Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 23, 2015
1 Kings 8: (1-6, 10-11), 22-30, 41-43 Commentary
The last few verses of this lection strike me as much as anything. So much of the Old Testament is all-Israel all-the-time. There is warfare and defeat of other nations, dark warnings about inter-marriage with Canaanites, the threat of foreign religious practices wheedling their way into the faith of Israel. It’s easy at times to forget that when God kicked off the whole project that led to the nation of Israel, it came via the promise to Abram that through him and his descendants “all nations” would be blessed. Everyone would be in the picture eventually, even if for a long while just one nation would be in the center of the frame.
But a few years ago when I did a comprehensive study of the Bible for a study committee report on immigration for my denomination, I discovered that all through the Old Testament are more than a few texts that remind Israel to be open toward and embracing of “the stranger who is within your gates.” And the reason Israel was to be kind to foreigners was very consistently pointed out: the Israelites were to remember that once upon a time they were the strangers within Egypt’s gates and if it ultimately was true that the Egyptians massively mistreated the Israelites, that was only all-the-more reason to make sure the Israelites never did the same to others. Israel needed to hope, in fact, that more people rather than fewer would come their way (not that they really understood this: see, for instance, Jonah!).
In 1 Kings 8, as Solomon brings his very long prayer of dedication in for a landing, he makes sure to include a plea for God to hear the prayers of even foreigners if they, indeed, prayed to Yahweh, the God of Israel. It is a startling thing for Solomon to claim in some ways. After all, to most outside perspectives, all the other claims in this prayer are offensive in their religious particularity, keying as they do on the idea that there is indeed only one true God and you can access him by praying in only one direction; viz., the Temple in Jerusalem. Pluralistic this isn’t!
Of course, these days, even for Christians, this idea of praying toward a specific place seems odd. We see Muslims making pilgrimages to Mecca and also bowing down in prayer several times a day but only and always in the direction of Mecca, and it seems foreign to us. We can’t imagine feeling the need to pray in a certain geographical direction. Most of us don’t need a compass before we bow our heads in prayer. Even our fascination with “the Holy Land” and the memorable trips some of us have taken to Israel are not on a par with some kind of pilgrimage to a specific location that alone fulfills our faith.
Yet when you read I Kings 8, it becomes clear that Jerusalem and the Temple Solomon built there had just that effect on the ancient Israelites. Over and over again in this chapter, Solomon talks about the Israelites’ praying toward Jerusalem and its Temple. No matter how far away from the city they might be at any given moment, when they prayed, they, like Muslims today, beamed their petitions in a very definite direction. Jerusalem was the central, sacred site because that’s where God “lived” on the earth.
But even so, Solomon makes sure to include all people in his prayer and so sent a signal to all who heard him that day that although Israel may have been the singular dwelling place for the Most High God at that time, Israel could never quite claim ownership of that God any more than they had private access to him.
As people of Pentecost, this is in one sense easier for us to swallow today. But even so, it is striking how insular Christians can get. Maybe it’s because I have been born and raised in the United States, but as a pastor I can testify—as can many of you pastors reading this—that many church-going folks in this country have a pretty hard time wrapping their minds around the global picture of the church. “God and Country” can go together all-too-easily in ways that short-circuit an appreciation for the wide welter of peoples who call on the Name of the Lord today, some of whom come at that Lord from angles and experiences that may be vastly different from the average American but that are no less ardent and faithful. Solomon would have us remember that their prayers are heard, too.
“Will God really dwell on the earth?” Solomon asked long ago. The gospel gives us the ultimate answer to that question by showing Jesus of Nazareth dwelling among us, full of grace and truth—he was, as John also reminds us, the living, walking, talking, breathing Tabernacle/Temple of God among us. But if Solomon was right that the open eyes of God would always be upon his Temple in Jerusalem, then we can know for sure that those same open eyes are upon the people of God today, too—on all God’s people in all places. As the old hymn puts it, in Christ there is no east or west, no north or south. No one is denied access to the one true God in Christ. No matter who you are, no matter where you are, no matter where you came from, when you pray to God, that God listens. He listens for his name alone really is great.
The Closing Ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics featured a massive celebration of British contributions to pop culture. But of all the songs that were sung, one was lingered over more than most and featured lots of choreography and even a clever way to have a large group of dancers bring together a number of huge “puzzle” pieces to reconstruct a 3-D likeness of the original singer’s face. It was, of course, John Lennon whose face the dancers formed and it was, of course, his best-known song “Imagine” that was being sung at the time. (Nevermind the irony of a song that imagined “no country” being sung in the middle of a massive celebration of a particular country . . .) You can see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgPRI6-8Efw
John Lennon had a noble goal: figuring out what could be done to bring about greater peace and harmony in our violent, factious world. In “Imagine” Lennon invited people to imagine how much better life might be if only we could get rid of the things that most often lead people to fight. So he asked us to imagine no country and so nothing to live or die for in terms of patriotic causes. He suggested we imagine having no possessions that we usually fight to keep. But he also suggested we imagine how much better this world would be if we got rid of religion. If there were no doctrines to squabble over, no God in whose name we would launch crusades or jihads or inquisitions, then perhaps global tranquility would follow.
Lennon had the right goal but the wrong way to get there. Because the fact is that as created in God’s image, humanity is irreducibly and irresistibly religious. In fact, someone recently noted the irony that if you were to go to New York City on an average Sunday, you probably would not find vast throngs of young people attending church. Many of our nation’s youth don’t walk through church doorways most weeks to sing hymns, light candles, say prayers, or assume the posture of being reverent and worshipful. But on most days in New York you could go to Central Park West near 72nd Street to a place called “Strawberry Fields.” And there you would find a number of young to middle-aged people lighting candles, laying down bouquets of flowers, sometimes also singing and taking on the kind of hushed tones of reverence most of us experience mainly when in church. What is this quasi-religious place where people seem rather worshipful? It’s a shrine to John Lennon where throngs of worshipers gather to commemorate, to remember, to believe Lennon’s vision.
The very man who wanted to rid the world of religion has become himself an object of a kind of worship (or at least worship-like devotion). Religion, like so much else in life, is susceptible to abuse and is too often turned in bad directions. Religion warrants careful handling and proper channeling, but what seems all-but certain is that we cannot “imagine” it away. To be human is to worship someone or something.
As in Central Park, our very human religious impulse often gets tied to a specific place. All through history shrines have been built at various sacred locations. For instance, in the Book of Genesis, Jacob had a dream of a ladder going up to heaven. When he awoke, he built a monument and called that special place “Bethel,” which is Hebrew for “the house of God.” If you discover God in a certain place, you mark it!
For the ancient Israelites, that place of God’s earthly dwelling was for a long time anchored to the Temple in Jerusalem and, more specifically, to that most holy place where the Ark of the Covenant rested. For believers in Christ Jesus the Lord, “Bethel” is now most anywhere we go, so long as we are true to and transparent to the Savior whom we serve and to whom we are supposed to witness in everything we do.
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