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Confessions of a Small Church Pastor

Sermon: Knocking Down Barriers To the Presence of God


Tomorrow, Sunday, June 2, 2013, our church will dedicate a new handicapped lift that we recently installed. The lift eliminates the need to climb 7 steps to get into our sanctuary from the educational building. Although we have a wheelchair ramp at the front doors of the church, those 7 stairs were the last barrier to making our church completely handicapped accessible. It’s interesting to me that the lectionary reading for today involves Solomon’s prayer that when “foreigners” come to the Temple, Solomon prays that God will hear them. Israel’s mission and ours is to make the presence of God accessible to everyone. I hope your Sunday is a wonderful! 

Knocking Down Barriers To the Presence of God

I Kings 8:22-23, 41-43 NIV

22 Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in front of the whole assembly of Israel, spread out his hands toward heaven 23 and said:

“Lord, the God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below—you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way.

41 “As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name— 42 for they will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—when they come and pray toward this temple, 43 then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.”

Solomon’s Prayer For The Temple

To say that this was a special day would have been a huge understatement. Solomon, king of Israel, stood in the most unique and exquisite building in his kingdom. It was a project that his father David had wanted to undertake. But despite the fact that David was a man after God’s own heart, God reserved the building of the Temple for David’s son, Solomon.

After years of planning and gathering materials — cedar from Lebanon, cypress, stone quarried and cut off site so the sound of iron tools would not be heard in the Temple area — and after seven years’ of actual construction, Solomon now stood before the house of God and before God’s people, Israel.

Facing the massive outdoor altar on which Solomon will later sacrifice 120,000 sheep and 22,000 oxen, Solomon offers a prayer for this building that he has built as God’s dwelling place on earth.

Acknowledging that no earthly building can contain all of God’s presence, Solomon nevertheless connects the earthly Temple to the heavenly throne of God. Solomon asks that when Israelites gather to pray there, that God will hear from his throne in heaven.

But then Solomon asks God for something unusual. After asking for God to hear the Israelites whenever they call on him in the Temple, Solomon then asks the same privilege for non-Israelites — for foreigners.

Solomon says that foreigners will hear of God’s great name — and they will he states — then Solomon asks God to hear the prayers of foreigners, too, and to whatever the foreigner asks so that all people will know that God is the one true God, and that they will also know that this Temple contains the very presence of that God.

In other words, this magnificent temple made of the best materials by the best artisans available, this temple that is overlaid with gold throughout, that gleams in the sunshine, that gives glory to the God of Israel — this temple is to be accessible to everyone, even foreigners.

Solomon’s prayer is a radical departure for his day and for national places of worship. Of course, it wasn’t unusual for nations to have their own gods, and most had several. What was unique about Israel though was that Israel only had one god. Usually nations were very protective of their gods. As nations went to battle, the nation who prevailed in battle was believed to have the stronger, more effective god. We see some of this reflected even in the Old Testament, where victories in battle are attributed to God, and defeats in battle are seen to be God’s punishment for an unfaithful people.

What we might expect Solomon to say is something like this — “Lord, you are our god. We serve you and we built this house for you. Now pay special attention to us, your special people. Favor us over everyone else. And, don’t pay any attention to the prayers of other people who aren’t like us.”

Instead, Solomon says just the opposite. Oh, of course, he does invoke God’s presence, blessing, and favor on Israel. But then he adds, “Lord, others will hear about you, and they’ll come to this place. When they do, and they pray to you, hear them, too.”

This is what made Israel different from all the nations around them. Not only did Israel have a god, but from the beginning when God called Abraham and promised to make him the father of a great nation, part of the promise was that Israel was going to be blessed to be a blessing to all the nations.

Unfortunately, by the first century when Jesus is announcing the kingdom of God, Israel has forgotten that their temple is to be open to all people. Of course, the Court of the Gentiles was still in the Temple, but this is where the money changers and those who sold animals for sacrifice had set up shop. By taking up so much space for their commercial enterprise, the Gentiles were being excluded from their space in the presence of God.

