A God Who Travels in Tents

Creating and holding together a nation is hard work.  The Hebrews were a loose confederation of tribes living in the Central Highlands of the Western end of the Fertile Crescent.  Wherever there were two Hebrews there were three opinions.  A new gang named the Philistines had moved into the neighborhood and were encroaching on traditional Hebrew turf.  And this bunch of Philistines were well organized.  They could put an army in the field under one commander.  And so they started to beat the snot out of the more chaotic Hebrews.  The tribes got together for a war council to figure out how to fight the Philistines.  And somebody said, “you know we need a leader like all the other nations.  We need a King, who will lead us in battle against these Philistines.

 

So according to one account they drew straws and Saul got the short straw.  Another account said that Saul was something of a berserk, and when a town named Jabesh Gilead was besieged, he took an ox and tore it apart with his bare hands and sent messengers with pieces of the torn up ox throughout the Central Highlands saying, “whoever doesn’t show up to help lift the siege of Jabesh Gilead, this is what’s going to happen to them.”  Now that might get your attention.  We don’t know which story was closer to the truth, but anyway Saul was anointed King by the local prophet Samuel.

With a unified command structure the Hebrew warriors did better against the Philistines.  But after a while Saul didn’t want to be just the battle leader, he wanted to be King with all of the benefits and perquisites of the office.  He argued with the prophet Samuel and didn’t take instruction very well.  Pretty soon he started having delusions of grandeur and he became paranoid, and especially jealous of a young warrior who made quite a name for himself David.  David became so popular Saul decided he had to get rid of him, terminate with extreme prejudice.  But with the help of the King’s oldest son Jonathan, David escaped.

 

For several years Saul hunted for David, but David evaded capture.  Then one day Saul and all of his sons, except for one boy, Mephibosheth, who was crippled, were killed at the Battle of Mt. Gilboa.  The Hebrews were in chaos.  Some people wanted to make the crippled boy King, but others asked, “how can he lead us in battle, he’s a cripple?”

The elders of the tribe of Judah decided to ask David to be their King in Hebron the tribal capital.  For seven years the Philistines kept pressing against the Hebrews.  Mephibosheth couldn’t lead anyone in battle, so finally, the elders of the Northern tribes came to Hebron and made a deal.  They wanted David to be King and lead them in battle against the Philistines, but the tribal elders wanted to maintain their authority over local matters.  A deal was struck, a covenant made, David became King.  But David understood that being King didn’t mean much if he couldn’t consolidate his power.  So he made four important moves.

First, he created his own private army of the King’s guards.  These were warriors, some of whom were not Hebrews to insure they would be absolutely loyal to David alone.  Second, he conquered the Jebusite City of Salem to be his capital, territory that had not belonged to any of the twelve tribes as a kind of neutral place to be shared by all the tribes — sort of like the District of Columbia, it’s own place not part of one of the states.

Third, David promoted the worship of the Hebrew deity Yahweh.  And he renamed his capital Jerusalem meaning Yahweh’s peace.  Finally he brought the Ark of the Covenant, the one religious symbol shared by all the tribes, to Jerusalem.  David consolidated political and religious authority in one place in his bid to build a nation.   David had one other plan to solidify his control over the nation’s religion, he wanted to build a temple – a monumental structure worthy of Yahweh and the King who was his servant.  Hebrews would make pilgrimages from all over Israel to offer sacrifice in the Great temple that would house the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy of Holies.  This was David’s dream to truly establish his power, his family, his monarchy.

But David never did build the Temple.  Solomon his son built the First Temple, but David was pulled up short by a message from God delivered through the prophet Nathan:  II Samuel 7: 5  “Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD: Would you build me a house to dwell in?

6  I have not dwelt 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 for my dwelling.

7  In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”‘

God was resisting the building of the Temple.  God was perfectly satisfied living in a tent.  A God who travels in tents that will be the focus of our meditation this morning.

In our scripture God brought David up short.  “I am the kind of God who travels in tents, not the kind of God that can be housed, imprisoned, in a temple.”  David’s son Solomon finally built a Temple, and the nature of Hebrew religion changed profoundly.  Hebrew faith became focused on a god in a box, rituals and sacrifices, and Priestly routines.  Our prayer of confession spoke to our problem of trying to locate God in time and space and make God fit into our preconceived prejudices, assumptions, even theologies:  We have tried to capture you, God. We have, consciously or unconsciously, tried to put you in little boxes. We have put you in the box marked “Christian.” We have put you in the box marked “church”. We have put you in the box marked “funeral”.

We are afraid to set you free, Lord, for you are an embarrassment to us. We do not want you at the war front or on skid row. We do not want you at our place of work or in politics. We do not want you getting involved with sex, or hobnobbing with drunkards, nor in the gambling casino. Don’t call us, God, we’ll call you has been our attitude, perhaps our prayer.

We want a God we can control or manipulate.  A deity who will be at our beck and call giving us comfort, when we are sick or in grief, blessing our acquisitions of the things and experiences we want, and peace of mind in the face of all the change and anxiety of modern life that moves so fast.  We would like God to transport us back to sometime in the past, we remember as simpler, easier, more manageable.  A God who doesn’t make too many demands, and who really fits neatly into the Temples and spiritual categories we have constructed.

