Building a house for God

 

Pentecost 13

1 Kings 8

Marian Free

 

In the name of God whose majesty, might and power we cannot comprehend and cannot begin to contain. Amen.

‘Yahweh had been tamed and domesticated. He had been put in his house and told to expect visitors, he was to be available as required. but could you do that to Abraham’s God who always travelled ahead of his people? Could you do that to the terrifying God of Exodus and Sinai, the God who was no one’s puppet? In the years to come there were to be many questions about the Temple. For all its exquisite beauty, for all then hopes and longings of the pilgrims who wound their way up to Jerusalem, there were many who saw the Temple as a danger to the true worship of the Lord. Could a God who had always been on the move be made to stand still?’

One only has to see the footage of the crowds at the ‘wailing wall’ in Jerusalem or to reflect on the tensions that surround the Temple Mount or the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem to understand the place of the Temple in the Jewish imagination. The history of the Temple is filled with drama. It was dreamt of by David, built by Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians, re-built by the Jews, extended by Herod and finally and to this date, irrevocably, destroyed by the Romans. Until its destruction by Rome, the Temple was the centre and the unifying element for the Jewish people. Up until the time of Jesus thousands flocked to Jerusalem for the major religious festivals. Week by week the priests made burnt offerings of behalf of the people.

The Temple was not like our Parish churches, or even our modern Cathedrals. Weekly services of worship were not held in its precincts. Synagogues were the places for meeting and teaching. The Temple was for worship and sacrifice. The worship of our Cathedrals is replicated in our Parish churches which are modeled on their design. In the time of Solomon there were no synagogues and when, after the return from exile, synagogues were established in towns and villages, their purpose was far removed from that of the temple. Nothing and nowhere could achieve the purpose and significance of the Temple.

The original Temple was quite small by our standards. It was not so much a place of worship, but a place in which offerings could be made.  As we can see from the description of the dedication of the Temple, worshippers may have gathered around its walls during the great festivals, but they were not expected to enter in large numbers. The holiest of holies – the place in which the burnt offerings were made – could only be entered by an allotted priest.

Visits to the Vatican and other European cathedrals reveal the sort of generosity that believers pour out to express their devotion to God. By all accounts Solomon’s Temple, despite its size, would surpass them all in extravagance. From the time of the Exodus to the time of David, Yahweh had been worshipped in the tent of meeting which could be packed up and re-erected as the Israelites travelled to the promised land. When David succeeded Saul as King, he built himself a splendid palace. It was only when his home was complete that he was struck by the fact that while he lived in a palace, God was only provided with a tent. This was not a problem for God of course, who forbade David from building a Temple. The fact that this task was then given to Solomon indicates that this was not a permanent ban.

Planning for the Temple began while David was still alive, but building only started in earnest when Solomon acceded to the throne and peace with neighboring countries had been established. According to the first book of Kings the building of the Temple was quite an undertaking. The timber alone took 30,000 men to cut it in shifts of 10,000 at a time. At the quarry there 70,000 labourers, 80,000 stonecutters and 3,300 supervisors. The interior of the building was completely covered with the timber much of which was elaborately carved. All of the interior and its decoration was completely covered in pure gold. On top of this were all the various furnishings and vessels which were likewise made of gold or other precious metals. It must have been completely overwhelming – a house fit for God who was no longer housed in conditions below that of the king.

After all that expenditure and all that effort why Solomon’s moment of doubt? At the very moment at which the Temple is to be dedicated Solomon is struck by one thing – God cannot be contained. There is no human structure that is able to hold and house God, not even something of such splendour and beauty. In the midst of his prayer he exclaims: “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!” The nature of his prayer changes as a result of his insight. As he acknowledges that God cannot be forced to stay still he prays that God will respond to those who pray in the Temple, that God will hear the prayers of those who turn towards the Temple and respond to those who so for forgiveness. Solomon asks not only for the people of Israel, but for anyone who would turn to Israel’s God in prayer.

The quote with which I began captures Solomon’s dilemma. God who had spoken to Moses in the burning bush, God who had led the people out of Egypt in a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, God who had thundered from Mt Sinai when the law was given was not to be bound but to be acknowledged, worshipped and adored. The Temple was and only ever could be a sign of the people’s loyalty, recognition of and obedience to that God.

It is wonderful to have beautiful places in which to offer prayer and praise to God. It is natural to want to offer to God our very best – in buildings, in furnishings and in sacred vessels. However it is important to recognize – as did Solomon – that these are simply expressions of our love. However lavish and beautiful they are, they cannot trap God into remaining still, they cannot be used to insist that God has an obligation to us. God is greater and more magnificent than anything that we can build and cannot be limited by time or space.

We will continue to build places of beauty and awe, but nothing will ever be as awesome as the real thing. We should not be blinded by human edifices – whether our buildings, our institutions or anything else we have created to help us express our faith – but should constantly and fearfully open ourselves to the presence of God wherever we are and wherever we may be.

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