When Things Go Wrong

When Things Go Wrong

1 Kings 8:22-30

by Daniel Harrell

We take another look this Easter season into the life and times of King Solomon, who last Sunday escorted the Ark of the Covenant, that ancient gold-covered box containing the Ten Commandments, into the awesome, newly constructed Jerusalem Temple. Ark and Temple together represented the culmination of Yahweh’s intent to dwell among whom he loved. This permanent residence marked the end of Israel’s identity as nomadic wanderers, anchoring them firmly as a people of promise fulfilled. Following an elaborate ceremony whereby the ark was ushered into the inner sanctum and positioned under the wings of two imposing cherubim, God confirmed his divine presence by descending in a thick, dark impenetrable cloud. Visible and intangible, the cloud taught Israel that the fullness of God, while present to them, could never be theirs to possess.

This was a hard lesson to accept. Having the Lord in his Holy Temple seduced Israel into thinking they had God in their pocket. King Solomon displayed his famous wisdom by denouncing to the absurdity of such notions. “Will God indeed dwell on the earth?” he asked. “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain the Lord, much less this house that I have built!” His denouncement was by way of a dedicatory prayer for the Temple, a common practice in ancient times.

Solomon began his prayer with affirming three characteristics of the Almighty: The Lord is Incomparable: “No God is like you in heaven above or on earth beneath.” The Lord is Incorruptible: “You have kept your covenant.” The Lord is Inscrutable: “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you.” Mighty and righteous, the Lord remains mysterious, hidden as thick darkness in that cloud. Solomon entreats that the Temple might straddle the nexus between earth and heaven, serving as the junction between the people’s plight and the Lord’s power, providing for thy will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. “May your eyes be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place.” The Temple no longer stands, but Jews still face “toward this place” in Jerusalem when they pray, many coming to the wailing wall, the base of the Temple Mount.

Solomon follows these three affirmations with seven petitions beginning where our morning reading ends. Seven is a significant Biblical number symbolizing completion and fulfillment. Seven derives from the Creation Story, signaling Sabbath itself and the satisfaction of a job well done. By no mere coincidence, the Temple, modeled after Creation, took seven years to construct. Solomon dedicated it here on the seventh day of the Feast of Tabernacles, the Jewish holiday celebrating Israel’s trip to the Promised Land that falls in the seventh month of the year.

Solomon’s seven prayers commence with a plea for justice, especially in cases where the innocent are wrongly accused. Human justice may be blind, but God sees everything. On the other hand, when the wrong is our fault, Solomon offers his second prayer for mercy. His third prayer is for the weather. Solomon ties its mercurial nature to human nature. Modern minds smirk at this primitive connection, though we know scientists blame human behavior for changes in climate. NASA’s website constantly monitors declines in arctic ice as well as the rise in temperature, carbon dioxide and sea level. Despite this past winter in Minnesota, the month of March was the fourth hottest on record. Solomon proceeds to pray for specific weather-related disasters: famine, plague, blight, mildew, locust, caterpillar and disease, connecting these to human misbehavior too. “Hear from heaven when we pray toward your Temple,” Solomon asks, “act and render to all whose hearts you know, according to our ways, for only you know what is in every human heart.”

Solomon then moves on to pray fifthly for foreigners, immigrants and refugees needing rescue so that “all the earth may know and fear God.” We who sit this side of Pentecost recognize God’s designs for Israel through the Temple to be simply a starter course for his designs on the whole world through Christ. Following foreigners and refugees of war, Solomon goes on to pray for war itself. As sabers rattle in Ukraine, deadly strife persists in Syria and South Sudan, ancient blood feuds obstruct peace between Israelis and Palestinians, we pray for soldiers and negotiators, for civilians and innocent victims, for aid workers and Christians persecuted in these places solely on account of their beliefs. Solomon prays again God’s justice, for peace, and for victories that serve the cause of righteousness.

At the same time, Solomon knows that defeat occurs due to human unrighteousness. His final petition asks for protection from captors and conquerors of every kind—national and personal, physical and spiritual, human and demonic. Solomon’s last prayer is a confession that sounds a lot like Jesus’ Prodigal Son.”If your people come to their senses in the land to which they have been taken captive, and repent, saying, ‘We have sinned, and have done wrong; we have acted wickedly’; then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, maintain their cause and forgive those who have sinned against you, and all their transgressions that they have committed against you; and grant them compassion in the sight of their captors.” Solomon’s prayers move from the necessity of obedience to the inevitability of disobedience to grace having the last word. God’s holy presence brought righteous indictment. Indictment led to his people’s self-censure. Self-censure led to repentance and repentance led to forgiveness, over and over again.

It’s like in those Baptist churches where there’s an invitation for salvation Sunday after Sunday. I have a friend who pastored a little Baptist church, fifty souls or so each of whom has been saved hundreds of times. I once asked him why he kept inviting folks forward since he knows everybody by heart. He replied he keeps doing it because he knows everybody by heart.

Confession is good for the soul. We pray daily and weekly for healing and health, for salvation from disease and disaster, for justice and peace. Solomon’s Temple prayer is a good template for our own. In the King’s case, God’s response—one of the last direct quotes from the Lord in the Old Testament—was an answer of assurance. “I have heard your prayer and your plea,” says the Lord, “I have consecrated this house that you have built, and put my name there forever.” But then with conditions that forbade the Lord’s ensuing silence, God said to Solomon: “If you will walk before me with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever. But if you turn aside from following me and do not keep my commandments that I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, I will cut Israel off from the land, and the house I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight.”

