Sermon
August 27, 2000
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43

             Then Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven.  He said, "O LORD, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart,  the covenant that you kept for your servant my father David as you declared to him; you promised with your mouth and have this day fulfilled with your hand.  Therefore, O LORD, God of Israel, keep for your servant my father David that which you promised him, saying, 'There shall never fail you a successor before me to sit on the throne of Israel, if only your children look to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me.'  Therefore, O God of Israel, let your word be confirmed, which you promised to your servant my father David.

             "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, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today;  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.

             "Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name   -- for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm -- when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house,  then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.

 Ephesians 6:10-20

             Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.  Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.  Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.  As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.  With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

             Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.  Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel,  for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak. (NRSV)

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Sermon:  Transforming the Temple

 

This morning we read two portions of scripture that were very different in their history, style, and purpose.  The first reading was the prayer of King Solomon at the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem almost a thousand years before the birth of Christ.  The second reading was a letter from Paul to the new Christian congregation in Ephesus in the early years after the death and resurrection of our Lord.  Paul is encouraging these new Christians to be strong and remain steadfast in prayer, for they are now dedicated, as was the temple before them, to be a witness to the glory of God. 

 

In a sense Paul declares that these congregations of believers are the new temple of God’s glory, and it is this transformation of the temple from a building to a people that I would like to explore this morning.

 

“The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”  That was the line of scripture that opened every chapel service of my many years at summer camp.  And so naturally, in my first years of ministry, I used it often as part of our call to worship, just as we did this morning.  But unlike this morning, in the churches I served it was often the signal for the organist to play some mighty thundering chord to chase away anything approaching silence and wake up the congregation and get them ready to sing.  Perhaps Tom could give us a quick demonstration of such a chord.

 

Great!  I’ll tell you, we never got that volume out of the organ in our summer chapel services.  But that was because it had to be a small portable organ you could carry up a mountain through the woods.  Foot pumped bellows blowing air through reeds powered it.

 

Some of the great memories of my childhood were summer chapel in the woods, and one of the most satisfying accomplishments was at fourteen to be part of a crew that build a new chapel on the crest of an Adirondack mountain with a beautiful view of surrounding valleys, lakes, and peaks.

 

I’ve been fortunate to be in some of the greatest church buildings in the world – in St. Peter’s in Rome, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, in the First Congregational Church in New Milford – but I can tell you that it is hard to find anything that brings you a clearer sense of God’s glory than sitting on a plain log bench wedged in place by a few uncut stones on the slope of a mountain top with a view cleared out in front of you of woods, water, and sky.  

 

It’s not really fair to compare nature to the work of human hands, of course, for as Jesus said when he preached in the great outdoors on a mountain: Consider the lilies of the field… I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

 

Certainly, if anybody knew about glory it was Solomon.  He was the king of Israel who built the first temple, and it was from his prayer of dedication for that temple that we read this morning.  

 

"But will God indeed dwell on the earth? (Solomon prayed)   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,' … 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.

 

Solomon may have known that the temple could not contain God, but he also knew that the nation needed a symbol of God’s glory that they could see and touch and visit and inhabit.  They needed it for their religious ritual and for their national pride.  And he gave it to them.  And it served them well - for a time.

 

You may know that the time came when the temple of Solomon was destroyed, and the city of Jerusalem was sacked, and the people of Israel were sent into exile.  While in exile their worship changed from a focus on temple ritual to Sabbath observance.  If the presence of God could not be approached in a special location, then perhaps it could be approached at a special time.  If the source of the people’s national identity could not be a sacred city, perhaps it could be a sacred day. 

 

The enemies could destroy the temple, but they could never destroy the Sabbath.

 

In some ways this was the first transformation of the temple – the transformation from a place to a time.  But a greater transformation was waiting on the horizon.

 

When the people of Israel made their way back to Jerusalem, the temple was partially resorted, and eventually a second temple was built; it is the remaining western wall of this temple that still stands in Jerusalem today and remains a center of prayer for Jews and others from around the world.

 

It was this second temple that Jesus knew, and about which he was questioned by a Samaritan woman he met at a well.  It’s an often-quoted exchange:

 

The woman said to him, … Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem." . Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."

 

The place where people worship God will not matter, the time when they do it will not matter – what will matter will be the spirit in which they do it, and their loyalty not to time or place but to truth.

