1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43, “But will God indeed dwell on earth?”
One day in Effingham County, Ms. Virginia dropped off some papers with me. The church was closing one safe deposit box, and moving the contents to a new safe deposit box. But until that process was complete, Ms. Virginia brought me a brown briefcase that contained nothing that anyone else . . . that is besides the people of Mizpah United Methodist Church, may think is valuable. It was just a bunch of pieces of old paper, newspaper clippings, old letters and correspondence, old programs from services that have happened at Mizpah church.
So I sat down to look through this stuff as I was preparing a sermon on this passage listed above.
And there were names that I recognized on those pages . . . some of these papers recorded marriages that had happened in this church . . . going back to 1913. There it was . . . Leona and George married by Revs. Nease and Carmichael in 1932. There were the names that are very familiar to me, Tuttle and Mingledorff, Edwards and Bevill, Morgan and Porter, Morel, and Pitts. And there was the history of the building of the church.
The work on the building was completed just before the end of the year 1859. Here’s how the history reads, “In April of 1859, Dr. A.P. Ayer of Rome, Georgia, came for a visit with his daughter, Mrs. Anderson P. Longstreet, at that time a bride.” “The Longstreet’s plantation is not far from the present old church.” “Dr. Ayer was very anxious that his daughter have a place to worship, and since consideration by some of the people was being given to the building of a church, he encouraged the project, and made a financial donation.” The land that was selected was on the Springfield road. It was bought from a fellow by the name of George W. Best at $3.00 an acre. The church was completed by December 20, 1859, at a total cost of $582.92. That price includes land, materials and labor (although some of the labor was donated according to the records).
And that’s the story, or at least part of it, of how that building came to be. Sure there’ve been a few changes. The roof was originally metal and was replaced. There was no electricity in here until 1945. Originally there were two entrances at the back; the original pews were divided so as to keep the men and women from sitting together. How about that?
There are other stories . . . about the first time that the church was painted, about how they didn’t have air conditioning and how there was an old wood stove to keep them warm. As I read some of the history that following Sunday morning you could see the younger folks in the congregation shaking their heads at a time when you could buy land in that county for $3.00 an acre and build a church for less than $600.00.
But sometimes that is the way that the young think when we hear these stories. They are neat. The stories are interesting in a way. Some of the names we remember or have heard of; and maybe a lot of them we don’t remember.
You see, I began to wonder if some of the people who read this story of Solomon from 1 Kings, this story of Solomon dedicating the temple, of Solomon’s prayer to God, I wondered if they shook their head a bit too . . . maybe had a hard time understanding what it was they were reading or what was being read to them. This section of 1 Kings tells about the bringing of the Ark of the Covenant into the temple that Solomon had constructed.
The building of the temple had taken a long time and was a massive project. They used cedar and olivewood. There were great furnishings made of bronze and gold. For the people that heard of this, those who would have heard of the great extravagance of the temple, they might have shaken their heads at how much work, some of it forced labor, how much money and time, was being put into this place.
Many years had passed though. And at the time that this might have been read to the people, it was now a time of exile. These were now only memories. The hearers were people living in exile, living in a time where the temple had been destroyed, when the temple was no more. This place where God was asked to dwell by Solomon, this great and wonderful temple, had been destroyed.
The people were living with a memory; those who wrote down this story of the temple-building project and of Solomon’s great prayer of dedication, of the bringing of the Ark of the Covenant into the temple, and how the presence of God filled that place, those who wrote down this story were writing to their friends and to their families. They were writing to those whose hearts were broken, to those who were tired and full of sorrow. They were speaking of a memory, of a time that had passed, of a place that had passed, to a people that were not sure that they would ever see “home” again, whatever “home” meant for them. They were writing to a people that had felt that they had lost everything . . . They felt like everything was gone . . . including the love and presence of their God.
And there have been times like that at Mizpah! When I read through the history that was recorded on the centennial of the church, in 1959, there was written that the Sunday School of this church had always been active, but that there were several times in the life of this church, several occasions where this church was “merely alive”. “Merely alive” are the words straight from the records of the church. And in those words you hear the anguish of people who care very much for a place, for those who are struggling with what God is doing during those times when God just doesn’t seem to be there. And in those words of “merely alive” you hear the echoes of people wondering where God is now. We remember when God was with us. We remember back to when things seemed to be going right. And we wonder what went wrong, where did we go wrong.
And for some of us this is not a question of the church, this is a question of our lives. We wonder where God is for us. We may remember a time when we felt like God was with us, that things seemed to be going better then than they are now. We may even think of it being the “good ole days” so to speak. Or maybe we even have a hard time remembering when things were good.
And this is why we remember the temple. This is why we hear again Solomon’s prayer of dedication at that important time, that time when the people built a house for God, a place where people would come to pray and God would hear those prayers, a place where even foreigners who were seeking God would be able to come and pray and God would hear their prayers. In the most difficult times in our lives we have to remember the glory of God, the strength of our God, the power of God. We need to be reminded, because sometimes we forget what has been . . . and how that is related to what can be . . .
And that is what makes that memory seem hollow sometimes too. Sometimes when we think about the past and those “good ole days” whatever those might be for you, your own past or someone else’s, when we think about those days gone by there is a pit in our stomach because we think it will never be like that again. Yes those were good times, but we’ll never have good times like that again. It is over. Those people are gone. We are different. And that empty feeling hits your stomach because it is true.
It won’t be like that again.
And can you imagine these folks in exile, taken from their land. The temple destroyed. They see no way that God will be with them again. They hear this prayer of Solomon about the presence of God in that temple. But then Solomon says, almost contradicting what he said before, Solomon asks God, “But will this God indeed dwell on earth? Heaven and earth cannot contain you, O God, much less this house that we have built!”
This place cannot contain God. That temple could not contain God. The most difficult parts of our lives are not too far away for God to be there. Because where God is present, there is forgiveness and there is grace. And that doesn’t just mean that God forgives the things that we have done wrong to other people or to God, God is saying, “I love you. Imperfect and broken and tired and weary as you are. I love you.” It is the face of Jesus saying to Zaccheus, “I’m coming to eat with you today.” It is the face of the father who is waiting on that prodigal son to come home, that father who embraces that son with love in his heart and tears in his eyes.
Yes, there is sorrow! Yes, there is pain! Yes, there is sin in our lives! But God has been with us before. And that is not the end of the story . . . God can continue to be with us now, hearing our prayers, forgiving our sins, offering us love and grace for the hurt in our lives.
If this is a time of God’s presence in your life, celebrate that presence! Celebrate the ways in which God is present with us here and now.
But also know that God is with you even when you think that all the good in your life is gone. Pray for God’s love and forgiveness in your life.
And work so that all may know the greatness of God’s name, God’s mighty hand and that they may too feel the outstretched arm of God in their lives, forgiving them too.