God Seeps in like a Cloud – Everywhere
A sermon based on 1 Kings 8: 1,6,10-11, 41-43
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on August 26, 2018
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Once upon a time two men in a pub were arguing about a glass of spirits. It was a common beer hall philosophers’ debate– not “Taste great!” “Less filling!” but close. One insisted a glass was half full. The other insisted it was half empty. The two reached an impasse getting louder and louder with their claims. “Half full!” Half empty” “Half full!” “Half empty!” This went on and on until a woman they both knew walked in. One of the men called her over, poured a half glass and handed it to her. “Hey this lump says that is half full. I say that it is half empty. What is it?” The lady looked at the glass, then drank the contents. “What IS it?,” she said, “It IS . . . delicious!” 1
Theological arguments often remind me of that joke, or that joke reminds me of them. “Believe in my version of God.” “No, Believe in my version of God!” It goes on and on, but unlike the bar story those debates can get very nasty and mean losing all perspective on life and miss truly tasting living and love.
Most of us here know that people with differing theologies have protested outside our church, sent angry e-mails and written raging letters to the editor because they disagree with what they think we think and want us and others to only believe what they think is the one true version of theology.
Theological bullying can get much worse than protests and nasty letters. Families abandon members to the streets. Individuals get bullied, hurt, even killed. Strangers who do not believe as some religious people do are feared so much religious people ignore, or worse theologically support targeting groups of strangers. Terrorism has been wrought and wars have been fought and many deaths caused over theological disputes. “Holier than thou” – my idea of God requires me to hate anyone with an idea of god that is different– is a disease . . . a disease that can be very harmful. Some get so into their philosophies and their theologies they forget the taste of life that matters most, loving God and thy neighbor as thy self. Love is a far more important than differences in theologies.
Jesus asserts there is no commandment greater than love. None. But sadly some want to put God in box and unlovingly claim God only sides with them, only hears their prayers, only fully loves those who are like them in beliefs and heritage. This often leads to understanding God to reject other faiths, immigrants and even resident aliens for religious reasons. The idea of my-god-loaths-others’-gods-and-other peoples has been around for thousands of years. It is around now. It was around in when our lesson was written.
Today’s Lectionary text from the Old Testament was likely mostly written around the time of the Babylonian Exile, a time when God’s people were hauled off to a foreign land. A time when it would have been easy to hate on foreigner, and claim God hates on them too. But that is not what happens in the verses that we heard Tom read so well. Those verses are excerpts from Solomon’s famed prayer in 1 Kings– the prayer in its entirety is actually the longest prayer in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Most of us may recall King Solomon and remember that his father was King David. We might even remember that among the things that King David did was to reclaim the Ark of the Covenant and move it to Jerusalem. Once David got the Ark to Jerusalem he’d take it with him in battle, but otherwise kept it in a special tent called The Tabernacle. King David’s plan was to one day build a grand and permanent house for the Ark, a Temple. David, however, did not fulfill that plan.
After King David died his son and successor King Solomon carried on the quest to build a Temple to house the Ark of the Covenant. Solomon, as most of us know, succeeded and built a glorious Temple.
The prayer in I Kings 8 is prayed at what we might call the opening ceremony of the Temple. But first we catch a glimpse of the ceremony. The Ark of the Covenant is brought into the building and set in it special spot called “the most holy place.” A cloud then rolls into the building and fills the Temple in such a dense way the text tells us “the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord . . .” This signaled that Yahweh, God’s presence arrived in the Temple to reside and permeate the space. The point being that was to be no doubt whatsoever that God can be found in the Temple, that if you go there you will find God in all parts of the Temple.
As a Feasting on the Word commentary puts it: “The temple is to be the dwelling place of the name of God, and a focus for the knowledge and worship of God.” The commentary goes to point out something that many in Christianity ignore, forget or never learn “God is not confined to that [temple], nor is the scope of God’s concern and God’s work to be confined to the people of Israel.” 2. See while we have every right to believe that God is in this worship space and soaks this building through and through, we must not forget that God’s presence is not and cannot be confined to this space or any other place. Just as importantly God’s work and love is not, and cannot, be confined to those of the Jewish and Christian faiths.
