“Solomon Dedicates the Temple at Jerusalem,” James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
First Scripture Reading • Psalm 84 (NIV)
Lord who rules over all,
how lovely is the place where you live!
I can’t wait to be in the courtyards of the Lord’s temple.
I really want to be there.
My whole being cries out
for the living God.
Lord who rules over all,
even the sparrow has found a home near your altar.
My King and my God,
the swallow also has a nest there,
where she may have her young.
Blessed are those who live in your house.
They are always praising you.
Blessed are those whose strength comes from you.
They have firmly decided to travel to your temple.
As they pass through the dry Valley of Baka,
they make it a place where water flows.
The rain in the fall covers it with pools.
Those people get stronger as they go along,
until each of them appears in Zion, where God lives.
Lord God who rules over all, hear my prayer.
God of the people of Jacob, listen to me.
God, may you be pleased with your anointed king.
You appointed him to be like a shield that keeps us safe.
A single day in your courtyards is better
than a thousand anywhere else.
I would rather guard the door of the house of my God
than live in the tents of sinful people.
The Lord God is like the sun that gives us light.
He is like a shield that keeps us safe.
The Lord blesses us with favor and honor.
He doesn’t hold back anything good
from those whose lives are without blame.
Lord who rules over all,
blessed is the person who trusts in you.
It is pretty natural to call temples and church’s “God’s house.” But when we really think about it, calling a building “God’s house” can also be kind of complicated and confusing.
Yes, God is present here in the church in special and tangible ways, but at the same time God promises to be, Emmanuel, God-with-us, God present with us where ever we may be and whatever we may be doing. God is not limited to any one place.
• What would you all say are signs that God is present in this place?
• What would be signs that God is also present outside of this place?
We see signs of both – this is a special place … people have been gathering here to celebrate God’s presence and goodness for a long time … and when we are outside of these walls … we continue to experience God’s presence … we continue to experience God working all around us … we live in this tension … this mystery … God is here and God is also out there.
Often theologians will use the terms immanence and transcendence to talk about this tension – God is near (immanence) yet God is also beyond (transcendence).
The ancient Israelites recognized this tension when they spoke about their temple being “God’s house.” They, like us, recognized that God’s presence is this amazing … engaging … mystery – somehow God is big and can’t be confined to a single space, God could be anywhere and everywhere, yet at the same time, God is near … God is too big to contain … the heavens and the earth cannot contain God, and still God has chosen to be close to his people.
Listen to some of the story of the temple’s dedication … 1 Kings 8 tells us:
8.1 Then King Solomon summoned into his presence at Jerusalem the elders of Israel, all the heads of the tribes and the chiefs of the Israelite families, to bring up the ark of the Lord’s covenant from Zion, the City of David … 6 The priests then brought the ark of the Lord’s covenant to its place in the inner sanctuary of the temple, the Most Holy Place, and put it beneath the wings of the cherubim … 10 When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. 11 And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple … 22 Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in front of the whole assembly of Israel, spread out his hands toward heaven 23 and said:
“Lord, the God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below—you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way. 24 You have kept your promise to your servant David my father; with your mouth you have promised and with your hand you have fulfilled it—as it is today.
25 “Now Lord, the God of Israel, keep for your servant David my father the promises you made to him when you said, ‘You shall never fail to have a successor to sit before me on the throne of Israel, if only your descendants are careful in all they do to walk before me faithfully as you have done.’ 26 And now, God of Israel, let your word that you promised your servant David my father come true.
27 “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! 28 Yet give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy, Lord my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day. 29 May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there,’ so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place. 30 Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.
“But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” Solomon is onto something here … Immanence and transcendence – God cannot be confined to any one space / yet God is not far away, and, maybe the most significant thing scripture wants us to understand, God chooses to be close to his people.
Many other ancient middle eastern cultures built temples to try to get the attention of certain gods (lowercase ‘g’). The line of thinking was that if a temple was nice enough, if the offerings and surroundings were appealing enough, maybe that particular deity could be enticed to stick around. And maybe, if the deity stuck around (and was generally happy), the people would experience the benefits of that god’s nearness; good crops, good weather, lots of children, no natural disasters, successful battles, long lives … it seems like it could lead to anxiety and insecurity … if something bad happened to someone … maybe they had failed to make their god (again lowercase “g”) happy and they had to fix something before more bad stuff could happen.
But that isn’t how Israel’s God (capital ‘G’) chooses to operate … Temple or no temple, one of the big points the Bible makes is that God takes initiative and chooses to be near and accessible to people … God chooses to be in relationship with people and God bends over backwards to make this relationship work. God makes a covenant with his people, God promises to be their God, to be near to them in return for their obedience.
Temples and sanctuaries didn’t come into the mix until later in Israel’s history (along the way people made a point of marking and remembering the places where God said and did noteworthy things, but these landmarks were often nothing more than a rough pile of rocks)…
God would be their God … they would be God’s people … God chose to be present and involved in their lives … the whole deal hinged on God’s promise … not architecture.
This transcendent and immanent God is who we meet in Jesus.
In Jesus, God approaches us … God comes to near to us … and reveals himself to us. Jesus is this mystery of God and humanity in one … word made flesh … God taking on flesh and blood to reveal how wide and deep and high, how faithful, and how amazing God’s love is. Jesus promises us that through the Holy Spirit God will be present with us and in his life and words Jesus teaches us how to recognize God’s presence … Jesus is always surprising people with God’s presence … people we think might not deserve God’s presence with them, or who we might be convinced have no interest in anything that has to do with God, Jesus draws near to and reveals God to.
This whole immanence and transcendence deal is good news for us.
It is all about God’s grace and goodness … we don’t have to earn God’s presence with us … we don’t have to build something nice enough to catch God’s attention … we don’t have to do anything to convince God to stick around … in grace and kindness, God chooses to draw near to us …
God promises to be close to us. God invites us to respond by living lives that are shaped by grace … by living in this tension … by wrestling with this mystery …
God is big and God is near … God is too big to contain … and still, God chooses to be here … to be present and active in our world.
As God’s people we live our lives in the mystery of God’s presence … in that space between God’s immanence and transcendence. We have confidence that God is reliably and faithfully present in this place when we gather to worship … we also have confidence in the rest of our lives, in the other places where we find ourselves that God can and will be present there too.
God invites us to see the world … to see our lives as the arena where God is present and active … here in the church and outside these walls.