This summer, the stories of David are part of the Old Testament lectionary readings and for the past two weeks, the stories of David and the Ark of the Covenant have been central to my preaching. Two of the David stories found in 2 Samuel are stories that remind us that in addition to being a king over Israel, David was a man who was deeply and profoundly in love with God. We know this through several different passages in the Bible, but none more intensely than David’s own poetry, beautiful images that expressed his faith, preserved in many of the psalms:
Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,
your judgments are like the great deep;
you save humans and animals alike, O Lord.
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light we see light. (Psalm 36:5-9)
David’s love for God was so exuberant at times, feelings of love so deep that they spilled out in words and actions because they could not be contained.
For David and the Hebrew people, the Ark of the Covenant was the supreme symbol of God’s presence among them. Biblical accounts place the building of the Ark of the Covenant while the Hebrew people wandered in the wilderness for a generation, after the Exodus from Egypt. It was a gold-plated box that held the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, Aaron’s rod, and a pot of manna. In many ways, the Ark was thought of as the Throne of God and as long as the Ark was with the people, so was God.
As I was learning the Old Testament stories as a child, I was intrigued by one in particular. There came a time in David’s life when he was settled into a residence fit for a king. He had everything that he needed. He had the respect and love of the people. And as he was talking to the prophet Nathan one day, David declared that he needed to build a place for God to live—for the Ark of the Covenant to be housed.
At first Nathan approved of David’s idea, but God came to Nathan and gave him a message to tell David. God proclaimed that all the time that God was traveling with the Hebrew people—through the years wandering in the wilderness, through the times that God went before the Hebrew armies, through the times of David’s rejoicing as he brought the Ark of the Covenant out of the hands of the Philistines and in a roundabout way back to the people—God had never asked for a better place to be. The tent prepared for the Ark of the Covenant was always placed in the middle of the people and so the people always knew that God was in the midst of them.
There would come a time when the people would need a place to gather in worship, but that moment had not yet come, and the temple constructed for that purpose would be a temple built for God’s name, not to house God. There was a need for God’s presence to be in the midst of the people—to be the stronghold of the people. It was where God wanted to be—in the midst, in the center, in the very presence of God’s people.
And throughout the ages, that desire of God has continued to stand. God wants to be in the midst of the people, in the presence of the joy and pain, the accomplishments and failures, the hopes and dreams, and anything else that humanity experiences. God wants to be in the midst of us—in the very heart of us– to offer mercy and grace, guidance and wisdom, love and peace.
This desire is clear in the words spoken by the prophet to describe the sign that God would give as love and protection of the people:
Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)
Immanuel is a Hebrew name, meaning “God with us.”
And this name—Immanuel—is one of the names that we call Jesus.
God’s presence in the midst of us was how David experienced God in his life and how David wanted the people to experience God as well. In Psalm 27, his words flow, giving voice to this desire:
The Lord is my light and my salvation—
Whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
Of whom shall I be afraid?
So, what does it mean for us to live with God as the stronghold of our lives? How do we live if God is in the midst of our lives?
Jesus taught about this constantly in his ministry, calling us to live lives that reveal that God is our midst. When we are aware of God in our midst—of God as our center–our lives naturally reflect God’s presence. Our treatment of others is transformed by the presence of God—God who, as David describes in Psalm 145, is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. As we are transformed our actions mirror God’s and we too are gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
In so many ways, our world is in crisis. And it will remain in crisis as long as we refuse to understand that we must work together and treat all of humanity as deserving of basic human rights. It will remain in crisis as long as we use judgements–criteria–that determine whether or not people are treated humanely. It will remain in crisis as long as people of faith forget that it is God’s desire to live in the center of humanity’s lives and to remind us that we are to be transformed by God’s gracious and merciful nature.
May we pay attention to Immanuel, God with us, the stronghold of our lives.
To God alone be Glory!