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Sermons

Building the Temple of God

March 16, 2003

Bible Reading

In the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites had come out of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon's reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, the second month, he began to build the temple of the Lord.

The temple that King Solomon built for the Lord was sixty cubits long, twenty wide, and thirty high. The portico at the front of the main hall of the temple extended the width of the temple, that is, twenty cubits, and projected ten cubits from the front of the temple. He made narrow clerestory windows in the temple. Against the walls of the main hall and inner sanctuary he built a structure around the building, in which there were side rooms. The lowest floor was five cubits wide, the middle floor six cubits and the third floor seven. He made offset ledges around the outside of the temple so that nothing would be inserted into the temple walls.

In building the temple, only blocks dressed at the quarry were used, and no hammer, chisel, or any other iron tool was heard at the temple site while it was being built. . . .

The foundation of the temple of the Lord was laid in the fourth year, in the month of Ziv. In the eleventh year in the month of Bul, the eighth month, the temple was finished in all its details according to its specifications. He had spent seven years building it. (1 Kings 6:1-7; 37, 38)

Reading from Swedenborg

Revelation 7:15 says, "They serve him day and night in his temple." But this does not mean that in heaven they are constantly in a temple, and continually worshiping and praying. Just as in the world, everyone there has an occupation, and periodically goes to church. They are said to ""serve God day and night in the temple"" when they are continually involved in true ideas, for in this way they continually serve God. (Apocalypse Explained 478.3)

Sermon

At the time Solomon built the temple, the Israelite nation was pulling itself together. King David, Solomon's father, had brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, his newly established capital city, and installed it in a tent. Yet the priestly function of sacrifices was still scattered and in confusion.

The Israelites, once a loose confederation of families, then a nomadic mob in the desert, then foreign settlers in Canaan, had come of age as a nation-state with a bona fide king. Previously, God had been a nomad or a foreign settler with them. When the Israelites wanted an earthly king, God said, "They have rejected me as their king" (1 Samuel 8:7). Yet acquiescing to the establishment of an unnecessary intermediary, God granted them a king.

King number one, Saul, let it go to his head, and disqualified himself. King number two, David, was a good king; he was (usually) honorable, and devoted to the Lord. But after establishing Jerusalem as his capital and bringing the ark of the covenant there, he got this weird idea. "Oh my," he said one day, "I live in a house, but the Lord lives in a tent" (2 Samuel 7:2). David knew God didn't live in a specific place. He wrote in the Psalms, "Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in hell, you are there" (Psalm 139:7, 8). Nevertheless he said with chagrin, "I live in a house, but the Lord lives in a tent!"

The Lord was quick to reply, "Wherever I have moved among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, 'Why have you not built me a house of cedar?'" (2 Samuel 7:7). In the same message, the Lord informs David, in a little play on words, "The Lord will make you a house" (2 Samuel 7:11). Then the Lord says that it will be a son of David who builds the Lord a house. Still, God never says, "What a terrific idea!"

Solomon's magnificent temple would be destroyed. It would be rebuilt. The replacement would be destroyed. That one would be rebuilt, and that replacement would be destroyed. And in the New Jerusalem, we find that there is no temple "for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb" (Revelation 21:22).

Why did Solomon, king number three, build a temple? When Solomon began his reign, the Lord came to him in a dream at the principal place of sacrifice and said, "Ask what I should give you" (1 Kings 3:5). God was duly impressed when Solomon asked not for power or riches but for a "listening heart" to govern wisely and discern good from evil. We might conclude that Solomon had built a place for God to dwell--within his own being. We might think a temple would be unnecessary. But notice that he wanted his wisdom--his listening heart--in order to govern well. He was thinking communally, relationally. The whole people needed a place for God, just as they thought they needed a king. Solomon knew God would not and cannot dwell in a place. He said as much in his temple dedication prayer. Still, we need a place to house, not God, but our faith in God, our relationship to God.

God asked Solomon not to lose sight of this distinction. Solomon began to build. God barged in and said, "Concerning this house you are building, if you will walk in my statutes, obey my ordinances, and keep all my commandments by walking in them, then I will establish my promise with you, which I made to your father David. I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake my people Israel" (1 Kings 6:11-13). God says in effect, "About this house . . . it's not about a house. It's about obedience. Obedience is the key to getting me to dwell with you."

Still, Solomon builds the temple. We all build temples. We build right in the face of a God who says, "So who needs a house, already?" We must build. As material beings struggling to relate to a spiritual reality, we make models: "God is like this. God enjoys that. God is present here." But these models are only conceptions, only metaphors. We may recognize the metaphor for what it is. But the human condition tends toward the concrete, and we begin to refer to a piece of real estate as a "church."

