Imperfectly Unfinished Transitions
1 Kings 5, 6, 7, 8
We have spent several weeks here at Zion thinking about transitions. The transition of the seasons outdoors, the transition of yet another season in the reality of living through a global pandemic, the transitions that we are all experiencing personally. And what does that mean for all of us together as a congregation? The first week Pastor Kara talked to us about hearing God’s call to something new. Last week we talked about letting go. This morning I want to spend a little time facing the reality that — as much as we want to land somewhere solid — our transitions are always imperfectly unfinished.
We have a couple of examples to help us see this reality today. Let’s begin with another chapter in the life of the ancient Israelites. Last week we heard the story of David being anointed to eventually replace Saul as king of Israel. That transition eventually happened, David reigned for many years, his sons fought over who would come after him as king, and his son Solomon came out on top as the next king. During his reign, David wanted to build a temple for Yahweh the Lord, a house for God. His reasoning was, “I have a really nice palace and God has a tent. I should do something about that.” And you know what God’s response was? God said, “Actually I like my tent. I’m a God On The Move. I don’t need a permanent house.” But as God so often graciously does with us, God allows a temple to be built not by David but by David’s son Solomon. If you want the full backstory, join us tonight for sermon discussion group.
We’re going to pick up the story this morning in the book of First Kings, and we’re going to read some snippets from chapters 5, 6, 7, and 8.
Because King Hiram of Tyre was loyal to David throughout his rule, Hiram sent his servants to Solomon when he heard that Solomon had become king after his father. Solomon sent the following message to Hiram: “You know that my father David wasn’t able to build a temple for the name of the Lord my God. This was because of the enemies that fought him on all sides until the Lord put them under the soles of his feet. Now the Lord my God has given me peace on every side, without enemies or misfortune. So I’m planning to build a temple for the name of the Lord my God, just as the Lord indicated to my father David, ‘I will give you a son to follow you on your throne. He will build the temple for my name.’ Now give the order and have the cedars of Lebanon cut down for me. My servants will work with your servants. I’ll pay your servants whatever price you set, because you know we have no one here who is skilled in cutting wood like the Sidonians.”
King Solomon drafted forced labor of thirty thousand workers from all over Israel. He sent ten thousand to work in Lebanon each month. Then they would spend two months at home.
(Then we have two chapters of descriptions of the construction and furnishings of the Temple, which are massive and beautiful, and incredibly expensive.)
Solomon laid the foundation of the Lord’s temple in the fourth year of his reign, during the month of Ziv. He finished the temple in all its details and measurements in the eleventh year during the eighth month, the month of Bul. He built it in seven years.
When all King Solomon’s work on the Lord’s temple was finished, he brought the silver, gold, and all the objects his father David had dedicated and put them in the treasuries of the Lord’s temple.
Then Solomon assembled Israel’s elders, all the tribal leaders, and the chiefs of Israel’s clans at Jerusalem to bring up the chest containing the Lord’s covenant from David’s City Zion. Everyone in Israel assembled before King Solomon in the seventh month, the month of Ethanim, during the festival. When all of Israel’s elders had arrived, the priests picked up the ark of the covenant. They brought the ark of the covenant, the Tabernacle, which is the meeting tent, and all the holy equipment that was in the Tabernacle. The priests and the Levites brought them up, while King Solomon and the entire Israelite assembly that had joined him before the ark sacrificed countless sheep and oxen. The priests brought the ark containing the Lord’s covenant to its designated spot beneath the wings of the winged creatures in the inner sanctuary of the temple, the most holy place. The winged creatures spread their wings over the place where the ark rested, covering the ark and its carrying poles. The carrying poles were so long that their tips could be seen from the holy place in front of the inner sanctuary, though they weren’t visible from outside. They are still there today. Nothing was in the ark except the two stone tablets Moses had placed there while at Horeb, where the Lord made a covenant with the Israelites after they left Egypt. When the priests left the holy place, the cloud filled the Lord’s temple, and the priests were unable to carry out their duties due to the cloud because the Lord’s glory filled the Lord’s temple.
Then Solomon said, “The Lord said that he would live in a dark cloud. Surely I have indeed built you a grand temple as a place where you can live forever.”
Solomon stood before the Lord’s altar in front of the entire Israelite assembly and, spreading out his hands toward the sky, he prayed:
Yahweh God of Israel, there’s no god like you in heaven above or on earth below. You keep the covenant and show loyalty to your servants who walk before you with all their heart.
But how could God possibly live on earth? If heaven, even the highest heaven, can’t contain you, how can this temple that I’ve built contain you? Lord my God, listen to your servant’s prayer and request, and hear the cry and prayer that your servant prays to you today. Constantly watch over this temple, the place about which you said, “My name will be there,” and listen to the prayer that your servant is praying toward this place. Listen to the request of your servant and your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Listen from your heavenly dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive!selections from 1 Kings 5, 6, 7, & 8 (Common English Bible)
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
I would bet that a lot of you have never read that section of the Bible before. You probably knew there was a temple in ancient Israel, that it was pretty important, and maybe even that Solomon built it. But the list of construction instructions and furnishings and long prayers of dedication aren’t always the most engaging reading. So let me tell you what stands out to me from this story as we are thinking about transitions.
