The first reading this Sunday (1 Kings 8: 1,6,10-11, 22-30, 41-43) begins about 959 BCE, eleven years after Solomon began his reign, at the completion of the temple’s construction in Jerusalem.
Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes … in Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of the city of David, which is Zion. Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the Lord to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim. … 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.
As a permanent structure for the Ark of the Covenant, the temple symbolized the peace and stability that the kingdom enjoyed after decades of wars with its enemies. It was also to be God’s house on earth, and an awe-inspiring reminder of the invisible, mysterious divine presence among his people. The cloud, which filled the house of the Lord, was simultaneously a visible and an obscuring sign of God’s presence.
Still, even as he prayed, Solomon recognized the paradoxical nature of the temple, both containing the Lord and yet acknowledging and praising his unlimited power and unbound presence. “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! Regard your servant’s prayer and his plea, O Lord my God, … that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place. Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.
In theological language, God is both transcendent and immanent: immeasurably beyond our comprehension and scale of the world as well as intimately present with us.
As well as providing the spiritual and historical background of the dedication of the temple this passage raises current issues.
For the congregation of St. Aidan’s, poised to redevelop the physical structure of the church, it invites us to examine why we are planning to spend millions of dollars to update the bricks and mortar.
One answer is that the church is a place of focus. Its images, statues and orientation to the altar: seating, kneelers, racks for bibles, prayer books and hymnals, draw us to prayer. It is also a place without the distractions of advertising, background music and the activities of entertainment or commerce. It is purpose-built to focus our relationship on God through instruction, thanksgiving and worship. We believe that God is present in the bread and wine stored in the ambry in the chapel where the votive light burns as a continual sign of his presence. As he promised Solomon, My name shall be there.
The building itself stands as a public reminder of God with us. It testifies to our belief that God lives with us in our neighbourhood.
The church is also a place where we gather as a community to worship together. We use it as a location dedicated to uniting our voices in collective prayer. When we sing together or pray aloud we reinforce each other as well as strengthen our connection to God.
While we believe that God is present in the sacrament, we also know that God transcends the walls of the building and is everywhere in the world, sustaining its existence by his will. He is infinitely larger and more enduring than any structure. He encourages us to take our prayer life outside the walls of the church and into our daily lives, beyond Sunday mornings and into our week.
No tension exists between God’s presence in church and his presence in every dimension of our daily lives. We can have both. We need both.
- When you read of the solemnity of Solomon and the priests in the first book of Kings, do you have a sense that we have lost some of that sense of reverence in our church life these days or are you glad of the familiarity and more casual relationship that we now enjoy with the divine?
- Are you sometimes aware of the paradoxical nature of God as both infinitely immense and intimately present? Sustaining the whole world and everything in it, yet also deeply attentive to you as an individual? Remote yet near? Savour that sense.
- Have you ever been struck by a sense of awe and ‘the holy’ when walking into a church? It may have combined the light of stained glass windows, the quiet, the majesty of the decorations around the altar at the focal centre of the nave or the sense of history in ancient columns. Was it also possibly the glory of the Lord that drew you in?