Sermon, October 29th, 2017 “A place for God to dwell in forever…really?” I Kings 5 vs. 1-15 and 8 vs. 1-13
The kings play a very important role in the stories of the Hebrew people because it was through the kings that they began to define themselves as a nation politically. They became a united Kingdom able at times to defend their borders while at other times losing wars and becoming captives of their conquerors. It was important in their history that they have a place where they could look to as theirs geographically but equally important that such a place inform and influence their imagination for those times they were absent. Politically, spiritually, emotionally then Jerusalem became home and it was in this home that they would build a temple suitable for their God. The temple was the end of their journey through the wilderness. God did not want a temple on earth and had resisted the cries of God’s people to even give them a king but eventually God had relented. It fell to Solomon to build the temple which he was able to do during a time of prosperity and peace. By all accounts it was a very impressive temple and would, in many ways, define Solomon’s leadership.
Yet peace did not last forever and soon King Nebuchadnezzar would invade and, in what so often happens during times of war, he destroyed the Temple. The destruction was complete but the people would live with the memory of where God figuratively had dwelt. One of the strange contradictions to be found in our reading is that Solomon builds a temple to which they bring the Ark of the Covenant, which had been protected by a tent up to this point. Solomon placed the Ark, which contained the two tablets God had given Moses on the mountain, and once the Ark is completely ensconced in the holiest of holy parts of the temple Solomon says: I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.” Really? Remember the temple was not God’s idea. God was content that the Ark of the Covenant should travel with God’s people wherever events might lead them. Perhaps that is why the temple was filled with a cloud after the Ark had been placed in the holy of holies…God’s divine freedom would always overrule whatever God’s people might wish to do in order to house, confine, or even control God—even if it was, as in this case it seems, something done with the best of intentions. For the people the temple, and subsequent second temple and places of worship ever since provide, writes Walter Brueggemann: “for the glory of Yahweh to be in the midst of Israel. The temple tradition, both in Solomon’s temple and in the Second Temple, assures that Yahweh’s presence is palpably available to Israel…for the God of Israel is known to be present in an environment of physical, visible loveliness.”
Eventually the Hebrew people returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple and no doubt much of the city. This was the temple that existed during Jesus time and it was the curtain in front of the holy of holies that was torn in half on Good Friday as Jesus died on the cross. This second temple was destroyed just a few years later in 70 AD and has never been rebuilt. Physical spaces are important for humans but not for God. What we learn from the stories of Saul, David and Solomon is that people matter to God. God is able to take even wrong choices and wrongdoing into the ongoing journey of God’s people. Even if that journey leads to the death and destruction of God’s own Son, yet we claim resurrection. The destruction of a temple, a death on the cross, and all of the millions of wrong choices and wrongdoings, including yours and mine, over the millennia have never been able to break the Covenant God has with all God’s people. We still carry God, as if in an Ark, in all that we do in our journey today. Nothing we, nor anyone else, can do destroys the love which God has for God’s people as represented in that Covenant.
For the four and a half years that I worked in New York City I lived within walking distance of the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine. In fact I worshipped in that Cathedral 17 years ago tonight at the All Hallows Eve service. It is a truly beautiful cathedral, and I have seen a good many cathedrals throughout the world. What I found most interesting about St John’s is that in addition to all of the many ways that they serve the community they are very deliberate in stating that their cathedral will never be finished. To ensure that they have the skilled stoneworkers, carpenters, and glass cutters necessary to continue the ongoing construction they have set up a trades school within the cathedral itself. God is not kept hidden away but is made known through the love found in their food kitchen and other community services but also in the training of young men and women in a craft that will see them employed for life. St. John’s has this sense that they are building for the future, unknown and at times uncertain, but always something which grows from their previous history and experience of being God’s people in that place. Loreen and I expect to visit the cathedral in Barcelona, Spain on January 4th, if the politics of Spain make such a visit a sensible thing to do at that time, where we understand that that cathedral also remains unfinished, again with a sense of equipping artisans to build for the future.
Our beautiful worship space is not quite on the same scale as Solomon’s Temple, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, nor of Barcelona’s Cathedral, but we too have a beautiful space in which to worship God. We know God in our day and time as our companion on our journey. It is this sense of God with us that allows us to approach life, and death, with a confident vision of a future with God. Buildings are destroyed, partially damaged, rebuilt, and perhaps never finished in the first place. The beauty of the physical surroundings, however, reflect the experience of those who work to build and maintain them and who find in them a familiar place to worship God in community with friends and neighbours. Whether we are in this building, or whether we are away from this building, it is the memories of what we do here that we cherish so deeply.
So too, on this All Saints Sunday, we recall the memories of this place, and others like it that have featured in our lives, as we remember those who have walked with God on God’s common journey with God’s people in our lifetime. We remember those who have made the Church great and those who have made life good such as people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., each murdered for their witness to God’s love for all God’s people. We also recall those who simply made a difference as they cared for us, walked with us, sang for us, laughed with us, studied with us, and prayed with us…the family members who blessed us and challenged us alike. All Saints is not a time to pretend that every one, ourselves included, lives a solely pure and Christ-like life, even if we try. It is a time to recall that in life, in death, and in life after life, we are not alone, we live in God’s world. The Spirit of God is with us always and as we remember today family and friends who have died we do so with profound gratitude that they have been part of our journey. Our journey with each other and God is always a journey with a future. Later in the service we will sing these words:
For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
all who by faith before the world confessed,
your name, O Jesus, be forever blest.