Solomon’s prayer tells us what he believes. Today I’d like to share with you Solomon’s Theology, Solomon’s Catechism.
1Kings 8:41 And, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, when such a one comes from a faraway land because of your Name— 42 For they shall hear of your great Name, and your powerful hand and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, 43 you, you shall hear in the heavens, your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls out to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your Name to be in awe of you, as your people Israel, and so that they may know that your Name has been invoked on this house that I have built.
The dedication of the temple is a moment without peer in Israelite history. They are at the peak of their power; the borders that David enforced have grown wider under Solomon. They are wealthier than they could have ever imagined. No longer thinking of going back to Egypt because now they’ve got their own. And Solomon built a temple that became known as one of the wonders of the ancient world. And he built himself a house that was many times larger than the house he built for his God but on this day, the dedication of the temple, all that was forgotten.
As we pray in this house today we still face towards that house. That's why the high altar in many churches faces east. Muslims, Christians and Jews historically and traditionally face east when we pray. Some Christians are losing that tradition, only facing east when we are in a church that is built that way; some know nothing about that practice. I didn’t do it on purpose but my bed is set at true east so that when I kneel at the foot of my bed I am facing east when I pray. Even after the Temple was destroyed twice there was still something about that place, something special, something holy. Later on the Holy of Holies would be encompassed by the Dome of the Rock to make sure that place would remain a place of prayer. Its name in Arabic, Al Quds, means the Holy Place.
Thousands of years before Jesus prayed for us, Solomon prayed for us in that place. He was light-years ahead of his time. In a time when most folk wouldn’t marry outside of their tribe or clan – Solomon did, too much so – and perhaps as a result, Solomon had a vision of a God who was bigger than he was, bigger than his family, bigger than his nation, bigger than folk who thought they had a monopoly on God. Or perhaps, having so many people in his family from so many different places opened his eyes to God in the world beyond the world which he knew. Solomon believed in a God who was not his alone, a God who would be the God of people he would never meet. And so Solomon prayed for us alternately standing and kneeling with his arms outstretched towards the temple building.
The Israelite temple was more of a complex than a building. Most of the worship took place outside in the courtyard. Solomon was outside the temple building when he prayed. Only the priests and Levites could go into the temple building, and then only by turns as they exercised their duties. There was the small altar of incense to tend inside, lamps to keep lit on the great menorah lampstand and the tables of bread before the Holy of Holies to maintain. The great altar was outside, as large as the chancel area. The priests actually walked on the altar which was a large platform; it was big enough that that an entire bull could be burned on it while the priests stoked the fire and added incense by the shovelful. Solomon prayed next to the altar and facing the temple, while inside the temple the throne of God had just been installed. The Ark of the Covenant, with its cherubim was the place where God would sit – as much as an invisible and formless God could be said to sit – and dwell in the midst of God’s people in the temple that Solomon built. Somehow, the great God of all would dwell in a building made by human hands. So Solomon prayed towards but not in the house, “Will God truly dwell on the earth? Look! The heavens and the heavens beyond the heavens cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built!” Solomon is not ashamed to take credit for building the house; he reminds God of this every few moments.
And Solomon prayed, “Turn towards the prayer of your servant and his plea, Holy One my God, and hear 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 hear the prayer that your servant prays toward this place. Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; may you hear in the heavens, your dwelling place; hear and forgive.”
Solomon prayed for forgiveness. For himself. For his people. On general principle. Because we all need forgiveness. That is why we confess our sins corporately when we come together to worship. Solomon’s prayer is teaching today.
When Solomon prayed, the word “Jew” hadn’t been invented yet but in Israel’s perspective there was them and the rest of the world. They were “the people;” everyone else was “the nations,” goyim in Hebrew and ethnoi in Greek. That’s where we get the words “ethnic/ethnicity” and in a roundabout way “gentile.” Yet in this moment where Solomon can ask God for anything he wants, he famously asks God for wisdom and for God to hear the prayers of people from other lands.
