The God of Camping Trips
Carolyn and I usually go camping when we go on vacation. We actually met on a camping trip organized by some mutual friends of ours. But I have to be honest, after about 3 nights of sleeping in a tent, I’m so ready to get back to sleeping in a house in a proper bed. Living in the great outdoors isn’t something I have any ambition to do in the long term. So I can understand why David thinks that God should move from tent-dwelling (the tabernacle) to living in a temple. If David enjoys living in a grand palace, he reasons, then it’s just not right that God should live in a tent. So In 2 Samuel 7, David decides, now that he’s living in a palace, that its time God had a palace of his own. He tells the prophet Nathan that that’s what he wants to do. But God has other plans.
After the king was settled in his palace and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, he said to Nathan the prophet, “Here I am, living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent.”
Nathan replied to the king, “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the Lord is with you.”
But that night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, saying:
“Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord says: Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?
If you know the story, you know that God says that David can’t build the temple but that he will have a son who is a man of peace (Solomon’s name is derived from the Hebrew word for peace) who will build it. But it’s clear here, that God’s not asking for a temple. He’s only entertaining the idea of a throne as an accommodation to David, not as his perfect will. David sees that the gods of the nations around him all have temples. He also is keenly aware that he’s got a nicer place to live than God is currently enjoying, and so he feels guilty. So to David, building a temple seems like the right thing to do. God accepts David’s desire to build the temple as an act of devotion, but he also demonstrates some reluctance because, I think, he knows that the vision of the tent-dwelling God is one we need to get our minds around.
Of course, we can see this because we have hindsight, and, more importantly, the revelation of who God in the New Testament scriptures. In the opening of John’s Gospel, we see God’s preference for tents. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” The original Greek word for ‘made his dwelling’ could be translated ‘pitched his tent’. Jesus is, metaphorically speaking, a new Tabernacle. God spent the early part of his story with Israel in a tent made of skin (the tabernacle was made of leather). When God shows up again, he doesn’t show up in the temple, he shows up in a metaphorical tent, a humble and unassuming man, Jesus of Nazareth. So in the New Testament story, God is back in tents.
A GOD ON THE MOVE
A GOD ON THE MOVE
But let’s go back to the beginning of the story to understand. After what amounts to the prologue of Genesis 1-11. God shows up in the story when he calls Abraham and his family to go on the move. He brings Abraham to the Land of Canaan where Abraham lives out his days in tents. Same goes for his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob. The family moves to Egypt to escape a famine and settles in the land. 400ish years later, after a terrible enslavement (in which, I would point out, they live in houses) by the Egyptians, the Israelites are freed by God and called on a 40-year journey to the promised land. This journey is intense. Er… in tents. While they’re enroute they stop at Mount Sinai and establish the covenant with God. The symbol of that covenant is the Tent of Meeting (or Tabernacle), God’s aforementioned tent. God’s people are on the move, and God is right there on the move with them. When the people come into the promised land and get homes and settle down, God still requires them to spend a week each year camping out to remind them of their wilderness wanderings (the Festival of Booths). So God lives in a tent, and he wants his people to remember that they are tent dwellers, even if, for practical purposes, they’ve settled down in villages. God wants the people to remember that when Israel is forged as a nation on the plains around Mount Sinai, they are a people on the move. And he lives right there with them as a God on the move.
David’s temple seeks to clothe God in glory and splendor. But I get the sense that it’s not the kind of glory or splendor he’s after. He doesn’t want a fancy temple. He wants people whose lives reflect the things that are important to him. Love, justice, mercy. Micah the prophet puts it so well when he reflects on God’s greatest hopes for his people:
With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
What Micah is saying is that the whole sacrificial system, of which the temple was a part, is a means to an end. God’s great hope isn’t for people who offer glorious sacrifices, but for people who reflect justice, mercy and love. God’s glory is his people, when they live this way.
