1 Kings 8:1-13
by Daniel Harrell
If last Sunday was your first Sunday with us, welcome back. Though after hearing the Scripture this morning you may be thinking, seriously? More Mercy Seat? No doubt some of you wondered why I decided to preach on this arcane piece of Old Testament furniture last Sunday. What about the resurrection? You know, the empty tomb? There is a connection: both the Empty Mercy Seat and the Empty Tomb signal the silent and strong presence of Almighty God.
Silence was our theme during Lent, including Easter Sunday itself. Despite last week’s resounding worship and church packed with people, Jesus’ resurrection never made a sound. There’s the rolled back stone found by grieving women, an angel here and there, but as for the grave, there was only empty space, silent and vacant. Ours is a gospel with a massive hole in the middle, a profound silence that serves as the heart of the whole Biblical narrative.
As for those angels, Luke’s gospel had two of them inform the grieving women that Jesus was gone. But their message was not that Jesus was over and done with, but that he was now mightily present in ways that defied comprehension. Likewise on each side of the Mercy Seat, modeled after God’s heavenly throne, sat angels, two carved cherubim with outstretched wings framing an empty space in-between that defied comprehension. Here was the earthly presence of God, in that place in-between where love and relationship happen, in between persons, in between God and his people.
In the Old Testament, the Jewish high priest appeared every year before the Mercy Seat to entreat the Lord’s mercy on behalf of God’s people. There were sacrificed bulls and goats, and a scapegoat loaded up with the community’s sin and then chased out of town. Unfortunately none of this worked to get rid of anybody’s intentional sin. None of the bad stuff you did on purpose was ever covered. As we read from the book of Hebrews last Sunday, not until Jesus came as the true high priest, not until he appeared before the true mercy seat in heaven itself, not until Christ became scapegoat for sin and sacrificed his own blood was there ever genuine redemption, new life from the dead.
Risen from the dead, Christ fills all creation with his spirit, dwelling inside of us. But before that happened (a day we observe as Pentecost), Jesus hung out on earth some more so to prove that his resurrection was real. The days on the church calendar between Easter Sunday and Ascension Day call attention to this. In Luke’s book of Acts, the risen Jesus rose again, making room for the Spirit to rain down with wind and fire. Here in 1 Kings, we get a preview of sorts, as the Spirit of the Lord rains down in clouds and thick darkness. Though God’s presence remains primarily (and ironically) invisible silence, it’s nice to get visible proof now and then. Except that in Scripture, visible proof often proved absolutely terrifying. Even on Easter.
Many summers ago now I was playing golf with a longtime friend on a somewhat dubious day weather wise. The forecast called for afternoon thunderstorms with heavy downpours, but weather does little to dampen my golf game. I have very little game to dampen. My friend and I rounded the turn at just 9 over par (evidence, I discerned, of God’s presence), and the sky grew ominously dark. Stifling summer humidity gave way to a stiff cool wind. Trees swayed back and forth as their shadows disintegrated. Thunderclouds rapidly assembled. In these circumstances, its not recommended one stand on an elevated tee with a metal club in your hand. “LET ME JUST GET OFF THIS ONE LAST DRIVE!” I screamed above the howling gale. Just then a loud crack of thunder. No time to waggle. A second BOOM went off in the middle of my backswing. Now I’d have to start over. Then a third BOOM, followed by a huge tree limb crashing down toward me. I dove off the tee and hightailed it to the clubhouse. My friend looked at me like the idiot I was.
Fast forward to a more recent summer outing with this same friend, in kayaks on Lake Superior this time. We’d spent the week paddling and were camped for the night on another dubious day weather wise. The forecast called for evening thunderstorms with heavy downpours. My friend had chosen to go light with a hammock and a lightweight tarp strung up between trees instead of a tent like I had. We each settled in as the nighttime sky flashed with lightening from the approaching storm.“Are you sure you want to spend tonight in a hammock?” “I’ll be fine,” he assured me. Summer humidity gave way to a stiff cool wind. The trees swayed back and forth as thunderclouds rapidly assembled. Rock-a-bye baby. A loud boom of thunder reverberated in a series of booms across the vast lake—strong enough to shake me out of my sleeping bag. Another BOOM and my tent flap flew open as my friend dove for cover. It was my turn to give him the look. Idiot.
I wonder if this was what it was like in 1 Kings 8 when “a dark cloud filled the house of the LORD.” We read that “the priests could not stand up to perform their duties because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the Temple.” Granted, I’m not a priest, the golf course is hardly a holy place (not for most people anyway), and being unable to perform your priestly service of worship is a far cry from being unable to get off your drive. But it’s not so far a stretch to imagine those Old Testament priests getting chased out of the Temple much like my friend got chased off his hammock.
We’re back in 1 Kings and the life and times of King Solomon, picking up where we left off before Lent with Solomon having completed the Jerusalem Temple, the house of God on earth. The Temple, Solomon’s most celebrated accomplishment, represented the culmination of God’s intent to dwell among his chosen people, a reality that in time comes full at Pentecost. As ancient temples went, this one was a beauty, an awe-inspiring masterpiece made from the finest materials and furnished with the most extravagant of treasures; everything you’d expect when you consider its Occupant.
1 Kings 8 is Moving Day. Time for the Lord to make this house his home. Moving day meant transporting the Mercy Seat that sat atop the Ark of the Covenant—that gold-covered box with the Ten Commandments tucked inside that accompanied Israel all the way from Mt. Sinai. Hauling the Ark uphill to the new Temple involved a solemn parade of all the leaders and governors of Israel, though only sanctified priests were allowed to carry the Ark. Its holiness made the people so nervous that they sacrificed countless sheep and cattle just to be safe.
