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 A Place for God

Sermon - 11/25/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Psalm 132

So we have an extra Sunday this year, did you notice? Because of the calendar, we get an extra Sunday -- normally there is 4 weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but this year we get 5 weeks. That doesn't happen very often. Next year we go back to your regularly scheduled calendar, so it creates a little confusion. We had some folks in the first service that brought food for the cornucopia, but that was last Sunday. Well, this is "Thanksgiving Sunday", right? Actually, usually this is the first Sunday of Advent, so it's unusual that we have this Sunday before Advent starts.

So I kind of view it as a "free" Sunday -- this is an extra, it gets thrown in to the mix. A time to kick-back, enjoy the holidays, our family, and that big bird that we all enjoy -- the Oregon Duck :) And his friend, the roasted Beaver!

The liturgical calendar that governs the seasons of the church, knows nothing of such worldly pleasures. So it has a way of pulling us back to remind us of what is of ultimate importance. And on this last Sunday before Advent, whether that comes on the Sunday before Thanksgiving or the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the emphasis is on the reign of Christ (which often gets lost because of all of the Thanksgiving celebrations).
So on the liturgical calendar this is called Christ the King Sunday. I want to take the opportunity this morning to explore a little deeper on what that means for us in this modern age, when Kings are either the stuff of folklore, or they're basketball teams, or they're commercial icons for burger joints. So to be a King is to be a superstar athlete or a really creepy commercial icon -- what is it? Of course its not any of that. And to understand more of what this image means to us, we need to get to the Biblical roots found in the Hebrew tradition of our Jewish brothers and sisters, to see how those ideas around the ideal King -- David -- serves as a model for ancient Israel was applied then to an iterant preacher who was more of a pauper than a prince. More of a rebel than a King.

And the text, then, to begin our reflection this morning is one of the very royal Psalms, known as a psalm of ascent, as in ascending to the Temple. And this Psalm has a very specific historic context -- we just don't know what it was :) But we have a pretty good idea that it was one of two things: either it was a Psalm that was composed for that day, when the Ark of the covenant (that symbol of God's presence, carried by the ancient Hebrews from place to place ever since the days of Moses) was finally given a permanent home when Solomon built the Temple -- that's one possibility.

The other possibility is that it was composed for an annual ritual re-enacting that event, and perhaps the Ark was taken out of the Temple and then brought back in with this big fanfare as this Psalm was recited. And I suspect the latter is more likely the case, or at least that's how the Psalm was used. But still, it's the same event that is being remembered and celebrated, that God now has a dwelling place in the Temple of Jerusalem, built by Solomon. So, let's read the Psalm (132), I invite you to follow-along in your own Bible, or the pew Bible:

A Song of Ascents.

1 O Lord, remember in David’s favor
   all the hardships he endured; 
2 how he swore to the Lord
   and vowed to the Mighty One of Jacob, 
3 ‘I will not enter my house
   or get into my bed; 
4 I will not give sleep to my eyes
   or slumber to my eyelids, 
5 until I find a place for the Lord,
   a dwelling-place for the Mighty One of Jacob.’ 

6 We heard of it in Ephrathah;
   we found it in the fields of Jaar. 
7 ‘Let us go to his dwelling-place;
   let us worship at his footstool.’ 

8 Rise up, O Lord, and go to your resting-place,
   you and the ark of your might. 
9 Let your priests be clothed with righteousness,
   and let your faithful shout for joy. 
10 For your servant David’s sake
   do not turn away the face of your anointed one. 

11 The Lord swore to David a sure oath
   from which he will not turn back:
‘One of the sons of your body
   I will set on your throne. 
12 If your sons keep my covenant
   and my decrees that I shall teach them,
their sons also, for evermore,
   shall sit on your throne.’ 

13 For the Lord has chosen Zion;
   he has desired it for his habitation: 
14 ‘This is my resting-place for ever;
   here I will reside, for I have desired it. 
15 I will abundantly bless its provisions;
   I will satisfy its poor with bread. 
16 Its priests I will clothe with salvation,
   and its faithful will shout for joy. 
17 There I will cause a horn to sprout up for David;
   I have prepared a lamp for my anointed one. 
18 His enemies I will clothe with disgrace,
   but on him, his crown will gleam.’

 

Take note that the reign of the house of David here is conditional -- "IF your sons keep my covenant, THEN they shall dwell on the throne forever". This is a not-so-gentle reminder that those in the palace are beholden to the power which resides in the Temple, and not the other way around. Whereas the presence of a descendent of David on the throne is conditional, the presence of God in the Temple, you see, is not. It is to be forever. And indeed, that Temple built by Solomon stood for nearly 400 years. Not even Chip Kelley can match a record like that :)

But what went wrong? I mean, it did eventually fall. So how could a promise of God be broken? Well, the 132nd Psalm is a witness to the perennial power struggle between Palace and Temple. Between King and Priest. Between Priest and Prophet. Between power vested in human authority and power vested in divine authority. And while we say divine authority is the higher power, the problem comes when you ask: who do you give that authority to? When it's expressed through a particular individual or institution, that's when we begin to have problems. When the heads of state assume the power the church, you see, it's disastrous. Or when the heads of the church assume the power of state, it's very problematic. Theocracies are always doomed to fail, because it gives too much power to a single person or a single individual. Machiavelli was right -- power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Which is why we have created separation of church and state, and why I believe it is fundamentally good for both. But this what we actually learn from the history of the Temple in Jerusalem. Once you give the religious establishment power over the throne, it is inevitable that power will dominate it as well. Divine authority simply cannot be placed in human hands. And thus the rather comical portrayal of the Ark of the Covenant, Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, was actually right (if you saw that movie, you know that the Ark that was found has these incredible powers) -- that amount of power simply cannot be trusted in human hands, it's too much for human beings to handle.