The first part of our reading is about the physical presence of God being not just ethereal like a cloud, but “in heaven above” and “on earth below.” God is not a captive in the Temple or by the people of Israel. In fact the author of this passage gives as wide a swath as possible to both God’s immanent (natural) and transcendent (super-natural) natures. God’s existence is both here and beyond. So while we can claim to experience God we cannot claim to experience God fully. That is, God is here with us and in us but also well beyond us. We can hear this in the words of Solomon when he says: “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!”
Here is how the Feasting on the Word commentary summarizes the everywhere for everybody assertions about God in Solomon’s prayer:
The sophisticated theology of I Kings 8 grapples with both the prospects and pitfalls of Solomon’s erection of an official state shrine, This theology . . . upholds God’s gift of intimacy [immanence] with God’s people but simultaneously insists in God’s lofty independence from all parochial ties [transcendence]. With this theology understood, the symbolism of Solomon’s temple becomes a blessing for us rather than a xenophobic curse. 3
The point is that Solomon wisely sees beyond the theological arguments of “Half full!,” “Half empty!,” “God is this!,” “God is that!,” “I am right, you are wrong!” His theological answer to ‘What is it?” when asking about God, is akin to the woman in the bar’s answer “It is delicious!” 4.
Which in my opinion is at the end of the day is where all theology ought to end. Life is good; God is good, all the time (all the time God is good). THAT is the good news! And we must be a part of that goodness and good news!! So Solomon also wisely prays what we should all pray, what God wants him to do, what later Jesus and Paul teach Christians to do.
Solomon prays for what modern theologians call “radical hospitality.” he prays for it in the Temple 5. Quite remarkably Solomon prays that not only foreigners be welcome into the temple, but that God answers their prayers too! The King prayed:
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.
This is no less than a national prayer by a national leader pleading, at the very least, for tolerance in worship, for inclusiveness in worship, and for an honoring of strangers. We may disagree with the wisdom of that, but this is a Biblical model prayer for rulers of nations and for nations– by the person considered by many to be the wisest leader of a nation in the Bible! Moreover it is the model for all houses of worship and followers of Yahweh (God) in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Indeed it can be heard as no less than a solid theological claim of God embracing all of humanity. Where God is not the only concept that cannot be boxed in and bound by humans, but the concept of whom we pray for and who’s prayers we want answered needs to also know no bounds!
It’s such radical hospitality that the Temple is opened to everyone. And everyone’s prayers there were pled – by no less than King Solomon himself on opening day– to be answered. That’s amazing! God is understood to be so big that God not only seeps in like a cloud to soaks the Temple but soaks all of creation and beyond. God’s love can be heard to seep in and love everyone everywhere all the time. There are no strings attached to God’s presence or God’s love in King Solomon’s prayer–and that wise leader prays that be the case! That is an expression of radical hospitality.
I hear from time to time how the Old Testament seems to have leaders and a view of God that is not loving. But here’s this story defying that notion and it is not the only one. Radical hospitality is a constant theme in the Hebrew texts. Strangers are to be welcome and treated well and treated equally. To quote Leviticus 19:34 “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself.” The most famous words of Jesus about love actually come directly from the Old Testament “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” is also from Leviticus 19 (18). Indeed many Christians seem to forget that Jesus is a very Jewish Rabbi and his theology is derived from Sacred Jewish texts.
Solomon’s prayer was written while the Jews were in exile, strangers again in a strange land. And the part of his prayer that we are looking at today can be heard as an earlier Exilic version of “do to strangers in our temple what WE want done to ourselves in others’ temples.” And ask God to “do to their prayers as we’d want to done to our prayers.”
Jesus’ wisdom of course leads to this as well. His second most famous teaching is do to others what we want done to us. See love of neighbor and the gist of the Golden Rule is wisdom Solomon taught as a leader of a nation. Jesus the Christ whom we know as God incarnate taught that same wisdom. I find that awesome and significant and wise!
May we all leave here today thinking about the lesson of the wisdom of knowing that God and God’s love is boundless and cannot be contained. And may we and our nation and our nation’s leaders give due consideration to the wisdom in the prayer that Solomon prayed. A prayer that when people even those of other faiths come from distant lands that God hear their prayers and answer them, so that all the peoples of the earth may know God and that God is here and loves them unconditionally.
And as individuals and as church may everyone know we are Christians by our love . . . and by our belief in God, who’s love has no strings attached.
1. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 3 provides the basic joke which I rephrased.
2 Ibid. p 411
3 Ibid. 412
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2018 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED