I Kings 8.22-30 [31-53]
Well, it seems like we have a new way to yell at each other. In a story this week, NPR correspondent Sam Sanders reported that Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Jeb Bush took turns trading blows and calling each other names last week. And while that may not be considered news, the way that they did it might. They used their Instagram accounts to post videos slamming the other candidate for not being the right person for the job. Yes, Instagram – not that long ago reserved for posting pictures of whatever you were eating for dessert and putting filters over the top of your smartphone pictures to make them look like they were from the 70’s – Instagram is now the latest way that we can yell at each other.
Sanders suggests that this is not really that surprising. He says that most new media begin with a period of utopian-like peace and friendliness, but eventually degenerate into something much darker. Perhaps this is a pattern that is tied to basic human nature, but even if it is, it is definitely exacerbated by the forms by which we communicate. Flashy videos, photoshopped pictures, messages shrunk to 140 characters. Our technology favors quick, explosive, shallow forms of communication.
Sanders interviewed Kerric Harvey, a professor at George Washington University who specializes in media and culture, who said that technology has helped to create this phenomenon. She uses the image of a cave filled with bats:
“imagine if you could go into a bat cave,” Harvey said. “And you could flip a switch and hear what’s going on. That’s what it’s like for us, and we don’t realize it. What we’re doing as a species is screaming at the top of our lungs while we hurtle through the dark trying to find each other.”
Perhaps it is not a coincidence that I heard the story on NPR. National Public Radio. While there might be some rabid radio listeners here today, the reality is that the medium of radio is not what it once was. Of course, when radio was the only option, it was king. But now that it has been supplanted by both TV and so many more forms of visual media – YouTube, SnapChat, Vine, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram – the days of Prairie Home Companion, This American Life, and Car Talk may well be numbered. It may not be overstating the issue to say that we simply don’t listen any more. “Screaming at the top of our lungs while we hurtle through the dark trying to find each other.” No one listens.
Relationship experts claim that this is bad news. They remind us that one of the most important parts to healthy relationships is healthy communication. Relationship author Peter Velander writes, “When problems in marriages or family systems require counseling intervention, one of the first areas of definite need that emerges is effective communication – or the lack thereof. When marriage or family systems function well, healthy and accurate communication is one of the most evident characteristics of those relationships. All this is to say that if you choose only one relationship skill to develop, let it be the skill of communication.”
We could probably take a poll of those in the room today, especially those whose relationships have survived the years. Those who have done it well know of the importance of listening! More than just posting past each other, or screaming at the top of our lungs while we hurtle through the dark, they know that to make it work, you have to sit down, unplug from everything that distracts, and listen. Relationships require listening.
Hold on to that thought for a moment and join me in the world of I Kings 8. A couple of weeks ago, I introduced this chapter as a serendipitous passage for our world right now. This chapter tells the story of the dedication of the Temple, their new worship space, built by King Solomon. According to the first part of the passage, all of the people have gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate this special day. They have brought in the Ark of the Covenant to remind them of God’s faithfulness. And Solomon presides over the ceremony, as the Temple fills with a dark cloud of God’s mysterious presence.
Now, in this second part of the passage, the smoke has cleared and Solomon offers a prayer to God. Now, picture this. All of these people are standing in what is one of the most beautiful structures on the planet. It has taken 40-some years to build it. They have brought in the finest cedar logs down from Lebanon, the choicest stone has been quarried. They have covered everything in gold. It is literally the second-largest religious structure in the world at that time. When Solomon raises his hands to pray, you would think that his words would likely be about the beauty that surrounds them. But they aren’t. Solomon’s prayer is not about the Temple, but about God.
From beginning to end, it is a theological work of glory and praise and thanksgiving, and he mentions the Temple…twice. And both times, he talks about it in a way that minimizes the Temple itself and maximizes the God who it was built to praise.
Instead of talking about the Temple, Solomon talks about God.
And he talks about the covenant that God has chosen to have with God’s people.
It is a word that we struggle with in our context. It has been used so often in the religious context that it feels like a Sunday School word more than anything else. And it tends to lose its meaning because of the over-sanctification that takes place. For most of us, it probably doesn’t even feel real. Or at least relevant to our busy lives.
But what if we stopped using the churchy word and used more plain language. Instead of covenant, which implies something holy and set apart, what if we called it what it is, first and foremost: a relationship. God has chosen to enter into a relationship with Creation. And so, the Scriptures teach us what that relationship is supposed to look like…and not look like. And with every relationship, it comes back to good communication!
In Solomon’s prayer, he begins with a plea to God to remember the covenant (like it’s God that is the one that needs reminding!) And then, the rest of the prayer is this pattern with three parts.
Part one is the introduction of a specific circumstance…
• When a person wrongs another person.
• When your people go to war.
• When there is no rain on the earth and the crops dry up.
Part two is the repeated phrase: “hear from heaven…”
And part three of the pattern is a specific plea to God on behalf of the people:
• When a person wrongs another person…hear from heaven and forgive.
• When your people go to war…hear from heaven and protect them.
• When there is no rain on the earth and the crops dry up…hear from heaven and forgive the people and send rain.
Seven times, this same pattern. Potential circumstance. Plea to “hear from heaven”. Request to bring healing and hope. Seven times, the ancient number of completeness.
Solomon is standing on the pinnacle of human achievement and with his hands raised in praise, he begs, “God, please listen.”
Whatever has happened and is happening in our lives…please listen. “Hear us in Heaven!”
The language of covenant, of relationship is intertwined with the language of listening. And in a world that screams past one another, metaphorically and literally, finding new technology every day to debase and separate and tear each other down, it is listening that makes a difference. That brings healing. That brings community. That brings salvation.
Solomon’s prayer tells us two things. One, because of our relationship, our covenant with God, we must listen. Just like in any relationship, we have to listen. Like the song we sang a couple of weeks ago, “open my ears, that I may hear, voices of truth Thou sendest clear; and while the wave-notes fall on my ear, everything else will disappear.” I could preach a whole sermon on how and why and when we need to listen.
But as we move into our worship space, in the same way that the people of God did 3,000 years ago, we do well to explore why Solomon didn’t talk about the space, or the people, or their worship. But he instead talked about God. The One who was worshipped in that space!
And today, the main point I want to leave you with is not what we are supposed to do, but what God has promised to do. Not so much our task, but instead our gift. Less about our job description, and more about the benefit package.
Because if there is anything that I want you to hear today, it is the fact that God will hear us from heaven.
• When we have wronged our neighbor and feel the sting of broken friendship – God hears from heaven.
• When we are embattled and broken by lives of struggle – God hears us from heaven.
• When we are dried up and blanched by weariness – God hears from heaven.
And when we feel like we are living in the cave of bats, flying past each other in the dark, screaming our lungs out to try and get someone to listen, there is good news. Someone is listening. Someone hears us. Someone knows our hearts. Someone calls with a still, small voice, and says “Peace, be still.”
Today, my prayer, echoing Solomon’s is that you would know that God hears you. That God knows you. That God loves you.