It was a procession unlike any of them had seen – unlike any Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders rally, unlike returning athletes ticker-tape parades. It hearkened back for some to the tens of thousands present when King David, some 40 years prior, had brought the Ark of the Covenant back from the caves to the center of the city. ALL of the people were assembled, the text says, and the elders came, the priests carrying the ark. They followed the ark from the tent of meeting, then all of the holy vessels and belongings, the leaders and all of the people, offering grand sacrifices to God. It culminates in this scene where heaven and earth come together, when the ark – both a box with the tablets of the law from Moses AND a symbol of God’s very real presence with the people, come into the temple, into the inner sanctuary, underneath the wings of the cherubim, God’s own holy attendants, there. These angels partner with the priests to construct this inner sanctum, poles affixed, curtains set, – as the ark is put into place THE VERY PRESENCE OF GOD in a cloud – echoes of the pillar of cloud and fire that led the people through the wilderness from Egypt – a holy fog filled the House of the Lord.
Solomon steps forward to speak, and the crowd, already overwhelmed by the creeping clouds, falls silent. "The LORD has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever."
Except at this point the people weren’t sure whether God was there at all. I and II Kings, like I and II Samuel before it, most scholars agree, was not written down as these events were happening. They were collected from temple archives, royal archives, and folk tales, as the people was in the heart of the exile 400 years later. It was then, in 587 BCE – this temple dedication is around 960 – the Babylonians kicked down the door in Jerusalem, carted the leadership away, BURNED this temple that we read dedicated today. And so it’s around the fire in exile in Babylon that these stories mattered most, 400 years later, as they told the story of that great and wondrous day when all the people gathered, when the ark was brought in, when God’s own presence crept in like a fog.1 It’s around the fire in exile that they needed to remember Solomon’s proclamation that God would be with them forever. Like when we need to hear it when we have lost a job or when we’re sitting in a hospital room with someone we love, when a marriage falls apart or he falls off the wagon again. It’s in those places when we need those promises, that God will dwell in God’s own house, that God will not forsake us.
After the grand procession when everything is brought into place, the king first speaks and, from verses 22-53, he prays. He thanks God for God’s faithfulness, that these promises may live on in his successors. The people in exile would know the sordid history after Solomon, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah dividing, times of stability and many more of conflict. Verse 27 steps back to make sure the people know that even an achievement like the temple cannot contain God. BUT, and this is what I want to point us towards today – here in verse 29 and repeated in a different way in verse 43 – Solomon prays that the temple be a place that points to God, where heaven and earth come together in the shaping of the life of the people.
Solomon knows, and the people in exile 400 years later surely know, that the Temple’s value isn’t in its own glory, as magnificent as it is. The Temple’s value comes in the way it dedicates not the building but the people in it for God’s service. The rest of the prayer, as I read it, expounds upon ways the temple serves that function. In verses 31-40 we hear of Solomon’s hope that the act of going to the temple calls the people to reconcile with their neighbor – this reminds me of Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 5 to leave your gift at the altar if you have a conflict with your neighbor that needs to be tended to. Other prayers call them to deal with defeat and forgive, to trust God with cycles of the seasons, of wind and rain and famine. In verses 41-43 they are reminded it is not just about Israel themselves, but about others from far beyond, and I love this language from verse 43, "…so that all the peoples of the earth may know [God’s] name and fear [God]…and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built."
"So that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built." So that each time the story of the dedication of the temple is told it might be the people in it – in Jerusalem or in exile or anywhere else – that those people might be dedicated to God.
This is especially interesting to think about as we ordain and install officers today, as they are dedicated as the leaders God has called. This handoff is key in the life of any faith community. It is a gift in this 52 year-old church we can still receive wisdom from those who were here at the beginning, who prayed in Hope Valley School, who invited friends from work, who have taught the rest of us what being a church FOR THE COMMUNITY is about. Some serving as officers in years past and many more offered no less leadership, but in more informal ways. We’ll see some of you as you come and lay hands as these new officers kneel, when the past and the future come together in what is one of my favorite moments of church. We will pray that these deacons and elders might feel a bit of the weight of the office to which they are called, that through their leadership we might ask the hard questions, as we do our business and plan and coordinate and listen and study and pray.
But as the prayer of dedication of the temple wasn’t JUST about the temple, wasn’t just about the priests that would lead the temple worship, so today’s dedication and rededication is not just about these officers. Certainly we’ll pray for them. I don’t know if that’s a practice you have, but I’d like to encourage you to do so, to pray for these leaders. Some of you are kind enough to tell me or Betty or Taylor that you are praying for us, and we are really grateful for that. But I’d love for you to add our elders and deacons.
One thing I’ve been thinking about for us as a community recently that I want us to dedicate, to offer to God, is about how safe we are. I’m not talking about physical safety, not really, but in terms of how much, or how little, we risk. This church is full of amazingly gifted people, and you do some extraordinary things. There’s a big ‘ole freezer at the Food Bank because you gave to it, there’s technology all over Urban Ministries of Durham because you gave for it, people are fed downtown and school supplies are pulled in -packets of paper and composition notebooks for Hope Valley and Githens, which is wonderful. But most of this stuff is stuff we are already fairly sure we can pull off. We can raise some money. We can gather supplies like crazy. But what kind of risks do we really take? Some of that is about risking relationships, going deeper, being vulnerable, listening. Some of it is – and I’ve been praying about this some recently – about risking relationships with people, with adults and children we don’t know as well around us, who don’t look or think or act like us, who may make us uncomfortable. It’s easy to be in relationship with people we are "helping," – the power dynamic is more than secure – but what about being open to how others might change who we are and who God calls us to be? By teaching a child you don’t know in Sunday School, by striking up a conversation in the grocery store, by checking on the neighbor you hadn’t seen in a week but you know they’re home. Not being content with the insulation of our activity, our busyness, but stepping OUT, risking our normal patterns and people and activity in order to try and meet Christ, and all of the terrifying glory that may come.
What do you need to dedicate, or rededicate to God? I have some ideas for these officers – that they might be able to help us think about how one committee’s work fits to another fits to another, that they might develop leaders around them instead of doing it all themselves. That they might pray at least as much as they meet. What about you? Is it something about how you treat those around you, or a particular person around you? Is it about a renewed sense of commitment – here in the next couple of weeks we’ll roll out an astounding array of opportunities for people to be connected to each other, to learn and listen for God and be mobilized for mission? Many of us are really, really busy people heading in all sorts of direction, but I wonder – and I’m talking to myself here, too – how much of that busyness is self-inflicted? I need to offer to God my tendency to complain about how much may or may not be on my plate and step in and step up, to do what matters, to give to what matters, to lean into the God who brought the people out of Egypt, formed a nation and a people, who held them through the hurt of exile, who calls to us in the birth and ministry, life and death, of Jesus the Christ. That God brought them through a heckuva lot more that we can ever imagine, and who calls us to dedicate all of ourselves, even the parts we want to hold back, to participating in the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.
The dedication of the temple was an astounding moment. But the moments that gave the dedication meaning came later, not just in around the fire in exile, but in the people’s work, in their prayers and offerings of compassion. It came when the people understood that they were the ones being dedicated themselves, for lives of service. But not for them, but for God, so God’s name, God’s love, might even be reflected in us….
May it be so. All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2003). Much of the background from this paragraph and the one before it comes from pages 145-150.