The Presence of God
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 26, 2018
14th Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 8: 22-30, 41-43; John 6:56-69
King David, who loves Yahweh with all his heart, yearns to build a Temple for God. However, David reigns during a time of war in Israel’s history. After he dies, his son, Solomon, takes the throne and with him a new day dawns—a day filled with hope and peace. Now, it’s time to put roots down in the land of promise. The presence of God has been “housed” in the Ark of the Covenant, which has been “housed” in the portable Tabernacle. But now, it’s time to worship God in a more fixed location.
The story of David and Solomon, which the lectionary readings have been tracing this Pentecost season, concludes this morning with the story of Solomon’s dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem. Last week we learned of young Solomon asking God for wisdom because he realized he could never lead this great people without wisdom. Some time has passed, and Solomon has taken on the responsibility and honor of overseeing the construction of the Temple. Everything must be exactly right—down to the last detail—all of which God lays out in holy blueprint fashion.
Finally, having completed the house of the Lord, Solomon oversees the moving of the Ark of the Covenant from the Tabernacle into the Holy of Holies of the Temple. The elders, priests, and people assemble. Sacrifices too numerous to count are offered and then the Ark of the Covenant is transferred to its new home. The presence of Yahweh enters the Temple, signified by a cloud so thick the priests are unable to continue their work. King Solomon turns to bless all the people assembled. Then he stands before the altar of the Lord, spreads his hands out toward the heavens and prays.
In his supplication, Solomon calls on the continuation of God’s steadfast love; the continuation of the promises God made to his father David. Wisely, Solomon proclaims, “But will God dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” God is present. God is accessible. But God has not moved into a permanent address! Solomon and the people realize that. Still the Temple is more than a building to which the people will come to worship. The earthly Temple is the place where the Lord’s name resides; it’s also a symbol of God’s presence with the people.
Humbly, Solomon calls upon the Lord to turn toward the Temple night and day to hear his prayers and to hear the prayers of the people. While all of Solomon’s prayer isn’t included in our reading, it’s worth noting that he makes seven petitions, asking God to hear those who pray toward the Temple of the Lord: when the people sin against a neighbor, when they suffer defeat, when there is drought, when there is famine, when they go into battle, when they go into captivity, and (included in today’s reading) even when a foreigner prays toward the house of God.
How interesting! Solomon asks that when a foreigner comes from afar and prays toward God’s house, that God will hear. But that shouldn’t be a surprise to us really, for hasn’t that always been God’s mission for Israel—to bless them so that they might bless the world?
No doubt, the Temple is more than a building. It is the place where God’s name dwells. It is a symbol of God’s presence among his people. It is a symbol of the Lord who is gracious and kind and hears the prayers of all who turn their heart toward God. The Temple becomes the “spiritual home” for the people of Israel.
As Christians, what does our church building mean to us? Why do we gather here to pray and sing and worship? What is it about this space that makes it different, sacred, able to fill a deep yearning? Undeniably, there is something within all of us that draws us outside ourselves toward the holy, if we will only allow it. Brother Lawrence, who served as a lay brother in a Carmelite monastery in Paris in the 1600’s wrote, “I cannot imagine how religious persons can live satisfied without the practice of the presence of GOD.” To which I would add, I cannot imagine how anyone can! Augustine said it so well: “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” Only God can fill our restlessness, yet, how often are we guilty of trying to fill our restlessness with endless things that fail to satisfy: money, power, success, possessions, illegal and prescription drugs, alcohol, sex…? Yes, people are searching. We are searching. To whom shall we go?
Throughout the Season of Pentecost, we have been reading portions of the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. While we have addressed many of Jesus’ teachings, one thing that bears repeating this morning is his response to the question, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he sent.” In other words, we are called to believe that Jesus is who he says he is. That is our work—to believe! Are there teachings of Jesus that are difficult to accept? Yes. In fact, many of his followers are so offended by his words, they depart from him. But when Jesus turns to the disciples and asks if they are leaving too, Simon Peter proclaims, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Peter’s confession is bold and beautiful, and he almost gets to the heart of the matter. I say, “almost,” because what Peter is yet to fully comprehend is that Jesus is the Holy One of God because Jesus IS God! Because when Jesus says, “I am the bread of life,” he is saying no less than, “I am Yahweh,” Jesus is God breaking into human history to redeem humanity. Jesus is God’s story of love for each one of us—a story that goes something like this:
Once upon a time, long, long, ago, God created man and woman and set them in a lovely garden where God met them day-by-day. At that time, there was no need for a special place to meet God, for the Garden of Eden was truly heaven on earth. But the sin of humanity changed all that. Time passed, and individual altars became the symbol of God’s presence with God’s people. Time passed and the Tabernacle (which came into being during Israel’s 40 years of wilderness wandering) became the symbol of God’s presence with God’s people. Time passed, the people settled down, and the Temple became the symbol of God’s presence with God’s people. But that is not the end of the story.
Eventually, in the little town of Bethlehem, God came to dwell among the people in human flesh, as the baby born to Mary. Jesus felt what we feel, saw what we see, and shared our joys and our sorrows. Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, opened blind eyes, and broke bread with sinners, while always drawing people back home—home toward God’s self. Faithful to the end, Jesus gave his life for love’s sake. Then, in God’s good time, the resurrected Jesus returned to his Abba Father and the Spirit of God descended to be “housed” in every baptized believer so that God’s work of love might continue through us.
Great is the mystery of our faith! For what wondrous love is this, that caused the Lord of bliss, to enter our human brokenness—so that the presence of God might be housed in our hearts!
*Cover Art “Love and Revelation” © Jan Richardson; used by Subscription