Harrowing Of Hell
December 24, 2023

The House of God

Susan Pitchford, Lay Preacher

To watch the sermon click here.

When I was a graduate student, I lived in an apartment about a mile north of the UW. It was in a large, ramshackle old house that was bulldozed years ago and replaced by a civilized apartment building. One morning, as I was sitting in bed reading for my major exam, with papers on my knee, my two cats asleep around me, my coffee on a tray by my side…the ceiling above me caved in. Down came chunks of whatever ceilings are made of, along with a couple of giant Northwest spiders—you know, the kind with hairy chests and rippling muscles. I screamed and leaped out of bed, with papers flying, coffee all over the walls, my cats levitated, and the spiders were probably terrified. 

Later (much later), my landlord fixed the ceiling, but left a gap on one side of the light fixture. Convinced one evening that my upstairs neighbors had acquired a couple of small dogs and gone out for the evening to let them do laps around their apartment, I finally got fed up and took a broomstick to the ceiling. And through the gap there poked a long, whiskered nose and some big yellow teeth. And I praised God (I was an atheist at the time) that the gap wasn’t big enough for that monster to get through. 

So, all these years later, my husband and I remember that apartment as “The Rat Hole,” and when I eventually moved in with him in a nice little split-level on Beacon Hill, he said: “Welcome back to the middle class.” Now we live in a lovely house in Mt. Baker, which is embarrassingly large for two people. When delivery folks come to the door and comment on this, we’ve taken to saying: “It’s not that big, it’s just tall.”

Houses. They can be decrepit and frightening–the Rat Hole was so easy to break into that I did it several times myself, so I wasn’t really surprised when someone else did–or they can be so beautiful and comfortable it’s embarrassing. I do carry some guilt when other people live in rat holes now, or tents, or shelters, or no housing at all, perhaps surrounded by rubble.

King David was feeling kind of guilty, too. Here he had a nice house–built of cedar–and the Lord was still being carried around in a tent. I can relate! The contrast struck David as kind of unseemly, so he figured he’d better get busy and build God a proper house, and Nathan the prophet agreed. At first.

But it turns out that even prophets can get it wrong on the first try, and so God has to set Nathan straight: “Did I ask for a house? Do you think I need a house?” Much later Stephen, the first Christian martyr, will give us a key to this:

The Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands; as the prophet says, ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?” (Acts 7:48-50)

So God tells David, through Nathan, “It’s not your job to build me a house. In fact, I’m going to build you a house:”

The Lord will make you a house… Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever. (2 Sam 7:11, 16)

So God is subtly changing the meaning of a “house,” from a Temple where God’s presence can be focused, to a dynasty, the “House” of David, that will be established forever. 

And then a lot of bad things happen. A Temple is built (by David’s son Solomon), the Temple is destroyed by the Babylonians, another Temple is built which will ultimately be destroyed by the Romans, but before that the Temple system becomes corrupt, and as far back as Ezekiel (10:18) we hear that the glory of God has left the Temple. It doesn’t seem like people’s efforts to provide God with a house are very successful. 

But through all of this, God has not forgotten the promise to build David a different kind of “house,” a throne that will last forever. So right away we know this is no ordinary house, no ordinary dynasty. Because human thrones don’t last forever, and indeed, David’s throne goes unoccupied for a long, long time. But when the time is right and God, in Jesus, decides to come and dwell among humans, he will choose a house, and that “house” will be the body of a young, unmarried, small town girl, barely a woman. In a worldly sense, she’s so powerless: she can’t be sure this whole thing isn’t going to cost her her marriage, or even her life. But she’s powerful enough to say to God in spite of all that, “Let it be. I’ll take you in. I have just the space for You.”

Now, in one sense, Mary is unique: she was the first human being to know Jesus, the first to love him. She had a relationship with him that none of us can replicate. In the Incarnation, when God chose to take on a body, Mary housed God in her own body. I can’t begin to imagine what that was like. I can’t even imagine an ordinary pregnancy–it must blow your mind–and this was no ordinary pregnancy. The angel had told her, “The child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” 

So Mary gave God a nine month lease, but it goes even deeper than that. Mary gave God room in her body, yes, but also in her heart and in her whole being. This is where we can follow her. Two weeks ago, Doyt talked about how we can be the “house into which we go to engage God.” A house. He quoted first St. Augustine, who said that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Then Doyt quoted Thomas Merton, who talked about the “virgin point” within us. (If you don’t like the “virgin” language, you could call it the “Eden Point,” the place where innocence has not been lost.) This is the place “untouched by sin and by illusion,” Merton said, “a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God.” Doyt said that within the “cavernous deep of our selves,” we are the “house” where we “engage God.” 

I think this place within us, this still point that Merton was describing, is just that: just as the Temple once was, it’s a place where God’s glory abides, where we go to encounter God, to commune with God. God waits for us there; to use a really old concept, God is always “at home” to us, always ready to meet us.

This is, again, a different take on “house.” First it’s a Temple, then a dynasty, then Mary, and now it’s each one of us. That’s why St. Paul would write to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16) The word “contemplation” contains the word “temple,” so when we pray, it’s to this inner temple that we go.

And when we encounter God in this deepest place of communion, what do we find? I think I know: It’s all the things we long for at that deepest level. Advent is the season that honors our longing, and we’ve been naming those things our hearts long for: Hope. Love. Joy. And today, Peace. And subsumed under those are other things we long for: justice, healing, and all the rest. That’s why Jesus kept telling people, “The kingdom of God is within you.” 

And now we must ask the ultimate theological question: “So what?” How does this change anything? Is it just a little private spiritual joyride that makes us feel good but is of no use to anyone else?

First, God doesn’t take people on spiritual joyrides for their own entertainment. In the scriptures, every time someone has a powerful encounter with God, they’re sent on a mission. Think of Moses at the burning bush, or Saul on the road to Damascus. The pattern is the same: big, exciting vision precedes call to huge, scary mission. 

But for those of us who aren’t Moses or St. Paul, I believe that every time we go to that place of encounter with God, we are changed by it. It’s interesting: In John’s gospel we hear Jesus saying “I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12) But in the Sermon on the Mount, he tells his listeners, “You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14) I think it’s in those encounters–as well as in worship, in serving others, and the rest of the spiritual life–that we get close enough to the divine light to take a little of it on ourselves. And then we become–in very practical ways–the hope, love, joy, and peace the world needs, and longs for. 

So this Christmas season, as we celebrate the culmination of the House of David in Christ, the housing of Jesus in Mary’s body and soul, let’s not forget that we, too, are the house of God, the temple where God’s Holy Spirit dwells. And as we do all our Christmassy things, let’s let all the stars and twinkly lights serve as a reminder of our call to be the house of God, and the light of the world.