November 25, 2012
1 Kings 8:14-30, 41-43
The Story, Ch. 13
Thanksgiving past quickly this year! It fell early in November…and on the church calendar, we even have a week between Thanksgiving and Advent…that almost never happens!
But the early date hasn’t stopped us from jumping into the Christmas season with enthusiasm. We’re getting ready: shopping for gifts, decorating our homes. We even gathered yesterday for the “Hanging of the Greens” (well before the start of Advent, I might add – due to outreach activities already on the calendar for next weekend).
We’re pretty good at “getting ready” for Christmas. We know just which boxes to pull of the attic. We make our lists and check them off. We invite family & friends, make our travel plans and pull out the old familiar family recipes.
In the Scriptures we find ourselves in a “getting ready” place too. Solomon’s preparations take more than just the month of December. He spends seven years getting ready for the biggest celebration of his lifetime: the Temple Dedication.
Solomon’s getting ready is something like ours. He decorates with the very best materials – strong cedar beams, gold and silver and bronze, beautifully carved olive wood. He gathers the gifts – the sacred furnishings his father made, the wealth that King David had dedicated to the Temple treasuries. He invites all the right people – the elders of Israel, foreign dignitaries, the judges and priests.
And finally, the big day arrives. Temple dedication day! People come from far and wide. The gold gleams and the feast (in the form of sacrificial lambs) is abundant. Solomon has realized his father’s dream, completed his own lifelong ambition, and lived to see the fulfillment of God’s promises. This is a big deal!
Solomon begins the day with a carefully rehearsed speech: “My father David had it in mind to build a house for the name of the Lord, the God of Israel, but the Lord said to my father David, ‘You did well to consider building a house for my name; nevertheless you shall not build the house, but your son who shall be born to you shall build the house for my name. Now the Lord has upheld the promise that he made, for I have risen to the place of my father David…and have built the house for the name of the Lord…” (1 Kings 8:17-20).
Then there is a beautiful moment – the kind of unscripted moment that happens in the midst of celebration, the moment that you’ll look back on and smile when the day is over and the decorations are packed away. In 1 Kings 8:22, Solomon turns his back on the crowd before him and faces the altar of the Lord. The bravado of his welcome speech fades into the background and he bows his head in humility before his God. “There is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath” (1 Kings 8:23), he prays. “Even the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27).
He continues: “Hear the pleas of your servant and of your people…when they pray toward this place; hear in heaven your dwelling place…heed and forgive” (1 Kings 8:30). And then, remembering all who gathered to celebrate with him: “Likewise when a foreigner who is not of your people Israel…and prays toward this house, 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…” (1 Kings 8:41-43).
I love this moment in Solomon’s story. It reminds me of an image of our pastor in Chicago. We worshipped at First UMC of Chicago (The Chicago Temple). The pastor was a respected leader in the city, known among the religious community and often tapped by the media for interviews and politicians for advice. When he led worship, it was carefully scripted and fully under his control. Everyone knew their part and – for the most part – completed it on cue.
But there was one moment in the Sunday service that was not so scripted, that took on a different tone than the rest of worship. When the time came in the service for prayer, Pastor Phil routinely stepped out of the raised pulpit, walked down the chancel steps, turned his back to the congregation and knelt before the altar. His prayers were clearly heard through his wireless mic, but the truth is, I’ve long forgotten the words of his prayers. What sticks in my mind is the image of his bowed head, kneeling before the altar, with his back to his congregation, representing them before God. It was a posture of humility, of gratitude, and of worship.
It was a beautiful picture for me of a pastor and his people approaching God together. It is even more powerful to think of a king turning his back to his people and bowing, in their presence, before God.
Solomon’s piety is rewarded. God hears Solomon’s prayer, and responds: “I have heard your plea; I have consecrated this house that you have built, and put my name there forever; my eyes and my heart will be there for all time” (1 Kings 9:3). God wants nothing more than to be with his people! Yes, God says, if you will seek me in this place, I will be glad to meet you here! Nothing would delight me more, in fact.
