2 Samuel 7:1-10; Ephesians 2:17-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
The lectionary readings set for the week do something a little strange when it comes to the good news that we have been following in the Gospel of Mark: they scoop out the middle of the story (the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on water) leaving us with just the beginning and the end of this particular pericope.
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much left over to shape a meaningful meditation from. But when we lay these fragments of story about Jesus being deeply moved by and responding to the sheer immensity of human need with his transforming power alongside God subverting David’s plans to build an appropriate house to hold God’s holy presence with God’s own promise to plant his people in a place of peace and prosperity and the admonition to the congregation of Ephesus to tear down the barriers that divide their society and embrace the one new humanity that is united in Christ, a rather challenging question begins to emerge: where does God dwell? Where does God dwell?
From the earliest times, God was on the move – with and among God’s creation. In Genesis, we have that beautiful image of God walking among the gardens with Adam and Eve, enjoying the intimacy of fellowship and face to face conversation. In Exodus, we read of the fiery pillar and the sheltering cloud that led and accompanied the Israelites on their long journey of freedom. It is during that pilgrimage towards the Promised Land that the first tabernacle – or tent of meeting – is put up: a prototype of all later temples and churches, a place where anyone can come to seek God.
But, unlike the temple that David envisioned and his son – Solomon – ultimately built, and unlike the ancient churches and the modern sanctuaries of this day, the tent of the
tabernacle could be assembled and dismantled to travel with the people of God on their journey. So God resided among them – wherever they were.
But once the conquest of Canaan was over and David had declared Jerusalem the capital and moved into his fancy palace, he grew ashamed of God still dwelling in the old tabernacle tent of their wilderness years.
And God ultimately accepts Israel’s need for a temple, as God had accepted her need for a king but in the message that the prophet Nathan receives and relays, God makes it clear that God doesn’t want or need a house to hold God but is, in fact, the One who is busy establishing the house or dynasty of David and the eternal resting place of God’s people.
And, indeed, history tells us that the temple which was meant to be a focus of God’s divine rule and holy presence became instead a place of privilege and corruption and division where the poor, the sick, and the foreigner were kept at a distance through purity laws that had more to do with the power of the priests and the greed of the community leaders than the sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart that God so desired.
Does Yahweh Tsebaoth, the God of Angel Armies and the Heavenly Host, dwell there, within that context of containment and control?
It is, in fact, into this very context that Mark’s Gospel breaks through with the good news of God on the move again in the person of Christ Jesus – a healer, a teacher, a shepherd who was full of compassion for the crowds of aching, searching, hopeful people who followed him from place to place, desperately seeking in him the power and presence of the God who was with them wherever they were.
There is a simple truth which has profound implications for our understanding of what it means to be disciples of Jesus in the world today:
Jesus did not come into the world to start the Church.
At the very start of his ministry, he declared that his God-given purpose was to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom and he didn’t go about that by setting up a preaching place or taking over the temple but by journeying with and among the ordinary people who he encountered in streets and marketplaces, by wells and seashores, on the hills and in the storms, close to home and in the neighbouring country of Samaria.
And his disciples were called – and sent – to be part of that work, to extend the kingdom by travelling like pilgrims without food or money or baggage. At the start of today’s Gospel reading, they had just returned to Jesus to share how they had demonstrated God’s power and presence by driving out demons and healing the sick in Jesus’ name … not to advise Jesus of the prime piece of real estate that they had secured for future worship and ministry.
As the Church – the resurrection community entrusted with being the tangible presence of God in the world until the kingdom of God has been fully established – we have been guilty of living by the mantra of “if we build it, they will come” for far too long.
When the people of Gennesaret recognised God moving among them, they didn’t seek to control or contain it or to create an appropriate space to worship him. They were too busy running to fetch those too sick and too weak to run. And wherever Jesus was in the region, that’s where they showed up with makeshift stretchers full of broken, needy people who didn’t ask for much – just to touch the hem of his garment as he walked by for they knew that that would be enough.
A dusty floor littered with stalls full of food and baskets and sandals and cooking utensils and goats for sale, with a press of people bearing loved ones in in their arms, their
neighbours in on mats; beckoning, waving, calling for the Christ to walk down the narrow aisle in which they waited; hope rising in the air, excitement, cries of wonder, tears of celebration as people leapt to their feet for the first time in many years – full of the new life the Christ had come to make possible – what a radically different picture to so many of our churches and meeting places today: so neat and tidy and comfortable and carefully planned; the focal point of so many of our resources and our conversations …
… as if, once the lights go out and we’ve gone back to our ordinary lives, God dwells here and just sits around waiting for us to gather again.
“Who are we to build a house for God?” our Scriptures ask us.
It is God who is building the dwelling place that God longs for – not of bricks and stone and wood and gold – but of each and every one of our ordinary, imperfect, and often broken lives.
As we read in the letter to the Ephesians, the Holy Spirit of God is within us. This <hold hands to heart> is where God dwells – transforming us from the inside out, shaping us so that we fit together as an enduring symbol of the sweet message of peace that God welcomes all people into the family of God.
Our world today is as full of weak and fragile and hopeless people as it ever was – many who have been hurt and disillusioned by their experience of religion. Local churches in our communities are important in proclaiming that here is a place where the living God can be encountered.
But God does not dwell in the number of windows that let light in or, really, in the fierce discussions and grumbling complaints that we often have about church property. God lives within us and touches the broken and the needy through:
- the warmth of our greeting,
- the openness we show to those different from us,
- the hospitality of our table,
the faithfulness of our prayer for others,
- the gentleness with which we hold another’s hand through a journey of hardship and struggle,
- and the energy with which we run to find and to carry those who long only to touch the hem of his garment and be healed.
May God forgive us for the times when our focus on the church
has been at the expense of God’s kingdom;
when our holding on to God
has gotten in the way of others touching the hem of Christ’s garment;
and when we have mistaken bricks and stone for God’s dwelling place
rather than our hearts, our hands, our homes.
And may the Spirit of God within us make us into a people who are on the move again to be instruments of healing, agents of reconciliation, and bearers of the good news of God’s kingdom.