I invite you to think about the holy places in your life. The places where God seems to dwell. Where you sense some spiritual essence or presence. Throughout time, people have found it significant to know these places in the natural landscape, and later through constructed buildings. The books of Genesis & Exodus tells us that when people found holy places in the landscape, they built stone altars there, Ebenezers, to remind themselves that God was with them – God was their stone of help. In the journey out of slavery in Egypt, they established a moveable temple, the tent of meeting or Tabernacle, and had the sense that God journeyed with them in pillar of fire by night & cloud by day.
How important is the structure of the building we call church? All of the buildings I have called my church home still exist as church, but I know a few people who used to worship in church buildings or congregations that no longer exist. I remember one Annual Conference held at UPS 10 years ago. That year, we held the Memorial Service at Tacoma 1st UMC because it would be the last time Annual Conference would ever be able to worship there-for Tacoma 1st sold their historic building to Tacoma General Hospital. It’s interesting because this past Friday night, I visited Helen Engle at TG in the ER – I asked Gretchen to remind me where the old church was. She grinned and said, “You’re in it. You’re in the old church.” The new ER now exists where the historic church was. Healing/hospice….
Where does God live/dwell? While the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, the Ark of the Covenant accompanied them, a mobile experience of God’s presence. They believed that God was also up on Mt. Sinai with Moses, and we have this sense that God is with us as well. No place on earth or the heavens are able to contain God, but we still need sacred places as reminders to worship God.
This passage highlights a historic moment in Jewish history: the procession of bringing the Ark of the Covenant into the new Temple built by Solomon. The Philistines, during their long wars with Israel, had captured the ark, but ultimately returned it when they were plagued by its presence among them.
When all is ready, the Ark of the Covenant is installed in the innermost sanctuary, under the wings of the cherubim, carved of olivewood and covered with gold. As soon as the priests place the Ark in the Holy of Holies, a cloud descends and fills the Temple as a sign of the LORD’s presence.
They recognize it as the same cloud that led the Israelites out of Egypt; the cloud that descended on Mt Sinai when God made a covenant with them and gave them the Law; the same cloud that settled on the Tabernacle, that movable sanctuary, to show God’s presence with the people throughout their wilderness wanderings. The passage reminds them of how God is present with God’s people throughout Scripture–in cloud, in fire, at Mt Sinai, in the Tabernacle, and in the Temple.
In his prayer, Solomon asks a rhetorical question about how God could dwell in such a small place as the Temple in comparison to the vastness of heaven, which itself cannot contain God. Solomon offers the answer in v29. “God said, ‘my name shall be there.’” The Temple becomes a sacred and holy place because it is where God’s name resides. Recognizing that God could neither be defined nor confined by language or constructs. God cannot be contained or limited by space or time, but if God’s name is there, then God will be there. The temple became a symbol of the presence of God with the people. But God’s dwelling place is more than a temple, no matter how glorious our human-built spaces are.
After offering a prayer of nepotism for God to promise to keep the line of David on the throne, Solomon asks God to look on the Temple day & night. He prays that God would hear the people when they pray toward this place even though God’s eternal home is beyond a physical place where enemies could attack or natural disaster strike.
Solomon offers a series of petitions for when they sin against a neighbor, when they suffer defeat, when there is drought, when there is famine and when they go to battle. Solomon prays to an all-embracing God who includes stranger as well as friend. Solomon prays that even the imigrant (CEB) who prays toward this place will be heard. What would the world look like, if we prayed that God would hear the prayers even of strangers and immigrants, or those of other faiths? We might find ourselves transformed by such an orientation of the heart. In these days of xenophobia and government-sanctioned traumatization of immigrant children, we need to hear and respond to these words of inclusion. There is a sense that God’s care includes the the foreigner.
The prayer finishes with a longer petition asking that even WHEN the Lord’s people are carried away captive to foreign lands that if they repent and pray toward the temple the Lord will hear them and grant them compassion. It is a reminder of the Exodus from the past, as well as a foreshadowing of being taken into Babylonian exile in the future. It is a prayer that reminds the people that God would continue to hear their prayers – temple or no temple.
We should recognize that this passage was written in the days of the Babylonian exile, long after the dedication of the Temple, after the division of the northern & southern kingdoms, when the throne sat empty. The Temple lasted 3oo-plus years, before being desecrated in 586 BCE by the Babylonians. Its destruction led to a spiritual crisis in Israel – a time when they needed this prayer that God is beyond any human made construct of buildings or language. When it was destroyed, this prayer affirmed that God would still be present with and attentive to God’s people.
But there was also struggle & tension & questions with why things went wrong. What had happened to the promises of God, to Abraham & Moses, to Solomon & David, assuring them of a bright future? Solomon’s prayer contains language of what went wrong: God promised, Solomon said, that there would be successors to David on the throne “IF only your children walk before me as you have walked before me”. Except that King Saul, King David & King Solomon, and down through the lineage – we are told – each anointed by God, each had their gifts & talents, yet each of them succumbed to the privilege & power given to them.
Is there such a thing as divine retribution? Can a nation or its leaders bring on its downfall? Did God/does God punish a nation or a people for straying from “the right path”? Given this text was written in light of the destruction of the Temple, imagine ancient Israel reconciling their history & their current situation with their story as a people who had faith in a God who accompanied them regardless. One enduring aspect of faith is this returning/repenting/coming back to the heart of God – to worship.
So – where does God live? What does a church building represent to you? Is it your spiritual home, or God’s home, or both? What makes a space sacred? When we sit in worship, we can sometimes become aware of those who came long before us in the faith – the struggle, the mistakes, the celebrations, the brokenness, the healing. Sometimes, you can almost sense God’s presence in worship, places hallowed by use, by those who came before, who built & maintained, who lifted praise & prayer & song to God. You can inhale the faith of generations- that great cloud of witnesses whose generosity & faithfulness left us this great legacy.
We continue to gather in prayer, as the assembly of Israel did so long ago, and petition and praise God “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs for the courts of the Lord; my heart sings for joy to the living God. AND continually ask in humility for God to lead us.
How lovely is your dwelling place, O God of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of God;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young, at your altars,
O God of hosts, my Ruler and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.
Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the valley make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.
O Sovereign God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob!
Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed.
For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.
For the Sovereign God is a sun and shield; God bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does God withhold from those who walk uprightly.
O God of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.
1 Kings 8:(1, 6, 10-11), 22-30, 41-43.
Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the Israelites, before King Solomon in Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of the city of David, which is Zion. 6Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the Lord to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim. 10And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.
22Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven. He said, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart, the covenant that you kept for your servant my father David as you declared to him; you promised with your mouth and have this day fulfilled with your hand.
27 But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! Regard your servant’s prayer and his plea, O Lord my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place. Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.
41Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name — for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm — when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.”