A Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity
August 13, 2023 at Holy Communion
1 Kings 8:22–30
“When your servants pray toward this place, listen in heaven your dwelling place” (1 Kings 8:30). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
No doubt you have heard that “the church isn’t the building; it’s the people.” That is quite true. “Church” means “gathering,” or “assembly,“ and we together as people are the body of Christ, the church. But if the building isn’t really called a “church,” then what is it called? What kind of building are we currently in? This is not a trick question, and in fact you probably know the word we’ve looking for; we’ve heard it today in our readings. This building is a “temple.” As it did in the beginning, so today, the church gathers in the temple.
“Temple” is not a uniquely Christian or even Jewish word. It refers to any place where a God dwells. To call this place a “temple”—or to use a more common phrase, to call this place the “house of God”—is to say that God lives here. God has taken up residence in this place with four walls and a roof.
But that is also why many Christians find the word “temple” offensive. Our God cannot be contained by four walls and a roof! Our God is Spirit, and our God is Truth (John 4:24)! And of course they are right. Neither these walls, nor that tabernacle in which Jesus dwells under the signs of bread and wine, can contain the immensity of the infinite God.
But in fact, realizing that God cannot be contained is the starting point for understanding what the word “temple” means to Christians. This place is God’s temple not because we can trap God and put him in this box, but because God has chosen for our sake to make himself present in particular places even though in himself he fills all things. God indwells his temple not because God is small, but because we are. He lives in earthly temples so that we may have a place for meeting him.
When the first Jerusalem Temple was completed and consecrated to be a dwelling place for the Name of the Lord, King Solomon prayed, and he started with exactly this idea. He says, “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). No volume of cedar or gold could compel God the Infinite to dwell in a box. Not only on earth, but in heaven too, God’s glory is greater than even angelic minds can comprehend, so the heavens won’t do for a temple either!
But Solomon continues: he says, “Yet have regard to the prayer of your servant, … that your eyes may be open day and night toward this place, … that you may listen to the prayer that your servant offers toward this house” (v 28–29). He says “Yet”: “Yet, nonetheless, have regard to our prayer.” Solomon appeals to God’s desire to hear his people’s prayers. He asks God, despite his Infinity, even though he cannot be contained, that out of mercy he would draw near to human beings and live among them, and hear their prayers. He will place his Name (that is, his Holy Spirit) in the Temple, so that human beings in time and space may come to the temple, or pray toward the temple, and so present themselves before God.
So God does indeed dwell on earth. And he does indeed dwell in heaven in the church of the angels. This is “heaven his dwelling place,” as Solomon says (v 30). These two dwelling places for God mirror each other. The heavenly temple where God dwells among his angels is the pattern for the church on earth, where God dwells among his people (Exodus 25:40, Hebrews 8:5). And the temple on earth gathers together many individuals, whose participation in worship at the temple makes them personally temples for the Name of God, the Holy Spirit, who comes and lives in them (1 Corinthians 6:19).
There are three temples: in heaven, on earth, and in the heart. God moves downward toward us through these three temples, dwelling first with the angelic choirs, then with our whole community at worship, and then in with every individual worshipper. As God moves downward in mercy, we move upward. Our desire for God to unite himself to our inmost heart leads us to seek him here, in his temple, and here we are drawn up into the worship of angels and archangels.
The earthly temple, the church, is right in the middle of this equation. The church stands between the temple of the heart and the temple on high. So the church is not only a “temple,” but a “means” and a “way.” God gives us the church as a means for seeking him, a place to which we can turn to have our hearts drawn upward into heaven and into God.
There is a prayer of thanksgiving in the Prayer Book which says, “Above all, we thank thee for our spiritual mercies in Christ Jesus our Lord, for the means of grace and the hope of glory.” In our relationship to God, we can be thankful “above all” that God provides us with means for knowing him. These means are in the church: the sacraments, the teaching of the word, the fellowship of those with whom we share a single Spirit, and the words with which the church teaches us to pray (Acts 2:42).
If the means of grace, the “ways in” to God, are offered above all in the church, that doesn’t mean that they are exclusive, for a “closed group,” for us only. In fact, this is where we can discover the reason for drawing the circle wider, for spreading the news, for inviting people into fellowship with God in the church. We want everyone to have access to God’s presence among his people, so we draw them in with us. It is not for our sake, but for theirs. Just as Solomon prays, we hope that even “foreigners from a far country” will come to know the Name of the Lord by worshipping in his temple (1 Kings 8:41–43).