A House for God

by David Baer, October 29, 2017

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Text: 1 Kings 5:1-5,8:1-13

Once, when I was in first grade, I was walking home along the busiest street in our neighborhood. None of the other kids walked along that street, but my parents didn’t know that, and they figured that it was safer for me to be in a place with more passersby. But there I was, hustling home with my backpack. Down the sidewalk came a big kid, a sixth grader, someone I recognized from school. When I was that age, sixth graders were practically adults–they were huge, and they played and talked and thought in a completely different way than I did. Anyway, along comes this kid on his bike. He stopped and asked me if I knew some other kid, whom he named. It was a name I recognized, so I said yes. “Do you know where he lives?” asked the older boy. I didn’t, and I said so. “Do you know him personally?” he asked. I wasn’t quite sure what that word meant. “Well, where do you live?” he asked.

That was all it took. The alarm bells went off in my head! I cast my eyes downward, slid off to the side, and continued on my way home without another word. You weren’t supposed to give out your address to strangers. I knew that. It was personal. Never mind that this was another kid, and he probably wouldn’t have done me any harm. I knew that if someone has your home address, they know where to find you. They’ve got your number, literally. Your home address is personal information.

And it’s still true when we’re adults. What is it you say when you hand your car keys to a friend? “Bring it back in one piece. I know where you live!” It’s a joking threat, but it only works because it’s true. If you know where someone lives, you know them well enough to hold them accountable, and to get in touch with them if anything goes wrong.

Where is God’s home? Where does God live? In heaven? Everywhere? In our hearts? Among the poor and brokenhearted? In a church building, in the house of God? So many answers, and each of them says something true about God. There’s a sense in which God is bigger than and other than everything we can see and touch, and so we say God lives in heaven, up there, as opposed to down here. On the other hand, the God we know is as near as our next breath and hears our prayers. So it makes sense to talk about a God who is everywhere, and who lives in our hearts. What’s more, the scriptures tell us that God cares particularly about those who are poor, oppressed, and hurting, and so we can talk about a God who makes a home among people such as these, people like us.

All this is good to know, but what’s God’s home address? If I want to contact God, where do I send my text? What’s God’s phone number? How do I get in touch?

Today we heard a story about Solomon, who gave God a home address. Solomon built the first Temple in Jerusalem. God’s people didn’t always have a Temple. When God first rescued them from slavery in Egypt and led them into the desert, there was a special tent where the people and their leaders would go to worship and pray. And, for a people on the move, it worked. The Tabernacle, as they called it, was a convenient movable shrine that they could carry with them, and it was always close by. Now, I don’t think they believed they were carrying God around with them. The Tabernacle wasn’t a house for God. It wasn’t for God’s benefit—it was for the benefit of people who wanted to pray, who wanted to come into God’s presence. It was a special place where God promised to show up and listen. It was God’s home address.

But when at long last God brought the people into the promised land, it was cumbersome to have to look for the Tabernacle. You had to know where it was at a particular time. So King Solomon received God’s blessing and built the Temple. At the end of the passage we read today, you hear Solomon marveling at the paradox of building a house for a God who lives everywhere and nowhere: “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness,” Solomon muses. “I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.”

The Temple was a beautiful, soaring stone structure, and it took a lot of work to build, thousands upon thousands of hours of labor. But if you think these workers were all happy to be working on God’s house, think again—Solomon built the Temple using forced, conscripted labor. Basically he had big, scary guys with weapons go round up able-bodied men and make them work on this and other building projects. In fact, Solomon’s forced-labor conscription was so unpopular that when his son Rehoboam inherited the throne and wanted this system to continue, it provoked a civil war and split the kingdom in two. Solomon built the Temple, but because of how he built it, he was the last king to rule over all of God’s people.

So here is another paradox: not only is this a house for a God who can’t be contained. It’s a house whose foundations were laid in injustice and exploitation, a house built on the backs of the poor, to honor a God who claims, time and again, to dwell with the lowly, to champion the cause of the poor, the oppressed, the foreigner. The Temple is a dispensation of God’s grace. It’s a home address, a place for God’s people to direct their prayers. The worship that takes place in it promises forgiveness and renewal and an ongoing relationship with God. But over the years, prophets from Jeremiah to Jesus will call the Temple a “den of thieves,” and denounce the way God’s people make use of this place and the worship that goes on there as a cover for injustice and oppression. Human sin touches everything we make—even something meant for such great good, even the Temple.

I’ve never been to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but my parents have. After seeing the ornate artwork, the bright gold everywhere, the beauty of a place where no expense was spared, my mother said, “I can understand why we needed a Reformation.” This Tuesday is the five-hundredth anniversary of the day Martin Luther tacked up his notice about a debate over what was essentially a fundraising campaign for St. Peter’s. The popes of those days, and the whole Roman Catholic church establishment, in their zeal to build a beautiful house for God, turned to moneymaking measures that cheapened the message of grace that had been entrusted to them. They allowed people to treat God’s forgiveness as though it could be bought and sold like ordinary goods. One of their advertising jingles went like this: “When the coin into the collection box rings, a soul from purgatory springs!” When Luther and other like-minded reformers took up the cause of correcting this mistaken understanding of God’s grace in Jesus, the result was a split in the church that continues down to the present day.

What are we to do? Whenever God’s people set out to build a house for God, a place to pray and worship and encounter the Almighty, we may finish the structure, but we never get off the ground, so to speak. Can there ever be a place where we can meet God without getting trapped in human brokenness?

In our gospel lesson this morning, we hear some words Jesus spoke after he had driven out the moneychangers and the sellers of animals from the Temple. When the authorities demand an accounting for this disruption, they ask him for a sign. What extraordinary proof can he give them to show that he has the right to upend the established system of worship in God’s house? “Destroy this temple,” Jesus says, “and in three days I will raise it up.” But he’s not talking about the structure they’re standing inside. He is speaking, we are told, of the temple which is his body.

Maybe sometimes in your walk with God you find yourself falling short. I can’t be the person God wants me to be. I can’t do what it is I feel God is calling me to do. Maybe you feel sometimes that you’re not getting off the ground. If so, join the club. The home we build for God, whether it’s made of wood or stone or in our hearts, is never free from our human failings.

But God does have a home address. It’s not a building raised by fallible human beings. God’s home address is not the sanctuary we’re sitting in. It’s not St. Peter’s in Rome. It’s not the First Temple or the Second Temple or the Wailing Wall. God’s home address is a person named Jesus. And that person turns over the tables in the flawed sanctuaries we build, in the institutions and structures that promise a stairway to heaven but keep us chained instead ever more firmly to the earth. And that person is God’s promise to be with us, to make a home among us even in the grave, to be our God and draw near and hear our prayers and bear us up in the everlasting arms. Thanks be to God. Amen.