First, God doesn’t need a temple. God is on the move and isn’t going to be tied down to just one building. And at some level, everyone knows that’s true. The heavens can’t contain God, much less a building. But the people build a temple anyway. David wants to. Solomon wants to. They are human, so they probably have a mixture of motivations for building the temple. I’m sure part of it is out of actual devotion to God. It’s also probably for their own glory. It takes seven years to build, with the effort of tens of thousands of people, and worth who knows how much money – chapter 7 says they don’t even bother to weigh how much bronze is used, there’s so much — all the time and money and effort in the construction, all the pomp and circumstance in the dedication, all the significance for the people’s national and religious identity. But do you know what happens to this incredible structure? In the year 586 BCE the army of Babylon breaches the walls of Jerusalem, steals or destroys all the gold and silver and bronze furnishings, and burns the Temple, not to mention viciously slaughtering a lot of people. And the prophet Ezekiel has a vision of God’s glory leaving the Temple, which could never really contain God anyway.
Here’s what I think this means for us: our transitions are always going to be imperfectly unfinished. Even when they’re done, they’re not really done-done. Many of us crave order, but human life is really messy. Human history is really messy, and things rarely turn out the way we expect, do they? We make plans and then things change or the circumstances don’t fall into place the way we wanted them to.
Solomon wanted the Temple to be The Thing. The sign of completion. The people of Israel firmly established in the land, no more wandering, no more conquests, no more tribal leaders, one solidified monarchy, peace and prosperity, all symbolized by a stationary and unchanging location where they could always find God in the way they expected to. But that’s not what happened.
Our lives are always moving. The Final Thing is never really The Final Thing. It’s simply the next thing. And there will be another next thing after that. Everything in this life is temporary. And if we set ourselves up with the expectation that this next transition is going to be the one that finally makes it all clear and settled, all we are doing it setting ourselves up for disappointment.
Today is also Reformation Sunday, when we commemorate the events that led to us not all being Roman Catholic. Except the Reformation wasn’t really The Thing because there were already plenty of other kinds of Christians: Orthodox and Eastern Catholic and Syrian and Ethiopian and Chinese. The Reformation gave fuel to the small fires that were already burning in Roman Catholic Europe. And while much good came out of the Reformation, including the fact that I, as a woman, wouldn’t be a pastor today without the Reformation, it also popped the top on all kinds of religious division. You may know the name Martin Luther, but there’s also Calvin and Zwingli and Knox and von Karlstadt and Grebel and Müntzer who agreed with the need for reforms but disagreed with Luther! The Reformation launched 150 years of bloody religious wars in Europe which claimed the lives of thousands and thousand and thousands of people.
No person and no event is ever simply all good or all evil. None of our transitions ever turn out quite the way we expect them to. And while there are events in our lives that happen and then end, there’s always something else coming next. And the lines between one thing and the next are usually quite blurry. That’s reality. We spend a lot of time watching TV and movies which have episodes with a clear beginnings, characters who are good or bad, and clear endings, maybe not always happy endings, but clear endings. But real life isn’t like that. And if we spend too much time entertaining ourselves with fantasies, we won’t be prepared for what it takes to live in the real world. (I’m all for fantasy and distraction and pulling the release valve on the stress we experience. What I’m talking about here is unhealthy escapism that creates unrealistic expectations, and I know you all know the difference.)
So where does this leave us? As we honestly acknowledge that our transitions are always imperfectly unfinished. That we are always imperfectly unfinished. Where does this leave us? Here’s where I’m landing: I may be imperfectly unfinished, but God is not. The port in this storm is the Living God. And while our traditional monotheism says that God is unchanging, the testimony of our sacred stories is that God is a God On The Move. The point of Jesus is that instead of watching us from outside time and space, God pitched a tent and moved into the neighborhood, to dwell not in a building but with us, among us. The Living God On The Move came to experience what it’s like for us to be in transition, to not be sure what’s coming next, to feel frustration and uncertainty and pain and grief and loss. To make it as clear as possible that we are not alone. To affirm the complexity of human existence. And to redeem it for us. Father Richard Rohr says that God’s cosmic act of forgiveness is to forgive reality for being absurd, to forgive reality for being such a mess. And if we can tap into that forgiveness, receive it for ourselves and extend it to others, we too can find the peace that comes with forgiving reality for being imperfectly unfinished. We can learn to live with it.
Because as imperfectly unfinished as everything is, the other lesson we get from Solomon’s Temple and from the Reformation is that God uses imperfectly unfinished things. God took up residence in a Temple built by impure motivations and drafted labor. God worked through anti-Semitic Martin Luther. God led people to life-giving truth in the midst of battles over dogma. God provided strength and peace to people who were willing to die for their convictions. And God works through us, imperfectly unfinished as we are. What the early followers of Jesus made very clear is that we are God’s temples, God’s living temples, beautiful and holy not because we are covered in gold but because God made us. The Spirit of the Living God On The Move dwells within each of us, inspiring us, empowering us, and equipping us to do what we are each uniquely created to do. We all have equal access to God. God is still speaking to each of us and all of us. The book of First Peter chapter 2 says that we are living stones, built together into a spiritual house, we are a holy priesthood, God’s own people, chosen for the purpose of proclaiming the might acts of God who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light, imperfectly unfinished though we are. Amen.