Part A: Warm-up
- What’s a cathedral? The word comes ultimately from Greek, and means “according to the chair.”
- Whose chair?
- In the spring of 2015 Lorraine and I went on a cathedral tour in Europe. We saw many cathedrals, many of which were very large and very grand. And yet the one that stands out the most in my memory for its simple beauty and significance is Charlemagne’s, in Aachen, Germany.
- It was consecrated in the year 805, making it the oldest cathedral in northern Europe, and was built not only for the ministry of the gospel, but also as the seat of temporal rule – for exercising power over the land, its people, the economy, and the military.
- There’s a piece of art adorning one of the interior walls that makes this clear. It’s a depiction of the great Emperor himself, holding a model of this very church and handing it over to the Virgin Mary. That is probably Charlemagne’s version of what transpired in the year 800, when Pope Leo III crowned him “Emperor of the Romans.”
- And lest there be any doubt about who was in charge, the throne that Charlemagne erected for himself is located right in the cathedral. It sits on a mezzanine floor, high above the chancel, looking down upon the altar. It’s the highest chair in the building.
- Today a cathedral is signifies the Bishop’s chair.
Part B: Pulpit
A house for God.
Building a house for God sounds like quite a noble idea – quite a spiritual thing to do. And who better to do it than King David, the most revered and honoured of all the kings of God’s people?
He started out life as a shepherd boy, a role which was typically given the youngest in the family. One day, the prophet Samuel, commissioned by God, visited the home of Jesse, and – to the surprise of everyone – passed over all Jesse’s older sons and instead anointed the youngest, David, as the next king of God’s people.
That was the beginning … and it was a conflicted beginning, for at the time Saul was the king, likewise anointed by Samuel at God’s command.
We all know about David’s famous battle with Goliath. With a sling, a few smooth stones, and mostly because of God’s help he slew the giant and dispatched the Philistine forces. All the people knew about this, too, and they idolized him for it. That provoked jealousy in King Saul.
We also know about his skill with verse and music, which at one and the same time endeared David to the King even as it created further resentment. One time, when David was making music to soothe the King, in a sudden fit of rage Saul threw a spear in an attempt to rid himself of this holy-anointed irritant.
When King Saul finally fell in war, David became King of Judah. And then, by exercising his military skills and shrewdly calculating the angles, David also became king of the northern kingdom, Israel.
Once he established his capital city, Jerusalem, and after he brought to his capital the Ark of the Covenant (the religious artefact revered by the tribes of Israel), then David resolved to do what kings and queens typically do when they want to consolidate their power: build a temple.
No doubt some of his motives were sincere: to provide a facility for the worship of God and the ministry of the Gospel. But there were additional motives. Study history and you’ll see this time and again. Once queens and kings have established themselves on their thrones, then they will seek to nationalize religion in order to gain even more control over the people.
So, in some ways, David was not unique. He behaved like any other monarch throughout history.
But David was also God's Anointed. Through the prophet, Samuel, God had chosen David from among all others to lead God’s people. David certainly was a man with praise-worthy gifts and abilities, together with frailties and base shortcomings. But above all he was God's anointed. He was the man of God's own choosing.
Not surprising, then, that King David consulted Nathan, the prophet who had succeeded Samuel, to inform him of his intentions to build for God a house befitting a king. At first Nathan gave his blessing to the venture, but then God spoke to Nathan in the night. God informed him that God would build the house.
Oh, that clever God! God was making a play on words. The house that David was speaking of would be constructed with the building materials common to that time and place: stone, mortar, and wooden beams Of course, David intended to make it very sumptuous, panelling the interior with cedar and decorating it with precious metals. But in any case, the house he had in mind was a building, in the familiar sense.
God replied, “I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and 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.
“Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he a son to me.”
The house that God is talking about is completely different from what David had in mind.
David thought he could nationalize religion and domesticate God. David thought he could package God into four walls, and put a ceiling on top of heavenly glory. But the God of glory cannot be contained within human habitations or even within human ideas. Besides this, God wanted to demonstrate something to David and to everyone who reads or hears the story: God must do it all.
God promised something to David that he could not possibly have pulled off by himself: God would establish David's dynasty forever. There would always be a descendant of David upon the throne, so that God’s people could live in security and peace.
So much for David's desire to build a house for God! Instead, God gave David a house of God’s own design: a promise. David would have engaged the services of architects and designers to draw up plans – plans that would have conveyed both the grand vision as well as the finest details. But God’s design for David’s house of David is both grander and simpler: a promise.
David’s dynasty did last a long time, about 430 years. But then the trunk of the Tree of Jesse was cut off in 586 BC, when the Babylonians finally succeeded in taking Jerusalem and destroying the Temple and bringing the House of David to an end.
So, what about that divine promise – that David’s “house” (or dynasty) would last forever?
When the time was right, a carpenter named Joseph – a descendant of David – named his firstborn son, thus legally adopting him. The baby wasn't his, but he named him anyway, according to the word that God had spoken to him. The name he gave the child was Jesus. His name means, “God's salvation.”
Jesus is the son of David by adoption. Jesus is the Son of God by the mysterious workings of the Spirit. Jesus embodies God's unwillingness to be boxed into human habitations, human definitions, and human expectations. And at the same time Jesus is the embodiment of God’s promise of mercy.
You know, outside of a divine promise, God is unsettling. When we read our Bibles carefully and thoughtfully, we see that there are times when God seems to act whimsically, unpredictably, and unreliably. It’s easy to get the feeling that you’re not quite sure what you've got. Except when God speaks a promise.
And what we get in Jesus is the incarnation or embodiment of the promise. We get Jesus Christ, the enfleshed promise that walks and talks and heals and raises from the dead. In Christ, God is utterly resolute and single-minded: God's saving grace is on the loose.
That’s why people were healed when they simply touched the fringe of his cloak: Jesus was filled to overflowing with God’s promise of new life.
God’s purpose in Jesus Christ is to build the kind of house that God really wants. Jesus is the cornerstone of this new house, and we too – with our flesh and bone and the gifts of the Spirit – we are part of the structure.
King David had intended to build for God a house of stone, mortar, and fragrant cedar in order to help consolidate his reign. God said, No. Rather, God would build David a house built upon the foundation of God's promise. And now, through Jesus, God is building a house of divine mercy, with you and me as the building materials.
For God has taken you and me and recreated us to be living stones with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Here is the house that God builds, so that together we may be God’s house of mercy.
Let us take up life together for the sake of faith, life, and the peace that only God can give.