Solomon believes that people around the world will hear of the Name and fame of God – of course he meant across the surface of the earth, because Solomon believed it was a flat plane as did everyone of his day. It strikes me that Solomon doesn’t put any conditions on his prayer for outsiders. They don’t have to believe what he believes. He still asks God to hear their prayers, our prayers. Solomon’s prayer reveals his faith and if you will, his catechism.
I know we have a formal catechism in the Episcopal Church and in the Anglican Communion. But this morning I’d like you to think about Solomon’s catechism. First, he prays for foreigners, those who are not of the people Israel. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus made a sharp distinction between Jews and Gentiles. He was very clear that he came to save the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It was not until he was converted by a Canaanite woman seeking his healing touch for her daughter that he opened up his ministry to Jews and Gentiles alike. Later, he would go on to teach that everyone who does the will of his father in heaven is his sister and brother, father and mother, part of the family, part of the people Israel. Paul would teach that we who are faithful Gentiles are grafted into the tree of Israel.
But Solomon prayed this prayer long before any of that theology had been worked out. He just believed in a God who was big enough to hear anybody no matter who they were. So let me ask you this morning, how big is your God? Is your God big enough to hear the prayers of people who don’t think like you, don’t talk like you, don’t even pray like you? Is your God big enough to hear the prayers of people who don’t vote like you, who don’t go to church like you, don’t look like you, don’t eat like you, don’t live and love like you? Solomon doesn’t say, “Hear their prayers Lord except for the Egyptians because you know they did us wrong.” (And not just because he was married to an Egyptian princess.) Is your God big enough to hear the prayers of your enemies?
Next, Solomon says, “When the foreigner, the outsider, comes to your house…” Are you prepared to let outsiders in the house? Are you prepared to give a royal welcome to whoever shows up, no matter what they look like or how they are dressed, pierced or tattooed? Notice that Solomon doesn’t say that they’ve been to new members class or learned basic church etiquette. Now Solomon is talking about people going to Israel, going to Jerusalem to the temple that he built. That temple is no longer standing but its Western Wall remains. And I encourage you at least once in your life to make that pilgrimage. It is a holy place. This is also a holy place. Where the people of God are gathered, there God’s Spirit is. And, God in Christ Jesus is present in a particular way through the sacrament of his body and blood. God is in this place. And we are the temple of the living God. Our bodies are the habitation of the Most High God. God dwells in all of these places and more. How are you treating your temple? How is your temple treating God’s other temples?
Solomon prays, “They shall come for they shall hear…” Are you telling the story? Do you have a story to tell? Are you telling the Good News? Do you know the Good News? Do you know anybody who doesn’t already know the story? Or are the only people you talk to people like you who already know what you believe? Solomon is so certain that people from everywhere will hear of God’s fame yet he never assembles a committee to go out knocking on doors, stopping people at bus stops, harassing or annoying people. He just believes the word will get out.
Solomon prays that God who dwells in heaven will hear the prayer of the foreigner. Solomon knows that God is present in the temple that he has built but he also knows that God can’t be contained by four walls. He knows that God exists in a world beyond his world, in a place that he cannot see or enter. Yet God from the height of heaven, the heavens beyond the heavens, can hear the prayer of anyone on earth. Solomon is teaching theology today. He’s teaching ecclesiology, the nature of the church. And Solomon adds that God would answer the prayers of the foreigner; that God would do whatever the outsider asks God to do. It's hard to catch this if you're reading in English but in Hebrew Solomon doesn't ask God to grant the prayer of the foreigner; Solomon tells God that God will grant the prayer of the foreigner. Solomon believes that God will be gracious to aliens and outsiders because that’s the God he knows and the one in whom he has placed his trust.
Solomon doesn’t put limits on God. He doesn’t ask for the prayers to be granted only if they’re in his best interest for the best interest of his people. He asks God to grant the prayers of outsiders so that people will know that his God is real and that the stories they have heard are true. Ultimately he wants people to fear God, to revere God, to be in awe of God’s Name. He wants to draw people from the four corners of the earth into relationship with his God.
That is Solomon’s prayer. What is your prayer today?
In the Name of God, Sovereign, Savior and Shelter. Amen.
25 August 2012