Is God With Us?
August 16, 2015 – Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30 (NRSV)
Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the Israelites, before King Solomon in Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of the city of David, which is Zion… Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the Lord to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim… And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.
Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven. He said, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart, the covenant that you kept for your servant my father David as you declared to him; you promised with your mouth and have this day fulfilled with your hand. Therefore, O Lord, God of Israel, keep for your servant my father David that which you promised him, saying, ‘There shall never fail you a successor before me to sit on the throne of Israel, if only your children look to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me.’ Therefore, O God of Israel, let your word be confirmed, which you promised to your servant my father David.
“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! Regard your servant’s prayer and his plea, O Lord my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place. 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.
John 6:56-61 (NRSV)
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?
During a class project for a “Studies in the Pentateuch” course in college, groups of students were given the assignment of bringing to life various parts of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible for the rest of the class to experience. My group’s assignment was fairly simple: construct a life-sized replica of the Tabernacle as described in the book of Exodus and then walk the class through the replica, explaining the religious significance of each aspect of the Tabernacle’s construction. It was an experiential way of exploring the history of the Hebrew people, bringing to life what otherwise might be presented with flat pictures and dry text on PowerPoint slides. The best part was that every overachieving Religion major in the class was in my group. We spent weeks making plans, sketching designs, writing the text of our narration. It was absolutely the very best class project of which I have ever been a part in all my years of higher education.
On the day of our presentation to the class, we reserved the university banquet hall to construct our Tabernacle replica. We all cleared our calendars that day to arrive hours early, each one of us brining our materials and erecting a Tabernacle that we were quite sure would have made Moses himself proud. The fabric walls of the Tabernacle sanctuary hung down from the high ceiling of the banquet hall all the way to floor. We had a priest in the vestments described in Exodus 28, burnt meat used for the offering, a seven-branched lampstand on the left, a table of show bread on the right, an altar of incense just in front of the curtain that led directly into the “Holy of Holies,” complete with an Ark of the Covenant replica. The banquet hall was completely dark, save for the light emanating from inside the Tabernacle, giving the structure a befitting holy glow. It was beautiful.
The appointed time arrived and our classmates and professor gathered outside the banquet hall doors, ready to see the fruits of our hard labor. All of our group members being perfectionists, down to the very last one, we had just a few last finishing touches to add. We sent someone out to inform the class that it would just be a couple of minutes more before they could behold the Tabernacle of the Exodus. As we bustled around the structure, ensuring everything was in its proper, biblical place, the movement in and out of the Tabernacle caused the fabric curtain walls to sway ever so slightly. But a slight sway was all it took for one of the fabric walls to brush the flame of the seven-branched lampstand.
From my position inside the Holy of Holies, I heard my classmate exclaim, “Oh my God!,” and I thought, “I know, this project going to be the best project!” But then I turned and I saw beyond the curtain dividing the outer sanctuary from the Most Holy Place a bright orange flicker, far more luminous than what one would expect from even a seven-branched lampstand. And as my mind caught up to what was transpiring outside the Holy of Holies, the fire began to spread across curtain in front of me and we all began franticly tearing down the structure we had so carefully built, stomping out as many flames as we could. A classmate knocked on the adjacent cafeteria kitchen door to retrieve a fire extinguisher. The cafeteria worker opened the door, coming face to face with a twelve-foot wall of flames, and, in a loud voice, she cried out in a loud voice to the Deity.
In less than five minutes, everything was burned, from parquet floor to banquet hall ceiling and every piece of Tabernacle in-between.
Our classmates and professor were still waiting outside and had no idea what had transpired in that five minutes. When we finally open the doors to give them the bad news, billows of thick, dark smoke rolled out of the banquet hall and into the student center and everyone gathered outside the doors gasped in amazement. And I can’t help but think that for a split second—just before the fire alarm sounded—our classmates must have thought, “My God, this is the best class project we have ever seen.”
We received a B. And the University’s use-of-open-flame policy received a much-needed revision.
The Tabernacle, of course, comes a bit earlier in the Hebrew Scriptures – all the way back in the Book of Exodus. The Tabernacle is a place of impermanence (as my class well demonstrated). It is a portable place of worship is indicative of a people on the move—a people who journey through the wilderness toward a future that is yet unknown.
You remember the story way back in the Book of Exodus: The Israelites, who long labored in Egyptian slavery, were finally released from their captivity after ten Divine plagues were unleashed upon the Egyptian people. Pharaoh relented, releasing the Israelites to make their exodus into the wilderness under the care and guidance of a man named Moses. And as they leave Egypt, the presence of the Divine goes before them, leading them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. But Pharaoh changes his mind and pursued the Israelites with all of his horses and chariots and his army. And the Israelites were filled with fear and cried out to the Lord and to Moses. And just in the nick of time, the Lord told Moses to lift up his staff over the Sea and it dramatically parted before them allowing safe passage to the other side. And just as swiftly, the waters crashed back down into the sea, crushing the Egyptian army in pursuit.
