God Does Not Need a Temple

God does not need a Temple. That much was made abundantly clear to David in 2 Samuel, which we heard last week. King David had finally consolidated his rule, established his capital at Jerusalem, built himself a palace, and to cap it all off, he decided it was time to build a Temple for God. But when he took the idea public, God’s response was, “I don’t need a Temple.” The exact words recorded in Scripture are,  “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. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’” In other words, God does not need a Temple. So why, when we get to the book of Kings, do we find David’s son Solomon building a Temple, apparently with God’s blessing, and why does that Temple become the center of worship for the Jewish people, so that even to this day, the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem stands as the mostwall sacred site in Judaism, and a holy place for three major world religions?

Well, the thing is, God may not need a Temple, but we do. We humans do need a Temple, or something like it. And God is generous with us in this regard. After all, God didn’t need Israel to have kings, and yet, when the people of Israel came to God and demanded a king, God relented. We didn’t read this story in the current cycle of stories that we have been working through, but somewhere between the story about Hannah that we read two weeks ago, and the story about David that we read last week, there is this amazing little story about Israel wanting a king. The people go to Samuel and say, we want a king! And Samuel goes to God and says, the people want a king! And God says, they have a king; it’s me. And the people say, we want a human king, like all the other kids, er, nations have! And God says, okay, but before you reject me as your king, here’s what a human king means: forced labor, forced taxes, forced harems, and forced service in the army. Do you still want a king? Yeah, we still want a king. Well, okay, you can have a king.

And now, they have a king. Their first king, Saul, turned out to be crazy. David, their second king, was a good king, but spent a lot of time warring, consolidating his kingdom, sleeping with other men’s wives, and causing or ignoring scandal in his own family. And now they have Solomon, their third king. 220px-King-Solomon-Russian-iconWho is going to build the Temple. God has given him the go-ahead, and a Temple will be built. But the building of the Temple winds up proving exactly what God had said all along about a king. Because the Temple is built using forced labor, and paid for with the people’s taxes. In other words, the minute the Temple is begun, it becomes flawed. Because in the end, the Temple, like the monarchy, is a human institution, built by human hands, to meet human needs. God does not need a Temple.

Like all human institutions, the Temple is subject to the brokenness and fallibility of all things human, built by sinners, run by sinners, torn down and rebuilt, and even reformed, by sinners. That is why, over the next few weeks, we will be hearing the prophets of Israel speaking truth to the power of the Temple and the monarchy. That is why, when we begin reading the New Testament, we will hear Jesus criticize the Temple and kick out the money-changers, and call the Scribes and Pharisees hypocrites and vipers. Because as soon as you have an institution, whether it’s the Temple, or the Roman Catholic Church, or the Lutherans of 17th century Germany, or the ELCA, or Peace Lutheran Church, you will need a Reformation. That is why one motto of the Reformers was semper reformanda, “always reforming.” Because our institutions, like ourselves, tend to be broken and in need of reconciliation, renewal, and resurrection. In need of grace. In other words, as soon as we build a Temple, we need to be reminded: God does not need a Temple.

But we do. We humans are, for better or for worse, embodied. We are souls living in bodies, and we are bodies living in souls. We are infinite and eternal in our thoughts; we can grasp after truths that are beyond ourselves; we can imagine the past and the future and things that will never exist; and we can empathize and sympathize with those we meet, and those we will never meet. And at the same time, we are confined to this world, this time, this place. We experience the world in terms of our particulars, in terms of the specific people that we do meet, and in terms of the specific history that we do live, and in terms of the specific experiences of our 5 senses. And the most remarkable thing is, that these two things, this infinite eternal soul and this finite immediate body, are intimately intertwined and cannot be separated. And because these cannot be separated, we humans need places like the Temple. We need a place where we can be drawn out of ourselves, out of the hustle and bustle of daily life, out of the pressing needs of our bodies, and towards the promises of God. God told David: “I move about among my people. I do not need a house to dwell in.” But God also gave David a promise: “When you need to know where I am, I will give you something concrete to look at and to hold onto.” Because we tend to forget, we tend to lose track, and forget that God is right there among us all the time. So when that happens, we go to the Temple, and we are reminded.

god-boxBut as soon as we get there, we begin to think that our Temple, or our church, is a God-box. That God is only found inside these four walls. Inside our four walls. Solomon, aware of this problem, even as he is building this Temple, is already praying for reform before it is finished. Praying that we would remember that we cannot contain or control God, just because we create an institution; praying that we would welcome everyone who enters, even if they don’t look like us; praying that we would be willing to be reformed by God’s word, even as we establish our human institutions.

We Lutherans are a denomination, dare I say an institution, born out of the Reformation spirit. The Reformation of 500 years ago was, after all, just a stewardship campaign gone horribly awry, when the institution of Rome wanted to build a Temple, the Basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome, and did exactly what God had warned against all those millennia ago, and levied taxes. Really, sold salvation to the highest bidder. And Luther and his friends objected, and demanded that the money-changers be kicked out of the Temple, and called for Reform. Not because they believed that they themselves were perfect, or that they themselves could create an institution that would be exempt from this need for Reform. But because they remembered what perhaps the institution had forgotten, what God had once told David, what Solomon remembered in prayer: the institution does not contain God; it points toward God, it reminds us that God is everywhere, it conveys the promises of God; but it cannot contain or deliver God’s self. Only God can do that. And God does not need a Temple to do it.