That’s why when Jesus drives the money changers and merchants from the temple, he quotes the Old Testament by saying that his Father’s house was to be called a house of prayer for all nations, but they had made it a den of thieves. Not only were the merchants stealing from their own people, they were denying access to the presence of God to all the foreigners, all the other nations.

Another House of Worship, But The Same Prayer

Nineteen hundred years after Jesus, on April 8, 1906, the Los Angeles Times, then called the Los Angeles Daily Times, carried an article describing a new church in an industrial section of Los Angeles. But this wasn’t the standard Methodist, Baptist, or Presbyterian church.

The report in the paper that day said “a new sect of fanatics was breaking loose.” This bizarre new religious sect had started with people “breathing strange utterances and mouthing a creed which it would seem no sane mortal could understand.” Furthermore, “Devotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preach the wildest theories, and work themselves into a state of mad excitement.”

“If that didn’t grab the reader’s attention, the article continued by saying that, ‘Colored people and a sprinkling of whites compose the congregation, and night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howlings of the worshippers who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve-racking attitude of prayer and supplication.’ To top it all off, they claimed to have received the “gift of tongues,” and what’s more, “comprehend the babel.”’ (Courtesy: http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/199904/026_azusa.cfm)

For three years the Asuza Street congregation held on as a mixed congregation of blacks and whites, rich and poor, educated and illiterate. But the persistent negative press, and the suspicions and prejudice of the citizens of Los Angeles eventually drove them to disband. Laws were enacted to prohibit mixed race worship, and blacks were excluded from white services not only in California but elsewhere as Jim Crow laws governed social interactions.

What Keeps People from the Presence of God?

Now over 3,000 years since Solomon prayed his prayer, we have to ask ourselves “Are we as committed to opening our houses of worship to the “foreigners” in our society? And who are the foreigners, anyway?

Of course, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Protestants were grappling with the issue of sending missionaries to take the Gospel to foreigners. William Carey, the shoe cobbler-turned-preacher became the father of the modern missions movement as Carey argued passionately that the Gospel should be taken to those in foreign lands.

Our own Southern Baptist Convention split over the oddly-paired issues of slavery and missions. And, when the SBC was formed, one of the first acts of business was to establish the Foreign Mission Board for the sending of missionaries to India, China, Africa, and other foreign lands.

But if we look at the story of Solomon and the Temple again, Solomon is praying that when foreigners hear about God, and when they come to the Temple itself, he prays that God would hear them, just as God does Israel.

In other words, Solomon’s prayer isn’t a prayer about sending missionaries, it’s a prayer about opening the presence of God to everyone. But, unfortunately, as we said earlier, Israel forgets this prayer.

But God doesn’t. And so when the birth of the Messiah is announced, it isn’t announced by angels to the Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, or even the chief priest. The religious leaders who guard access to the Temple and whose actions and public displays discourage others from the presence of God are not the ones to hear the announcement of the Messiah’s birth. Instead, angels appear to shepherds who are living in the fields with their flocks. Shepherds are not permitted into the Temple because they are ceremonially unclean. So, God shows up where they are.

When John the Baptist preaches and baptizes for repentance, John doesn’t preach in the court of the Temple, nor baptize in the numerous baptismal pools adjacent to it. No, John withdraws to the desert, to the Jordan River, which is rich in symbolism of the Exodus crossing into the land of promise under the leadership of Joshua, or Yeshua, which is what the new Messiah’s name is, too.

In the history of God’s people, when access to the presence of God has been denied to any and to all, then God moves out of the structures of religious buildings and ceremony, and meets people where they are with good news.

Breaking Down Barriers to the Presence of God

But what about us today? There is no more Temple. It was destroyed in 70 AD by the Roman army intent on stopping the persistent efforts of the Jews to break free from Rome. All that remains is the foundation, the Western Wall of Herod’s Temple. But did you see the other day that numbers of Orthodox Jewish men turned out to protest the presence of women in an area of the Wailing Wall that previously had been reserved for men? Even today, there are those who will intentionally keep others — because of their gender, their race, their belief, their dress, their nationality, and so on — from the presence of God.

