Christ Centered Resources

Worship at the Wailing Wall

Rev. Ed Searcy

1 Kings 8:1-53
University Hill United Church : Sun, August 27, 2000
I heard her say “I no longer call it a Worship Service, I call it a Worship Experience”. She is a consultant to congregations. And she was in town this week to speak about the process of transforming congregations into lively and dynamic gatherings. She knows that people in this day and age come to worship seeking an experience of the holy. They don’t want to sing about God as ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’. They want to feel the holiness of God in their bones. Of course, a people of the Bible might well want to place a warning on the door for any such seekers. It might read, “Caution: spirituality can be dangerous to your health”. The holiness of God, remember, is no domestic pussy cat. It is a wild and raging lion that, once invited in, is nigh impossible to leash. In an age when ‘spirituality’ is all the rage we keep a living memory that encountering the Holy Other is, at once, the most wonderful and terrible of experiences. But it surely is an experience. See Solomon, assembling the members of parliament, the members of the supreme court and all of the assorted dignitaries at the dedication of Israel’s most impressive building project ever. Never mind the walled fortifications of Jerusalem or the system of wells and aqueducts. The temple will be THE centre of the city and of the nation. It will house the ark which has led them from Mt. Sinai to the Promised Land. And the ark will continue to house the covenant - the Ten Commandments - that Israel has promised to keep with Yahweh. See the pomp and circumstance as the ark is carried into the safe sanctuary of Yahweh’s own house in Jerusalem. And then see the jaw- dropping experience of this sacred space filled with a cloud ... filled with the presence of the glory of the Lord. Now that is a worship experience. God is in the place. Yet, can you imagine the gall of claiming that the God of heaven and earth is to be encountered in a single humanly constructed building? It is not, of course, easily defensible in the world. When asked if they have ever experienced the presence of God how many answer: “Yes, as a matter of fact I have ... it was high on the top of a mountain ... or deep in the forest ... or walking on the beach at sunset”. Others, to be honest, simply say: “No ... I have waited and waited for an experience of the Holy ... but I have come to believe that there must be no such God”. Solomon seems to grasp this human dilemma in which God is, and yet is not, present. “But will God indeed dwell on the earth?” he asks. Then Solomon answers his own question: “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”. Instead, says Solomon, it is the personal, given name of God - Yahweh - which is to be met and known and experienced in the temple. Yahweh’s unique name - ‘I am what I am up to’ - has taken up residence in the holy sanctuary. Still, Israel claims that Yahweh is doing something here and now. Not somewhere else. Not on the golf course or on the mountain top, but here in the Holy Sanctuary that is Solomon’s great temple. And what is this God doing? Solomon has no doubt. Yahweh is listening. This strikes us as odd, indeed. We have beocme so accustomed to the order of worship that was crafted after the temple’s destruction. Ours follows the worship order of a synagogue. A synagogue, you recall, is any gathering of ten Jews. After the Temple was obliterated, Israel linked the reading and interpretation of scripture with singing and communal prayer. But remember Isaiah’s description of Yahweh’s Temple: “My house shall be called a house of prayer”. Jesus certainly did when he cleansed the reconstructed Temple that stood on the same spot as Solomon’s original construction. So long as the Temple existed it stood not as a house of preaching but as a house of prayer. The sacred temple, the location of the presence of the Holy, is a place to pray. And this is precisely what King Solomon does before the altar of Yahweh. He prays. He prays the longest extended prayer that is to be found in the Old Testament outside of the Psalms. And Solomon prays a very particular kind of prayer. Not, as one might expect, a prayer of thanksgiving for the gift of this fine temple. Not a prayer of commitment offering the worship of the people of Israel to the God who had called them out of Egypt. No, Solomon seeks to persuade Yahweh ... to convince Yahweh ... to listen when people come to the temple to pray ... to listen and to forgive. Overhearing Solomon, one can be forgiven for thinking that he is just a bit forward in his manner of praying. Those who receivetraining in offering the prayers of the people on a Sunday morning know that the prayers are not the place for preaching a second sermon ... a way of telling everyone what the preacher really should have said! The prayers are intended for God’s ears ... they are from the gathered congregation, not for it. But this prayer of Solomon’s almost sounds like a demanding, commanding sermon addressed to God: “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.” Solomon is pleading with God for mercy. The temple will be the place where the people will come seeking mercy and compassion: “If someone sins against a neighbour ... When your people Israel, having sinned against you ... Then hear in heaven, forgive the sin of your people Israel”. Those who imagine that the God met in the Old Testament is somehow radically different from the God revealed in Jesus Christ would do well to pay attention to this prayer. Solomon’s temple is dedicated as a place where confession is made, forgiveness is offered and reconciliation is made possible. It is, in other words, meant to be a temple of amazing grace and meeting place of forgiven sinners. Perhaps Solomon is emboldened to speak this prayer