A little over nine years ago my father and I went backpacking for a week in Pennsylvania along the Appalachian Trail. Neither of us are what you would call experienced hikers or seasoned outdoorsmen. For that matter, neither of us were in very good shape when we made our plans to spend that week together, so we knew we were taking a bit of risk setting out for a week with our packs filled with food and water, a tent, a Coleman camping stove, and a couple changes of clothes.
I don’t think we’d been hiking for more than half an hour on our first day before I had to stop, convinced that there was no way I’d be able to do this for a week. My pack was heavy on my back and I was already panting like a dog. We’d been climbing up to the trail from a roadside clearing where we’d left my car, so it had been a pretty steep hike, but still… I was feeling miserable and I knew I was not up for a week of this.
My mind began its mutiny. Wouldn’t this father-son time have been more enjoyable if we’d simply found a cabin somewhere and done some day hikes without all the heavy gear? Couldn’t we have had twice as much fun with half as much weight on our backs? I fantasized about taking off my hiking boots and finding a hot tub to soak in.
In the passage from 2 Samuel, we hear that David is ready to be off the trail as well. He has spent years waging battles against the house of Saul and has emerged as the new king. David has just completed construction of a new palace and, as a sign that Israel’s long journey in the wilderness is over, he calls for an equally magnificent new temple to be built so that the holy of holies, the ark of the covenant, can come in from its wilderness tent dwelling and finally be established in one place.
This is a really familiar impulse, the urge to get settled. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with domestication, but having a home base can also make it difficult to venture out toward new frontiers. We’ve all experienced this, the heavy gravity of home that keeps us tethered to a place or a people. It’s not just physical geography we’re talking about here though. Settling is as much an approach to life as it is a homemaking impulse. We can settle for work, or friendships, or uses of our time that are familiar and comfortable, but ultimately unworthy of the life for which God made us.
Where, in your life, are you settling?
What’s more, as we settle in to our domestic comforts, there is a common impulse to put God’s stamp of approval on our settlements. We hope for a domesticated God who will be as content as we hope to be in our new homes, or our new habits. God, however, will not be tamed.
Nathan, a prophet of God and servant of the king, gives a quick endorsement to the project, “great idea, build a temple.” Later than night however, Nathan receives a word from God with a strong and unambiguous message. “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.” God rejects David’s plan for a palace to contain God’s presence, reminding the prophet that God is in the movement from slavery to freedom. God desires a movement, not a monument.
A movement requires bodies, whereas a monument requires bricks and mortar. God speaks to Nathan in words that play on both ideas, saying “are you the one to build me a house,” a place of brick and mortar? Then, “the LORD will make you a house,” a great people that will last forever. We may long for the security of a solid house, but the security God has to offer comes from relationships to and among people.
When in your life have you found both freedom and safety in a relationship, to another person or to a whole community?
Back in our own personal wilderness, Dad and I eventually made it to trail and the path’s incline leveled out. Almost immediately there was a lean-to where we stopped to rest. I told Dad how heavy the pack was and how I was struggling. He took a look at it and made some adjustments to a strap here, a strap there, and almost magically the pack’s weight was redistributed evenly across my back and shoulders. It felt ten times lighter and my confidence was restored.
The rest of the week was incredible. As Dad and I hiked along the ridge of the mountains following the blazes set by others who’d gone before us we were treated to incredible vistas and brilliant fall foliage. Both our conversations and our silence were heightened by our surroundings. It was the rare kind of experience in which you know as the moment is happening that you are forming a memory that will last with you for the rest of your life.
I’ve never been on a pilgrimage, but I imagine it would be something like the week I spent hiking with my dad. I find that I think different kinds of thoughts when my body is working hard, when I’m moving, than when I’m settled in one place and resting. Even when I was a child, if there was an important conversation that needed to happen or I felt stuck in a problem I couldn’t solve, the first thing to do was to go for a walk.
I wonder if that’s a trait I picked up from God, one of those family characteristics inherited in baptism. God doesn’t seem like the settling sort, content to kick off the hiking boots and take a soak in the hot tub. God doesn’t stay put, not in palaces or temples, not in cities or sanctuaries. Our God is a movement God, leading people from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to joy. Our God prefers the backpack to the storage unit, and the tent to the hotel – so much so that when God chose to enter the world, it was in the stable outside the hotel, just off the trail. Not much more than a lean-to.
Ultimately God chooses bodies over buildings, making a home in our very flesh and bones. This may seem a little too fragile, but for God it has one undeniable advantage. It means that God is always with us. There is no leaving God behind in the temple. God breaks camp and wanders with us, wherever we go. God is present for our greatest joys and our deepest sorrows, loving us into more spacious and less settled ways of life.
We are participating in God’s Advent with our whole lives. The gift God gives to the world comes wrapped up in us. You are a house for the holy, and together we are all the temple that God desires. Remember that as we break camp this morning, and carry that good news with you wherever you go. Amen.