 

Of course, I don’t know if Jesus ever had in mind that 9:00 in the morning would be a good time to worship.  I think I found a footnote in my Bible that says “Those who worship must worship in Spirit and in Truth at 10:00”

 

And the revised versions says 10:00 or later!

 

But I digress – that’s not the point.  The point is that the temple has been transformed now from an exterior structure to an interior attitude.  It is no longer a place, it is no longer a time, it is no longer a source of identity for a single nation. 

 

Now it is a conversion of the heart that binds nation to nation, that brings forgiveness and peace between peoples, that redeems the glory of God from the pride of kings and priests and entrusts it to the hearts of the blessed poor in spirit, the blessed who mourn, the blessed meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake.

 

This transformation of the temple is beautifully presented to us in the hymn we sang at the beginning of our worship this morning, an adaptation of the psalm we read, Psalm 24.

 

As best we know, Psalm 24 was used in a procession at Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem when the Ark of the Covenant was brought in.  It was a great and glorious ceremony when this ancient relic of Jewish life, this chest containing the very tablets of the law that God gave to Moses, was marched around the city and brought up the hill to the doors of the temple surrounded by people and priests shouting out to open the gates.  The psalm is a dialog between those inside the gates and those outside with the Ark:

 

            7 Lift up your heads, O gates!

                        and be lifted up, O ancient doors!

                        that the King of glory may come in.

            8 Who is the King of glory?

                        The LORD, strong and mighty,

                        the LORD, mighty in battle.

            9 Lift up your heads, O gates!

                        and be lifted up, O ancient doors!

                        that the King of glory may come in.

            10 Who is this King of glory?

                        The LORD of hosts,

                        he is the King of glory.

 

Then the doors open, and the Ark passes through and is ushered in to the Holy of Holies.

 

Well, the writer of our hymn recasts this ceremony.  It is no longer the Ark entering the Holy of Holies in the Temple, but Christ entering into the heart of the believer.  The temple has moved from a place long ago and far away to here and now.   And I say here and now not because we are in church, but because we are the church, because we are the body of believers, because we are among those who welcome the Lord into their lives.

 

Or at least, hopefully, that is why we have gathered here today.  Because if there is one thing this transformation of the Temple teaches, it is that the outward ceremonies of religious ritual have no power to convey the presence of the King of Glory; no power unless they are done in that spirit and in that truth which opens the heart to God and which in humility embraces forgiveness, reconciliation, and mercy. 

 

Embraces it for itself and expresses it in relationships with others wherever they are, whoever they are, under any and all circumstances of life.

 

You and I might feel a bit inadequate to this task.  We might easily think at this point that our lives are not well suited to be a temple for the glory of God.  I certainly don’t feel there is anything special about my life that makes it more or less glorious or godly than the lives of most other people I know.  But this transformation does not depend primarily on the quality of our lives, but on the grace and glory of God.

 

Paul notes this very clearly.  He writes:

 

2 Corinthians 4:5-12 5 For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake. 6 For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

            7 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.

 

This story is not really about us – about whether we’re good, bad, or indifferent.  It’s about God and what God has done.  Solomon wanted to give the people a taste of the glory of God by providing them with a grandiose and extravagant physical space, a mighty temple with shining stone and glittering gold and elaborate ritual.  But God chose to make his glory small and humble in the birth of a baby.  God chose to make his glory a matter of justice and kindness in the works of healing and mercy performed by an iterant preacher named Jesus of Nazareth.  God chose to frame his glory in the stark outlines of a man nailed to a cross and buried in a tomb.

 

Then, when God’s glory had been reduced to nothing, it exploded in a resurrection blast, and it filled the lives of the women who came to weep at the tomb, it filled the lives of the disciples who were hiding in a darkened room, it filled the lives of those who heard the gospel preached and those who believed and trusted in the God who had broken free of temple and tomb.

 

That God dwells now not in buildings made of wood and stone, but in the hearts and minds of an imperfect and very human people.  People who need forgiveness, people who need healing, people who have doubt as well as faith, people who stumble and fall and turn and turn again.  It is not in perfection that the glory of God is made known in this human temple, but in the willingness to hear the gospel call and in the effort to respond and grow and keeping pressing forward and never give up.

 

The temple has been transformed and entrusted to a new generation for witness to the glory of God.

 

Redeemer come, we open wide our hearts to you; here, Lord, abide!

Let us your inner presence feel,

Your grace and love in us reveal.

Amen.

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