A service interrupted

A service interrupted

Listen now

‘And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.’ So, we have a service interrupted by God!

What an amazing moment that must have been! The priests could not continue with the service because God was so very evidently there. The Lord was in the house of the Lord! And that left no room for anything else.

In the equivalent passage in 2 Chronicles (7:2), the priests cannot even enter the Temple because the glory of the Lord filled it. They couldn’t get in!

I wonder how often that’s happened here? How often the Sunday service has had to stop, or couldn’t even begin, because God interrupted proceedings with his own agenda rather than sticking to ours?

Solomon’s Temple

This week we have Solomon in the newly built Temple. If we think of Solomon at all it tends to be one of two things. Either his wisdom in dealing with the problem of the two women claiming the same baby. Or we wonder about his 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). However, this time we have Solomon at worship – and there are some interesting points to be drawn from our OT reading today.

There is something here about communal prayer. About how we speak to God when we’re together. I think there is also something to be said about the importance or not of a building in which to worship. And finally, we need to look at God’s desire for us not to exclude anyone.

Communal prayer

In last week’s passage from I Kings 3, God had initiated a private conversation with Solomon via a dream. This week, Solomon publicly does all the talking. But nonetheless, God is there.

In some of the verses chopped out of our reading today, Solomon first reminds the congregation that the new temple fulfils the promise made by his father, David. He then turns to the altar, raises his hands to heaven and addresses God. So, it marks a shift. He wastalking to the people. But now he’s talking to God. His body language reinforcing what’s going on.

Sometimes intercessions in church can be more like our weekly notices that we let God listen in on: “Lord please bless our Coffee Morning at 10am next Saturday morning in the Church Hall, at which there will be cakes and books on sale at very reasonable prices.” We’re asking God for his blessing on something we have planned – but we’re also reminding the congregation of what’s on that week.

In contrast, Solomon’s public prayer is packed with meaning and with theology. Did he write it in advance or did he make it up on the spot, responding to what God was doing? In this one prayer you have a summary of both the world-view and of the God-view prevailing at the time – a perspective that runs through the books of Joshua and Judges and into those of Samuel and Kings. 

That’s partly because this prayer has the Hebrew word Hesed in it. Hesed roughly means God’s steadfast, unfailing love – his loving kindness – that speaks of his loyalty and faithfulness to us. But we also have the Covenant in there and we have the fulfilment of promises made by God to David – which in turn were dependent on the faithfulness of the king and the people to their God. And that the Temple is important since a worshipper knows that God can be met there, a place where God can be encountered. That’s a lot to pack into one prayer!

A place of worship

And this takes us to our second point. Solomon has spent seven years constructing the Temple with the finest of materials. No expense has been spared. Cedars of Lebanon, cypress wood, gold and silver – and massive blocks of dressed stone. There are carvings on the walls and gold overlay throughout. And God was well and truly present that day as we’ve already seen.

The cloud of God’s presence connected them to the cloud that led the people out of captivity in Egypt. It was a cloud that descended on Mount Sinai when God made a covenant via Moses.  The same cloud was with the Tabernacle that moved with them through the wilderness. We’re now some 500 years on but God was present with them that day, in a cloud, just as he was with their ancestors all those years ago.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of the Temple and of Jerusalem for the people of Israel. They wept for the memory of it when they were in exile in Babylon. Long after its replacement, the Second Temple, was destroyed by the Romans, it still lived on in Jewish imaginations.

But even on its opening day, when God was obviously there – he was not contained by the Temple. “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (8:27)

That’s something to think about as we decide how best to spend money on the buildings here. There might not be the wealth of Solomon at our disposal but his words are as true then as they are now. God can be met here – but he’s not contained here. 

God is present in cloud, in fire, up a mountain, in a tent, in the Temple and most importantly in Emmanuel, God-with-us. And God is also present in you and me. We encounter God each time we meet each other. Each time we meet another human being.

Being inclusive

Which takes me to my third point. We often think of the OT as being the children of Israel against the world. Us and them. Often their relationship with foreigners is portrayed negatively. Sometimes we even hear the NT inaccurately described as the first time where God reaches out to Gentiles – and that up to this point he’d been exclusively the God of Israel. The chosen people. Though I’m sure there are times when they wish God had chosen someone else.

But our final two verses, 41-43, ask that even foreigners who pray towards the house of God have their prayers heard and answered. It’s saying that even at this early stage in Israel’s history that Gentiles were included in God’s mercy. 

Genesis 1:26-27 tells us that God made “humankind in his image”. He didn’t separately create those who would become the children of Israel. God made humans – and wants to be in relationship with all of us. No distinctions. 

If all humanity reflects God, then we also need to try and see that same reflection in all others. Sometimes that may be more of a struggle, but we should strive for it none-the-less. These last 2 verses remind us of that original perspective. We have a God who desires relationship with all of us. A God who encourages us to relate to everyone around us. A message for us today as much as it was back then.

God isn’t bound

So, in this reading from the OT, we learn that God is present with us. That God hears prayer and responds with mercy. That’s the good news, the Gospel, in this text. The Temple is a sign and means of that communion with God and deserves to be remembered in both synagogue and church today. But God isn’t bound or contained in those places. God is with us always, wherever we go and in whomever we meet. 

But let your mind drift forward to Jesus and the Second Temple. The temple that replaced Solomon’s. Whilst Solomon’s temple could not contain God, in Jesus God himself came to visit.

He came to the Temple as a baby when he met Anna and Simeon. He came as a young boy, full of questions – and answers too. And he came again in righteous anger to clear away the money lenders who had put up obstacles between God and the world he loves. Finally, at his death he took away the final barrier – the veil that stood between us and the Holy of Holies, the very presence of God.  

Just laugh

But to return to where we started, where God disrupted the service. I came across this passage in a book by Frederick Buechner called ‘The remarkable ordinary’:

‘The wonderful truth is that we act in our religious traditions and rituals as if we know what we’re doing. None of us knows. We all think a church service is when you sing this here, then you pray that there, and you read this here and you stand here and you stand there, as if this is the appropriate, natural way to worship him who is beyond our wildest dreams, whose glory we can in no sense capture in any kind of ecclesiastical box. We might do very well in our own rituals, our own pieties, our own way of doing things – to stop for a moment and just laugh. And God very likely is doing the same thing.’ 

And I’d like to finish with this poem by Mohja Kahf…

Most Wanted

Warning: God has slipped the noose.

We must confirm the worst

Of our righteous fears – 

God has escaped the mosque,

The synagogue, the church

Where we’ve locked up God for years.

We repeat unto you:

God is on the loose.

Henceforth beware:

You may find God in heathen beauty.

You may stumble upon God unaware.

Take appropriate measures:

You may have to behave

As if each human being

Could reflect God’s Face.

Amen

‘A service interrupted’ was delivered by Ian Banks on Sunday 22nd August 2021 at Christ Church Walmersley. It was based on 1 Kings 8: 1,6,10-11,22-30,41-43.

References:
  • Buechner, F. (2017). The remarkable ordinary. Grand Rapids: Harper Collins.
  • Kahf, M. (2016). Hagar Poems. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.

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