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Royal Prayer: Problems and Possibilities

Sunday, August 26, 2018.  Rev. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings:  Psalm 84; 1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43

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Brothers and sisters, the truth of the gospel, that both of our two texts today bear witness to, is that you and I have the joyous delight of worshipping a God who will not be contained or domesticated.  God will not be contained in a building, God will not be contained in an ideology, a political party, a culture, a tradition, or any human construct.  We worship a God who is free and sovereign, who always eludes our attempts to grasp God, a fact should bring us great relief, great thanksgiving, and great joy and energy.

In this turbulent time, when just this month, we have seen a grand jury in Pennsylvania release a haunting report that more than 300 priests abused more than 1000 children in their care, when associates of the president have pled guilty to and were convicted of criminal activity, when we have seen domestic violence exposed within a Division I college football program, and all of that on top of the ups and downs of our own individual lives, in the midst of all of that turbulence, we hear the good news that we worship and serve a God whose power to save and judge and heal cannot be contained or controlled or domesticated.  Because of that, we can face every situation.  God is our anchor in every storm.

Today we are concluding our summer sermon series on the story of King David.  We began earlier in the summer with 1 Samuel 8 before David even entered the story, when the prophet Samuel warned the people that if they got a king, they would regret it, because kings are kings, which usually means that the king will take, take, take, take, take from them. We end the series today on the other side of David, with a prayer from Solomon, David’s son, a character about whom the Bible has a decidedly mixed opinion.

On the one hand, the church has often thought positively of Solomon as a great, wise, and clever king.  1 Kings 3 tells the story of two women who came to Solomon with a baby, both claiming to be the mother, and asking Solomon to resolve their dispute.  Solomon decides to order a sword brought to him to divide the child in two and give half to each woman; at that command, the child’s real mother screamed for him to stop, as she did not want the child to be harmed, while the phony mother was quite content to get half a child.  In that way, without the benefit of a DNA test, Solomon discovered who the child’s real mother was.  It’s a bit of a severe test, but it got the job done.  The Bible also credits Solomon with the authorship of many proverbs (1 Kings 4 says he spoke 3000 of them) and the well-loved book of Proverbs is attributed to him.  So the church has tended think of him as wise king Solomon.

But one does not need to read the actual stories about Solomon with much imagination to see that the Bible may well have a more ironic view of him, as though he was someone who played the part of the king of Israel, enjoying all of its splendor, pomp, and circumstance, but who completely abandoned the Bible’s traditional, covenantal norms of faithfulness to God, justice for the poor, and attentiveness to those who are in need.  1 Kings 4 describes Solomon’s administration, his Cabinet if you will.  It is a rather boring list of a variety of officials – priests, scribes, recorders, generals, someone in charge of the palace, until we are told of Adoniram, who was in charge of the forced labor.

Now our ears perk up a bit at that, because we may have thought that given Israel’s lived experience as a people who were freed from slavery in the Exodus, their king might have steered away from something like forced labor.  We get even more curious when we realize that the term used for “forced labor” here in 1 Kings 4 is exactly the same term used in Exodus 1:11, where we are told that the Egyptians set taskmasters over the Hebrew slaves to oppress them with forced labor, which may be the Bible’s way of saying that Solomon has turned out to be just another Pharaoh.  And this is after we have read in 1 Kings 3 that Solomon married Pharaoh’s daughter, thus actually making him part of Pharaoh’s family.  It is as though Israel was brought out of slavery in Egypt, only to have Solomon take them right back.

The reason that Solomon needs so much forced labor, we are told in 1 Kings 6 and 7 is to build his royal palace and the temple. The narrative goes into great detail to describe the building of the temple in 1 Kings 6, and the word that keeps popping up over and over and over is the word “gold.”  Solomon covered the interior of the temple with pure gold; he overlaid the inside of the house with pure gold, he drew chains of gold across, even the whole altar that belonged to the inner sanctuary he overlaid with gold.  Gold, gold, gold, gold, gold.  This dude was not into modesty.  1 Kings 7 tells of the construction of the royal palace, and though the palace doesn’t get quite as many verses as the construction of the temple, we are told that the king’s palace was 4 times as large as the temple, which gives you a sense of the king’s priorities. Solomon was a king who practiced extravagant greed and acquisitiveness, and as soon as Solomon dies, in 1 Kings 12, there is a rebellion that divides Israel into two separate kingdoms.  So we may say that Solomon’s policies and practices of greed and self-serving acquisitiveness led quite directly to social division and chaos.  That’s what greedy policies do.

All of that brings us to the royal prayer in 1 Kings 8. 1 Kings 8 is the prayer that Solomon prayed at the dedication of his temple in Jerusalem.  Solomon has built the temple to be the place where the people will come to encounter God.  The temple is intended to be a place of religious encounter, and no doubt was for many people, but it can also become a place where God is presumed to be contained.  And whenever we think that we have God contained, whenever we think we’ve got God in a box, then we are no longer dealing with God, but with something much smaller.  Because God cannot be contained like that.

The substance of Solomon’s prayer is that his temple would be the place to which people would turn for help from God.  “Heed the prayer that your servant prays towards this place. … When your people Israel pray with you in this house, then hear in heaven, and forgive the sin of your people Israel….If there is famine in the land, and they stretch out their hands towards this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, forgive and act.”  Solomon wants the people’s attention focused on the temple, which is not the same thing as focusing their attention on God.  Solomon is attempting a daring feat here, trying to locate God’s responsiveness in the temple.  “If you want God’s help, you’re gonna need to get it here,” he says.

But Solomon is a child of the faith, and so he cannot completely escape the claims of the covenant.  Tucked away in verse 27, Solomon briefly wonders:  “But will God indeed dwell on the earth?  Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”

And so right there, in Solomon’s own mouth, we find the gospel.  God cannot be contained.  God cannot be domesticated or controlled or managed, even by Solomon with all of his wealth and power.  That is why Psalm 84 exclaims, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!”  Psalm 84 is talking about the temple, which is lovely.  Solomon spent huge sums of money so that the temple would be lovely.  But the reason the temple is lovely is not because of all the cedar and gold in the temple.  The reason the temple is lovely is because of the presence of God.  Psalm 84 appears to be a poem about a building, but it is actually a poem about a Person – a Person who makes safe space for those who are vulnerable and small, so that even the little sparrows and swallows find a home there.

The presence of God is the central reality of our lives.  And God cannot be contained in any building, any more than God can be contained in a religion or a tradition or a culture.  God is bigger than any of our attempts to keep God manageable and contained and safe.  God is sovereign and free, and we gather to worship God here in the sanctuary, so that we will be able to recognize God out there in the world.  We encounter God here in the sanctuary, but we cannot contain God here in the sanctuary.  We follow God out into the world, where God is at work saving, judging, and healing all of creation.

Where have you noticed people trying to contain God?  In what ways have you observed people trying to put God in a box, either so they could use God for their own purposes, or so they could keep God from getting in their way?  Are there any ways that you do that? If you’re anything like me, you do this in a variety of ways.  The promise of the gospel is that God is bigger than any of our containers, which means that we do not need to be contained by them either.  To God be all the glory, now and forever. Amen.