There are several significant things about this week. The text is about Solomon building Israel’s first Temple. Tuesday marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. And today we begin our commitment season. So it seems reasonable that I trace the history of church architecture, the roots of the Reformation, and the theology of stewardship in my sermon.
In our study of Moses Wednesday night we talked about the Tent of Meeting which was built to house the ark of the covenant and symbolize the presence of God in the midst of his people. It was apparently patterned after temples that Moses would have been familiar with in Egypt, as well as the Pharaoh’s tent when he was on military campaigns with his army. In all civilizations there seems to have been this strong impulse to build a special place in which to honor and worship a greater being upon whom we are dependant. Indeed, more space in the Bible is taken by describing the dimensions, design, and materials to be used in building the Tent of Meeting than is used to tell about the plagues and the exodus from Egypt. In the section we are looking at today there are similar sections describing at length the dimensions, materials, and furnishings of the Temple of Solomon.
When Solomon’s father, David, had consolidated the kingdom of Israel and established his capital at Jerusalem, he had the desire to build a house for God. But he had a dream in which he understood that God did not want him to do this and that he should leave it to the next generation to accomplish. In one place it says that this was because David had too much blood on his hands and in another it says that Solomon was able to do it because the kingdom enjoyed peace during his reign. At any rate, Solomon built a beautiful Temple on the basic design of the Tent of Meeting. It took seven years to build, it cost a lot, and it required a lot of forced labor from citizens of Israel.
In addition to honoring and glorifying the God of Israel, the Temple was to provide a unifying religious center for all of Israel to gather around. But the Temple was built around 950 B.C., and when Solomon died thirty years later the country was ripped apart by civil war. One of the major factors was the high taxation and forced labor policies of Solomon which allowed the building of the Temple and Palace complex. In fact, the word used for the Israeli work groups on this project is the same word used for Hebrew workers in Egypt who were slaves, the only other time that word is used regarding Hebrew workers. The northern tribes resented these things and rebelled, eventually establishing their own country, their own king, their own worship places. The Temple itself endured for nearly 400 years until the Babylonian exile, when it was destroyed.
When the exile ended, a new temple was constructed over a 20 year period, a temple of much less magnificence than Solomon’s temple was. 500 years later, just before the birth of Jesus, Herod began a massive renovation and addition to the temple which took 46 years. When it was finished it was regarded as one of the wonders of the ancient world, but within 50 years of being completed it was destroyed by the Romans as a result of the Jewish revolt. Jews were exiled and dispersed around the world, and no temple has been built since then. The western foundation wall of the temple remains. It is known as the Western Wall or the Wailing Wall, where Jews go to pray still today. Since that time Jews have gathered in local synagogues to worship, though they are sometimes called temples.
Early Christians had to gather in homes and were an underground movement, under varying degrees of persecution from the Roman government for the first 300 years. In 313 the Emperor, Constantine, converted to Christianity and everything changed. His mother, Helena, went to the Holy Land and attempted to identify the major sites of the Bible and had churches built to commemorate those places. As Christianity became the official religion of the empire, churches began to be constructed for public worship. As the church’s influence grew, the church structures became bigger and more elaborate. If you’ve ever visited any of the great cathedrals of Europe you know what I’m talking about. St. Peter’s Church in Rome took 144 years to build. St. Basil’s Church in Moscow took 123 years to build. Yorkminster in England took 252 years. Even here in America, the National Cathedral in Washington took 83 years to build.
When the Reformation started, there were some things involving church buildings that helped bring it about. Among the 95 debating points Martin Luther hammered to the church door in Wittenberg were complaints about the Pope selling indulgences claiming to forgive people’s sins for a certain sum of money in order to finance the building of St. Peter’s in Rome. The Reformers also decried the practice of putting fake relics in cathedrals to draw people by sensationalism. They argued for the removal of statuary and artwork and anything in churches that drew people’s attention away from central matters of Word and Sacrament. They argued that if worship was conducted in Latin, already a dead language at that time, then worship was nothing but a show and people were not benefiting from it at all. They believed churches should be simple, not ornate.
Today you will find everything from the Crystal Cathedral in California to churches in abandoned storefronts and warehouses and just about anything in between. I think that’s fine – Jesus was equally fine holding forth about the ways of God in a synagogue or temple, or in a boat or on a mountain or in a garden or at a party. Our churches say more about us than they say about Jesus, and in some ways they reflect the kind of ministries we are called to.
