I Kings 8.54-66
Over the course of the first few weeks in our new space, we have been marinating in a passage from I Kings about the dedication of the brand new worship space of Solomon’s Temple. The people have gathered for a seven day festival in order to celebrate God’s faithfulness. The first week, we looked at Solomon’s opening remarks, preparing them for the presence of God, symbolized by the Ark and the cloud of presence. The second week, we looked at the prayer that Solomon prayed in his wisdom, highlighting the ideas of covenant and relationship with the God who hears us. Today, we conclude by examining his closing remarks, following that prayer.
Solomon has been raising his hands to God in prayer, facing the altar of the Lord, and now he turns to face the people. It is the pinnacle of his reign, some say the very pinnacle of the nation of Israel. It has been a long climb to this point for the Israelites:
More than a generation since the Lord told Solomon’s father David that his dynasty would build a home for their worship.
Many, many generations after Moses called the people from bondage into freedom and led them out of Egypt.
And even more generations – perhaps has much as a thousand years – since God first told Abraham “go to a land that I will show you.”
After many generations and centuries, Solomon has now built these structures, including the Temple, that have been a long time coming. And they will have an impact for generations to come. This is the pinnacle of the people of Israel, and Solomon stood atop it with a clear sense of history, and awareness of his current situation. As the story continues into chapter 9, God blesses Solomon and offers divine favor.
But the problem with the pinnacle…the problem with being on the top, is that there is nowhere to go but down. There is a dark tone in Solomon’s remarks, and in God’s response in chapter 9:
“if you turn aside from following me, you or your children, and do not keep my commandments and my statues that I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut Israel off from the land that I have given them; and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight; and Israel will become a proverb and a taunt among all peoples. This house will become a heap of ruins; everyone passing by it will be astonished, and will hiss; and they will say “Why has the Lord done such a thing to this land and this house?”
This tone betrays a dark story that is to follow. There is reason for such a foreboding warning.
Within the next few chapters, Solomon’s favor in God’s eyes begins to unravel. It seems that in order to pay for the building project, Solomon had made a deal with the king of Tyre. In exchange for the timbers required to build the Temple and the rest of Solomon’s building projects, he had promised vast amounts of Israelite wheat and oil. Not only that, but he had agreed to annex part of the northern territory to that king – 20 Israelite cities – an act that would lead to feelings of betrayal, and sow the seeds of disunity and division. Many in the northern part of the unified Kingdom felt like Solomon had sold them out to foreign interests, and that unity began to unravel.
If that were not enough, it is revealed how much Solomon had relied on forced labor to build the Temple, an act that further created suspicion and distrust.
And finally, in what is named in Kings as Solomon’s final undoing, he fell prey to what the book calls “foreign women.” It seems that the author of Kings believed that many of Solomon’s wives were not of Israelite descent. They came from other countries, other faiths, and other cultures. Their influence on him pulled him away from the true worship of God, and he began to adopt their religious practices as a result of this unhealthy influence.
This is a complicated part of the story. These chapters about Solomon’s foreign women have been used through the generations to defend xenophobia, cultural ethnocentrism, segregation, and blatant racism. Many have taken it as evidence that God wants us to only associate with people just like us, to not allow anyone different than us to be a part of the faith. It is passages like these that the KKK has used to explain why churches and schools and culture as a whole should not be integrated.
But, it seems like there is something more basic going on here. I think that Solomon’s problem was not that he fell prey to competing races or ethnicities, but that he fell prey to competing allegiances. Quickly, Solomon forgot the words of his own prayer, calling upon God to remember the covenant that they had together, and began to make other covenants, other priorities, and other allegiances that unraveled the reason why he had built the Temple in the first place. He began to build competing altars to competing gods, and before long, God’s words came to fruition.
Within two more chapters, Solomon’s dynasty began to splinter, the united Kingdom began to divide, his sons fought over power, and the slope continued to slip downward until 587 – less than 400 years after today’s passage – when the Babylonians fulfilled God’s promise by defeating the Israelites and marching their leaders on a Trail of Tears to Babylon. God’s people lost their land. David’s dynasty was dismantled. And the Temple itself collapsed into ruins. The pinnacle that Solomon stood on in today’s passage was nothing but an ancient memory.
Once more, Solomon’s words and story become for us a guiding word. As we prepare to finish and dedicate our worship space, we do well to hear Solomon’s sober words, and God’s clear warning. We do well to be wary of the similar pitfalls that Solomon and the Israelites fell into.
Today, I ask three questions that come from this story, that help us to keep our focus during these days.
First, will we fall prey to competing allegiances?
Again, Solomon fell prey to the competing allegiances of all of the cultures that surrounded him. With every new wife came a new religious practice and a new priority.
It is easy for us to fall prey to all that surrounds us today, begging our allegiance. When the “foreign gods” of consumerism, materialism, racism, entertainment culture, sports culture become our priority, our ultimate allegiance, then we run into the same problems that Solomon did:
“if you turn aside from following me… and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut Israel off from the land that I have given them; and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight…”
Perhaps the most dangerous “foreign god” these days is politics. My experience in churches is that they tend to become less unified and more negative around the time of political elections. It seems that the drummed up conflict and negativity of cable news and our media at fever pitch spills over into the church. Into Sunday school classes, and committee meetings, and all over the church. Given that the presidential election cycles is now about 3 and a half years long, we see it more and more.
