Sunday, September 2, 2012

Holy Place

A sermon on 1 Kings 8: 1,6,10-11, 22-30, 41-43, preached August 26, 2012 at First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL

(C) Christina Berry

1 Kings 8:1,6,10-11, 22-30, 41-43
8:1 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.
8:6 Then 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.
8:10 And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD,
8:11 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.
8:22 Then Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven.
8:23 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,
8:24 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.
8:25 Therefore, O LORD, God of Israel, keep for your servant my father David that which you promised him, saying, 'There shall never fail you a successor before me to sit on the throne of Israel, if only your children look to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me.'
8:26 Therefore, O God of Israel, let your word be confirmed, which you promised to your servant my father David.
8:27 "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!
8:28 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;
8:29 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.
8:30 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.
8:41 "Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name
8:42 --for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm--when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house,
8:43 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.

When I was thirteen years old, I was given a wonderful opportunity by friends of our family. They were going to Chicago, for the Associated Milk Producers Convention. Would I like to go along? Oh my goodness! Would I ever! We were going to fly on an airplane from Wichita. We were going to be in downtown Chicago, and while I had seen cities from the back window of the station wagon while on various family vacations, I had never visited a big city. We would be staying in a luxury hotel, just down the street from the John Hancock building, which was still new then, and still the tallest building in the world. I think I spent that entire weekend in a state of awe.

We saw Lake Michigan, and we went to Old Town. It was a convention, so of course there was a banquet and a keynote address. The speaker that night was none other than Richard Nixon. I will never forget the moment that Nixon came into the hall where we were gathered. The crowd rose as one, and there was thunderous applause as we stood, and all the wonder of that trip was concentrated in that amazing moment, when the President of the United States of America entered the room. I was completely, breathlessly overwhelmed. And though it seems funny to me now, I was on the verge of tears, so wondrous was that moment.

It was not because I had any great devotion, at the age of thirteen, to President Nixon or to the Republican Party. It was not because I was overcome with a love for the man who, as it turns out, had cut a shady deal with milk producers to drive up the price of milk in return for a 2 million dollar campaign contribution. My awe and wonder, however, were genuine. And I confess that now, more than forty years later, when I read scripture like the one we’ve just heard, this description of the dedication of Solomon’s temple, I recall those feelings vividly.

Perhaps you too recognize that feeling, whether you experienced it seeing a celebrity, or in a forest or a cathedral, or at the birth of a child, or in a moment of prayer and worship. It is the feeling of awe and wonder, and it is the feeling we have when we experience holiness. It is the way you would feel had you been there, when “the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD.”

We’ve come to the last sermon in our summer series on the life of David, when David’s son and successor, Solomon, dedicates the great temple in Jerusalem. It had been David’s dream to build a temple, but Solomon was the one given the blessing of doing so. It is impossible, I think, with our modern sensibilities, to convey the amazement of this moment. Solomon had spent years building the temple, and had waited nearly a year for this dedication. In spite of his father David’s many failings, Solomon knew that the unified kingdom of Israel,
with Jerusalem as its capitol, was entirely due to God’s favor for King David, a man after God’s own heart.

The temple was an amazing sight to behold – it takes the book of Second Kings two chapters to describe it in vivid detail. For example: “The interior of the inner sanctuary was twenty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and twenty cubits high; he overlaid it with pure gold. He also overlaid the altar with cedar. Solomon overlaid the inside of the house with pure gold, then he drew chains of gold across, in front of the inner sanctuary, and overlaid it with gold. Next he overlaid the whole house with gold, …he made two cherubim of olivewood, each ten cubits high. Five cubits was the length of one wing of the cherub, and five cubits the length of the other wing of the cherub; it was ten cubits from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other. … He put the cherubim in the innermost part of the house; …He also overlaid the cherubim with gold, …” You get the idea.

The innermost part of the house, the center of the temple, was the holy of holies, a windowless sanctuary which would house the Ark of the Covenant, in which resided the stone tablets given to Moses, and which was accompanied by the tremendous and mysterious presence of God. That ten-foot square gilded room was so sacred that only the high priest could enter it, and then only on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In that inner sanctum, that room lined with gold and decorated with golden cherubim, the high priest encountered God Almighty. Just to be in that room was so powerful, and so dangerous that when the priest did enter the Holy of Holies, they tied a rope around his leg, so that if he died in there, his body could be dragged out. Sometime, when you have a half hour or so, read the sixth, seventh and eighth chapters of First Kings, and see if you can imagine that temple, that amazing structure which Solomon built as a dwelling place for God.

