Riverside United

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Pitching the Tent (Where We Belong pt 4)

Preacher: Rev. David Exley, 
Scripture2 Samuel 7:1-11,16

There is a great deal of sadness within as we mark the final Sunday of this Advent season—as we move toward Christmas—in this unprecedented year. Like every community of faith, we want our doors open during this time of year. We want the building packed on Christmas Eve. Nothing gives us more joy than the feeling that comes from singing carols by candlelight in a sacred space with hundreds of others. Singing in a place that feels like home, a place where we feel welcomed and loved. Under normal circumstances, we would be spending the next few days preparing this space for church members and community friends to come and celebrate the joy of this season. Leaders would be preparing and placing candles in baskets for worshippers to pick up as they enter this space for Christmas Eve worship services. We’d be preparing elements for Holy Communion—baking bread and pouring juice for that common meal we share together this time of year. In any other year, we’d be doing all we can to make this space feel like home for those who enter through our doors during the Advent and Christmas season. And, while we do this in service of others, there is always a sense that we do this for God. All these preparations are done in order that we might say, “God—we make room for you this season. Come and be born in our hearts in this season of darkness; be born in this place that we have made for you.”

But, sometimes “Plan A” doesn’t work. Sometimes the fragile nature of the world trips us up and stands in the way of things going according to the plan we have. It’s in these moments that we must recognize that it’s not God intentionally doing this to test us. We aren’t a part of some cosmic, living exam designed to see how faithful we will be when life throws us a “curveball” or puts a roadblock our way. If God worked that way we’d all be doomed… and we’d be justified in turning away from God. The question for us is—Where is God in the midst of our struggles? Where is God in the midst of our planning?

Let’s turn to our reading from 2 Samuel as we look to shine a light on those questions (as we ponder where God is in the midst of uncertain times). First and 2 Samuel speak to Israel’s transition period from “a loose federation of tribes” to “an emerging monarchy.” King David is riding high on a wave of success. The road of life is just starting to get a little smoother. The path looks a little clearer. The opening verse of the passage gives us a clear idea of where things stand. It begins, “When the king was settled in his palace, and Yahweh had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies…” This is a time of peace. It is a time of triumph and blessing. It would have been natural for King David and his people to say, “God is finally making a way for us. Our wilderness wandering days are behind us. Our days of conflict and darkness are done. It’s time to settle in and celebrate our God—who is now near at hand!”

David, I suppose, is to be commended. He recognizes that his place of residence appears to be better than God’s. He’s living in a “cedar palace” while God is (supposedly) “housed in a tent”. So, he gives the command to Nathan to build a palace for God. God will finally get the honour God deserves and (in building this dwelling place) the people will be able to feel God’s presence more than ever before. But, God says, “Not so fast.” God confronts David and tells him, “Excuse me, all this time you’ve been carting me around in this tent, have I demanded that you make me a house of cedar? No!” It seems that God is all right with where God is, being among God’s people. God is not concerned with us paying homage to God. God is not interested in elaborate dwelling places—the things that we’re drawn to in this world. Instead, God is interested in us. And, God doesn’t just say these words and then things change when God enters the world. God continues to show us what matters most in life… what God values above all else. 

The journey we are on during this Advent season doesn’t take us to the entranceway of a house made of cedar or some palace where the light of the world will arrive. Our journey takes us to a different kind of dwelling place—a place of rejection in many ways. For the Christ child (God’s Word made flesh) comes to us in the humble confines of an animal’s feeding trough. Palaces matter not to God. What matters is God’s people. God is born in a place that is accessible to all those who would long to know God. Simple shepherds in the fields, curious Magi from a foreign land… whoever wants to see the light and give thanks for the gift of life.   

God says to King David—“I’ve been with you wherever you’ve gone.” God says the same thing to Mary and Joseph—“I’ve been with you wherever you’ve gone”. And, God says to us—“I’ve been with you wherever you’ve gone.” Could there be any better gift than that? A God who chooses that nomadic life in order that God’s presence might be felt among all the people. 

A good number of years ago, on our first anniversary, I took Betsy for her first trip to beautiful Algonquin Park here in Ontario. It was quite a journey from Southeastern Pennsylvania, but it was well worth the drive. On the final stretch of our canoe trip, we arrived at Shirley Lake on the southeast side of the Provincial Park. As we paddled to find a campsite, it appeared as if we hit the jackpot. We found a perfect site out on a point—with a sandy beach on one side and a beautiful view of the lake on the other. Under normal circumstances, it would have been an ideal place to stay for the night. But, unfortunately for us, the fun only lasted a few hours. We set up camp, pitched the tent, located a spot to hang our food for the night, jumped into the water for a quick swim… and then the dark clouds started to roll in—dark clouds coupled with a lot of wind. The wind was so strong our tent just couldn’t hold up. Pegs began to pop out of the ground. We tried as best we could to adjust to the changing weather conditions, but nothing was working. So, with only a few seconds or so to make a decision, we did what we thought was best. We quickly packed up camp and began the trek to another (more protected) site. It was a bit of a gong show, but we did make it. And, our night went better than it would have on the other site. In the moment, it was disappointing to not end our Algonquin experience on a perfect note. But, much like life, things don’t have to be perfect to be wonderful. In fact, if we spend our lives hoping for the perfect conditions and preparing for the good things of life that are only in the distance, we will neglect to see the blessings that this moment (this imperfect moment) has to offer us. God is there at all times reminding us “I’m with you wherever you go.” 

Just think of this season we’re in. We often think of the journey of Advent as a journey toward God. The truth is, the journey of Advent is a journey we make with God—for God is always with us. God isn’t found at the end of some “Amazing Race” competition. God isn’t with us when the weather is just right. God doesn’t demand all the right conditions. Instead, God meets us where we are. We can plan all we want, but God will remind us that the Spirit is already with us. Not even a pandemic will stop God from showing up this Advent and Christmas season. If a feeding trough was good enough for God, nothing will stop God from being among God’s people. 

In his book, “We Make the Road By Walking”, Author Brian McLaren writes, “Faith is stepping off the map of what’s known and making a new road by walking into the unknown.” And so, perhaps there is a gift embedded within this year of sadness and sorrow—this year of disconnection and displacement. That gift is the reminder that God is with us WHERE WE ARE. There’s nothing we need to build in order to honour God, for our very bodies are the ones that can house God and give glory to God. We are the temple that God would prefer to be housed in. Because love and grace are not things that are shared (passed on) through bricks and mortar (or cedar).  Love and grace can only be shared through the gift of our living—through the temples of our very lives. And so, let’s put down our building tools, let’s put away the blueprints we have for building something that truly honours God… and let’s celebrate the God is with us now and will be with us every step of the journey… even when the doors of our building are closed. Amen.

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