A place to be forever
What a sad procession. The king – the king! – flees from his throne and his capital. He can’t move quickly enough to abandon his throne. He has the noblest of motives, of course, to spare the city bloodshed. He wishes, in effect, to declare Jerusalem an open city. So, even in this way, he protects and defends his people.
As this group – is mob the right word? – exits the city, some priests bring the Ark of the Covenant. They carry that box that holds Moses’ stone tablets, Aaron’s budding staff, and some jars of manna from the wandering in the desert. They carry the box crafted by Moses’ artisans at God’s command that sits in the holy place in the Tabernacle, that sits at the center of the worship of the true God. Between the two angels carved on its cover God appears. This box, this ark, doesn’t melt faces a la Indiana Jones, but it assures Israel that God is with them, God their faithful god.
And the king, David, tells the priests to turn it around. What hard words those must have been for him to speak. How easy to bring the ark with him, to “bring” God with him, so to speak, if not in reality, at least symbolically to the rest of the nation. And to that traitor trying to steal his throne, his own dear son, Absalom.
So they trudge on. David, some of his servants, and some of the people. They trudge on into exile and leave the capital, the tabernacle, and the ark to the usurper. David can only hope to return. He says, “If I find favor in the LORD’s eyes, he will bring me back and let me see it and his dwelling place again. But if he says, ‘I am not pleased with you,’ then I am ready; let him do to me whatever seems good to him.”
So David marched on into exile leaving the field, the kingdom, to Absalom. What a dark and doleful day. We’re tempted to think of this as happening at night. That’s when people sneak away. Or during a rain storm, because muddy, mucky weather is only appropriate for such a trip, a slog, a depressing death march into the unknown. But for all we know it was a clear, beautiful, sunny day. The kind of day that you live for. For David, one of the worst of times; for Absalom, who sat upon the still warm throne, one of the best of times.
He seemed to have it all in charge. The city was his. The ark was his. He had the Tabernacle, that pre-temple home of God among Israel. He had the high priests. He had some of David’s chief counselors. He had much of the nation beside him after years of cultivating their favor. And he had his father, God’s chosen king, on the run. And soon he would have an army advancing, surrounding him, attacking him, besieging him.
It must have seemed to David, and in reality it was true, that almost everyone had turned on him. “Though my father and mother forsake me,” David writes in our psalm. “False witnesses rise up against me.” “Evil men advance against me to devour my flesh.” Enemies and foes attack. Armies besiege. War breaks out against him. Had perhaps David’s parents – Absalom’s grandparents – sided with the rebeller? Maybe. If so, all seems lost. Perhaps all is lost. David admits as much: I don’t know where I’m going and I don’t know if I’ll be back.
The list of things for which David could, and we might say, should, ask, seems infinite. Yet, it’s this: “One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple. For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle and set me high upon a rock.”
No request for Absalom’s defeat. No prayer for the throne. Or vengeance against his enemies (though other psalms make mention of such things, to be sure). In this psalm, David simply assumes all those things will work out well. Who can scare me, who can cause me to tremble, he asks? I have the LORD, my light, my salvation, the stronghold and refuge of my life. My enemies “will stumble and fall.” Even if/when mom and dad abandon me, “the LORD will receive me.” “I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.” And so, David concludes, “Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.” David exudes patience. Either because he remembers Nathan’s promise, “Your son will sit on this throne forever,” or because he knows the Lord this well and anticipates Paul, “In all things God works for the good of those who love him.” So he can run and wait, as he has done for so much of his life. From Goliath to Saul and his armies, from enemies on every side to enemies within, David has dealt with instability, both as king in waiting and as king being conspired against. At this point he’s seen so much, that all he has left to plead with the Lord about is: bring me back to your house, o Lord.
What a thought! A thought we rarely think. For us, it seems more like, “Get me out of God’s house as soon as possible!” I’ve got places to go, things to do. The faster I can mumble my ways through my prayers and devotions, the faster we can get this communion line running, the better. The antsy kids (not to mention parents) can barely get through one dumbed-down Jesus story. You know, Sunday School teachers, that you’ve only got so much time before you’d better be doing crafts and snacks. We take, take, take. We treat this place like a fast-food restaurant. And not one we enjoy that much either.