Moving Day happened during the Jewish religious feast known as Tabernacles, named for the tents Israel camped in on their own journey to Jerusalem. Now God was relocating from his own Tabernacle tent. The Lord was moving into the neighborhood, the gorgeous Temple and golden Ark his permanent address. Granted, these were only symbols, God is not confined to a house or a box. Except that Israel soon confused the symbol with the reality. It’s the similar mistake people make whenever they confuse the church with the building where Christians meet for worship. (Congregationalists have tried to alleviate the confusion by calling our buildings meetinghouses. The wonderful new members who joined this morning didn’t join a building but a living body of people who are the body of Christ.)
Unfortunately the Israelites concluded that having God in a box meant they had the Lord in their pocket. King Solomon presumed the Temple to be so magnificent the Almighty would just have to dwell there forever. Why would he live anywhere else? Clearly, God loved them best—as he should, given all their hard work. They were glad for God’s grace in their midst, but their gratitude soon gave way to entitlement. They started treating the Temple as insurance rather than as incentive; as cover for bad behavior rather than as catalyst for obedience. This was Jeremiah’s complaint, an indictment echoed by Jesus. “My house is a place of prayer for all nations,” Jesus fumed, a whip in his hand, “but you have turned it into a den of thieves,” a hideout for your sin.
God’s verdict against their duplicity leveled the Temple, not once, but twice. The Lord left the building, moving from atop that golden box (that was lost) to a flesh and blood person and eventually into flesh and blood people. St. Peter defines the church as “living stones built into a spiritual house” wherein the Lord resides. But being the body of Christ doesn’t mean we’re free to do as we please. We “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ,” Peter says. This work of grace is the privilege of faith, lives lived as Jesus on earth, loving and serving others for his sake and not our own.
The Lord exists on earth in those in-between places where love and relationship happen, in between persons, in between God and his people. Love happens through silent suffering and sacrifice, through grace and forgiveness, in ways that don’t always make sense but that access a depth of joy simple happiness cannot match. Lose your life and you find your life, go last and be least to finally understand greatness. Be poor to be rich, be weak to be strong, welcome prodigals home, thread camels through needles, have faith like a child. These are mysterious teachings.
Ergo the thick dark cloud that chased the priests from the Temple. More than merely God’s ominousness (if indeed God could ever be merely ominous), the dark, thick cloud of presence signaled an inscrutability, an essential mysteriousness that is a divine characteristic. Whatever we think we know of God’s character must always be qualified by our own error and limitedness. But even then, knowing all there is to know about God leaves infinitely more to discover. The Lord always surpasses anything we can think or say or imagine.
Clouds are plainly visible and evident, but just try to grab one. Stand in the middle of one and it’s as if it’s not even there. Fly through the middle of one and you’re practically thrown of your airplane seat—as happened to me on my way back from Texas this week. Our God who loves us cannot be handled. We know and love the Lord but have no idea. The nature of God abides in silence and mystery, accessible by faith and by hope. His ways are not always our own; we submit to an incomprehensibility that while maddening at times is completely appropriate. Even this side of Easter. Jesus rose from the dead and now abides in your heart. But having Jesus in your heart does not mean you’ve got God in your pocket.
A new friend named Katy told me this weekend about losing her wallet. After a canceled business trip, she booked a last minute cheap flight home, but she had to hurry to catch it. In her hurry, she inadvertently dropped her wallet somewhere between her hotel and the airport. She remembered having it when she started the trip back, only it wasn’t in her purse when she arrived. Now she was out the fifty dollars she had in cash, had to cancel and replace all her credit cards, get a new driver’s license and all of the aggravation that occurs whenever you lose your wallet. But instead of complaining, Katy thanked God that at least she had the wallet and her credit card when she needed to book her last minute flight home and that she being home she now had time to make the calls she was going to have to make to cancel her cards and get replacements. Moreover, though she lost fifty dollars, she had booked a cheap flight which saved her 180, so she was still up 130 over the amount she would have spent on a normally priced flight.
I’m listening to this and thinking, really? You praise God because He prevented you from losing your wallet sooner? Couldn’t he have prevented you from losing it at all? What kind of weird theology was this? Not to mention bad math. If she still had her wallet she’d be up the 180 she saved and the fifty in cash! Not to mention her credit cards and driver’s license too.
While in Texas I spent an afternoon hiking with John, who along with his wife, adopted children born of a crack addict mother who’d given birth to eleven kids total, a new child every time she needed money to support her addiction. John and his wife couldn’t adopt all eleven, but they did adopt four, the youngest of whom turned out to suffer severe cognitive disabilities hidden during the adoptive process by the agency through drugs that rendered the child docile and compliant. Relocating to Kansas City for a lower paying job after losing his job in Texas, the family had to moving into a neighborhood with available special needs educational services. There was only one such school district with only one house available in it, a house totally out of their price range. They went for it anyway, praising God they could buy what they couldn’t afford so their child could get the education he needed, making the economic challenges to their family life impossibly harder. Praise the Lord?
Ours is not a God to control or to handle, to harness or manipulate for the sake of affordable housing. If by believing in God we believe we will never lose our wallets, our jobs or anything else, we are in for some extreme disappointment. But if our expectation instead is for God to be God and to love in ways that sometimes defy comprehension, beyond more than we could ever ask or imagine, then we will discover a depth of joy simple happiness cannot match. Lose your life and you find your life, go last and be least and you finally understand greatness. God has not chosen to dwell in the well-built concepts we construct and control, but in dark thick cloudiness that knocks us out of our seats.
To be clouded from seeing the ways of the Lord is an invitation to genuine faith on our part. For his part, God’s cloudiness never hinders his vision. This is the point: Having Jesus in your heart does not mean you have God in your pocket. It means God has you in his hand.