But then God continues: “But If you or your sons turn away from me and do not observe the commands I have given you…then I will cut off Israel from the land I have given them and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my name. Israel will become…an object of ridicule among all people. And though this temple is now imposing, all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff and say, ‘Why has the Lord done such a thing to this land and to this temple?’ People will answer, ‘Because they have forsaken the Lord their God, who brought their fathers out of Egypt, and have embraced other gods, worshipping and serving them – that is why the Lord brought all this disaster on them” (1 Kings 9:6-9).
Bam. Just like that, the festive mood is gone. The room grows silent. God’s harsh warning feels like the argument that breaks out over Christmas dinner – it shatters the image of perfection, breaks the magic of a carefully constructed holiday fairytale.
Doesn’t it happen that way, though? We prepare for the perfect Christmas, with its twinkling lights, beautifully wrapped gifts and mouth-watering food. And what we get is someone pouting because they didn’t get the gift they wanted, a toy broken before it is even a day old, and a pie burning in the oven because mom was yelling at the kids to stop fighting! Sound familiar?
Perfection is usually just out of our grasp.
And so it was for Solomon, too. He nearly got it right – he was the golden child, Israel’s wisest and wealthiest king. He carried the weight of the family dream, and fulfilled his father’s vision for a temple. He even modeled well for the people how to enter into God’s presence – kneeling in humility before a King much greater than he.
Solomon prepared the Temple and attended to every detail of its dedication. He prepared the perfect surroundings and laid out all the trappings of worship.
But Solomon didn’t, apparently, put as much time and attention to preparing himself – his heart, his life – for God’s presence. He forgot, it seems, that the end goal of all his preparation was not to have a spectacular place to worship, but simply to be with God. That was the goal of the Temple all along: to provide a way for God to dwell with God’s people!
Somewhere along the way, in the midst of the preparing, Solomon lost sight of this goal. How do we know? Because it won’t be long before Solomon will do exactly what God warned against. He will ignore God’s commands, follow his lusts, and pledge allegiance to other gods. The beautiful image of a king bowing humbly before God will be tarnished. God may dwell in the Temple as promised – but Solomon won’t notice, because he’s out on the hillside bowing before another god.
Solomon’s story invites us to do it differently. We often make the same mistakes he did: we prepare for Christmas by hanging the greens, decorating our homes, laying out all the trappings of Christmas… when we should be focused on preparing our lives and our hearts to be with God. We too easily forget – like Solomon – that the end goal of all the preparations is not a magical Christmas morning. The end goal is God’s presence in our lives and in our world.
Despite what the television commercials may tell us this time of year, the goal is not perfection. The goal is being with God. And being with God can happen within the walls of the temple…in a lowly manger…and in the midst of our mixed up, messed up lives.
The truth is, God never expected perfect! In fact, God knows people will take advantage of one another (1 Kings 8:31) and ignore God (1 Kings 8:33, 35). And God has already promised forgiveness! “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14). Imperfections – even outright sin – will not cause God to leave us.
The Good News (that’s what the word “gospel” means!) of Solomon’s story – and of Christmas – is that God wants to be with us. God wants to be with us enough that God will willingly fold all of his greatness, his grandeur, his majesty – greatness that couldn’t be contained in the whole heavens! – into the four walls of Solomon’s temple.
And God wants to be with us enough to draw all of his greatness, his grandeur, his majesty down into a little baby, born in a messy stable, to an unwed teenage mother.
And God wants to be with us enough to draw all of his greatness, his grandeur, his majesty down into our lives too – our mixed up, messed up lives that are anything but glowingly perfect.
Preparations for Christmas are already fully underway in the world around us. But we aren’t preparing for Christmas. We’re preparing for God to show up.
That’s a whole different thing. Preparing for Christmas means getting everything just right – the decorations, the gifts, the food. Preparing for God to show up means humbling ourselves, and praying, and “practicing the presence of God” (to borrow a phrase from the 17th century French monk Brother Lawrence).
So how will you prepare for God’s presence this year?
- Slowing down
- Moving away from consumerism
- Making room for all (prayer for foreigners…)
- Caring for the least, lost
Here’s some concrete ways:
- Advent Prayer retreats, Dec 8 & 22
- Ring the bell for Salvation Army
- Buy fair trade and homemade
- Give as much away as you spend on gifts
- Support the CCDF at Celebrate Coraopolis
- Go caroling with the choir at nursing homes & hospitals – go to the lonely