“Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.” (I Kings 8)
For the past several weeks, the gospel lesson has focused on the theme of Jesus as the bread of life, and I think we have pretty well dealt with that topci—at least for now. (there will always be more to say). So I want to circle back this morning to the lessons from the Old Testament which we have largely ignored, and pick up on the story of King Solomon.
If you were here last week, you may remember that we heard how King David, Solomon’s father, had just died. This was the great King David—slayer of Goliath, chosen by God from among Jesse’s sons and anointed by Saul, mighty warrior, author of psalms, ancestor of Jesus. Solomon, his son, clearly had some big shoes to step into as he ascended the throne, and so as we heard last week God was mightily impressed when instead of asking for fame or riches or power, Solomon simply asked for wisdom. That’s where we left off ...
Then today, we have heard Solomon beginning to exercise this gift of wisdom. The setting is this: Solomon has just completed one of his greatest accomplishments—the building of a temple to house the Arc of the Covenant, which contained the Ten Commandments, the founding documents of the people of Israel. If you want an image of the importance of this building, think of the National Archives in Washington, where our own founding documents are kept (the Declaration of Independence and Constitution). In the narrative, we have just come to the dedication ceremony, and all the elders and heads of the tribes and the people are gathered round to witness the installation of the Arc into the temple. It’s a grand occasion, made for television, and even God does not disappoint, sending a cloud to hover in the house of the Lord so that the glory of the Lord fills its very halls.
So now come the speeches. Saul as king turns to address the people, and his remarks turn out to be more of a sustained prayer to the Lord rather than a speech, asking God’s blessing upon the new house of worship.
But his prayer is interesting. Although this is a great national ceremony in the life of the people—the dedication of their first ever permanent shrine—he prays not for security; nor for prosperity and abundance; nor for victories over enemies, nor stability and success. He prays instead for God’s own steadfastness: that God will always be present in this place, to hear the prayers of the people, and to offer them forgiveness and grace. His prayer is really quite remarkable for its humility and tone of supplication: “Lord, although it is we who have built this grand and impressive edifice, even so we now humbly beseech you to deign to dwell within it.” There’s no hubris, no triumphalism.
Solomon—in his wisdom, so to speak—seems to understand at some deep level that sometimes the most that we can ask of God is simply to be with us (like that beautiful prayer from the evening office: “Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past …”). This utter simplicity of intent is especially true, I think, of the prayers we make in our most difficult moments, when the way forward is not at all clear. In such moments, sometimes the most we can do is pray, “God, be with me.” Moments like the shock after an unexpected accident; the empty silence that follows a bad diagnosis; the numbness that settles in after the news of a loved one’s death; or of a betrayal by a close friend of spouse; or the discovery of a trusted colleague’s dishonesty. In due time, our prayer will be for direction, or guidance, or reconciliation. But first, in moments like these, our heart can often only cry, “God, be with me.”
I don’t know if you have had the experience of walking the halls of a hospital late at night—many of us have, I’m sure. In the wee hours of the morning, there is a hushed aura of pain and death that hovers in the halls. I learned for instance during my own clinical training that more people die at 2:00 am than at any other hour of the day. It’s the low point of the day, before any sign of dawn. And in those dark hours, I found as a hospital chaplain that this prayer quickly comes to mind: “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep.” That is one of those moments, when it seems that the most we can pray is for God to keep watch with us, to be present, to be near.
We all come to this temple, our own house of prayer, seeking week by week the very same thing for which Solomon prayed: that God will be present, will heed us, and will hear our prayer. Sometimes, that prayer may be very concrete, and we may know already in what direction we need to be moving, and we come asking for strength for the journey. But there are other times when our anguish is such that our prayer may be for nothing more than that God will keep watch with us, be present with us, and sit with us to comfort us. In such moments, such a prayer can be enough.
When this church of St. Michael and All Angels was itself dedicated some years ago, the community prayed words much like those of Solomon: the bishop led us in asking God to “make this a temple of your presence and a house of prayer. Be always near [he continued] when we seek you in this place. Draw us to you, when we come alone and when we come with others, to find comfort and wisdom, to be supported and strengthened, to rejoice and give thanks … so that our lives may be sustained …” And my sense is that this community is indeed such a place: a temple where our commitment to prayer, and to one another, brings those two things together in powerful ways.
No wonder, then, that our psalm leads us today in singing, “How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord.” Psalm 84 celebrates the house of the Lord as a place of safety—where the sparrow may build her a nest and lay her young. It is a place of springs in the desolate valley (a metaphor that ought especially to touch us desert dwellers). And it is a place of joy and of refuge.
And all these things are made true because above all, this house of the Lord is a place where, like Solomon’s temple, the Lord remains faithful and steadfast with his people. Here is a place where the Lord from his heavenly dwelling place, both hears and is moved by the prayers of the people to heed and abide. Here the Lord keeps watch, tending the sick, giving rest to the weary, blessing the dying, soothing the suffering, pitying the afflicted—yet also shielding the joyous. All for his own love’s sake, Amen.