Now we know that sounds terrible. We cannot justify those who prevent others from coming into the presence of God for whatever reason.

But we have to ask ourselves “Who are the foreigners in our midst, and what can we do to open our church and faith community to them?”

Recently an editor from a well-know Christian publication asked me to write a short article about how small churches can attract and minister to single adults. But here’s the thing: most people think of single adults as young, twenty-somethings who are trendy and cool. And every church wants to attract that group.

But single adults are also those who are older. Some are 70-somethings who are single because their mate of 40 or 50 years has died. Other single adults are intellectually or physically disabled, and need facilities that accommodate their disabilities. Some single adults are single parents, raising one or more children on their own, and they need a church that can provide nurture for their children.

That’s what I’m going to say in my article. Single adults come in more life situations than just young, 20-something, and trendy. If we open our eyes to the reasons people are single, and begin to make church a welcoming place for even one of those previously-excluded groups, then we are praying the prayer Solomon prayed at the Temple.

Our History of Breaking Down Barriers

In writing my dissertation, I discovered some interesting things about our church. We’ve been breaking down barriers to the presence of God here for a long time. Not that we’ve always gotten it completely right, or done everything we could, but we have done some things. Like Israel, we have a history, a heritage of breaking down barriers to the presence of God.

That history includes being instrumental in founding Hargrave Military Academy at a time in the life of this county and commonwealth when rural education was not readily available, and Christian education was even less so.

Our history includes starting Samuel Harris Memorial Baptist Church. While it’s only two miles or so from our church, apparently in the 1950s those two miles might as well have been 200. To plant a church in a community that for whatever reasons was not going to come to Chatham Baptist Church was a part of our making the presence of God accessible to all.

When we started the bus ministry, our church reached out to our entire community, to include members of other churches, and perhaps no church, in our fellowship circle.

When we built the new fellowship hall over 15 years ago, you decided to open its use to the community, to welcome others into this building and to open our doors to civic clubs, and other worthwhile organizations who shared our values, and contributed to the well-being of this community.

When we opened our doors to the Boys and Girls Club, and to the Chatham Arts Community Music School, we were inviting others into our space, and by extension into the presence of God.

When we built the playground, we were inviting families with children to come and join with us. We were sending the message that here your children are loved, valued, and protected. Here is a safe place for them to play and learn about God’s presence in their lives.

And, when we installed the lift several months ago, we were inviting all of those who had mobility issues, who could not readily climb stairs, to join us in this sanctuary for worship. Of course, most of us thought that we would have to get older before we needed it, but I was one of the first who got to use the lift when I came to church on that Easter Sunday after my hospital stay.

Our Challenge for the Future

But as much as we have done, we must continue to pray the prayer of Solomon for this place. We have to think about who else we might need to reach out to, and what other groups might feel that they do not have access to the presence of God here.

Over fifty-three years ago, the Cradock Baptist Church in Portsmouth, Virginia, founded what they call the Robin Class “as a special ministry to serve mentally-challenged young people and adults.  The Robins have their own Sunday School and church program on Sundays from 10 a.m. until Noon.  Their dedicated teachers provide an environment where the Robins can experience spiritual growth and Christian fellowship.  Transportation is provided for the class by a van purchased by donations from members and friends.  The Robins attend a special session of camp at Eagle Eyrie each fall.” (http://www.cradockbaptist.org/about-us/)

Other churches have done and are doing similar things. Opening the presence of God to others who may seem like “foreigners” to us is not easy. That’s why Israel so quickly and often forgot that was their mission. But it is also our mission. And with each step we take, with each door we open, with each barrier we break down, we come a little closer to making God’s presence accessible to all. That was Solomon’s prayer, and it should be ours as well.

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Categories: 1 kings, Lectionary Yr C, sermon, Sermon Illustrations, Sermons, Worship

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3 replies

  1. Was good seeing you today and sorry I didn’t get a chance to talk much. As I mentioned, I’ve really been enjoying these messages and I’m glad that you’re posting them.

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