Sermon on 1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-45 (and Ephesians 6:10-20) — Preached on August 27, 2012
A few years ago, I started following the blog of Jon Acuff who blogs at a self-created site, “Stuff Christians Like.” If you have never read anything of his before, I urge you to check it out. It started out as a Christian satire site — Jon is a Christian and has learned over the years to cleverly poke fun at things that Christians do that might seem weird or different to those who do not consider themselves Christian. Those of you who know me — you know that this is right up my alley. In 2008, Jon wrote a post that reminds me a bit of Solomon in the passage today. See — I believe, using Mr. Acuff’s words here, that Solomon was a prayer ninja. Yes, you heard me correctly. Solomon is a prayer ninja. Allow me to explain:
In Jon’s blog, he describes the subtle ways to discover prayer ninjas among groups of people. As you know, a ninja is traditionally known for being stealthy and hiding in plain sight — and a prayer ninja is no different. Prayer ninjas are the people who are really, really good at praying aloud in front of people and knowing exactly what to say. They use common language — not all that seminary jargon — and they use their normal voice rather than changing it to sound more important or more dramatic. Prayer ninjas are humble and wise and you will find them everywhere, if you only take the time to look. All this to say, Solomon is a prayer ninja.
This scripture today from first Kings is just part of a huge prayer that Solomon offers to God as a dedication of sorts for the completed temple. For a little background knowledge, this temple was originally going to be built by King David, Solomon’s father.
You remember King David, right?
Anointed as a youth, fought Goliath, wrote a lot of psalms David.
Well see, David, while a great King and loyal to God was not without his own mistakes. After marrying another man’s wife and having her husband killed on the front lines — God wasn’t too keen on having David built God’s temple. While God still promised that great things would come from David’s family tree — God passed the torch of building the temple to David’s son, Solomon.
Which, in my humble opinion, wasn’t a bad choice on God’s part.
Solomon had proven himself to be a pretty wise-guy. Wait — not a wise guy like 3 stooges kind of wise-guy — but a very wise man who was determined to be faithful to the God of Israel – Solomon was given the task of building the temple. Now, this was a big deal. Like, a really big deal. Up until this time, the ark of the covenant (which was a huge structure that reminded the Israelites of the covenant between God and h Abraham) had been stored in temporary tents. So this temple was a sign of stability. Of a permanent place of worship for a wandering people. It was a big deal.
So, when the temple is finally finished after 7 years — Solomon gives this great speech to the people of Israel. Then our passage for today comes in — he places himself before the altar of the Lord and in front of all the people present spreads his arms high and wide and starts his prayer ninja prayer. Today, I want to highlight a few great things that Solomon does in this prayer:
Solomon starts with a thanksgiving, which reminds the people and God of the covenant that was promised. The covenant between his father, David, and God which was being carried out through Solomon’s building of the temple.
This is our first clue that Solomon is a prayer ninja.
Solomon recognizes that all of the hard work, turmoil and sacrifice that the Israelites have made over the years has not been in vain. I’m sure that sometimes it must have felt like they were doing all of this work for nothing. At least at some points. I imagine that the Israelites weren’t too happy to get up early every single morning to piece together a temple that they couldn’t see the whole blueprint for.
In fact, they probably didn’t know how long this whole temple was going to take to build, so there wasn’t even a guarantee that they would be around to see the completion. And what or who were they working for?
The Israelites didn’t have the best track record with the God of Israel. They were often found complaining, grumbling, building idols of other gods and the like — until someone ended up pointing out the error of their ways and starting them anew.
Solomon knows this history. He knows that the people are tired and weary and need some hope and direction.
Especially hope in the God of Israel.
So his prayer addresses the people and God — Solomon reminds the people of the reason for their hard work. This temple is a sign to the people that the God of Israel is present with them.
I think sometimes we fall into a similar predicament – at least, I know I do. I often identify with the plights of the Israelites in the old testament. I want to see the blue print. No, no I’m not actually building anything concrete — but in my own life. And I would venture to say that some of you might have had similar questions about your own direction in life. Allow me to share an example — especially since this is theological education Sunday.
Almost 2 years ago now, I was once again contemplating what my calling in life was supposed to be. I had a full-time teaching position, a nice apartment, a yappy dog — I was definitely comfortable. I had transferred my membership from here at United to First Pres of Arlington Heights near where I lived and was involved with the youth and other bible studies there. Comfortable.
But then things started to happen. Little things. I never had one of those moments where there was a white light surrounding me and I felt all the warm fuzzies inside tell me to attend seminary and become a pastor.
Nope. If only it were so easy.
There was no manual for this.
No manual for quitting a full time job in a semi-recovering economy to attend a full-time 3 year seminary education program.
No blue prints to prove that when I left one job behind to become a student again that I was absolutely doing the right thing.
No definitive voice from God in my ear telling me that this was the calling I had been looking for … nope. Nope.
None of that.
But there was prayer. Not by me, mind you. I’m the Israelite in this story, remember? I’m definitely not prayer ninja Solomon — not that I didn’t pray, but that I was so confused and stressed out — I was unable to articulate my own prayers and listen attentively for direction.
But I had those prayer people in my life. People who would chat and pray with me — reminding me of the promises that God had made in my life. Of God’s presence. Much like the temple was a sign of God’s presence to these Israelites, these people were representations of God’s presence in my own life. For those people, I am still grateful and will continue to be.
