Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Last week we focused on the tabernacle of God, the holy tent in which God essentially camped out with the ancient Israelites on their way through the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan. So important was it to their theology that God moved around like this, in that God-tent, that it created a dilemma when King Solomon finally built a temple in Jerusalem years later. That’s where we picked up the story this morning, in I Kings 8.
As recently as the reign of Solomon’s father King David, who had also inquired about building a temple, God told David no, I don’t need a permanent home like that. “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.” (2 Samuel 7:6) But David’s son Solomon finally gets the green light, and if you were to look back at the chapters immediately preceding our text for today, you would read of the new temple’s impressive scale, the quarried stone with which it’s constructed, walls entirely lined with elaborate carvings out of cedar overlaid with pure gold. You’d read about the elegant sculptures and vessels and furnishings of the temple, many of them made of gold as well. Temple, rather than tabernacle, would now be what Jonathan Alter calls “a terrestrial communications center for speaking with God.” And what a communications center it would be!
But even in Solomon’s prayer of dedication for this glorious temple, the tension is easy enough to spot. Did you hear him as he fell all over himself trying to put it into words? “God, I know you can’t possibly live here. You’re too big for heaven itself – there’s not a chance you could fit into this temple made with human hands. Yet I believe you will be here, that you will keep your eyes open toward this place day and night, sothat to pray here is to meet you in a particular way.” (paraphrase of 1 Kings 8:27-30)
Solomon’s walking a bit of a tightrope here. As we noted last week, a tabernacle is portable; it’s moveable. God camped out with the people of Israel in that worship-tent that was set up and torn down as they moved from place to place. So when Solomon builds a house for God – a temple made of solid materials like stone and wood and gold, located in a fixed spot – he wants to be clear: Yahweh hasn’t gotten stuck! God’s still on the move, temple or no temple. (Something that will be extremely important for them to remember years later when the temple itself is destroyed.)
Anywhere God is is holy. And God is everywhere. So does it make any difference where we worship God? No, not really. And yet…
And yet there clearly was something special about that temple in Jerusalem. Something about that space that was different from other spaces. Think about the amazing visions of God that would later take place in the temple, like the one the prophet Isaiah describes of the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, the hem or train of his robe filling the temple. (Isaiah 6) “If the portability of the tabernacle taught Israel that God was on the move … the majesty of the temple taught Israel that God was an awesome and holy presence.”
Nothing but the best would do, then, to equip this holy space for the worship of a holy God. If Solomon’s temple dedication prayer reminds us there ain’t no temple grand enough truly to house God (“even heaven and the highest heavens cannot contain you,” he says, “much less this house that I have built!”), then the magnificence of the temple’s construction conveys there ain’t no offering splendid enough for God’s sanctuary either.
There’s something about a sanctuary – whatever it’s particular architecture– that can speak to us of God’s transcendence. God’s otherness, that is. God’s mystery.
Have you ever had an experience of a particular space that is holy for you in a way others are not? Celtic Christians call them thin places, places where the veil between this world and the heavenly realm seems somehow easier to step through. A couple weeks ago we read about Moses herding his father-in-law’s sheep when he suddenly sees a burning bush and finds himself standing on holy ground. (Exodus 3:1-6) Earlier, in the book of Genesis, the patriarch Jacob falls asleep one night and has a vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder stretched from heaven to earth. “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it” Jacob says. This “is none other than the house of God,” he goes on, “and the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:10-17) Are their places in your life that have caused you to say “surely the Lord is here”?
In my own experience there’ve been several. There was St. Andrew’s Episcopal church in Albany, New York – the old grey stone building with the bright red doors – candles and colorful altar cloths and sung liturgy and kneelers in the pews … And there was a circle of rough-hewn logs on a hillside by a small camp lake in the Adirondack mountains, a space used for outdoor chapel services and campfire sing-alongs and, whenever I could manage it, for my own private prayers as well… There was the tiny unfurnished room with the worn Persian carpet downstairs at the Episcopal Student Center at college, where 10 or 12 of us would sing our hearts out every Sunday night before sharing a simple communion meal…There was Princeton University chapel, with its Gothic architecture and gorgeous stained glass windows depicting the great heroes of our faith… And there was Princeton Seminary chapel, with its clean white lines, stark simplicity, and perfectly clear windows, allowing me to worship while taking in a beautiful display of fall colors…
There was also the church to which I was ordained, Chestnut Grove Presbyterian in Phoenix, Maryland, and how wonderful to have two people here this morning who remember that day as well! If I went back even now I'm sure I'd be able to feel the Holy Spirit that was in our midst that day as I was privileged to be surrounded and supported by prayers and the laying on of hands at that moment of entering pastoral ministry.
And of course there is this sanctuary, whether in the joyful energy of Sunday morning worship or in the serenity of candlelight and “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve…or even on an ordinary weekday morning, when I come in here for other reasons (task oriented as ever) and find myself lingering, as if I’ve been waiting to exhale and been given a moment to breathe in the presence of God. Surely, the Lord is in this place.
If with Solomon our question for the day is whether it makes any difference where we worship God, again the answer is “no, not really” and “sure, it does” both at the same time.
Because – think about it - we do gather here as a community of faith to meet God. And when we’re lucky, (or should I say when we’re blessed or graced) we actually do. It may not be a knock-your-socks off moment like Isaiah had in the temple. It may not involve smoldering shrubbery or visions of angels a la Moses or Jacob. But I hope you experience a little of God’s mystery in this holy place. For at its best, “the space of worship vibrates with the potential of an encounter between God and humanity.”
As I approached Pledge Sunday this year with both temple and tabernacle in mind, I also found myself humbled by those ancient Israelites giving God, in God’s sanctuary, their very best. By Solomon’s day so much wealth was concentrated in the king’s hands that it appears he’s funding most of the operation, and he does so on an impressive scale. But did you know back in Exodus it was the whole congregation that brought in offerings to build the tabernacle? In Exodus 35 we read: “they came, everyone whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing, and brought the Lord’s offering to be used for the tent of meeting and for all its service … all who were of a willing heart brought … all sorts of gold objects… and everyone who could make an offering of silver or bronze brought it… All the Israelite men and women whose hearts made them willing to bring anything for the work the Lord commanded, brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord.” (Exodus 35:21-29)
It’s easy for us to limit our own offerings to God to tiny remnants and leftovers, after we’ve spent most of our money funding other things we believe to be more important. What would it look like for us really to give God our first and our finest?
Tabernacle and temple. God forever on the move. God forever in his holy sanctuary.
Surely the Lord is in this place. What a gift that is! Let’s celebrate that gift today as we dedicate ourselves and our offerings to God’s service.
 Jonathan Alter, The Hebrew Bible: The Prophets, p. 468.
 Tom Long, Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship, p. 70
 Long, 76.