give you a house and a kingdom,

greater than anything built of cedar and marble,

and that house will last forever and ever.”

God just out-gave David, in the extreme.

The relationship between God and David just got sorted out.

There is no doubt who is serving who.


When I think about this dynamic,

between God, and God’s servants (which includes us),

it seems to me this story keeps getting played out over and over.

We like to negotiate with God.

It’s not always a blatant quid pro quo, like,

“God, get me out of this jam, and I’ll do this for you.”

No, it’s more subtle.

How much of our life of worship or prayer or devotion,

is actually done, in part, to curry favor with God?

Is there at least a smidgen of a thought,

when we come to God in prayer or worship,

or in giving our tithes and offerings,

that we are saying to God,

“Look here, God. See what I’m giving to you.

See what I’m doing for you!”

And then secretly, or not-so-secretly,

hope that God treats us in like manner.

After all, God needs our worship, right?

God needs to be shown deference.

God needs our gifts to prove our love.

God needs beautiful houses of worship.

Gives God legitimacy, right?

So we protect our religious houses and institutions and traditions,

out of this warped notion that God needs all that.

When actually, we are using God as an excuse,

to strengthen our own base and power.

If anything can shed us of the notion

that God needs all these institutionalized forms of religion,

it’s a year-long pandemic.

Yes, God deserves our respect and our utmost and humble deference.

But when we push it to the next level,

and try to make our institutions sacred,

it quickly gets out of balance,

and our gifts don’t seem so selfless anymore.

So what does God really need from us?

Well, the religious life is not about us.

It is about God and God’s priorities.

It’s not so much that God needs to see the top of our bowed heads,

in order to be God.

It’s that God needs to know

we are ready to step out and go where God is going next.

We will get nowhere with God, trying to even the score.

God will always out-give us.

There is nothing we can do

to make ourselves worthy of God’s love and attention.

Still, we try. And by trying, fail.

So it is time for us to offer our confession to God,

for the ways we have failed.

You’ll find it in your order of worship.

Please join us in this confession.

one O Generous One, we confess that we underestimate your grace.

God who asks all from us, and gives all to us,

we confess that too often we seek to earn your favor.

all Forgive us, O God. Open our hearts to receive.

one Jesus Christ, Lord of the Church,

Companion on the journey, provider of all we need,

we confess that as a church 

we strive too hard to earn your approval,

and to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of the world.

all Forgive us, O God. Open our church to be 

all that you want it to be.


one Our Generous God freely extends forgiveness,

The Lord of the Church offers grace beyond our imagination,

The Holy Spirit delights to be with us, as we are, 

and to shape us into God’s holy people.


—Phil Kniss, October 25, 2020

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