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Sermon: When a House Is Not a Home

August 21, 2009

1 Kings 8:5-24

Imagine you are watching a movie.  Two people are walking through the woods.  Everything is silent.  Birds are not singing.  There are no voices.  No cars or helicopters in the distance.  The only sound is from two sets of feet crunching through pine needles.

Rolling through the tall thin trees towards our two characters is a thick, white mist.  It creeps steadily closer.  If this is a movie, the soundtrack will begin—a quiet, dark and ominous sound from the strings.  The mist approaches.  It swallows the two people and they are inside.  Their visibility is near zero.  We know something is about to happen, but what?  The mist hides the danger within.  Then tension has been ratcheted up so much that if someone were to jump out and say “boo,” we’d rocket straight up out of our seats.

I love the mist, the fog, the clouds.  It is one of my favorite movie conventions because it conceals whatever is within.  I anticipate that something important is about to happen and I wait breathlessly for it to be revealed.

When we lived over on Almeria Street, sometimes the fog would roll in just like a movie.  It was as thick as cotton, and it crept up the street, closer and closer to our house.  I used to imagine I were in a movie, and thought about all the horrors that might be concealed within the fog.

There is a mysterious cloud in our scripture lesson today, and it also functions like the mist in the movies.  There was something powerful, and even dreadful, within that cloud, and even the priests of God, who served the being in the cloud, could not stand to be present.  They were driven out of the Temple.

The occasion was the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem.  King Solomon had built it to contain God’s throne and God’s very presence.  His father, David, had wanted to build a house for God, but God said, “No, thank you.  Did I ever ask for a house?  And if I did want a house, do you think I would need to ask you to build it for me?  I am glad you were thinking of my welfare, but no thank you.”

God did promise that one of David’s children would build a house, and it fell to Solomon.  Solomon gathered precious materials and craftsmen from all over the world to build the Temple.  After the worship service today, you should come to the front of the Sanctuary to look back at our stained glass window to the south.  The window displays Hiram, a foreigner who came to share his skills in building the Temple.  Legend and tradition call Hiram the architect of the Temple, but 1 Kings describes him as a worker in bronze.  The window back there was a gift from the Masons of the area when this church building was constructed.

God’s Temple was not simply an ornate local church building.  It was the primary place of worship for all of the people of Israel.  If you were to offer sacrifice to the Lord, you needed to make the trip to Jerusalem to do so.  And the Temple was not only a religious symbol; it also symbolized the hope of an entire nation.  God had chosen the people of Israel, had led them out of slavery and into the Promised Land.  This Temple was a powerful reminder that God still dwelt with the people.  God’s home was in their land, and even though a human king sat on a throne, God was the true king.  The Temple in Jerusalem was the Vatican, and the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument all wrapped up in one building.

The importance of the Temple and its sacred character thus exceed any one of our local church sanctuaries.  It was a unique spot.  Yet the Temple shares much in common with our own Sanctuary.  For us, this is an important place where we meet God.  Yes, you can connect with God on a mountaintop, at the beach, in your prayer closet…yes, even on a golf course.  This building, however, is the place where we gather as a people, as community, to give praise and honor to God, to share our gifts and to hear God speak to us through scripture.  Our regular worship as a family of God is also an important witness to the world.  We choose to put everything else aside for an hour or two each week in order to meet God here.  That is what makes this place holy and sacred to us, and we can feel a powerful sense of God’s presence within these walls.  This sanctuary and the Temple in Jerusalem share that in common.  Add to that the fact that some of you have been married here, or have been baptized here, or have said goodbye to your loved ones here, then this building becomes a very important place.  Many of you have similar feelings toward the sanctuary at Grandview, as well.

Yet, if you think about it from a very practical point of view, you soon realize that this sanctuary—and nearly every other as well—is an enormous waste of resources.  It has been built with only one purpose in mind: to worship God.  We can’t use it to play basketball.  It is impossible to rent the sanctuary for a wedding reception or a banquet.  A lot of time and money went into a building to be used for a single purpose.

The people who designed and paid for this sanctuary barely considered that question.  To them, it was obvious that to prepare a beautiful place for the worship of God was the right thing to do.  It speaks of our respect for God and our wish to honor God that we build such places.  It is a testament to our belief in God’s holiness.  That is what Solomon intended when he built the Temple.  That is not to say that the practical questions are unimportant, that God would not be honored just as much if we had given those resources to the poor, but only to explain why we would build and maintain a structure that seems to contribute so little to the balance sheet.  This space is all about God.  It is our attempt to honor God and the location where we connect with God most regularly.

Solomon wanted to build the grandest structure possible.  He may have imagined that he might gain some of the credit and notoriety.  Solomon might have figured that a Temple was one way he could secure his authority.  Like all of us, he probably had some mixed motives.  But at the dedication of the Temple, God claimed the space in a powerful way.

To begin, Solomon and his priests sacrificed so many animals that they could not be counted.  Representatives from all over the country had come to witness this event.  Solomon took the dais and gave a majestic prayer.  He praised God for God’s faithfulness to the people and to King David.  He thanked God for fulfilling his promises through himself, Solomon.  He also reminded God to continue to watch over the people and to hear them when they prayed to God in need.

It was God, however, who put the divine stamp on the ceremonies.  The priests had just put the Ark of the Covenant in the most holy place in the Temple.  The Ark contained the two stone tablets God had given to Moses.  As the priests left the holy place, God appeared in that mysterious cloud.  The cloud was so thick and full of God’s glory, that the priests were driven out of the Temple.  They couldn’t even stand to do their job.  While the dedication ceremonies might have been an opportunity for the human beings responsible to take credit for this grand event, God made sure to remind everyone just who is in charge.

Solomon might have thought he had God all figured out, but the cloud reminds us that much of God is hidden.  We have God’s promises.  We have scripture.  We meet God each week and pray to God as a friend.  But no matter how much we understand, there is so much more that is mysterious.  God is ultimately unknowable.  There is much more hidden in the cloud than is revealed.

Sometimes we forget that and become a little too comfortable here.  I am not suggesting that we cannot be relaxed, cannot enjoy being in God’s and one another’s presence, cannot laugh or be joyful.  I am saying that we must also take seriously the power of God’s presence.  This may be God’s house, but it is not our home.  Whenever we enter this building, we are completely welcome, yet we are also guests.  God is here.  That should make us tremble a little.

The power of this place—really the power of God—is such that when we leave this sanctuary, we take some of the sacred, holy character of God with us.  We can be changed, different, when we walk back out those doors.  We can become little sanctuaries ourselves.  Imagine that.  You carry around inside of you a little altar of God.  In fact, Paul wrote to us that our bodies are temples of God’s Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19).

What does that mean?  It means that you represent God.  The Temple represented God’s presence with and guidance of the people.  As you, who have met God in this place, go out into the world, you carry God with you, and you represent God.  You carry the holiness of God with you into the world.  That also means that God is with you.  Even though this is our special place to encounter God, you need look no further than your own heart.  That understanding can help us to live faithfully in the world.

The word “sanctuary” also means “a place of refuge and protection” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sanctuary).  Have you ever imagined that your person could become a little place of refuge and protection in the world?  If you carry God’s sanctuary with you out to the world, then you can become a place where children can find safety and protection, where your neighbors can discover love and hope, where your co-workers can find justice and fair dealing, where strangers can find welcome.  That is the essence of our life of faith.  We learn, little by little, to take on the character of God as revealed through Jesus Christ, and to behave more and more like that holy God who is known to us in the breaking of the bread, in the faces of our brothers and sisters, and in this place, this sanctuary, this temple.

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