Transcendence and Immanence

Advent 4B Lectionary Text:  2 Samuel 7: 1-11, 16

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” 3Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”  4But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: 5Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? 6I 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. 7Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” 8Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; 9and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house… 16Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.

The Bible is a story of a journey, a movement from one place to another, one time to another, one way of being to another.  It is full of stories of going beyond and coming home. And woven through those stories are stories of us building and constructing and attempting to wall off our understanding of God.  Throughout the Scriptures, God sends us forth, we begin to walk, and then we build something, then God sends us forth, we begin to walk, and then we build something, on…and…on…It has continued for thousands of years and continues today.  See, we understand the notion of God being everywhere, of God not being limited to what we build and what we wall off.  But most of us still find ourselves in the midst of building projects throughout our lives.  Some of those projects are for houses, some are for churches or grand cathedrals, and some are for ourselves and our own lives.  Does it make it seem better?  Does it bring God closer?  Or does it just make us a little more comfortable?

This poor Scripture doesn’t get a whole lot of Advent attention because it shares a week with Mary’s story and, not surprisingly, most people would not choose Nathan and David over Mary and the angel in the middle of Advent.  But it’s still a great story and reminder for the season.  The text we read wraps up the promise that God made to Abram in the twelfth chapter of Genesis.  The people have a land that they can claim as their own and they can live in peace.  And David’s reign as king has been pretty much legitimized. Things seem to be going well.  And so David envisions now a more permanent structure to house the ark of the Lord.  In other words, David now desires to build a temple in Jerusalem. I don’t know if he feels a little guilty that HE has a house and God doesn’t (as if God isn’t IN the house of cedar already and as if the moveable tent that had “housed” God for so long as the Ark of the Covenant moved from place to place was somehow no longer sufficient.).  Maybe he really felt that God needed to be given God’s due, that a grand and glorious structure would show honor to God.  In a shamefully cynical view, perhaps David wanted to just know EXACTLY where God was, as if he could once again wall God off into a limited space, thereby protecting God or maybe even himself.

But that night the Lord intervenes by way of Nathan with a promise not necessarily of a permanent “house” but, rather a permanent dynasty, an everlasting house of the line of David.  David has risen from shepherd boy to king and has apparently felt God’s presence through it all.  He now sits in his comfortable palace and compares his “house” to the tent that “houses God” in his mind.  So, for whatever reason, he decides that God needs a grand house too.  God, through the prophet Nathan, responds by asking, in a sense, “Hey! Did you hear me complaining about living in a tent? No, I prefer being mobile, flexible, responsive, free to move about, not fixed in one place.” God then turns the tables on David and says, “You think you’re going to build me a house? No, no, no, no. I’M going to build YOU a house. I’ll build you a house that will last much longer and be much greater than anything you could build yourself with either wood or stone. I’ll build you a house that will shelter the hopes and dreams of your people long after ‘you lie down with your ancestors.’” And God promises to establish David and his line forever. 

The truth is, we all desire permanence; we want something on which we can stand, that we can touch, that we can “sink our teeth into”, so to speak.  We want to know the plan so that we can fit our lives around it.  Well, if this was going to make it easier to understand God, go ahead.  But Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr warns us that “God is always bigger than the boxes we build for God, so do not waste too much time protecting your boxes.”  (from Everything Belongs) The truth is, this is a wandering God of wandering people.  This is not a God who desires to or can be shut up in a temple or a church or a closed mind.  This is not a God who desires to be (or can be) “figured out.”  This God is palatial; this God is unlimited; this God will show up in places that we did not build. (and sometimes in places that we really wouldn’t go!)  This God does not live in a house; this God dwells with us—wherever we are.  This God comes as a traveler, a journeyer, a moveable feast.  And this God shows up where we least expect God to be—such as in a god-forsaken place on the outskirts of acceptable society to a couple of scared people that had other plans for their lives.  This God will be where God will be.  And it IS a permanent home.

In this Advent season, we know that God comes.  That is what we celebrate; that is what we remember; that is what we expect.  After all, this God we worship is the one that is with us, Emmanuel.  But in this particular year, so many of us bemoan the fact that our churches are either empty or only 25% full of properly socially-distanced worshippers.  Many of us will miss that Christmas Eve crowded into a sanctuary with our candle as we sing “Silent Night” and usher Christmas in together. Those moments are transcendent.  They make us aware of something beyond us.  But they also bring God’s Presence into our lives.  They are both transcendent, lifting us beyond, and immanent, bringing God into being for us WITH us.

That is also what Advent does.  Advent both makes us aware of a God who is beyond our reach and opens us up to a God who is present and immanent among us.  The mystery of God is that One who cannot be contained in the largest of cathedrals, One who is beyond our reach, beyond our knowing, beyond our understanding, comes to us as one of us, as a baby, in a seemingly godforsaken place for which the world had no room.  God indeed makes a home for us.  Sometimes it’s in a packed cathedral with a candle pointing us beyond what we know.  And sometimes God comes to us when we are alone, perhaps when we wish we could be somewhere else, perhaps when there is no room, and makes a home in us.  That is the mystery of God.  But you have to make room.     

If indeed we love the Lord with all our hearts, minds, and strength, we are going to have to stretch our hearts, open our minds, and strengthen our souls, whether our years are three score and ten or not yet twenty.  God cannot lodge in a narrow mind.  God cannot lodge in a small heart.  To accommodate God, they must be palatial. William Sloane Coffin

Grace and Peace,


One thought on “Transcendence and Immanence

  1. Again I enjoyed today’s guidance toward the birth of Jesus in a manger: a truly revolutionary moment when God became both body and spirit.
    Yours in Christ,

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