As is appropriate for the dedication of such a splendid place of worship, Solomon stood to offer prayer, seven beautiful petitions:
When someone sins against a neighbor, hear, O God, and forgive.
When Israel turns away from you, hear, O God, and forgive.
When there is drought and the people pray, hear, O God, and forgive.
When there is famine, and the people pray, hear, O God, and forgive.
When the people sin against you, hear, O God, and forgive.
When the people go out to war, hear them, O God, in your dwelling place.
When a foreigner offers prayers to you, hear them, O God in heaven.

Solomon began his prayer standing, with his arms outstretched, but by the time he finished, he was on his knees. When Solomon concluded the prayer he said: “Let these words of mine, with which I pleaded before the Lord, be near to the Lord our God day and night, and may he maintain the cause of his servant and the cause of his people Israel, as each day requires; so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God; there is no other.” (1 Kings 8: 54-61)

I don’t think there can be any doubt that Solomon had had an encounter with the living God of Israel, and if you had been there that day, you would have, too. Now, we Presbyterians are people of the book, people who love God with our minds, and we get a little nervous when we start talking about worship and prayer that is so overwhelming, so sensory and so mysterious. We’re used to the preacher getting up front and giving an inspiring talk about something sweet that Jesus said, or an engaging, well-researched account of a historic event of the church. We have some coffee and we go home, and we have not been overwhelmed, we have not been speechless, or at the point of tears, or had chills go up and down our spine for the entire 65 or 70 minutes we have spent in worship. Though often our musicians have offered up music that can move us, and every now and then the Holy Spirit helps me with a sermon that really captivates people, for the most part we leave worship ready to get on with our lives, after a pleasant interval singing and praying and opening God’s word.

We rarely think of ourselves as “stewards of the mysteries of God.” And it is probably better that way, better that we do not have to endure such awe for the entire service, better that we do not remember that to approach God is to risk one’s life, better that we do not think to remove our shoes and stand in terror as we say the call to worship, better that we are not quaking with dread as we are ushered into God’s presence. Probably, we are better off this way.

But what if we are not?
What if we are missing something that is right here in front of us, the immanent presence of our transcendent God, powerful enough to annihilate the universe with one breath, yet as close to as our own breath? What if we are like Jacob, who woke from his dream and said, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it”? I think Annie Dillard is right when she says,  “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, making up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”

Of course we all know that Sunday morning worship is not the only place where we encounter holiness and the presence of God. But what if we arrived every week expecting that to happen? What if, when we offered up our prayers, we anticipated God’s presence, with a mixture of breathless anticipation and terror? Of course, our prayers are not a leash we yank, to drag God into the room with us, not a magic spell to charm God into obeying our wishes. Our worship is not meant to be terrifying. Our experiences are fleeting, and as my story of Nixon illustrates, not all of our moments of awe are brought about by divine presence.

But those experiences, those overwhelming feelings, perhaps might not be so rare if we recalled that every time we worship, we are invoking the presence of our awesome God, in the original meaning of that word – not “totally awesome” like a meal or a movie, but awesome as in extraordinary, amazing, and inspiring. It is not our experience or our emotions or even our resolutions which transform us, after all, but the presence of God among us. It is this for which Solomon prayed, at the dedication of the temple. It is this for which we might well all pray, as we enter into worship, whether here or in the silence of our own hearts. It is this transforming presence that comes only from God, the source and ground of all being.

And the way we encounter God’s holiness and splendor without crash helmets, without a rope tied around one leg, is through the incarnation of God in Christ. It is because of the person and work of Jesus Christ that we may come within reach of God. In Jesus Christ, we may approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that even in our great wonder, we may trust in God’s great benevolence. In the early part of the seventeenth century, a Puritan preacher delivered a sermon titled "The Incomparable Excellency and Holiness of God" which, by my reckoning, must have lasted about an hour.

That preacher said: “study the mystery of the gospel. Make use of Christ that the glory of God's holiness may not be to your terror but to your comfort.” I would amend his words slightly, to say, “be open to the mystery of the gospel.” When you worship, when you pray, as you may do at any time, and any place, whether it be Sunday morning in church or on any otherwise ordinary day, in any ordinary place, open your heart and your mind to welcome and receive the transforming power of the presence of God.

That preacher also said: Has the luster of the infinite holiness of God ever shone upon your heart and drawn your heart to Him? And has your heart ever leaped at the sight of the brightness of His holiness? Is this why you love Him? If so, you know God correctly and your heart has been correctly drawn to Him.”

May our most Holy God grant that it be so for each one of us.

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