Prayer has been described as the acid test of faith. Too often we treat prayer as a way to prove God, but mod often it proves us. Do we come to the Lord in good times and bad, and can we accept outcomes not to our liking? London vicar Samuel Wells suggests what we most often want when we pray is resurrection: a miracle of the kind that raised Christ from the dead, power to heal the cancer, restore the broken marriage, stop the war, bring the peace at last. This kind of prayer is hard to pray; it takes so much faith when the resurrection fails. Thus we also pray prayers of incarnation, prayers for the Lord’s company and empathy amidst life’s persistent hardships, disappointment and suffering. Jesus who shared our pain as a person comes alongside to give hope and patience to endure. To these prayers we might add prayers of transfiguration, for eyes to see the true realities “within and beneath and beyond” what we thought we understood. We can pray for a glimpse of glory, for the meaning behind the meaning that shows us God’s purposes and draws us in closer to see. I like this kind of prayer. Knowing the truth sets us free.

The Bible tells us to pray without ceasing, to take everything to the Lord, not only the dire hardships and trouble. And so for those more ordinary days, occasions when you’re not being wrongly accused and seeking justice in court, or at war with an enemy or spewing sin or suffering life-threatening disease and awaiting resurrection, I offer seven short prayers borrowed and revised this morning from friends who wrote a little book of uncommon prayers—prayers of transfiguration for those moments when you probably pray but just need to pray better.

The first is a prayer For Lost Car Keys: “Lord Jesus, when you promised to find the lost sheep, did you ever imagine that they might be driving? In the frustration of losing the very thing I need in order to get out the door and start my journey, I am stuck. In this moment, gently wrack my brain. Remind me of my steps. Grant me deep breath and clarity. Open my heart to see clearly. It is in rushing, that we lose things. In making space and taking time, we find them. Pause my soul in the frenzy of life that I may find my keys and surely be found by your grace. Panic will never suffice for faith. Amen.”

The second, similarly, is a prayer for When I Am Stuck in Traffic: “O Lord, who desires I make time to pray, thank you for making this time. I pray that every car on this road will take the next exit and clear the road for me. If not, I pray for patience and for empathy, for a heart to understand how these other people in their cars may be stuck in ways that go beyond traffic. Give us all an awareness of your mercy, even as we curse our time management skills, the highways and the whole world. Remind us that there are far worse things than being stuck in a car. I am simply running late, but I will get there. So be it. Amen.”

The third is a prayer for When Domestic Duty Overwhelms: “Dear God, why can the laundry not do itself? When you created the world, why not leave the leaves on the trees? I spend more time loading and unloading the dishwasher and cooking than sitting at table. Dogs need to go out, cats want to be fed, children want all this and more. There is no time. No time to think. No time to pray. Chores pile up. Chores pile up. Chores pile up. The chores pile up. But chores are not my life. Grant me the grace to do as I am able, one thing at a time one day at a time, until the day you return and redeem all our days and grant us the time of eternity. Amen.”

The fourth is a prayer for When I Am About to Send a Reckless Reply to an Email: “Dear Jesus, who came as God’s word for the world, give me the right words. Keep me from ever hitting send in anger, even if it would serve the other person right to be devastated by my words. Give me wisdom to discern between reply and reply all, and to never write anything I wouldn’t want forwarded to my boss or to you. Give me courage to stop emailing and texting and start talking instead, especially when stakes are high, and give me words to mend and repair. May I always choose to stand at the threshold of resurrection and not just crucifixion, confident in your cross that stands for the cause of grace. Amen.”

Prayer number five is for When I Envy a Friend: “Lord Jesus you lived with so little. You roamed from place to place with so few belongings but with so many good friends. Why do I envy someone I love? I want what they have or for them not to have it, and this changes me. I wish ill and not goodness, I resent and refuse to bless, I rush to judgment and jump to conclusions. In my moment of bitterness and discontent, help me see myself and count my own blessings, including the blessing of knowing my friend. You command us to not covet because it ruins our hearts. Make me obedient for the sake of true joy. Amen.”

This sixth prayer is for When the Account Balance is Dangerously Low: “Dear Lord, I want to be noble and selfless and holy: for my bank account to reflect who I want to be, for my debit card be a tool for your kingdom, that I might empty its balance for righteousness’ sake, even as you emptied yourself for the world. But not today. Today I pray for enough to cover expenses, and if not, that my credit will be duly unharmed, and if not, that I will be chastened to face the truth of my lack with discipline and strength. You promise to give me no more than I can handle; but please do not trust me too much. Send money too. Amen.”

And seventh, a final Sabbath prayer of satisfaction for a Job Well Done: “O Lord, you enable us and call us to use our abilities and talents creatively and generously, to bless your world and contribute to its beauty and flourishing. Thank you for hard work. Thank you that we participate in your creativity and are thereby drawn deeper into your purposes. Thank you for your spirit in us that infuses our efforts presses them outward to serve and to love. It is a true gift to be tired from work that matters. It is a privilege at the end of the day to feel contentment and gratification. It is beautiful to behold when ability and effort come together to bear fruit. Thank you for this gift, this privilege and this beauty. Amen.”

As the Ark contained the covenant of God and the Temple housed its presence, so the communion table signifies the new covenant of God housed in the body and blood of Christ our Lord. “May the Lord’s eyes be open night and day toward this place, the place of which you said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays in this place.” Solomon intended with the Temple the same thing we intend whenever we pray in the name of Jesus. Jesus is the junction between our plight and God’s power, providing for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.