For me, this is an area of competing allegiances. It doesn’t matter that Jesus tells us to love our enemies, Fox News tells us how much we have to hate Hilary. It doesn’t matter that Scripture tells us that he is a child of God, MSNBC tells us that Donald Trump is a demon.
Using the rubric of Solomon, it is these competing allegiances that we must fight against. Tony Campolo said it best: Jesus was not a Republican or a Democrat. He was Jesus, and he alone is worthy of our allegiance!
This is the time for us to re-declare our allegiance, to remember why we built this in the first place, and to double down at putting Christ at the center of our lives and of our church.
Look again at the final words of Solomon in our passage today. In vs. 58, he calls upon the people to “dedicate their hearts.” I think this is the most important line for us to take from this passage. After we work out the bugs, we’ll have a dedication for the space, as well we should. But Solomon realized in that moment, at the pinnacle, even though the pitfalls would come, that the people of God must be ever vigilant to dedicate their hearts.
Which leads us to a second question: Are we willing to sell out the least of these for our own comfort?
Solomon sure was. He used forced labor, took the crops of farmers and harvesters and built his dynasty. He did it on the backs of the least of these.
Some churches have made the same choice. In the face of paying off debt from capital projects, they take the easy route of reducing missions giving, ignoring partnerships with service organizations, and pinching pennies from those who need it the most.
We must stay the course and not choose to sell out the least of these. A corollary question here is “who is our worship space for? Who is our remodeled fellowship space for? Who is our building for?” Is it so that we can be more comfortable, or so that we can include and welcome the least of these in our ministry space?
If you remember your European history, for centuries, the sanctuary itself was a place to protect those who were wrongly accused. As made famous in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, who saved Esmeralda by taking her in the church, finding rest in the sanctuary of a church was a legal safeguard for due process of law. The sanctuary became the place of safety, security, protection. It is a powerful symbol for us today! Will we see this space, our church campus, our worship space, as a place for our comfort, or a place of protection and sanctuary for the “least of these” against the struggles of the world that they face?
Our church thus far in this capital campaign has chosen to say loud and clear that the needs of the least of these will not be forgotten. We intentionally said last year that we did not want to cut back on our giving to the mission needs of the denomination. And we continue to support Habitat, LINK, Family Promise, Dezo, and this year we added Justice Matters. For it to work, our pledges and tithing will have to be consistent and generous, but I would suggest that it is the main reason we have done all of this in the first place.
At the end of today’s passage, it says that Solomon sacrificed some ridiculous amount of animals as a way to honor and glorify God. I believe that while our sacrifices look very different, God still wants us to sacrifice. My children remind me every once and a while that we still don’t have cable, a decision that we made a few years ago in order to support Dezo and the capital campaign. I remind them that when we are done paying for the project and Dezo has built her clinic in Haiti, then we’ll talk about cable.
It’s a rather pedantic symbol, and tiny amount compared to what some of you regularly give and regularly sacrifice. But it is a way that we remember what our priorities. We have what we have because of God’s generosity. And God has called us to care for the least of these, whatever we have to share.
Which leads me to my final question: will our building be a reason to divide or a reason to unite? Solomon’s choices divided the kingdom. For Solomon, it was more important that he had the right building materials than for him to keep the kingdom together. He annexed twenty cities in the northern part of the kingdom, in order to buy lumber. Twenty communities that had lived and died for generations…all for a trip to Menards! Those remaining in the northern part of the united nation asked “if he could give up twenty cities so easily, what is keeping him from giving us up next?” It began to unravel the unity of the nation and sowed seeds of distrust.
Today, I ask if we are ready to choose the values of unity and community? Capital projects have a predictable result on churches. They tend to begin as a unifying force when the project is vague and open. And then the actual project takes place and people start to get disappointed and angry. Disunity creeps in. “I wanted blue drapes and not white ones…I wanted the wall here and not there.” In my experience, churches tend to lose a few members during capital projects.
But what is not predictable is what happens next. Following a large project, in the debt retirement phase, some churches will continue to splinter. Just like the Israelites, there are questions about loyalty and hurt feelings, and inevitable results of burnout of giving time and money. Some end up, just like Solomon’s kingdom, dividing into angry and upset camps, and even split the congregation.
But others will begin to do just the opposite. They see this as an opportunity for God to really start to open doors for them. With the project done, they turn toward the future and start to ask “what’s next?” They turn to God and seek vision for their outward-facing ministry. And they come together under the cross of Christ and choose to make a difference.
I am coming up on six years here at First Baptist, and it has been a ride! Building challenges, capital campaigns, staff changes, all in the face of an exponentially shifting culture. Sometimes I get asked “how do you handle all these challenges and changes?” And I usually give some version of the same answer. Unhealthy churches can split over the color of the couch in the parlor. Healthy churches find a way to stay family. Ours is a healthy church, and when challenges and changes come, we figure it out. For 160 years, this church has figured it out. For the last six, we have figured it out. I have a hunch that this will be an opportunity for us to unify and energize. Are we ready to join together and do God’s work in Lawrence and beyond? Will our new space be a reason to unify or divide?
This morning, this year, and in the days ahead, we will answer that question together. And I believe that this is the right time to follow the unity of Christ. I believe it is the right time to serve in love those whom Christ commanded us to serve. And I believe that it is the right time to dedicate our hearts, put Christ at the center of our lives, and proclaim allegiance to him and him alone!