Tuesday, August 10, 2021

August 22, 2021 - 13th Sunday after Pentecost

                               Biblical Words                           [730]

I Kings 8:(1, 6, 10-11), 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

The House of the Lord is honored as the house of prayer, but in time a faithful remnant finds a new holy center. 

I Kings 8:(1, 6, 10-11), 22-30, 41-43.  

The prophetic reading presents the highpoint of the Biblical presentation of King Solomon – the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem. 

The Temple is such a vast element in Jewish and Christian religious language that it is worth dwelling on a bit.    

In general, the language used of temples in the ancient Near East made them the “houses,” the dwelling places, of the deities, and this is the language used of the Jerusalem Temple. 

The building (described in I Kings 6-7) was that of the private residence of a mighty lord.  It had a great front porch set off by two massive pillars, the only part of the temple seen by ordinary people (that is, non-priests).  Beyond that porch it had a main hall with upper windows, multiple lampstands, a food table, and an incense altar, all forming the main reception hall of the lord. 

But deep inside was a totally dark inner-most throne room where the god himself stayed and from which his “glory” might glow forth on special occasions.  Built into the walls around this temple structure were three stories of rooms used for stocks of supplies, for treasuries, and for the administrative work of the household staff (the priests). 

Out in the large front court was the slaughter site with elaborate bronze equipment for butchering, processing, and burning animals brought as offerings to the lord of the house. 

The opening of I Kings 8 refers to the ceremonies by which the Lord took possession of this house as his residence.  God’s own presence is represented by the ark of the covenant, and when it moved into the inner-most chamber, there was a great glow, shrouded in a bright cloud but so intense that the priests could not be near it (verses 10-11).  The holy Lord, in all God’s glory, has come to abide in the Temple.  (God inaugurates the Mosaic Tabernacle with this same overpowering glory, Exodus 40:34-35.) 

Solomon’s first words declare that this is God’s house (following the Greek text, translated in the RSV):  “The Lord has set the sun in the heavens, but has said that he would dwell in thick darkness.  I have built thee an exalted house, a place for thee to dwell in for ever.”  (If any words in this chapter come from the time of Solomon, these are the ones.) 

This is the faith of the old mythic age, when gods occupied actual space on earth, even if that space always represented a heavenly reality.  Solomon’s Temple originally participated in the ancient world’s mythopoeic unity of nature and society.  The Temple expressed this unity in its affirmations about the Lord Yahweh as enthroned king, victor over chaos, deliverer of the innocent, and giver of peace. 

But Solomon’s dedicatory prayer goes further and presents another perspective on the Temple.  (This perspective belongs to the “Axial Age,” which succeeded the old mythic orientation in several centers of civilization around the globe in the period 800 to 200 BCE; see Wikipedia, "Axial Age.")  

“Will God indeed dwell on the earth?  Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you [O Lord], much less this house that I have built” (verse 27, NRSV).  The transcendence of God beyond all spatial limits is affirmed, and will in the following ages gradually make a physical temple building unimportant if not actually objectionable. 

(To leap ahead to a dramatic and deadly example, see the speech of the martyr Stephen in Acts 7, in which the establishment of Solomon’s temple is presented as Israel’s apostasy from God.) 

A striking thing about Solomon’s benedictions and prayer is that nothing is said about sacrifices.  Fundamentally, in the old days the Jerusalem Temple was a place for sacrifices.  However, Solomon seeks God’s forgiveness and grace in response to prayers directed toward the Temple, making the Temple a focus of prayer rather than a place of sacrifice! 

Some typical moments of severe human crisis (including exile from the land) are enumerated with the request that God forgive and save those who pray toward the Temple (verses 31-53).  It is the prayer that matters.  God in heaven will heed the prayers; sacrifice does not matter. 

What the Temple provides is the direction of prayer.  Daniel in exile prayed, following Solomon, toward Jerusalem three times a day (Daniel 6:10).  The Muslims in Medina, living beside Jewish tribes, also prayed toward Jerusalem – until they were instructed by the Qur’an to change their practice and pray toward Mecca (Qur’an, 2:142-152). 

And yet, with or without sacrifices, Jerusalem has remained an intensely sacred and cherished place to Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  For many believers, the actual, physical place is holy, qualitatively different from all the profane space on the rest of the globe. 