And yet that is exactly why we have institutions. Because God knows us. God knows that, because we are infinite and finite, because we are timeless and bound by time, because we are spirit and body, we need to know where and how we can be assured of encountering God. We need to have concrete places, like Temples and Basilicas and churches; we need to have human institutions, like kingdoms and religions and denominations; we need to have embodied sacraments, like baptism in water, like a meal of bread and wine, tangible signs that point to God. All of these things, these places and institutions and sacraments, they are beautifully human things, established by God, working in and through our perfectly human imperfection, in order to deliver God’s promises. Because those promises are hard for us to hold onto in our day-to-day lives. The gospel message is too ridiculous to believe for more than a short time. It is too ridiculous to believe that God would wipe out our sins, would transform our brokenness, would come into the world to know us and to be us and to die for us, out of God’s own love for us, and yet that is the truth of it. That is exactly why we need a place set aside, that is why we need these human, embodied, tangible things. To remind us that God is found in these places, yes, but not only in these places. To remind us that God is found everywhere, at every time, and most especially in those times and places when we least expect to find God. In those times and places when brokenness seems to be all that we have, when the cross looms large, when relationships are broken and darkness threatens and death seems to be winning, that is where we will find God: placing God’s self between us and the darkness; working in and through human messiness to deliver a new day, new life, new hope; reminding us that God is at work in all the world, renewing, resurrecting, and, yes, reforming, re-forming, each one of us, each and every day.

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Hannah’s Prayer for a Turning World

Where we left off:

The Israelites were just about to head out of Egypt. You probably know some of the story – crossing the Red Sea, going to the foot of Sinai, and then heading for the promised land. From there, the Israelites had a few stumbling blocks. They wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, mostly because they kept whining and asking Moses to take them back to Egypt, where they may have been slaves, but at least there was food. Finally, after the entire generation that had been slaves in Egypt has died, the Israelites cross the River Jordan into the promised land. Where, of course, there are already other people living. So there are battles to fight and lands to conquer, complete with stories of intrigue and deception, romance & war, spies & traitors. Once the people have settled into the land, they stop wandering, but continue a sort of tribal organization. As needed, God raises up leaders, called Judges, to lead the 12 tribes of Israel through their difficulties. But these positions are not necessarily lifetime terms, and they are not always passed through a single family. They are temporary leaders, called by God according to their abilities, for the particular needs of the moment.

Now we are coming up to the time of Kings. This is a shift for the people of Israel, moving from a loose confederation of tribes to a consolidated kingdom. And this story begins with the prophet and judge Samuel. Or rather, with his mother, Hannah.

9After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the LORD. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the LORD. 10She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, and wept bitterly. 11She made this vow: “O LORD of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”
19They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the LORD; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the LORD remembered her. 20In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the LORD.”

Hannah prayed and said,
“My heart exults in the LORD;
my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in my victory.”
2“There is no Holy One like the LORD,
no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.”
3Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the LORD is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.”
4The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.”
5Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.”
6The LORD kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
7The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.”
8He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s,
and on them he has set the world.”
9“He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;
for not by might does one prevail.”
10The LORD! His adversaries shall be shattered;
the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The LORD will judge the ends of the earth;
he will give strength to his king,
and exalt the power of his anointed.”

The story of Israel’s kings begins with Hannah. The second wife of a guy from the hill country. She is deeply sad, almost to the point of hopelessness. Because she has no children. Now, it is important to understand what this means. In part, it means the personal heartbreak that is experienced by any couple that wants children, but cannot have them. But this story is about more than that. And while it may be a hopeful story for those families that are experiencing that particular grief, this story is not only about that. In Hannah’s time and place and culture, a woman’s identity was wrapped up in her role as a mother and a wife. Not that this is not the case now, but however that may be in modern American culture, it is nothing to what it was then. It is a legitimate choice in modern America not to have children. A woman, or a man for that matter, can be a person of standing in the community regardless of marital status or parenthood. It may be a topic of conversation, but it is not the only thing. In ancient Israel, a woman was nothing if she was not a mother. If a woman could not have children, she could not be seen as a full adult, no matter how old she was. In Hannah’s case, that point is made abundantly clear for her, because she is one of two wives, and her rival, as the Bible puts it, derides her and shames her regularly for not having any children of her own.

