Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
One day as I was cleaning out my desk in my former parish in Marine on St. Croix, I found a manila folder marked Call Committee. I was sure it was mistakenly left in my desk, but I was curious to see its contents just the same. Truthfully, the folder contained nothing more than a few notes from the Call Committee regarding the new pastor. But there was one sheet marked “The Perfect Pastor” that caught my fancy. It read:
“The perfect pastor preaches exactly 10 minutes. He condemns sin roundly but never hurts anyone’s feelings. He works from 8 AM until midnight and is also the church janitor. The perfect pastor makes $40 a week, wears good clothes, drives a good car, buys good books, and donates $30 a week to the church. He is 29 years old and has 40 years- experience. Above all, he is handsome. The perfect pastor has a burning desire to work with teenagers, and he spends most of his time with the senior citizens. He smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humor that keeps him seriously dedicated to his church. He makes 15 home visits a day and is always in his office to be handy when needed. The perfect pastor always has time for church council and all of its committees. He never misses the meeting of any church organization and is always busy evangelizing the unchurched.” Well, in spite of the expectations for the perfect pastor, the Call Committee at Marine on St. Croix presented my name to the congregation anyway.
Of course, there is no perfect pastor, nor is there is any perfect congregation, at least none that I have known. Instead, God calls reluctant disciples like you and me to do the work of his kingdom. We do the best we can with the time and talents and treasures that we have been given, and along the way we hope that we grasp the vision that God has given to the church.
Certainly, this shouldn’t have been a challenge for King Solomon. He was a man with a vision whom God had spoken to directly in a dream. He knew that his building project was divinely inspired. It’s why it took him only 7 years to build the Temple to the God and 13 years to build a palace for himself. And so read, “In the four hundred eightieth year after the Israelites came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv,” having been granted the wisdom necessary to rule over God’s people well, and at peace with his neighbors, Solomon began the task of constructing a place to worship.
Solomon used the finest building materials which he negotiated wisely with the Hiram, the King of Tyre. He purchased the cedars of Lebanon, cypress wood, gold, silver, bronze, and huge blocks of cut and dressed stone. He had master craftsmen carve into the walls of the Temple elaborate decorations of cherubim, palm trees, and flowers. He overlay everything–even the floor–with gold. It was a magnificent building, inside and out.
Then, when the Temple was complete, Solomon ordered that the treasures that his father King David had dedicated to the Lord be transferred to the Temple. Most importantly, he ordered the Ark of the Covenant containing the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, be carried from the Tabernacle erected by David, into the innermost sanctuary of the Temple, the place to be known as the holy of holies. There the priests and Levites placed Ark beneath the newly created outstretched wings of the cherubim, carved of olivewood and covered with gold. And as soon as the priests put the Ark into its place, a cloud mysteriously filled the Temple and the glory of the Lord rested there.
This cloud that descended that day was a sign to King Solomon and to all who were gathered that there that the presence of the God was truly there in the Temple It was the same cloud that led the Israelites out of Egypt and protected them from the Egyptian army. It was the cloud that descended on the top of Mount Sinai when God gave Moses. Scriptures doesn’t state how long the cloud stayed there, but for that brief time Solomon and everyone who had participated in the building of the Temple knew that they had done a heavenly deed that was pleasing God. Solomon was a perfect king, and the Temple was a perfect place to worship God.
So what does this story of King Solomon and the Temple teach us? It’s a timely message for all faith communities in the midst of an ongoing pandemic as the doors that were slowly opening seemed to be closing again. Let me suggest four convictions drawn from this passage.
First of all, the wise king certainly understood that the house he had built could not contain God. God was still in his heavens and no walls could contain the mighty Creator of all things. The Temple was merely the visual symbol and presence of God on earth- and an important one to be sure, but God had always found a means to communicate with his chosen people before. After all, scripture reminds us that God spoke to his people through a cloud, in a fire, at Mount Sinai, in the Tabernacle, in the Temple, and through his son Jesus named Emmanuel, God-with-us. History and archeology dramatically underscore that as important as the Temple was for Israel’s worship for many centuries, it was not essential. When it was destroyed, not once but twice, God was still present and attentive. The same can be said of church buildings over the centuries. They do rise and fall, but God is still present in the lives of his people.
Second, in Solomon’s prayer of dedication, we are reminded of Solomon purpose in building the Temple was the past. It was an act of faithfulness to the Lord for his covenant with David, specifically the promise that he would raise up a son after him who would build the house of the Lord. I think that is an important insight. Solomon built the Lord’s House, not to glorify his own name, but he built it to honor to his father David and God’s faithfulness to him. That should tell us something about the importance of churches in people’s lives today. Churches are an ever evolving, physical, visual symbol of the faithfulness of others. They can be extremely personal as well- especially when you invest your time, and talent and treasure in them to honor those who were faithful in your own spiritual journey. People like to joke, how many Lutherans does it take to change a lightbulb. “Change?” What’s “change”? Lutherans are no more adverse to change than any other denomination- especially when there is something to be valued from the past. Solomon believed the Temple should be a tradition-bearing place where people would meet God, but not as a traditionalist place, locked in time and space. That should be true for churches today as well.
Third, the Temple was not simply about the past, but it was about the future as well. In his prayer of dedication, King Solomon emphasized that no community of faith can live on the laurels and accolades of the past. It must be focused on the present. As I have said before, we are all only one generation away from faithlessness. Churches must always find a way to keep their doors open and their programs vibrant- even in midst of a pandemic. The church is already dealing with a generational shift which is been exacerbated by the disengagement brought on by the pandemic. As a pastor, I can assure you that personal issues, addiction, poor judgment, mental illness and old-fashioned sin have not been in retreat this past year and a half. They are as virulent as ever. Solomon wisely warned that David’s descendants would have to remain faithful to God in order to continue enjoying the full blessings of the Lord. The Temple represent God’s openness to his people on earth where they are welcome and encouraged to bring their thoughts and prayers. It is true for this church as well. A closed church with locked doors shutters people from God’s presence.
Finally, Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple included a petition for the foreigners in the land. Israel’s relationship with foreign enemies suffered many low points. There were the Egyptians, the Philistines and Canaanites all struggling to take a piece of the Israel’s territory. Israel’s ancient prophets warned bitterly against any relationship with foreigners while others spoke unfavorably of the foreigners influence on God’s people. But Solomon’s prayer offered a hopeful vision for the future. Surprisingly, Solomon asked God to heed the prayers of even the foreigner “so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel.”
My friends, there is no perfect pastor, and no perfect church or temple. In spite of that truth, the church must always find a way to open its door to all who seek God- especially in challenging times. And when we do, we must ask ourselves, is the image of God’s infinite love evident for all who come? Is it a place where forgiveness and reconciliation can occur? How welcoming is our sanctuary to those who have not heard of God, and consider themselves outsiders and foreigners? Ultimately, we must raise the same question that Solomon asked, “Who is worshiped here? The community, God or the space itself? For a moment that day, when the cloud of smoke rose mysteriously from the holy of holies, Solomon and all of Israel were confident that God was pleased and resting in his holy Temple. Solomon was perfect king, and the Temple was perfect place to come into God’s presence. Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story. Amen.