Friends, we all are the church--in our faith commitment to each other and the good and truth we nurture in our lives. This building is a building. It is important to the church, and it is appropriate that we take care of it. But when you hear the word "church," what comes to mind? A building? Or a group of people?

This building is a metaphor. Most of our ideas about God and faith are metaphors. So we design our conceptual model and something happens to destroy it. We have a crisis of faith, and God's dwelling place with us lies in ruins. Our doubts and fears may even carry us away and hold us captive. But we cannot live without a picture of who or what God is. To bring God into our lives again, we build another concept for God to dwell in. Aha! Now we have it right! Now God is present . . . and again, here come the marauding hordes to destroy our temple again.

At the building of the final temple, God replaced metaphor with reality by showing up in person. Do we want a place for God to dwell? It is within the very flesh of the human condition. What does a temple look like? Like a person. Where is the ark of the divine covenant? In the human heart. Where do we meet God? In our everyday-ness. Jesus made two temple predictions. Speaking of the temple built by humans, he said, "Not one stone will be left upon another" (Luke 21:6). Speaking of himself he said, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (John 2:19).

Whether we are wandering in a desert of faith, forming a more steady relationship with our faith, establishing a formal order of faith practices, or following that oddball rabbi around the holy land, there is a way to dwell with God. God needs no dwelling place, yet arranges for us a tabernacle or a temple or the living Lord so that we have what we need to forge, sustain, be reminded of, return to, or continue a relationship with the Creator.

This relationship, like all relationships, has conditions. We cannot be in relationship with other beings by ignoring or dissing them. When the being is our very Creator and life-giver, this being provides the conditions--not as threats, but as information.

Relationship with God requires that we not create a false god in God's place; that we not expect or demand things that are out of God's character or nature. It requires that we stop on a regular schedule to remember who we are and whose we are. It requires that we recognize the long line of human succession that brought us here; that we know our nature and where it comes from; that we see, and sometimes forgive, those who gave us a chance to participate in this amazing adventure called life. Relationship with God requires that we protect all the life God has made. It requires that we not betray our promises--both those we make and those we receive; that we not misrepresent the promises God has made to creation. It requires that we trust God to provide for us, and not engage in a zero sum game that says, "For me to have, you must not-have." It requires that we care about our fellow travelers, always speaking the truth, refraining from gossip and slander, and being honest in our dealings with each other. And it requires that we view our neighbor's good fortune as good.

Mostly, relationship with God requires us to trust that we can become the kind of person who lives up to these conditions; that we accept this relationship covenant as a promise of who we truly are: an image and likeness of God. These are the commandments in the ark which, through our faith, turn into our very nature.

In the outer court of the temple we make our sacrifice for the expiation of our errors. We clean up our act. We give over to our Creator something precious to us and say, "Forgive me." In the next chamber of the temple, we tend the everlasting light of God that shines throughout the universe for all of creation; we burn the incense of our prayers, reaching up to God to make contact; and we offer the simplest of offerings: bread--a straightforward, simple goodness, renewed daily.

Even deeper into the temple, away from the sacrificial blood and the confession, past the prayers and offerings, we come to the core of what God wants to give us. The inner sanctuary of the temple contains an ornate box in which resides the basics of our relationship to the Author of our lives. Inside a box, inside a room, inside a temple, inside a city, inside a nation, inside the lives we live together, there are ten simple rules for being in tune with God. Deep within ourselves is our love. In a God-filled life, in a temple where we intend to provide dwelling for the Divine, we find our covenant of relationship.

In a phony temple, built to sham God, others, and ourselves into believing we are holy, there is also a covenant--but it will be of a different order. We always have an ark in our metaphorical temple. There is always something inside the ark that guides our behavior, that forms our values. A false covenant in a "for show only" temple will form an ungodly nature, sacrificing good and truth on the altar of fear and selfishness.

On the other hand, a real covenant will form us into faithful, loving, and sometimes conscience-stricken people.

We can pursue a relationship with ourselves, sacrificing good and truth. Or we can pursue a relationship with the Divine, stopping by turns to make a sacrifice and return to right relationship.

Ultimately, our temple construct will be torn down. We will not need it anymore. It will have fulfilled its purpose either in serving the god of self or in bringing us into the New Jerusalem, where the Lord, dwelling within us, is the only temple.

Prayer

O Divine Temple, we construct so many dwelling places for you, both of wood and stone and in our own being. Come to us in all our structures, and bless us with your love and truth until we no longer need any temple but your living, divine presence. Amen.

Eli Dale