The only problem with our god in a box is the God of Moses, the Prophets and Jesus is a God who travels in tents.  For about 400 years Judaism became focused on the Temple in Jerusalem, and slowly the dynamic faith of Moses became frozen in sacrifices and rituals of the Temple.  God was located in the Temple, and was the God of the Jews only.  Then the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple and Judaism was forced to stretch and grow and change in order to survive.  The God of the Jews had to travel in a symbolic tent in order to be with his people in Babylon.

 

And slowly in Babylon the prophets began to experience their God as a God of the whole Universe – Second Isaiah was saying, “your God is too small.”  Isaiah 40:28  Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary, his understanding is unsearchable.  29  He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.  30  Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted;  31  but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

The faith of the Jews grew and matured during those years of exile.  But then when the Jewish people returned to Jerusalem, they rebuilt the Temple, and once again for another 400 years Judaism became focused on the Temple, and all the sacrifices and rituals.  And then Jesus challenged the Temple authorities, claiming that the faith could be summed up simply:  “Love God; love your neighbor.  This is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

 

Forty years after the death of Jesus the Temple was destroyed by the Romans and both Judaism and the followers of Jesus were sent forth into exile by the God who travels in tents.  Judaism went in the direction of law and Talmud, and ended up trying to force God into the boxes of orthodox observance.  The followers of Jesus went a different  direction and ended up creating the box of the medieval hierarchical church of wealth, privilege and power.

But the God who travels in tents is never content to stay in the boxes we invent.  The Holy Spirit blows where it wills, and in the Reformation the God who travels in tents turned Europe upside down and propelled Pilgrims into the New World.  And one of those Pilgrims one of our spiritual forebears, John Robinson, the Pastor of the Pilgrim congregation, was inspired to send the young people from his congregation off to the New World with these words:  “The Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word.”  Be prepared to change and grow and experience new truth as you boldly sail into the future.

Little did John Robinson know that his Pilgrim people would found a new nation and give birth to a whole new system of governance.  When we are faithful to the God who travels in tents, we are empowered to boldly go where people have never gone before.  And we need some of that kind of courage and faith as we stand as the people of God on the brink of a very uncertain future.

Our culture is changing almost faster than we can keep up.  The current recession/depression has many of us feeling anxious and unsure about our futures.  And churches are feeling very uncertain and anxious about their futures.  Even the Southern Baptists, who have been so confident in recent years about their growth have admitted they are losing members, and they are considering a name change.  As we cope with our anxiety about our personal futures and the future of the church, allow me to lift up an author Phyllis Tickle, who has written an important book entitled:  The Great Emergence: A Reformation Every 500 years.

Phyllis claims that religion in Western culture dating all the way back to the time of David experiences a great upheaval about every 500 years, as she says a rummage sale, when we shed many of the forms of faith, the systems of thought, and structures of community, in order to move and change into a new and different future.  And no one is claiming that the new is better.  We may truly grieve for much of what is passing away, and at the same time we acknowledge we cannot live in the past.  Like it or not, we are on our way, and we adapt or die.  As Phyllis Tickle says, spiritual upheaval happens every 500 years or so and our task is to live through it joyfully seeking the opportunities God opens to us.

While we are trying to navigate our way through spiritual upheaval, we cannot be absolutely sure in what forms the church will appear in the future.   No one can draw a precise road map.  There are some sign posts, however, that may help us to anticipate how faith might emerge from the upheaval.  First, emergent Christian faith is focused on the words of Jesus, taking seriously that he meant what he said about forgiving enemies, embracing the ways of peace, taking care of the poor – truly radical and socially transformative teaching focused on mission.  Second, emergent faith tends to be communal. People are gathering in intentional communities formed around the words of Jesus.  Third, the emerging faith of the 21st century is post-denominational and post-protestant.  The religious landscape will change radically.  There will be fewer bricks and mortar religious franchises, and more fluid communities that form, reform, pass in and out of existence.  Many future faith communities will be based in virtual reality organized on the web.  Emerging Christianity is also interested in theologies of religion that get rid of Christian particularities or exclusivities.  Religious institutions that insist they are the one sole way to heaven, the only truth, will fade away in the future.

We are living in a time when once again God is living in tents.  God has broken out of the boxes we created to contain him and she’s on the loose.  Like the message Jesus left for the disciples at the empty tomb:  “He is not here.  He is risen, and he has gone on before you.”  Jesus has gone on ahead of us into the world.  So we have to run to catch up.  We need to re-vision who we are and generate new missions and ministries that will take us beyond the walls of the church.  This past week we met with a capital campaign consultant, who told us, we need to conduct a revisioning process before we enter into a capital campaign.  We can’t avoid it.  Finally, we need to practice radical hospitality in the name of Jesus welcoming everyone into the fellowship of Christ.

Today as we come forward to share the Lord’s Supper let us commit ourselves to faithfully following Jesus and the God who dwells in tents.

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