Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 26, 2018
1 Kings 8: (1-6, 10-11), 22-30, 41-43 Commentary
This is one of the great pivotal chapters in the Bible. It recalls an event that was to Israel much like the Fourth of July is to Americans. It marks the end of a long struggle for freedom and security. At last Israel had complete ownership of the Promised Land and there is peace, both with pagan neighbors and with fellow Israelites. Israel is no longer a band of wandering nomads battling for a place on earth to call its own; they are an established kingdom with a firm hold on a piece of God’s good earth and a stable government headed by a beloved king.
God’s plan for Israel has come to fruition. So, it is time for God to stop living in a moveable tent and move into a permanent palace. This is a high point in the history of Israel, and in the history of redemption. As such, this chapter has great ramifications for God’s people today, because of the way it points to Jesus.
I make those points up front because they will help us avoid two very natural mistakes in preaching on this text. Many traditional preachers will be tempted to focus on the prayer of Solomon as a model prayer. That, in fact, is what it is. However, the author of I Kings did not record this prayer to teach ancient Israel or the modern church how to pray. So, in our sermons on this text, we may very well note how lovely and instructive the prayer is, but we must not lose the redemptive historical point of the text. This is about the Temple and its place in the life of God’s people, which will point us ultimately to Jesus.
Many progressive preachers will be tempted to focus on the last part of our reading for today, where Solomon prays about and for “the foreigner.” Clearly the RCL wants us to focus there, because it ignores the other 6 petitions in this long prayer. There is something as big as the world in this petition, but the culturally sensitive preacher will be tempted to focus on the concept of outsiders, of those who don’t belong to our group. That will invite application to immigrants or racial minorities or the LGBTQ community. While compassionate preachers must pay Gospel attention to such folks, this text is not first of all about today’s socially or politically marginalized groups. It is about those who have heard about the God of Israel and come to pray toward the Temple. It opens the doors of the Temple (so to speak) to anyone who comes to the One whose Name dwells in the Temple, which ultimately points us to Jesus.
In other words, as you preach on this juicy text, don’t forget the historical context. Its immediate context is the completion of the Temple. After 11 long years of exacting construction following God’s blueprint, this magnificent building stands in all its glory. But it is empty; God isn’t there yet. God’s house is unoccupied. To remedy that, Solomon has that ancient symbol of God’s presence, the ark of the covenant, carried into the Holy of Holies, whereupon the Shekinah cloud settles into that sacred space. “The Lord is in his holy Temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”
Solomon breaks the silence with a speech about God’s covenant faithfulness to his father, David, and to all Israel. This temple, now indwelled by Yahweh himself, is the fulfillment of God’s promises. As Solomon says in verse 56, “Praise be to the Lord, who has given rest to his people Israel just as he promised. Not one word has failed of all the good promises he gave through his servant Moses.”
Thus, Solomon dedicates the Temple with this masterpiece of prayer. Solomon assumes the posture of a submissive supplicant, beginning on his feet and ending on his knees, his hands spread out toward heaven, ready to give praise and offer petitions and receive blessings. He begins, as prayer always should, with unfettered praise, not to a generic deity, but to “Yahweh, God of Israel.” He further distinguishes Yahweh from the gods of the nations with Israel’s exclusive claim; “there is no God like you in heaven above or on the earth below.” But the main focus of his praise is God’s covenant faithfulness. “You have kept your promises to your servant David my father; with your mouth you have promised and with your hand you fulfilled, as it is today.”
Then comes the first petition, a kind of preamble to the seven specific petitions that will follow. Even as he praises Yahweh for his faithfulness in the past, he now prays that God will continue to keep his promises. Israel’s future depends on having a son of David on throne, so Solomon begs God to keep that promise; “let your word… come true.” And it will, if God’s people are faithful to God.
Even in this soaring paean of praise, there is a sour note that will make all the difference in the world– “if only your sons are careful in all they do to walk before me as you [David] have done.” But they didn’t. That was the great problem for Israel; that would be their downfall; that would lead to the destruction of the very Temple being dedicated that day; and that is why Jesus is so necessary. “If only” we didn’t sin. But we do, and so we need a Savior.
Solomon is about to list the various situations in which God’s people (and even foreigners) will pray toward the Temple. He will ask God to answer those who aim their prayers in that direction, because the Temple is where God dwells on earth. But Solomon realizes the problem with that claim (verse 27). Yes, the Ark is in the Holy of Holies and the Shekinah cloud hovers there, so God is at home, so to speak. “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less the Temple I have built you!”
