Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Most people have a vision of what they want to be, what they want to achieve in life. This shows up already at an early age. That is why we can and should ask young people: “what are your hopes and dreams?” And if they trust us enough, if they feel comfortable enough to tell us, we’ll have the opportunity to encourage them, drawing on the wisdom we have gained to point out the right path to take to realize their dreams.

 

Incidentally, we have this opportunity here, in this small congregation. Today you see the book bags here on the chancel steps. Each one represents a young person who will begin to dream of what she wants to be, if she hasn’t already. When the opportunity presents itself, we can come alongside them, listen to them, and help guide them with our wisdom. 

 

“What are your hopes and dreams?” Imagine how David might have answered this question when the prophet Samuel came to his house in Bethlehem to anoint the young man as king. Never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined then what lie in store for him later. Never could he have imagined the day when his dream to have a throne in Jerusalem, a dynasty, a kingdom would be realized. Indeed, when these great things happened for him, David prayed: “Who am I, O Lord, that you have brought me so far? (2 Sam. 7:18).

 

But remember part of that dream was not fulfilled in his lifetime. We recall that David aspired to build a house for God, a temple. But this was not in God’s plan for David. He was not the one to build a house for God. That project was destined to be carried out by his son Solomon.

 

In our first lesson for this Lord’s Day that part of the dream is finally fulfilled. The project is completed. This house, a place for the divine name to dwell forever—this house is the culmination of the covenant promise God made to David: that David would never fail to have a successor to his throne in Jerusalem.

 

The dedication of the temple is the conclusion of the David series we have been doing these past few weeks. And it stands out as an event of world-historical importance. The Lord, the creator of heaven and earth, comes to dwell in the temple made for him, to be present with his people Israel.

 

Just as there are opening ceremonies before the Olympic games, so also here. Before the dedication, there is a solemn procession. The elders and tribal leaders go out to retrieve the ark of the covenant. They then hand it over to the priests, who are the only ones authorized to go into the most holy place, also called the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary of the temple. Once there, they set the ark underneath the wings of the cherubim. What is going on here? How are we to understand this?

 

Let us first recall what the ark of the covenant is. It’s a gold-covered wooden chest that contained the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, Aaron’s staff, and a jar of manna. On the top of the lid stood two cherubim, which are angels, facing each another. With their wings outstretched, they shielded the cover, which is called the mercy seat. The ark was understood to be site of God’s presence and therefore the focal point of Israel’s worship.

 

Before now, the ark was kept in a tabernacle—even after the entry into the land of Israel. The tabernacle was portable and collapsible. It was like a tent. The ark accompanied Israel in all her journeys. But now Israel has come to rest. The tribes are united under one king. There is one capital, the city of Jerusalem. So the ark now can come to rest in a stationary structure. The ark is now moved from tabernacle to temple.

 

The meaning of this transition is reflected in the status of the cherubim. Before, the Bible refers to God as dwelling above the cherubim. Regarding the temple, however, no explicit mention is made of the cherubim atop the lid of the ark. After the completion of the temple, the only cherubim mentioned are the ones planted on the floor of the Holy of Holies, symbolizing the rootedness of God’s presence.

 

Once the ark is in the temple, the Lord descends in a cloud and consecrates the temple as the place of his holy presence. The glory of the Lord fills the house of the Lord. God’s presence would no longer travel from place to place; it has reached its place of rest. Where God’s presence is, there is peace.

 

Solomon’s very name comes from the word shalom, which we examined before. The root meaning of this word is peace. Solomon is a man at peace, for God has given him peace from his enemies on all sides. It is a name uniquely suited to him, because in the time of his reign God conferred peace and quiet on Israel.

 

Peace, quiet, rest—do not these words give us comfort? Is this not what we hope to find when we come to God in prayer, when we seek him in his holy temple? We express this hope at the very beginning of our service when we receive the invitation to prepare our hearts and minds for worship. It is an invitation to calm and compose ourselves. The hymnwriter assures us “there is a place of quiet rest near to the heart of God, a place where sin cannot molest, near to the heart of God.” Outside a storm can be raging. Things can be falling apart around us. Inside there can stress and turmoil. We feel like we’re cracking under the strain. But when we turn to God in prayer, we find this place of quiet rest. God is our stability in all our instability. The name of the Lord is a strong tower. God’s people run to it and are safe, according to Proverbs 18.  