To his credit, her husband is kind to her, and seems genuinely to love Hannah, offering her double portions and trying to soothe her anxiety with loving words. He offers himself as a comfort, saying, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” Of course, as one commentator pointed out, if he had really been thinking he might have rephrased that. He might have said, “are you not more to me than 10 sons?” Because that’s what it is about, as far as Hannah is concerned. For Hannah, as for all the ancients, sons mean hope. Sons mean the continuation of the family line, the continuation of the family wealth, the promise of the future. Hannah’s identity is tied up in her desire for children, because her identity is tied up in the future of her family and her husband’s family. If Elkanah, her husband, could have convinced her that he was less concerned about the future, and more concerned about her, it might have alleviated some of her despair. But probably only some of it. Because Hannah’s problem is deeper than just the surface situation. Hannah’s concern is an existential one. It is about hope. It is about identity. It is about who she is and who she is becoming. It is the same problem that we all face at some point or another. Maybe today.

I don’t know what you’ve carried in here today. I don’t know exactly what manifestation your anxiety is taking, or where you are facing your existential crisis. What is testing your ability to hope? What is making you question who you are, what footing you stand on, where you are going? Maybe today is a good day, and you are feeling pretty solid. But I know that there are other days: days when the only choice is to crawl under the covers and wait for the cloud to lift. Broken relationships. Loss of a job. A word spoken out of turn. A careless comment. A misunderstood intention. A diagnosis. An accident. Hope seems far off, and the ground is barely holding together under your feet, and you can’t see any way forward. Friends and loved ones may try to comfort you, as Elkanah did. But so often, their well-intended words ring hollow. Aren’t I more to you than 10 sons? It just doesn’t still the quaking in your soul. It just doesn’t answer the question that is really echoing in your heart: how can I possibly move forward? How can I step into the next day, when it doesn’t look like I had imagined? when I am not who I thought I was? when tomorrow looks so much darker than yesterday?

And that is the prayer that we take with us to Shiloh, as Hannah did. What else is there to do in that moment, but to pray? To pray with all you have, so that people who see you think you’re drunk, like Eli did when he saw Hannah? But when he confronted her, she said, “I am a woman deeply troubled, and I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.” I hope you have never had to pray that hard. But I suspect that we all have, or will, at some point.

In those moments when the way forward seems impossible to find, think of Hannah. Pouring her soul out before the Lord. And then think of her song, the words that we read together. This is her song of praise to God, who heard her in her anguish. But notice this: it is her song of praise, but she doesn’t sing it when her son is finally born. She doesn’t sing it when her hopes are fulfilled, and her prayers are answered. She doesn’t sing it as she is rocking her baby, or nursing her child. She sings it after she has given all of her hopes and dreams back to God. She sings it after she takes her only son, her only child, and dedicates him to the Lord, giving him into the care of the priest, Eli, so that from that day on, she will only see him once a year. She sings her song of praise only after she has given away everything that she had hoped for the future, and put it into God’s hands.

Hannah’s story is a story of prayer. But it is not the story that goes, “if you pray enough, or if you have enough faith, God will give you what you ask for.” It is not a moralistic tale to remind you to be faithful in your prayers, so that God will reward you. It is a story of God who meets you in your need. It is a reminder that, even when things seem dark, you can keep beating a path to God’s door, and God’s door will be open to you. It is a promise, that even though you may not get your prayers answered the way that you want, even though God may not give you exactly what you ask for, God will give you God’s self. God will give you God’s self, stepping right into the heart of your darkness, right into the midst of your suffering, right into the depth of your pain, right onto the cross and into the grave. That is what God will give you. God will give you God.

And it will turn the world around. Because when God shows up, nothing is ever the same. Hannah sings it, and Mary echoes her song centuries later, as she declares God’s goodness, even though she is a poor, pregnant, unwed, teenage mother in a backwater town in Galilee. When God shows up, when God steps into the world, nothing is ever the same. The mighty are broken, and the feeble are strong. The rich become beggars, and the hungry are overfed. The poor are raised up from the dust and set next to princes. When God moves into the neighborhood, human hope is turned on its head, and we find our identities caught up in God’s future, in God’s hopes for us.

And that is Hannah’s song of praise, a song that she can sing even as she leaves all of her hopes and dreams, her son, in God’s care. It is the song of faith, not of belief. It is not a song about dogma, or about orthodoxy, or about having figured out exactly what words to say, or what prayer to pray, or what set of rules and laws will get you right with God. It is not a song about who is in and who is out, and which religion has figured out the path to God. It is not a song about proper traditions and proper intellectual assent to a religious proposition. It is a song about faith. It is a song about relationship. It is a song about trusting God and loving God and recognizing that God is here, that God is at work, that God is busy, doing everything that God can to get into your life, to get into your world, to understand you and to know you and to love you, exactly as you are, even when you don’t know exactly who you are, even when you are not sure where to go or what step to take, even and especially when things are at their worst and faith is beginning to flag and belief is beginning to fail and things are getting messy up in here God is getting into your messy business, because God gets messy. And God takes that mess that is Hannah’s grief, that mess that is your pain, that mess that is my heart, and God draws out the unexpected. So that Hannah’s son becomes a great prophet, and anoints kings, and changes the history of the world. So that God’s promises grow out of the mess. And out of our pain, or our suffering, or our hopelessness, the world is about to turn.