Maybe we’d think differently if we had a little bit less religious liberty, if we had to look upon our place of worship from afar as we hurried out of town, or were forced out by war or religious persecution. But we don’t, and so we take God’s house for granted, and we use it for our own purposes and benefits. It’s the place to get baptized, married, and buried. It’s the place to visit for a confirmation or two and make the obligatory weekly appearance, kind of like visiting grandma in that depressing nursing home, always keeping an eye on the clock and the conversation to a minimum. I’d hate to be dragged into some kind of discussion that causes me to miss something really fun or important.
That’s us taking, treating this like some obligation, some hardship, some required task that I do and cross off and get credit for each week. But it is no such thing. If that’s what God’s house is for you, then you’ve already gone to the devil. He’s already devoured you. You are already gone. Dead. Deceased. Bereft of life.
No, this house is not a place for us to take, but for God to give. David viewed the house of God, God’s dwelling place, as the place where God could hide him in times of trouble: “He will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle and set me high upon a rock.” Here, in this house, we seek the Lord, and find Him, just as Isaiah begs us to do. And we see the Lord in all his beauty. The one thing we need, just as Jesus told Mary and Martha, remember? Recall Martha’s grumbling, “Lord, Mary won’t help me make supper! Tell her to get off her lazy butt!” “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Why does David want to be in the house of the Lord? Because only there, only when he sees the Lord’s beauty, will he be safe, truly safe. And what is the Lord’s beauty? It is that continuous, never ending wish of the Lord: “All this he does that I may be his own.” Our Lord is not a taker either, but a giver. He gives to us, so that we can be his. He gave His Son. That’s why David calls his Lord, “God my Savior.” And also “my salvation.” David knows this of the Lord. He’s written of it time and time again, especially in those days after being caught with Bathsheba. He sang of being a man whose sins are forgiven, covered, and not counted against him, because he knew of a man who takes away the sins of the world, a man who covers himself in our sins, a man who counts our sins against himself, the God-man, Jesus Christ! This is what it is to be in the dwelling place of God, to be where his Holy Spirit does the one work that matters, as the Large Catechism has it: “For we are in the Christian Church, where there is nothing but continuous, uninterrupted forgiveness of sin.” The one thing we cannot take for ourselves; the one thing God graciously gives for the sake of his Son, Jesus Christ.
This isn’t to minimize worldly things. David doesn’t. He speaks confidently. Being confident of this, David writes, of the forgiveness God has to give, David says, “I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.” I will see it. We will see it. The Lord’s goodness. In the land of the living. That’s the promise Christ makes to Peter. Those who follow the Lord will be taken care of in this life, and in the age to come. So, David’s words might be double-edged. Maybe the land of the living is now, but also the land of the resurrection, the new heaven and the new earth, the city without a temple or tabernacle or dwelling place or church, because Jesus, the Lamb is the temple, tabernacle, dwelling place and church and we will be with him and see him as he is.
But until then, we beg God to hide us. To keep us safe. To set us high upon the rock. He is that Rock. Where he is, we are safe. And He promises to be with us, not just generally, in his omnipresence – Lo, I am with you always – but he has more specifically promised to let us gaze upon his beauty in Word and Sacrament. The place where He gives us his beauty, showing us the glorious work of His Son Jesus, God our Savior, the Light of the world, our stronghold, our deliverance, our salvation, the one who puts an end to our fear and trembling, because he conquered sin, he conquered the devil, he conquered hell, he conquered the last enemy to be destroyed, death itself! And he says, in him, our heads our exalted. We can lift up our heads and rejoice, because our redemption is drawing near, the redemption we already have and taste as we dwell in the house of the Lord and receive what He has to give: continuous, uninterrupted forgiveness of our sins, because of Christ, our Rock and our Redeemer, who promises that we will, with David, return to Jerusalem and his house, or, better, he will bring Jerusalem and God’s house to us and announce: “Welcome home forever!” Amen.