Will God indeed dwell on earth?

Pentecost 2 2013

1 Kings 8

Marian Free

 In the name of God who is always with us and yet always just beyond our reach. Amen.

“But will God indeed dwell on earth with us?” These words spoken by Solomon at the dedication of the Temple never cease to amaze me.  The most extravagant Temple has just been completed and as Solomon begins the prayer of dedication, he admits that it will not be a place that will be able to hold God.

When Israel journeyed through the wilderness the Tablets of the Law were kept in an ark, which in turn was kept in the Tent of Meeting. Every time the people broke camp, the Tent would be dismantled and whenever they stopped it would be erected. Even when the Israelites finally settled in the promised land, the Tent remained the place in which they worshipped. It was not until David became King that anyone thought to do anything different.

Having finally settled in Jerusalem, David built himself a magnificent palace. However, it was only when his own home was completed that David realises that while he has furnished himself with somewhere splendid to live, God still (figuratively at least) lives in a tent. He determines to rectify the situation and build a Temple for God.  Initially the prophet Nathan encourages David in that plan, but that same night the prophet is given a message for the King. “Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel. Have I ever asked: “why have you not built me a house of cedar?” (2 Samuel 7:7).  God, it appears, does not require a house.

That would seem to be the end of the story, however, according to the Book of Kings, David was prevented from building a Temple not only because God rejected the idea, but also because he was constantly engaged in conflict and not settled enough to carry out a building project. So it was that when Solomon was established as king and the nation was at was peace, Solomon began the process of building the Temple of his father’s dream. Apparently the building was a huge undertaking. Solomon is said to have conscripted 30,000 men to work on the building in shifts of 10,000 a month. On top of that there were 70,000 labourers, 80,0000 stonecutters and 3,3000 supervisors, not to mention the various artisans who carved the timber and cast the bronze.

It is hard to imagine the wealth and extravagance of the building. According to the Book of Kings, both the interior and exterior were overlaid with gold including the floor. The pillars were bronze every surface appears to have been covered in carvings. All the vessels were bronze or gold as were the candlesticks, snuffers, basins and so on.

At last the Temple is complete and the day of dedication arrives. All of Israel is gathered to witness the ark being brought up into the Temple and Solomon begins to address the people: “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. I have built an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.”

The King continues by explaining why he has built the Temple and praising God for the covenant that God has made with David to establish David’s house forever. It is then that the King appears to be pulled up short. The God of Israel is unlike any other God, there is no God like him in the heaven above or on earth below. It seems that as Solomon utters those words he is reminded that no Temple, no matter how splendid or lavish it is sufficient to contain God. The God whom he addresses simply cannot be confined by four walls. All the effort and all the expense that has been poured into the Temple will not be able to keep God in one place or to make God answerable to the people.

That said, the exercise of building the Temple has not been a waste of time. God may not be able to be contained, but that does not mean that the Temple has no purpose. Solomon sees that it can provide a place in which the people can strengthen their relationship with and dependence on God. It can be a place in which they address their concerns to God, seek forgiveness or ask for God’s help. Solomon’s prayer turns in this direction as he asks that God’s eyes be “open day and night toward this house” and asks that God will respond to the prayer of the people, hear their cry and forgive them when they ask.

Throughout the ages, those who believe have built places of great beauty in which they can worship God. Whether they be Cathedrals or Parish churches, built by Kings or by the people, they represent  – not an attempt to restrict God – but a desire to demonstrate through the construction of a place of worship, love of, faith in and gratitude towards God. God cannot be contained even by the highest heaven – let alone the grandest structures that we can erect. God cannot be manipulated or cajoled, or bound to us by anything other than God’s love for us. We cannot force God’s hand through strength or weakness.

We can however continue to trust in God’s love and God’s presence with us and reach out in prayer and worship, in penitence and gratitude, in our churches and in our day-to-day lives confident that God will hear and respond. We can continue to offer God our very best – not to ensure that God is obligated to us, but to demonstrate through such offerings our thanksgiving and praise.

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