So back to Solomon the prayer ninja. Another kind of awesome thing that Solomon does in this dedication prayer is honor the mystery and uncontainable nature of God. In verse 27, Solomon says, “But how could God possibly live on earth? If heaven, even the highest heaven, can’t contain you, how can this temple that I’ve built contain you?” Now, this might seem a little out of the ordinary here. Solomon is asking how can God possibly live on earth? Wait a second. Didn’t they just spend 7 years building a temple for God to live in? Didn’t Solomon just start out his prayer reminding the Israelites that their work was not in vain? If God’s not able to live in the temple — then what’s the point of building it?
And again, I will say — Solomon is a prayer ninja.
He’s a very wise man.
Solomon knew that the wondrous, awesome power of the Almighty would not be able to be contained within a structure built my human hands. It just wasn’t and still isn’t possible. The Hebrew word for “live” in this verse is the word “yeshev” which is often translated as dwell. In the Hebrew text — God never yeshev’s in a human structure — God only visits, or tents in those places. Even in the temple that is built in this passage, this is true.
The temple is a symbol of the presence of God — a place where God visits and can be with God’s people — but God is not contained and limited to the 4 walls of the temple.
Solomon’s acknowledgement of this in his prayer has a powerful meaning for us today as well. We too, have symbols of God’s presence with us. Some of these are personal — a cross, a keychain, a special Bible that was given to us by a mentor. These things remind us of God’s presence with us — they do not necessarily contain God within the plastic of the keychain — but they serve as reminders and we are able to feel God’s presence when we see or feel these special objects.
Some of our symbols are communal — the baptismal font, the beautiful cross that is up here every week , and even this building itself. This building is a representation of God’s presence with us. God is present here. But God is not contained within these walls. God is also present in so many other places of worship this morning, in the field outside, and God is present with those who decided sleeping in was the best choice for them this morning. God is not contained and limited to the walls here at United — God is so much bigger than that. And when we remember that this building is not God —- we are free to experience God’s presence anytime. Not just for an hour on Sunday mornings when we are in this building — but we are free to experience God with our neighbors, with our loved ones — we are then able to experience God with our friends and with our enemies, in both the light places of life and the dark ones.
One last part of Solomon’s prayer that I would like to highlight with you, but definitely not the least of importance, comes towards the end of our passage today. Solomon prays that the immigrant, who comes from afar because of God’s reputation — that their prayers should be heard by God as well.
Now, this is big news.
Back in Solomon’s time — immigrants and visitors from other nations and cultures were not really welcomed with open arms. Cities were built with walls around them in order to protect themselves from outside invasions and attacks. In those days, there would have been lookouts and guards in order to keep themselves safe. The Israelites were supposed to be a group of people who were set apart for God — kept holy.
This seems to not mix well — “well then, are we supposed to be separate from people of other nations, or are we supposed to welcome them” – I think this is what the Israelites might have been thinking in their heads as Solomon was praying this part of the prayer – “make up your mind!”
Looking at this part of the story through the lens of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that Pam read earlier — I think we can piece together what Solomon might have had in mind at this part of his prayer ninja prayer.
In the Ephesians passage, Paul uses military terminology for armor to describe what we, as Christians, are supposed to use and wear as followers of Christ. While this terminology is difficult for me, someone who has never fought in a biblical war, to understand — I can appreciate the transformation from armor of destruction to armor of love that Paul demonstrates in this passage. And definitely something that prayer ninja Solomon would have been interested in wearing. Instead of a belt holding weapons, Paul challenges us to a belt of Truth. Rather than a breastplate of metal — one of justice. We should have a shield of faith and a helmet of salvation – and finally our weapon of choice should be the sword of the spirit, or God’s word. Not a sword that pierces and harms people —- but one of love, justice and mercy that comes from the spirit of God and the word of God. In verse 12, Paul even says, “we aren’t fighting against human enemies…” While he was talking to the people of Ephesus — I can hear the truth ringing from these words for both the Israelites in Solomon’s day and for us in 2012. The battles that we have in this world are not with human enemies — but rather with spirits of evil. We are not to fight and battle and kill our sisters and brothers on this planet — but rather work together against the evils of hate, bigotry, and oppression in our world. We are allowed to disagree with the details that our brothers’ and sisters’ support — but the bigger picture of love and unity in this world need to have the ultimate victory.
See, a prayer ninja like Solomon isn’t just a person who comes up with the fancy words, or is long-winded — but a true prayer ninja both affirms and challenges the people who are listening. A true prayer ninja knows that with prayer comes action — actions of love and compassion with the people and the earth around us.
In the closing song today, “The Summons” one of the most profound verses, for me, is the 4th one:
Will you love the “you” you hide if I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?
Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around,
through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me?
This was part of Solomon’s prayer in today’s passage. Calling out the Israelites back then, and calling out to us now — whether we can see the blue print or not — quelling that fear inside us and changing our ways in the world. Using the faith that we have found in God — through symbols and through God’s people to reshape our world around us into a loving and compassionate world that reflects God’s love for all people: immigrant and domestic. We don’t all need to be prayer ninjas like Solomon — God knows that I’m not —- but rather we are called to listen to each other: in prayer, in conversation and challenge each other to better the world around us. Just as God called the Israelites to be a holy people, we too are called to be holy in this world and invite others to share in that holiness with us. May it be so. Amen.