Sunday, August 23, 2009

Pentecost 12 - Year B

Today's OT reading is about the climax of Solomon's reign – his crowning achievement. The temple is finished and the ark of the covenant – the ark where the tablets that held the 10 commandments while the people of Israel journeyed through the wilderness - is laid to rest in the temple’s inner sanctuary after a long journey.

It is a treasured moment. And yet, for all that God's people have achieved, for all that God had done for them, mixed emotion probably ran through the crowd.

Yes, FINALLY, they are like other nations. They have a strong king, a thriving capital city (Jerusalem), and a temple in which to worship. They had arrived.

And yet – at what price?

They have a king – but like all other kings, this king kills his enemies a bit too freely. This king lives a lavish lifestyle on the backs of his people.

They have a capital city and strong infrastructure - as well as the headaches that go with that: excessive taxation, centralized governing authorities who protect their own interests rather than the peoples' they are supposed to serve.

They have a temple in the centre of the city. A church. A Cathedral. A house in which to worship their God. But God's house was built with forced labour. Slaves. And adorned with gold while the people went hungry.

It's like the people of Israel had forgotten their past. It's like they'd forgotten who God is and how God wants them to live.

And, although Solomon comes off in this story as a fully devoted servant of the Lord, we know that that's not always the case.

He is wise – yes – but so often he's more like a back room deal maker than a philosopher king. A cynical politico rather than an enlightened sage. A player rather than a guru.

He forges political alliances expanding Israel's borders, growing richer and more powerful while his people struggle under the burdens of his wars and are weighed down by the taxes and the labour he demands to finance his ambitions.

And while that's all good for Solomon, it's not so good for his people – and ultimately, not for Solomon himself.

His alliances with other countries open his eyes to what he doesn't have. He gets greedy. Starts needless wars. He marries women from other countries, adding them to his collection. But he also worships their gods, building temples to those gods, too, insulting the new temple he had built for the Lord, ignoring his oath of faithfulness.

The judgment finally falls on him in chapter 11,

"Since this has been your practice and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you,” says the Lord, “ I will surely tear the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant. Yet for the sake of David your father I will not do it in your days, but I will tear it out of the hand of your son. However, I will not tear away all the kingdom, but I will give one tribe to your son, for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem that I have chosen."

Solomon's empire was ending before it had barely begun.

And yet not all of this is clear as the people celebrated the dedication of the Temple. No doubt there were rumblings and rumours about what was taking place, questions to Solomon's staff, queries for their king.

But for today, they were in awe over the presence of God in this place, the SHEKINAH, as it is called in Hebrew – the very tangible, presence of the Almighty touching them as they gathered in the Holy Place. The same presence that was a pillar of fire by night that guided them all those years through the wilderness.

Whether they were elated or angry, they had now become a great nation, that awesome presence in the temple was a reminder to them that the God of this great kingdom of Israel was the same God that led a ragtag cluster of slaves out of Egypt and into freedom, the same God that led them through the desert for 40 years, the same God that gave them new laws and fresh insights into how they were to live as God's people. The same God that loved them fiercely, and asked only for their faithfulness in return.

And now they worshiped this God in this temple. This temple built by slaves by a king whose ambitions taxed them into near starvation. And despite all the grandeur of the Temple and the king's politcal successes, this is what Solomon's prayer comes down to: asking God to be faithful to a people who are often unfaithful.

Nothing about gold. Not a word about power or wealth. Absent from this prayer is any request for strength or greatness. Not a sound about enlarging his borders.

What Solomon asks for is a heart of worship, without which even he in all his glory could go on. Solomon asks for a God who listens, a God who forgives, a God who cares for the whole world, even for strangers who don't know who God is.

Solomon asks for a God who loves, those who are unfaithful, who loves those who fail, who loves those get angry with each other and with God.

Solomon asks for a God whose first impulse is to forgive rather than to condemn. To bring justice to an unjust world. Mercy to an unmerciful world. A God who is willing to start the relationship with us all over again when that relationship falls apart.

In the surrounding verses, not read today, Solomon asks God to LISTEN when someone is unjustly accused of a crime, to listen to those defeated in battle, to listen those struggling to calm their swelling bellies and aching hearts; to listen to those being crushed by oppression and trampled by disease; to listen to those vanquished by doubt and ruined by grief.

Solomon prays for you. He prays for us. Today.

We know that all those things still happen, we know that the world still groans in pain, despite Solomon's earnest prayer.

But the hope that lives inside his prayer is that God WILL listen when we cry out. That God DOES listen.

Our churches are signs and symbols calling us to worship, just as the temple was. Our churches, we know, are by no means perfect. Like the temple we may have mixed feelings about church. How we use our money, how we get along with each other, how we struggle to live how God wants us to live, how we sometimes DON'T live how God wants us to live.

Sometimes our churches are signs of excess; sometimes they invoke God's presence; often both.

But our churches are also monuments to God's ears, reminders to all of us that no matter what our circumstances, whether we're like Solomon in the heights of glory and wisdom, or like Solomon in the depths of unfaithfulness and loss, God listens. God hears. God's presence will always remain listening to our cries for help. And God's faithfulness will gather us back to God when we are unfaithful.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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