because of the cloud of glory that has filled the temple’s courts. Until that very moment the presence of Yahweh had been located in the covering that rested on the ark of the covenant. It was known as the mercy seat (Leviticus 16:2). But now, once the ark is brought into the Temple. The presence of Yahweh fills the entire space, making it a house of mercy. Imagine the power of a community in whose sacred space honest confession evokes mercy and compassion that is real ... that can be seen in restored relationships. You don’t have to imagine it, such a community existed here for one evening last month when native and non-native sat down at table together prayed together and sang together. Imagine the curiosity that such a place of reconciliation must cause in a world caught up in long stories of bitter alienation and unending cycles of violent revenge. Such a house of prayer must inevitably draw in all manner of strangers and foreigners. And when they come because of what they have heard Solomon prays that their prayers will also be answered: “when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place ... so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name”. Notice how Solomon puts the onus on God. He doesn’t scurry around wondering how best to welcome foreign dignitaries when they show up in the temple on their way through Jerusalem. He hasn’t brought in a bevy of temple growth consultants to teach him how to make the service ‘seeker friendly’. He knows that the answer is simple. It is up to Yahweh to answer the seeker’s prayers ... and then they’ll be sure to tell the world about the experience of worshipping in the temple in Jerusalem! Perhaps that is the biggest problem for us with Solomon’s prayer. It is this pleading with God to answer, this trust that God will answer ... even in times of war. We have heard too many prayers from too many warriors calling down the God of heaven and earth on this or that ‘just cause’ or ‘war to end all wars’. We’re not sure about all of the wailing to Yahweh that still occurs at what is left of the wall of Solomon’s great temple. Every day you will find Solomon’s descendants pleading with Yahweh for mercy ... leaving their written prayers, wadded up and stuffed into the cracks between the huge stones that Solomon’s workers put in place millennia ago. Standing there, next to the ruins of this once proud temple, one cannot help but wonder about just how effective such prayers are. One would think that if this truly was Yahweh’s sacred house of prayer that it might still be standing. But then Solomon himself seems to know already that this ‘house of prayer’ is temporary. Notice that the longest petition in his prayer is offered up for the time when the people can no longer come to the temple ... the time when they are in exile, far from home, held captive. Then what does Solomon pray for? He asks for compassion ... compassion that is offered to Israel by its captors. Forgiveness and reconciliation will not be restricted to the temple. Prayers will be heard even from distant lands. Yahweh will hear ... and will answer. Yahweh will hear ... and will answer. This still sounds so impossible to an educated, modern, 21st Century society. Or does it? In a small village in eastern France named Taize, a group of Christian men established a Christian community of reconciliation. They are Catholic and Protestant and live a life of prayer together. In the half century of their simple existence they have attracted a growing stream of young people who gather at Taize from all over the world. What do these thousands of visitors come to Taize to do? They come to pray to the Lord of heaven and earth and to Jesus Christ, the Lord who walked on the earth. There are no sermons. There is nothing particularly contemporary about their worship. There are candles. There is singing. There is silence. And there are prayers for reconciliation the world and for its people. Such worship is, to be sure, a powerful experience. That worship consultant who no longer thinks of worship as a service would agree. And yet it reminds us that our worship is always to be a holy experience of service. The temple is long gone. But in its place have grown up all manner of synagogues - congregations - each one a house of prayer. And in these congregations on each sabbath the people gather to serve Yahweh by praying for the world. This is, in fact, the high point of worship. You who make up University Hill Congregation have taught me this. As I begin my sixth year with you I can honestly say that it has been the prayers which you each week which have most left their mark on me. Nowhere else in my ministry have I had the privilege of being led in prayer each week by a different member of the congregation. This communal discipline of sharing responsibility for offering communal prayer is real work (as any of you who have taken a turn as worship elder will attest) ... it is, unquestionably, a service of worship. And as others of you offer aloud the names of those who you would add to the prayers of the people I imagine myself in the temple with Solomon ... or outside, at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem ... participating in the work of the people of God ... which is the service we offer in worship. We come here not only to praise God and to listen for God’s Word. We come here to plead with God for mercy ... mercy for ourselves but most especially mercy for the world. This is the special calling of the people of Israel ... and of the salty, yeasty church of Jesus Christ. This is the reason that God has called us out and separated us “from among all the peoples of the earth” (8:53). We have work to do and service to render. It is to gather in the holy place of forgiveness and reconciliation ... and, once gathered here, to pray for the forgiveness and reconciliation that is the whole world’s deepest longing.