THE CHURCH ON THE MOVE
THE CHURCH ON THE MOVE
As the church, we’ve had our own experience of trying to move God from the tent to the temple. The early church lived a radical life together under the constant threat of violence from local authorities or from the Roman Empire. For three hundred years the church lived in this space, and, contrary to reasonable expectations, it flourished. But the Roman Empire legalized Christianity in 312 AD and in 380 it made it the official religion of the Empire. The church went from being an insurgency of God’s kingdom working to subvert the evil empire to being an arm of that empire, that now tried to dress itself up in piety. Thus was born Christendom. The time when the Church enjoyed a special and symbiotic relationship with the state. In our own country, that arrangement only began to crumble about sixty years ago (I’m using the onset of the Quiet Revolution to mark the beginning of the end of Christendom in Canada).
Just as God’s purposes weren’t stopped by moving into a temple, so the church continued to function when it was taken indoors and established as the official religion of the Empire and the cultures that rose out of Christendom. God accommodates us and keeps working even when we don’t perfectly embody his will. Yet at the same time, I think God intends his church to live and work from a place of weakness, not strength. When the church is in power, the church, not its God receives the praise for the good things that happen (If good things happen). When the church operates from a place of powerlessness, then its successes are more clearly seen as God’s successes, not the church’s.
In these last sixty years the church has become increasingly separated from its former position of power and privilege. Fewer people go to church now then in past generations. Our public life isn’t shaped by the values taught by the church. Christians are viewed with more suspicion than they used to be. We can come to the conclusion that God isn’t with us, or that we’re losing. I don’t think that’s what’s going on at all. I think the time has come for us to move out of our temple, the four walls of a church building, and move into a tent. To do life in the places where people are. God is moving us from the centre of public life to its periphery because it’s from the margins that we can most clearly demonstrate his power to change lives.
Now for the record, I’m glad we have this building. I’m not advocating we get rid of it to start having our services in a tent. In -30 degree temperatures, that doesn’t seem like something we’d be better off doing. What I am saying is that if the church sees its worship as the things we do inside these walls on Sunday morning, then we’re going to become increasingly irrelevant. These services are about support, encouragement and building each other up so that we can be a people on the move, being ambassadors of God’s kingdom in our community. We’re all supposed to be missionaries.
God was present in a tent of flesh in the middle of a lost and broken community (read the stories in Exodus and Numbers and you get a sense of just how lost and broken they are). Now Jesus is present in tents of flesh (that’s us!) in a community of lost and broken people. Just as God called the Israelites to lives of love, justice, mercy and faithfulness, so we are to live out lives of justice, mercy and faithfulness, as an embodiment of God’s heart that serves as an invitation to the people around to join our numbers. Our job isn’t to wag our fingers are sinners and say tsk, tsk. Instead, we need to show them what love, justice, mercy and faithfulness look like. We are tabernacles, both as a congregational community and as individual believers, whose lives of faithfulness demonstrate God’s ability to save and change and whose lives implicitly invite others to come, to be saved and to be changed by this tent-dwelling God.
But just like camping for a long time isn’t comfortable, so being a tent-dwelling people isn’t a comfortable experience. It fills our lives with uncertainties. It calls us to set aside our own agenda to follow God’s. It calls us into relationships with people we’d rather not relate to. But out there we get to see God at work, and we get to join him in his work of reconciling creation to himself and to each other. So make a point of being where people are (the more lost, broken and hurting the better) so that you can be a place of meeting between the God who dwells in your tent and the people who desperately need to meet this tent-dwelling God. Maybe this involves volunteering to help with the Praise Cafe. Maybe it means volunteering to babysit your neighbours kids when they’re going through a rough patch. We’ll soon be asking people to volunteer to help lead Celebrate Recovery. Just remember greater obedience is going to involve walking into an experience that strikes you has hard or uncomfortable (if it weren’t so, I’m confident you’d already be doing it). But remember that God is a God of camping trips. If you want to be where he is you need to come along. Where is he asking you to pitch your tent?
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION
Am I comfortable with church being a Sunday morning experience? Or do I long to reach out to those outside the church’s walls?
Why does God seem to prefer tent-dwelling to temple dwelling?
What places do I know of where lost and broken people are in this community? What opportunities are there to reach out to them in God’s love?