And the holiest place in Jerusalem is the Temple mount! 

Psalm 84.  

The Psalm for this Sunday is a poignant expression of love for the Temple. 

The bene Qorah (“Of the Korahites” in the heading), the guild of singers to whom this psalm belonged, were apparently devoted to the Temple service, and expressed this in their songs.  See the opening of Psalm 42, another Qorahite psalm, as the speaker longs to see God and remembers “how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God…” (42:4). 

It has been suggested (by E.M. Poteat, Exposition in The Interpreter’s Bible) that three attitudes toward the Temple service are reflected in Psalm 84. 

First, the Temple servant who loves his calling yearns from a distance for the cherished courts (verses 1-4).  He envies the birds who can nest in out-of-the-way places around the court of the altar (like the swallows that build their mud-daub nests under the eaves of the high walls at the Mission in San Juan Capistrano). 

Secondly, there is the pilgrim who comes from a distance, his heart set on seeing God in Zion, wearied by his travel, passing the familiar landmarks loaded with legend and lore as he approaches the city (verses 5-8). 

And thirdly, there is the soldier or militia person on duty out on the borders (or, these days, in the very streets of the Old City) whose commander is a “shield” and God’s anointed.  For this person, God is “a sun and shield,” bestowing favor and honor on those who walk uprightly (verses 9-11).  Working among criminals and terrorists, this peace keeper is very clear that she/he “would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God than live in the tents of wickedness” (verse 10, NRSV).  Doing duty as assigned, this is one who trusts completely in the Lord of hosts (verse 12). 

So multifarious are those who hope and pray toward Solomon’s Temple. 

Ephesians 6:10-20.  [A suggested alternative, related to the Temple, is Ephesians 2:14-22.]

The Epistle reading, our last one from the letter to the Ephesians, directs our attention to the warfare of faith, a warfare waged with enemies more unseen than seen.  “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of the present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (verse 12, NRSV). 

The imagery suggests that this is a defensive battle; there is strong emphasis on “standing,” or perhaps it is “holding the line”!  “…so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil…” (verse 11); “so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm” (verse 13). 

This standing up to the dark powers requires the armor (panoplia) of God:   the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, running shoes for delivering good news, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the speech (rhema, not logos)  of God (verse 17). 

But perhaps the most important component of the believer’s defense against evil is prayer:  “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication” (verse18).  The Apostle asks particularly that they pray for him, “so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains” (verses 19-20). 

The Apostle brings a challenge to the ones God would call, a challenge to stand firm as the spiritual defense force against evil. 

John 6:56-69.  

The Gospel reading dwells on the aftermath of Jesus’ lengthy discourse about the Bread of Life.  The sequels to the discourse force the hearers, including the disciples, to choose whether to stay with Jesus or to go away from the paradoxes and mysteries of his revelation and his offer of communion. 

A progressive scandalizing of his Judean hearers has unfolded, and in this last development, Jesus’ own disciples have become divided and many leave him.  The Judean leaders had already separated themselves from this sacramental mystification saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (verse 52, NRSV).  Now it is the disciples who say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (verse 60). 

To these doubting disciples Jesus reinforces the distinction between the realm of the spirit and the realm of the flesh, an emphasis introduced in his dialogue with Nicodemus (3:6).  “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.  The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (verse 63, NRSV). 

There is a point at which the reality of the dimension of Spirit is real, or it is not – or is not yet.  Those who come to know that reality of Spirit through Jesus’ speaking (“the words that I have spoken”) experience (eternal) life. 

But, if the language of sacraments is hard, how about the language of ascension?  “Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” (verses 62).  Those who come to this experience are the ones who “see” the Son of Man ascending to the Father, and this experience inaugurates the guidance of the Spirit among those who belong to Jesus (see 16:12-13). 

The crisis of doubt reduces the disciples to “the twelve,” who are mentioned in John only in this passage and at 20:24.  In response to Jesus’ challenge to them – to the effect, “Aren’t you leaving too?” – Peter makes his confession, in its Johannine version (compare Mark 8:27-29 and Matthew 16:16-19):  “Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (verses 68-69). 

Starting with five thousand hearers, plus their dependents, Jesus’ circle has shrunk to twelve – and “one of you is a devil” (verse 70).  These will remain as witnesses after his death brings new meaning to eating his flesh and drinking his blood. 

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