A little while later, when the people could find only bitter water to drink, the people complained to Moses again and God told Moses to put a piece of wood in the water and it made the water sweet and drinkable. Later, when the people had no food to eat and they cried out once again in complaint, and “the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you,’ and the people were miraculously fed by manna in the desert.
A little later in Exodus, the people continue their journey in the wilderness and arrive at a resting place, but there was no water for the people to drink. And, after all of the miraculous encounters with the Divine that they had experienced and after all of the ways their survival was ensured by the most spectacular of means—the people, once again, quarrel with Moses, crying out, “Give us water to drink…Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us?”
Or, more pointedly, they asked, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
The Tabernacle is a place of impermanence, as a portable place of worship is indicative of a people “on the move”—a people who journey through the wilderness toward a future that is yet unknown.
But now, generations later, no longer in the wilderness but in the land of promise, Solomon completes what his father David began planning years before: a permanent place of worship, a Temple. No more tents and traveling and lugging the sacred objects around in the wilderness, but a Temple crafted of the finest material by the most skilled artisans, now ready for dedication. Before all the assembled elders of Israel and in front of all the heads of the tribes and right there before the leaders of the ancestral houses of the Israelites, Solomon parades in these symbols of impermanence – the ark and the tent – right through the middle of the whole crowd.
And “the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the Lord to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim…And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.”
And on this grand occasion, Solomon prays. And what else emerges from his lips than the age-old question: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth?”
Echoes of the Exodus reverberate in his opening prayer: “Is the Lord among us or not?” “Will God indeed dwell on the earth?” “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”
It’s a good question, isn’t it – one whose pertinence hasn’t yet worn off? They are questions of a people in search of where the Divine presence is moving. In fact, Walter Brueggemann says that in the Hebrew Scriptures, the most used term for God’s presence in the holy place, a word at other times translated “sojourn,” which “affirms that [God] is present but not permanently committed: [The Divine] is free to come and go. This verb maintains [God’s] freedom beyond…institutional control.”
If I had to guess, I’d imagine that have been times in the recent past when you, as a congregation, have wondered to yourselves something like the Hebrew people wondered: “Is the Lord among us or not?” “Will God indeed dwell on the earth?” “Is God with us?” Probably not in those words, necessarily, but if could translate it a bit, I’d guess the wondering might go something like this: Do our most cherished aspirations still have the power to guide us as a community of faith? Will our future be as bright as our past? Can we sustain our life as a community—the life that we’ve cultivated and nurtured for generations? Will we, at this critical juncture, thrive or founder. “Is the Lord among us or not?” “Will God indeed dwell on the earth?” “Is God with us?”
It’s a good question, isn’t it – one whose pertinence hasn’t yet worn off? They are questions of a people in search of where the Divine presence is moving.
On our best days, in the middle beauty and wonder, in the aftermath of triumph, we say, “God is with us. You could just feel the presence of the divine moving among us.”
When overtaken by the goodness of others and the beauty of our surroundings…
When something we’ve worked hard to do actually seems to make a difference in the world…
When our family and our friends and our church are healthy and happy and cared for…
“God is with us.”
“We are blessed by God.”
“The Divine presence in palpable in our midst.”
And, on our worst days, in the midst of tragedy, in the aftershocks of disaster, we say, “God be with us. We need to feel the divine presence in among us.”
When hurricanes ravage the poorest and most vulnerable communities and no one comes to the rescue in the nick of time…
When uncertainty clouds over any assurances we have that the work we’re doing to bring about peace and justice in the world is making any difference at all…
When the diagnosis comes back and it’s much worse than we expected…
“Is the Lord among us or not?”
“Will God indeed dwell on the earth?”
“Is God with us?”
Questions of a people in search of where the Divine presence is moving.
The most used term for God’s presence in the holy place is a word translated, “sojourn” – the Divine presence journeying along, free to come and go, beyond all institutional control. And we, too, are on a journey. Now—perhaps more than at any other time in our life as a community of faith—it is palpable that we’re a people on the move, making a journey of genuine risk full of possibility. So don’t be afraid when it arises—that little question of a people in search of where the Divine presence is moving:
“Is the Lord among us or not?”
“Will God indeed dwell on the earth?”
“Is God with us?”
 Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, ed. R. Scott Nash (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwis, 2000), 107.