Sunday, October 31, 2021

Phil Kniss: The God-in-a-box temptation

Solomon builds a temple
Listen! God is Calling!
Fall 2021 Narrative Lectionary
1 Kings 5:1-5; 8:1-13

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“We are all tempted to put God in a box.”

Now, there’s nothing new or profound about that statement.
It’s a metaphor that can mean different things.
And preachers everywhere, including me, say it often.

But today’s reading takes it to a new level.
In 1 Kings, God-in-a-box is not a metaphor. It is literal.
And there are two very different boxes at the center of the story.
I mean . . . Rectangular.  Physical.  Boxes.
A big box and a little box.
Did you notice them in the reading?

The big box, of course,
is the temple that Solomon had an insatiable desire to build,
and finally achieved it.
The little box is the Ark of the Covenant,
something they’ve been schlepping around
everywhere they’ve wandered since Mt. Sinai.

Well . . . schlepping . . . is probably not the right word when we describe
carrying the Ark of the Covenant.
This Ark was considered so holy,
that even touching it the wrong way was instant death.
There is a story in 2 Samuel 6,
where the ark was being transported by oxcart
to a new place of worship,
and the oxen stumbled on uneven ground,
and the ark started to slip on the cart,
and the cart driver, Uzzah, touched the ark to steady it,
and he was struck dead.
I won’t try to exegete that Bible story today.
We’ll just let it sit right there.
I won’t even touch it, so to speak.

But here’s what I want to say:
Both these boxes—the big and the little one—
had the express purpose of housing the Divine Presence.
One of these boxes (the little one)
was built on God’s explicit and detailed instructions.
The other box (the big one) seems, at best, to be tolerated by God.

We have a detailed biblical account
of God giving the plans, details, and blueprint to Moses,
for building the ark of the covenant.
We’ll call it the Covenant Box,
to distinguish it from the Temple Box.
In Exodus, God gave Moses a precise set of plans,
with measurements,
a materials list,
and building specs
for making the Covenant Box,
and for constructing the tabernacle,
a big portable tent that sheltered the Covenant Box,
wherever they camped out.

In contrast,
building the temple was King David’s idea from the beginning.
David went to God for permission.
But it was only after he built himself a huge elaborate palace,
and then got embarrassed seeing God’s tent next to it.
God denied David’s application for a building permit.
On two major counts.
Read about it in 2 Samuel 7.

First, God said,
“Who am I to need a luxury cedar-paneled house to live in?
In all these generations I’ve traveled with the Israelites,
have I ever, once, asked for a permanent house to live in?”

Secondly, God said, “If I let someone build me a house,
it needs to be someone with less blood on their hands.
You have fought too many wars and shed too much blood,
for you to be a worthy builder of a Temple.
Wait till Solomon grows up to be King, and we’ll see.

Later, David handed over the already-drawn-up blueprints
to Solomon, saying, “Here, these are the plans God gave me.”
Right, David.
If we believe God dictated those plans to David,
we need to ignore the fact God made it very clear
he had no interest in a Temple Box.

If these were God’s detailed plans,
strange that the Bible tells us nothing
about how or when God gave them.
For the Covenant Box and Tabernacle, we get the whole story
of God laying out the blueprints in front of Moses.

All we get here is David saying,
“Here are the plans I drew up, as God gave them to me.”
A safer assumption is that David projected God’s inspiration
on these plans, after the fact.
It was David who was obsessed about building a Temple.
And, unsurprisingly, the floor plans and layout
resemble other temples of the same era,
in Phoenicia, Syria, and elsewhere.
We should always be suspicious if somebody tells us
that God told them exactly how to do something,
that they have been aching to do for the last 20 years.

Now, all this doesn’t mean Solomon’s Temple
served no useful purpose in Israel’s religious life.
But I do think we should be honest about how it came about.

The closest God gets to blessing the project,
without really blessing the project,
are the two recorded instances where God spoke to Solomon.

In 1 Kings 6, during construction, God says,
“About this house that you are building,
if you will walk in my statutes, obey my ordinances,
and keep all my commandments, etc.,
I will live among the children of Israel,
and will not forsake them.”

And 1 Kings 9, after the Temple’s dedication,
and after a long, beautiful,
and maybe even heart-felt prayer by Solomon,
God said,
“I heard your prayer and plea.
So I have consecrated this house,
and I will live in it.
But only as long as you walk before me
with integrity of heart and uprightness,
doing according to all that I have commanded you.
But, if you turn aside from following me,
I will cast this house out of my sight.
Israel will become a taunt among all peoples.
This house will become a heap of ruins.”

So according to scripture itself, God’s acceptance of the Temple Box,
is ambivalent, and conditional.

And the biblical writers had other more subtle ways
of casting judgement on Solomon.
When the Temple was completed,
chapter 6 of 1 Kings ends with the words,
“Solomon was seven years in building it.”
The very next words (chapter 7, verse 1), are,
“Solomon was building his own house thirteen years.”

