1 Kings 8.22-30
“But will God indeed dwell on the earth?” asks King Solomon at the dedication of the magnificent Jerusalem temple.
The king makes clear in his prayer that God cannot be said to dwell in the Temple in the sense of being limited by the Temple: even the heavens cannot contain God. And yet it was the belief of the ancient Jewish people that there was a sense in which God was present among them: present among them in the pillar of cloud and fire that led them out of Egypt; present among them in the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, that the Israelites carried with them in their wanderings in the wilderness; and present among them in the Jerusalem Temple.
The God who created the heavens and the earth could not be contained in space and time; the God who created the heavens and the earth both underpins and transcends all existence, all reality.
And yet this transcendent and mysterious God reveals Himself to a particular people in a particular time and in a particular place, and in His love and mercy deigns to make Himself available in a special and mysterious way in a particular place for the benefit of His space- and time-bound creatures. The God that fills and transcends all time and space is graciously manifest to God’s people in a mysterious local presence. The Jerusalem Temple is described variously in the bible as the Lord’s footstool, as the dwelling place for God’s Name, and, as in Psalm 122, simply the House of God.
“But will God indeed dwell on the earth?” asks King Solomon at the dedication of the Jerusalem temple. And Christians cannot hear these words without immediately thinking of a very different sense in which we believe God can indeed dwell on earth. Because we believe that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth”. In Jesus Christ, the Word of God who was with God and who was God, by whom all things were made, this Word of God is made flesh and dwelt among us, in Jesus there is a union of humanity and divinity.
In Jesus, King Solomon’s question finds its ultimate answer: yes, God will indeed dwell on the earth. And in Jesus, the Jerusalem Temple finds its fulfilment: “Destroy this Temple”, He says, “and in three days I will raise it up”.
And in today’s gospel this is brought into sharp focus, as the Lord Jesus enters the Temple. Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, the Word of God made flesh, this Jesus enters the Jerusalem Temple which has always pointed towards Him. The promise of the Temple, the House for God’s Name, finds its fulfilment in Jesus, God with us. And the entrance of the Lord Jesus into the Temple is accompanied by His cleansing of the Temple. “My house”, He says, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “shall be called a house of prayer”.
And this raises a very interesting question, a question made all the more relevant by the experience of the Church during lockdown. What is the place of sacred space in Christian faith? It is clear that the ancient Jewish people had a very rich sense of sacred space, and a sense of God’s gracious presence with them manifested especially in the Jerusalem Temple. But it is also clear that this did not stop them from also having a rich sense of the transcendence of the God who cannot be contained even by the heavens.
And yet those of us in the Church of England who have a great affection and loyalty to our sacred spaces have at times felt scoffed at and patronised by those who seek to deny a place for sacred space in Christian life with such arguments as “the Church is the people, not the building”, or by drawing a sharp line between the Old and New Testaments, and seeing the reverence for sacred space evidenced in the Old Testament as irrelevant now that these promises have been fulfilled in Jesus.
I think that we need to be quite careful here. Those who say that “the Church is the people, not the building”, have a point, as do those who say that “God does not dwell in a house built by human hands”, and as indeed do those who argue that the promise of presence of God in the Jerusalem Temple is fulfilled in the Jesus. All of these statements are true as far as they go, but are not the whole story.
But let’s return to Jesus in the Temple. Jesus, the Word made flesh, is the fulfilment of the promise of the Temple, the special place of God’s gracious presence amongst God’s people. But Jesus clearly does not see Himself as negating the Temple. He cares deeply about the Temple. He takes great risks in cleansing the Temple, and He speaks of it using the familiar Old Testament language of the House of God. There is no sense at all in Jesus’ words or actions here that His fulfilment of the promise of God dwelling on earth means that the old idea of sacred space is no longer relevant.
As Christians, the question of God’s presence with us is no less important than it was for the ancient Jewish people. In the New Testament we see Jesus seeking to calm the anxieties of His disciples with the promise that when two or three are gathered together in His name, He is present; we see Jesus seeking to reassure His disciples with the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit; and we see the Risen Christ appearing to His confused and despondent disciples in the breaking of the bread of the Emmaus Road.
And as the church in the decades and centuries that followed reflected more deeply on these promises, and on the sacred scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, the language of altar and priest and sacrifice, and the sense of sacred space, found a new meaning in the context of Christian worship, and in the deep faith in a continuing divine presence among us in the life of the Church. Christians do not believe that God can be contained within the stone walls of a church building any more than the ancient Jewish people believed that God was contained within the Temple; nor do Christians believe that God’s presence is conjured up in the sacraments of the Church any more than the ancient Jews believed that God’s presence was conjured up in the rites of their Temple: rather, God in His grace and mercy promises His presence among us when we meet in His Name and fulfil His commands.
So “the Church is the people not the building” is not the whole story. The starting point is neither the building nor the people, but Jesus, God with us. It is Jesus who calls us to follow Him, it is Jesus who calls His Church into being, it is Jesus who graciously gives His presence to us when we meet in His Name, and most especially when we follow His command in sharing the Holy Sacrament of His Body and Blood. This is a specific, local presence, this is presence in space and time, graciously given to us, bounded as we are in our earthly lives by space and time. And so it is natural and right that those special places in which we encounter Jesus in His sacramental presence should be cherished and honoured. And we see here the deep continuity between faith in the Lord who is graciously present to His people in the Temple, the Lord who is graciously present to us in the person of Jesus, and the Lord who is graciously present to us in the Sacrament we share in this place.
And so we rightly give thanks especially on this our Dedication Festival for this beautiful church building, standing here as a physical witness to God’s gracious presence with us, as well as we give thanks for our fellowship with one another. We give thanks for this place where we and those countless worshippers who have stood here in worship through the centuries meet in the Name of Jesus and rejoice in our fellowship and above all in His gracious presence, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory, now and for ever. Amen.