For his fourth birthday, our family pooled their funds and we bought my son a wooden play set. My wife, my inlaws, and I worked for two and a half days to screw it all together. It was one of the most arduous tasks I’ve ever been involved in. I’m not the best builder to begin with, but I wanted our son to have something to play with in the yard! So we re-drilled holes, screwed it together, and he had a “tree house” he could call his own.
And that’s when I realized how much having a place meant to him. He wanted to play there every morning, and every night. He wanted to climb and jump and slide, to throw “gumballs” at each other, to play hide’n’seek. And he wanted to have lunch there.
Now, I’m not sure what the weight limitations are on this play set, but I know I exceed them. I’m not exactly Mr. Flexible to begin with, but getting up the ladder and into the little clubhouse is a real stretch. But my son wanted to have lunch there, so we made it work.
I have this image of God trying to condense himself into “tree house” size to “fit” inside the Temple that Solomon built. It’s not that I think Solomon didn’t get it in the Scripture for today; it’s just that I think we fail to see the epic nature of God outside of time and space!
Solomon sets out to complete what his father could not. He enlists the help of a rich ally of his father’s, intent on building a holy place for Yahweh God to “be.” He selects only the best supplies, the best pieces, to build the most beautiful Temple anyone had ever seen. He gathered up all of the important people, packed up the ark of the covenant, and everything sacred to his people, and he sacrificed until they couldn’t count the sheep anymore. When the ceremony was over, it says that the cloud representing God’s presence filled the temple, that the glory of the Lord was so great that none of the people could enter.
When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple. Can you imagine that? It says in Exodus that when Moses used to meet with God to get instructions for how to lead the people, that the people couldn’t handle looking at him because his face shone so brightly. Consider the glory of God that it was so explosive, so powerful, so majestic, that people couldn’t handle being in “direct contact,” like someone who’s taking antibiotics and has to steer clear of the sun.
Solomon is pretty pleased with himself: he has built the most magnificent temple to any god, anywhere. Remember, he’s still operating under the assumption that “place” is pretty important to God, that even though God has said that he’ll be with his people wherever they go (and repeated himself several times), they still have this perception that if God isn’t happy with them, he’ll leave.
But what if space or location doesn’t matter to God? What if God’s greatest joy in the building of the Temple was that Solomon spent time with him? What if God didn’t care how ornate or magnificent it was but rather that it was made by God’s people for God? Do you understand God to be of a fixed point or a location, or do you recognize that God wants to be with you?
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
This idea isn’t that God needed a space to make himself known to us, but that Solomon needed a space to be able to understand where God was. God didn’t need us to know Jesus but God knew we needed to know God, and Jesus was the way we could wrap our minds and hearts around God. God didn’t come near to us, to be with us, because he needed to know us better, he came so we could experience God’s love.
But God took it a step further: God stayed. In Acts, the disciples wait in Jerusalem (again, the holiest of holy places at the time) and await the promised “gift.” By the death of Jesus on the cross, God liberated us from sin and death; with the arrival of the Holy Spirit, God has made himself available to the believers all of the time.
In the last verse of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” John M. Neale’s hymn calls on God one last time,
“O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace.”
Having already prayed for mercy, for knowledge, and for the promise of heaven, Neale points toward the future time when God will be near to us, personal, close, and forever. But Neale recognizes that God’s proximity is in direct correlation to us being open to the way God wants us to live: for us to truly recognize that God is with us, we must live our lives in a way that is pleasing to him.
If we can see that God doesn’t need a place, that God has come near, that God IS near, then the question remains, are we acting like it? Are we treating ourselves like the Holy Spirit lives within us? Are we interacting with our family, our friends, our coworkers like they could in fact be Jesus? Because of the Holy Spirit is in us… it could be in them, too.
Recognizing that God came near, because he loved us that much, changes everything. Recognizing that Jesus came here once and that he’s coming again sets us up to recognize that we’re not alone, and challenges us to consider the way we interact with Christ in others. Colin Raye simplified it for us when he asked “what if Jesus came back like that?” laying out the case for Jesus as a hobo or a drug addict, and asks us if we’re a place God would want to be?
It’s a lot like preparing the house for company. There are things I’m doing all of the time, like the laundry or the dishes. But I can let the dust slide, maybe fail to vacuum as often as I should. And then the guests are going to be there the next day, and it’s a pell-mell race to get everything looking just right. Would it look like that if Jesus was coming? Would you have to “scrub up” your life, throw out a bunch of trash, to make it presentable?
Solomon made a temple, and God squeezed himself into Solomon’s idea of space and time to meet with his people there. Then he became a man to live like us and with us, so we could see what sacrificial love looked like. When he comes again, will our lives be open and ready to receive him? Will we be ready?
This is the 9 a.m. sermon for The Stand UMC on September 1, 2013, at Blandford UMC on South Crater Road, Petersburg.