 

The absence of this rest during David’s reign is the reason why David is denied his wish to build the temple. He was man at war. Under his reign there was still instability, there was still bloodshed. We mentioned Ish-Bosheth’s bid to reclaim the kingdom for Saul’s line. We mentioned also the revolt of David’s son Absalom. The association of the temple with the time of David’s reign would have sent the wrong message. We read that the temple is the place of which God said: “My name shall be there.” Jewish author Joshua Berman tells us that the Hebrew word for “name” bears the same twofold meaning as does the word “name” in English. It can be used to designate a specific individual, as in “his name is Joe” or it can mean “reputation” or “renown” as in “he lives up to his father’s name.” To declare God’s name, then, is to declare his reputation, his character. The temple can be a place that represents God’s name only when there is peace within Jerusalem’s walls and Israel is at rest from her enemies. Division and conflict, violence and bloodshed profane God’s name. God cannot be associated with them. God will judge the people because of them. This is what we learn as we read the rest of 1 and 2 Kings, not to mention all the major and minor prophets. 

 

Incidentally, this subsequent experience of Israel with God constitutes a challenge for the church today. The church is torn by conflicts and divisions, as we are all painfully aware. In this regard, the church does not offer an alternative to the world; it mirrors the world. Should we be surprised then that people are not drawn to the church today? Should they expect to find God’s presence among churchgoers who are fighting with each other? Churches cannot bear God’s name, they cannot declare God’s reputation, God’s character, at least not very well, if they are at war with one another.

 

But God is committed to his people. That never changes. He keeps covenant faithfulness with those walk before him with all their heart. That covenant faithfulness has been renewed in the promise that God made to David. It is on this promise that Solomon bases his appeal to God to hear the people when they pray towards the temple.

 

Of course, for us this idea of praying towards a specific place seems odd. We know Muslims make pilgrimages to Mecca and also bow down in prayer several times a day always towards Mecca, but it is foreign to us. But Israel prays towards the temple because it is a channel of communication between the people and God. Once prayers are offered towards this place, they will be delivered to God, who hears from heaven.

 

In this regard, the temple functions as a mediator. It is a kind of switchboard that connects heaven and earth. Through the temple God comes near. He is not a distant God, even though the heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain him. He draws near to his people. He enters into Israel’s reality and opens his ears to their cries as they stretch out their hands towards the temple.

 

Note that this privilege is extended not only to Israel. Solomon is sure to include a plea to God to hear even the prayers of foreigners if they indeed pray to the Lord, the God of Israel. Indeed, this was the purpose of Israel in God’s plan—to be a light to the nations, so that together with Israel, they pray to the one Lord and creator of all. The prophet Isaiah tells of a day when all nations will flow to the temple mount to inquire of God.

 

This is a magnificent vision. Imagine a place where all people can come and share their joys and concerns. It is a place where they can give thanks for a good harvest, for rescue from their enemies, for healthy births. It is a place where they ask for peace and safety, for health and strength, for blessings of soul and body. The temple is there for people when they suffer from sickness; from hunger; from drought; from pandemics; from fear of what enemies threaten to do and have done. No trauma is too small; no tragedy is too great—all are to be brought before the Lord, who hears all prayers, who attends to all their cries.

 

It is a magnificent vision. But it is one that was not to materialize. Solomon was unable to hold the kingdom together. In the end he allowed the worship of other gods. He imposed heavy tax burdens on the people, aggrandizing himself at their expense. The kingdom would be divided into two already with the rule of his son Rehoboam. Later Jerusalem itself would be captured and Solomon’s temple burned to the ground by the Babylonians in the sixth century BC. Although it was rebuilt by the returning exiles a century later, it was destroyed by the Romans in the first century of our era.

 

That is why for us there is need for another temple, one that is indestructible, one from which God’s presence will never depart. For us that temple is Jesus. Indeed, this is what he claimed for himself. When the temple authorities demanded that he justify his actions when he drove out the merchants and overturned their tables in the temple courts, he replied: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). Of course, he was referring to himself: Jesus, the temple, in whom all the fullness of the deity dwells (Col. 2:9).

 

In him God has come very near to dwell with his people. Jesus is our mediator, our point of connection between earth and heaven. When we pray to God, we look towards him. Our prayers go up to God through him. We can be assured that God hears our prayers when we pray to him in Jesus’ name.

 

Churches have been called God’s house. In fact, I remember overhearing a young child ask her mother once in church: “mom, does God live here?” Well, we cannot say that this house is Solomon’s temple, but it is a place of prayer. We can expect God’s presence in this place when we pray together, when we assemble together to renew our commitment to the covenant that God renewed with us through David’s greater son, Jesus Christ. We make that explicit when we break the bread and pour the wine, tokens of the body and blood of Christ, signs of God’s very near presence with us then and now. He is the bread that came down from heaven, as our gospel lesson reminds us once again this Lord’s Day.

 

Let us then be bold in sharing our joys and concerns, confident that God will hear from heaven and answer, as we offer them through Jesus and in his name. Amen. 

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