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 most 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. Who 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.
But 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.