So what does all of this have to do with Christ? Well, the Temple, you may recall, was rebuilt just prior to the birth of Jesus by Herod the Great. It was never completely finished, but still it was considered one of the seven great wonders of world. And it stood for 10 years less than this building has stood. Herod did not build it out of religious piety (Herod was really Jewish in name only), he built it as a symbol of his power, and he had it dedicated to underscore that point on the anniversary of his inauguration as King (lest anyone not get it -- the Temple now is subservient to the throne).

Nevertheless, it was still a fulfillment for Jews of that ancient promise that God would be with them. That even if they did not have a son of David on the throne, they still had Yahweh in the Temple. The promise of God was still good.

Now, with the destruction of the Temple by Rome in the year 70, leaving just that famous Western Wall as a reminder of what was once there, Judaism had to reinvent itself because it no longer had the Temple. And it did so in two ways, with 2 different movements. One movement shifted the notion of the presence of God from the Temple to the Torah. And that's why for every Jew today, from the far right ultra-orthodox to the most progressive will tell you God is not found in a place, but rather God is found in the law, in the Torah. And that's why the Torah scroll is so important, so precious to every Jewish community -- you don't even touch the scroll itself, only the vestments in which the scroll is held.

The second movement said God is not found in the Temple, God is not even found in the holy scriptures, as important as they are, but God is found in a person. The living word, the living law (Torah). As the Gospel of John says "In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, the Word was God, and in Him the fullness of God dwells".

By the way, I've always said that it is a fundamental misunderstanding to equate the Jewish Torah with the Christian Bible, because the Torah is to Jews not what the Bible is to Christians, but rather what Christ is to Christians. And so for us, to elevate the Bible to that level of Torah is actually to commit Bibliolatry -- because it is Christ, not the Bible, that we worship. It is in Christ that we find the real presence of God.

So, the reign of Christ that we celebrate on this Sunday is not about creating a political kingdom, a kingdom on earth as in heaven, but rather it is about following the way of Jesus, which is why we pray "thy will be done on earth as in heaven". So for us as Christians, to make a place for God to dwell is about creating a holy space for Christ to live in us. Rather than a holy place for us to come and visit Jesus once in awhile.

Now, that's not to say that the place where we worship is not important. By no means, it's very important to us. Like many people, when I travel I like to visit churches. Especially the great cathedrals, like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, or the church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the enormous, vast church of St. Peter that is the home of the Vatican. Or the very modest little chapels that we saw on our World of Paul pilgrimage here in Greece. But there's something about the grandeur of a beautiful cathedral, as well as the simplicity of a small chapel, that can lift your spirit, that can quiet your soul, that can inspire your faith. And so these places are very important.

Yet when the building becomes more important than the people, or when it becomes a symbol of power that can be manipulated to serve political agendas, then we have a problem. So the challenge for us, those of us who place our faith in a person rather than in an institution, is to make sure that the building serves the people and not people serving the building. That it will help create a conduit for creating that holy space in our lives that we all desire.

So next Sunday, we begin the season of advent. Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and perhaps most inspiring seasons of the church year. We are also entering another more worldly season. Not the shopping frenzy, but a season that is marked for us by a very ugly container that you will see parked behind the church this week. Takes up an entire parking space. And that's when you know that this is the season of the Egan Warming Center, when we open our building on those nights when it is below 30°. That ugly box that contains all the supplies and mats for the Egan Warming Center provides a stark contrast to the beauty of this sanctuary during the Advent season. And it reminds us of what we are all about.

We can view the Egan Warming Center as a disruption to our important events (which sometimes it is), as well as a drain on our resources (which fortunately it is not because of the outpouring of support from the community), or, we can view it as a an opportunity to put our money and our building where our mouth is: putting God and God's people first.

And our Sunday breakfast, now serving over 250 people most Sunday mornings, means that our traditional Easter breakfast (for ourselves) will never be the same again. How do we do that? Now, is that a loss that we should lament? Or is that a sign of a new era of service we have only just begun? Putting the needs of the hungry on the outside before that religious custom of serving those on the inside.

Coy James, our church growth consultant that we're working with right now, thinks we should be giving more serious thought to how we can expand what we do off-campus so that our ministry is not about getting people to come here to be touched by God's grace and mercy, it's about us going into the world to make that presence known wherever we are throughout the community.

And it all comes down to this: by affirming God's abiding presence in a person, means we put our faith in people, not in a building. And that means the holy place where God dwells is not here in this place, rather it is, as Jesus said, where 2 or 3 are gathered together in his name that we create that space in our lives and in our community where God is present.

The holiest place of all is that place where we make Christ alive, where we make God present, where we make love known, where we make peace real.

And when we do that, then the reign of Christ is now. The kingdom of God is here.

 


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