What Have We Built Here? — 12 November 2023

Pastor Adrianne Meier
12 November 2023
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana

What Have We Built Here?

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1 Kings 5: 1-6, 13-14

Now King Hiram of Tyre sent his servants to Solomon when he heard that they had anointed him king in place of his father, for Hiram had always been a friend to David. Solomon sent word to Hiram, saying, “You know that my father David could not build a house for the name of the LORD his God because of the warfare with which his enemies surrounded him, until he put them under the soles of his feet. But now the LORD my God has given me rest on every side; there is neither adversary nor misfortune. So I intend to build a house for the name of the LORD my God, as the LORD said to my father David, ‘Your son, whom I will set on your throne in your place, shall build the house for my name.’ Therefore command that cedars from the Lebanon be cut for me. My servants will join your servants, and I will give you whatever wages you set for your servants, for you know that there is no one among us who knows how to cut timber like the Sidonians.”

King Solomon conscripted forced labor out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men. He sent them to the Lebanon, ten thousand a month in shifts; they would be a month in the Lebanon and two months at home; Adoniram was in charge of the forced labor.

Uzziah—you remember him—was the tenth king of the divided kingdom of Judah. He once tried to burn incense in the Temple, but it didn’t go so well. The high priest considered this an attempt to take their power.The earth shook, and Uzziah was immediately struck with leprosy. His son ruled in his place for eleven years,until Uzziah died and was buried separately from the other kings, a testimony to the divine will to which even the most powerful must bow. The year he died, a little known priest was performing his duty in the Templewhen everything was suddenly changed. Statues of seraphim came alive, and they sang a song that reverberated into the heavens: “Holy, holy, holy Lord, Lord God of heaven and earth, heaven and earth are full of your glory!” For the first time, Isaiah understood what had been built here: no mere house, but the space in which the divine might hold court, might speak to the faithful, might rule and judge with justice and might. Later, in the book of Isaiah, a prophet returning from exile would see the rebuilt temple as sanctuary— a place of welcome and safety for all people. Jesus and his disciples would later view the Temple Herod rebuilt, a massive building, “Look at these stones!” the disciples would say. Jesus would suggest a different Temple worth marveling at— his own self. Throughout Scripture, even to this day, the faithful wonder at the Temple and ask, “What is it we have built here?”

You know, David had longed to build the temple— the historians attribute it to his faithfulness, his being a man after God’s own heart, but such a building would be the perfect evidence of his right—and the right of his sons—to rule the people. It would be evidence that this right to rule was divinely ordained. It would be kind of evidence that could secure their rule for generations, or so they hoped. David aged and grew weary, and the transition of power was far from seamless. His son, Solomon lacked his father’s popularity and charisma. The Temple would be a sign of his wisdom, an economic and architectural marvel. It was beautiful, the finest timber and stone were contributed  and, fulfilling the last of Samuel’s warnings about kings, Israel was virtually enslaved for its building. Unfortunately for Solomon and for all of Israel, he also builds several palaces for himself and his foreign-born wives, presumably with the same labor model. His lavish homes dwarfed the splendid Temple. His excess will prove to be his downfall. Yet, when he stepped back to admire his work and dedicate the Temple, the wisdom of God shined through this man, and he told the people that the Temple did not—could not—contain God. As if God could be confined to a hall one hundred cubits by fifty by thirty high!Rather, what is enthroned is the mysterious and wonderful name of God, making the Temple a place not for a single person, or a solitary people, but a place of prayer for all people.

The Temple was always built to be more than a just building, more than a cold, stone edifice that housed a cold, stone statue god. Solomon’s seven blessings echo the seven speeches Moses gave for the inauguration of the Tabernacle— seven speeches which echo the seven statements by which God creates the world: let there be light! The holy of holies—the center of the Temple— housed, not a statue, but the ark—God’s footstool. This was not a throne, but a “mercy seat.” And where the temples of other deities remained ruins when their associated kingdoms fell, the returned exiles, still subjects of a kingdom not their own, rebuilt the Temple as a symbol of their connection to God.

Some years ago, I toured a church in Miami. At the time, they were worshipping in a gym and the pastors rented offices in a WeWork building, when that was a thing. They had sold their building to become high rise apartments— microapartments, I’m not sure if that is still a thing, after lockdown. And they had a long-term lease on the bottom floors to be their new worship spaces. I asked what it was like to build in a place like Miami, that might be underwater in our lifetimes. What have we built? After the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD,both Christians and Jews had to learn to live without the Temple. Not ironically, both groups looked to Scripture and asked if God really dwelt in the temple. And then they built something else: communities of the faithful.For Christians, the Temple was Jesus and the Temple was the Church. The liturgical theologian Gail Ramshaw writes, “To meet God, Christians assemble to meet one another. The baptized people now house the Spirit of God, and so they can be called God’s temple. The community is now holy. It is as if we could sing, ‘Holy, holy, holy’ to one another at the sign of the peace and make profound bows to one another at communion.” When the Temple fell, the question fell too. No longer could we ask, what have we built here? But now, it is: what have we…been built into?

In her book This Odd and Wondrous Calling, Pastor Lillian Daniel writes about a woman who is entering hospice care. A nurse or doctor is attempting to make a list of her family members— the people permitted to visit her. So the woman starts listing folks, and the nurse would interrupt and ask how these people were related to her. They are all members of her church. It takes some time for the nurse to catch on: she has no family, but only family is allowed to visit. It took a little time, but, the nurse mutters, “‘Okay. It’s like the church is her family.” Daniel writes, “Perhaps it is the same note that God made long ago in the book of cherished life.” What have we been built into?

The Temple that Solomon built was imperfect. It was—and always would be—too small to hold even a fraction of God’s mercy, let along God’s very self. If this building is a Temple, if it houses God at all, that is only because this building is where God’s people gather. And yet, what about the Temple that is us? We, too, have been built into something less than ideal. We aren’t some perfect community where we all agree and no one ever hurts, Beloved. We probably don’t do enough or say enough or love well enough. But what we’ve been built into is a community that forgives one another, that shares in life’s triumphs and disasters. We’ve been built into a community that seeks to enrich the lives of our neighbors, that stands beside the hated and despised, that lives, shares, and celebrates God’s grace with all people. We have been built into the body of Christ, given for the sake of the world. Amen.