Exactly! How can an omnipresent God become localized? How can an infinite God be particularized? How can a universal God be limited to one place, or One Person? Solomon’s question has always been the objection to the particularity of the Judeo-Christian faith, especially the Christian claim that God has chosen to channel all of his covenant love and faithfulness through one Jew named Jesus. How could all the fulness of the deity dwell in him bodily (Colossians 1)? How could God narrow the history of redemption down to one human pinpoint? Solomon’s awestruck question in verse 27 anticipates those questions.
In subsequent verses Solomon answers those questions, not with reason, but with passion. In effect he brushes right past his question in order to raise his passionate pleas. “Yet give attention to your servant’s prayers and his pleas for mercy, O Yahweh, my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day.” He moves right past the theological conundrum of how God could really be present in the Temple and simply trusts that God is present in his Temple.
Perhaps the use of “toward” is his way around the theological problem. God is everywhere, but he is present in his Temple in a special way. So, whoever prays toward the Temple has a special connection with God. Or at least that is what Solomon prays. “May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day… so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place.”
As I’ve already said, Solomon goes into great detail in enumerating the various situations in which people might pray “toward this place.” Our lectionary reading for today focuses on one scenario that the typical Jew of Solomon’s day would not have anticipated. What if someone who is not Jewish, someone “who does not belong to your people Israel,” prays toward this place? What if someone from a distant land hears about Yahweh and the mighty historical acts he has done for his people? What if such a person, an outsider who believes in the Good News about a God who intervenes in history, comes and prays toward this place? Surely, he won’t be heard? On the contrary, pleads Solomon, “do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you… and know that this house I have built bears your Name.”
Here is the missionary purpose of the Temple, of God’s covenant with Israel, as promised to Abraham back in Genesis 12:3; “and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Israel often forgot that worldwide vision of God, but God never did. He always intended to bless the world through his narrow choice of Israel, through his mysterious act of dwelling in their Temple, and, of course, through the miracle of the Incarnation in Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son….” Solomon anticipates that final act of God’s faithful love. His prayer looks ahead not to any special interest group, but to the whole of humanity. Anyone who is far away but hears of this God and turns toward him and prays “toward this place” will be heard and blessed.
Except that “this place” is no more. The “if only” of Solomon’s prayer was not observed; his sons did not walk in God’s ways and neither did the people as a whole. As God had threatened again and again, Israel lost the land and the Temple was destroyed. Even when a substitute was erected by the Exiles, it wasn’t the same. And God’s people said again and again, “Where is our God?”
Then came The One who would replace that Temple, who would be God with us, who would be the focal point of the prayers of both Jew and foreigner, who would save his people from their sins. Even after God’s people failed and their Temple was reduced to rubble, God recommitted to his covenant. But he didn’t focus on a place or a people, but on one Person in whom God would be present to bless, to hear, to act, to save.
Yes, that is a hard truth for many to hear. It seems so narrow. But listen to Jesus’ disciples in the reading from the Gospels for today. Jesus has just said incredibly difficult and offensive things about his own body and blood, resulting in the defection of many followers. Jesus turned to his faithful disciples and asked, “You do not want to leave me too, do you?” To which Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God (John 6:67-69).” In other words, Jesus is now the Holy of Holies, where anyone and everyone, Jew and foreigner, can find the presence and blessing of God.
In The New Interpreter’s Bible, C.L. Seow wrestles mightily with the mystery of God’s presence in the temple. Seow’s explanation helps us appreciate Jesus all the more. “The Temple is neither God’s residence nor the place where the petitioner personally encounters the deity. Rather it is the place at which the needs of the petitioner coincide with the willingness of the deity to respond. The Temple is not the place where the very person of God is; rather it is merely the place where God’s presence may be known, where the authority of God is proclaimed.” Everything Seow says the Temple is not is exactly what Jesus is—God’s residence on earth, the human being who is the very person of God, in whom we meet God personally, the person who makes God known and who exercises all the authority of God on earth.
In Jesus the Temple became human, as John 1 says. “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling (literally, tabernacled) among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Have you seen those bumper stickers that have the word COEXIST written in such a way that each of the letters in that word is the symbol of one of the world’s great religions? It is a plea for tolerance, I think, a heartfelt protest against prejudice and persecution. Let’s all coexist, not try to wipe each other out. That’s a good request. But if that bumper sticker contains a covert theological statement about the equal truth of all those religions, I must demur, as would Solomon, and Jesus’ disciples, and every preacher of the Gospel. If the Temple was the dwelling place of the one true God and if Jesus is the very person of God dwelling among us for our salvation, then we have an obligation to tell the Good News to those who are far away. No, we must not disrespect or mistreat those who call for coexistence. But Jesus said, “Go into all the world and make disciples….” Obedience to him and love for “the foreigner” demands no less.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!