Chapter and verse divisions did not exist in the original.
So readers of the Hebrew Bible
always read these two sentences back-to-back.
Solomon spent seven years building a house for God.
And he spent thirteen years building his own house.

Not exactly a resounding endorsement of Solomon.
It also points out in the text that he used forced labor—
slaves—of his own Israelite people to get this work done.
And didn’t God warn the people,
when they first asked for a king, way back in 1 Samuel?
“Kings will enrich themselves at your expense,
they will make slaves out of your sons and daughters.”
Well, there it is. Spelled out in scripture.
Solomon is exactly the King God warned them about.

So what are we to make of all this?
Is this just interesting ancient history,
that doesn’t really impact our lives,
because we don’t have a state religion
with Kings and Temples?
Or is there a message for us?

Now, just to be clear, I like boxes.
I mean, the literal boxes we use for worship.
I am drawn to physical beauty and symmetry,
the aesthetic side of worship moves me.
I don’t want to diminish that.

The Covenant Box was a beautiful piece of furniture,
and although rarely seen,
was a tangible reminder and focal point of Hebrew worship.
It had value.

And the Temple Box was beautiful beyond compare.
For those gathered in its courtyards and inner sanctums,
it inspired awe,
and facilitated the worship of God in certain ways.
I don’t doubt that.
I understand why structures like these
become even larger than life,
because of how they move us emotionally and spiritually.
Christian cathedrals work the same way.
They inspire worship.
They draw our minds and heart toward the transcendent.
And we get attached to them.
That’s why the burning of the Notre Dame cathedral
a few years ago,
caused massive grief around the world,
and why crying people filled the streets of Paris.

So, yes. Let us allow for, and even affirm,
our human need to create beauty and permanence.
But . . . and you knew there was going to be a “yes, but.”

But boxes have a shadow side.
They create an illusion that we can contain God.
They can obscure the fact that God is on the move,
in ways we cannot predict or box in.
They encourage us to think we always know where God is,
and where God isn’t.

Let’s look again at the difference between the two boxes in our text.
The Temple Box was inescapably associated with permanence,
with wealth,
with political and economic power,
with worship rituals that could easily be corrupted,
with a whole Temple system
that worked to maintain the status quo,
that reinforced the power of the King,
whose palace was next door, in the same compound.

In stark contrast,
the Covenant Box was meant to be carried.
It had carrying poles attached to it at all times.
And the articles and objects inside the Covenant Box,
were all symbols of a single time or a moment,
in Israel’s history of wandering,
where God met them in a powerful way,
to provide for them in hardship,
and deliver them from bondage.
It contained Aaron’s rod that budded
(to recall their miraculous escape from Egypt).
It had a jar of manna
(to recall God’s generous provision in a time of need).
It had the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments,
(to help them remember the relational covenant
they had with Yahweh).

All of these were reminders of God’s faithfulness
to God’s people who were on the move,
because God was on the move.
They inspired not permanence and power and wealth.
They inspired dependence, trust, faith in God’s enough.

So how do the boxes we still build for God today, compare?

This sermon is by no means anti-box or anti-building,
or even anti-cathedral.
The question is how do we relate to the boxes we build?
Are we trying to squeeze God to fit entirely inside our boxes,
so that we always know where to find God—
in our box, in our words, with our rituals,
so we don’t have to be anxious when God seems absent,
we can always return to our box, and find God there?
And at what point do we start to slip from
the worship of God, to the worship of our box?

I think it’s fitting that this week,
Sam Petersheim and a friend are heading down
to New Orleans’ Ninth Ward on our behalf,
in order to help repair the roof of the box we helped to build
for our sisters and brothers at Christian Baptist Church.
That box—as simple and unadorned as it may be—
is highly important to them and their life of worship.
I’m glad we helped them rebuild it years ago,
and are still helping them maintain it.

The God-in-a-box temptation is a temptation for every church—
for Park View Mennonite, and for Christian Baptist Church.
And it’s a temptation for every religion, not just our own.
It is a temptation
both for the literal boxes or sanctuaries we build,
and the metaphorical boxes we create ourselves
to hold our experience of God.
We create boxes for God,
so we know where to find God and worship God.
But then we are immediately tempted to limit God to that box.

God is on the move, still.
And God wants to move in tandem with us.
God’s first desire, still,
is to make our boxes portable, like the Covenant Box.
Not meaning literal movable tents,
but committing ourselves to be a church on the move,
not a church that worships a God that we have somehow
nailed down to one place and one tradition.

May God give us the insight, and courage,
to be a people of the Covenant Box,
never forgetting our need to follow where God is moving.

Let us join together in confession,
with the words printed in your bulletin.

one Lord, we confess we often bend away from your purposes,
instead of toward them.
all We seek to contain the uncontainable,
one to predict the unchartable,
all to know the unsearchable,
one to master the mystery,
all to be sure of where we can go
to the find the God we want to have.
one God, give us the courage to free you from our own prisons.
Give us the willingness to let you run wild upon the earth,
carrying out your healing mission in all places,
and inviting us to run with you.

—Phil Kniss, October 31, 2021

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