I have served as pastor of three congregations. The first was in an older mill community in Gastonia. The city had grown in the other direction towards Charlotte, leaving our end to the drug dealers and prostitutes. The outside of the church and the neighborhood were not very appealing. But when you got inside it was a different story. The sanctuary is a warm, beautiful room with exposed wooden beams and a circular heart glass window behind the choir loft with the familiar scene of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. While I was there that congregation made a big investment in improving the exterior, adding a family life center, and engaging in mission in the community. I wondered whether our doing all of that would feel like a mistake somewhere down the road. Today that congregation is indeed dwindling, but I do not have the feeling that it was wasted money or effort. It has all served the congregation and community for 30 years, and many community ministries from Family Promise to a feeding program take place there regularly. In fact, even if the only value had been the experience of making the decision to stay and make a difference in that community and freely offering to God the time and money to make it happen, I think that was worth it. My faith was greatly deepened, and it helped me learn to give sacrificially even knowing that I would not be a major beneficiary of what was built and that it could just be of temporary value.
The second church I served was like this one in that it started as a downtown church and after half a century moved out to a neighborhood where there was more room. They thought deeply about what they wanted their new sanctuary to look like and to communicate, and they built it in the round with pulpit, baptismal font, and communion table in the center. There were definitely some good things about the intimacy of that worship space and the fact that worshipers could see each other’s faces rather than just the back of their heads. It communicated something about who they were and the sense of community they wanted to experience in worship.
Here at Central I found a building in classical, colonial style in the midst of a beautiful neighborhood on a beautiful piece of property. The simplicity of the sanctuary would thrill the Reformers, with the focus on baptismal font, communion table, Scripture, and the cross. The congregation had been wounded and reduced by conflict, though. We had to practice for a while before we could dance without stepping on each other’s toes. But I quickly learned that the people here had a deep love for this church and had no interest in continuing to live in that past. They dreamed a dream of buildings and improvements that would be needed for the next generation of ministry and worked tirelessly and gave sacrificially in order to make those dreams reality. They envisioned a church filled again with children and youth and music and laughter and provided for the staff and programs that could make that happen. The incredible service which the children presented last Sunday was a powerful testimony to that. You, the congregation of this church, continue to meet every challenge. The beautiful and varied garden which has grown inside has been mirrored with the beautiful and varied garden which is the outside of our church now. These things have not gone unnoticed by our community.
What in the world does all of this have to do with Solomon building a temple? I think it has a lot to do with it. A skeptic could look at Solomon’s temple or at our church and say, “What a waste of money! That money could have fed a lot of poor people.” Have you heard that before? It’s what the disciples said when a woman poured a whole bottle of costly perfume on Jesus’ head. Jesus told them to leave her alone because she had done a beautiful thing. I don’t remember specifics of many sermons my father preached, just as you don’t remember mine, but I remember one he preached on that story making a strong impression on me. It was called, “The Value of a Deed Called Wasteful.” It helped me when I doubted whether building a building on a rundown corner of Gastonia would be wasteful, or whether this church had truly turned the corner enough to warrant a $2.3 million building program.
What motivates us to build a church or a congregation or a ministry? It’s gratitude, isn’t it? Knowing what God through Jesus Christ has done for us creates the desire to want to do something lovely, something extravagant, for God. From the outside it doesn’t look like it makes sense, but on the inside it brings nothing but joy and contentment. We want what we build for God to be of the highest quality, to be the best we can give. It’s what motivates people to want to be clean and to dress appropriately when they come to church. It’s what motivates us to want to do a good job when we sing or play an instrument or teach a Sunday School class or preach a sermon. We don’t want to give God the leftovers of our lives, we want to give the best.
We build big to point to a God who cannot be confined and so many others can come in and share the good news. We build tall steeples in the hope of pointing the community to its best hope, the cross of Jesus Christ which offers us amazing grace by which we are saved through faith.
The things we cannot forget, though, as we build, are these:
God does not need our church. God is not limited by or to our church. God is everywhere and can be worshiped anywhere by anyone who wishes to. Churches and temples can become idols, can become what we worship, if we are not careful. And all of them are temporary. They will serve their time, just as we will, then the next one will take the ball and run with it.
So today as we think about Israel building a temple for God; Martin Luther stepping out in faith to reform the church and ultimately build a new one; and our own stewardship of the church of Jesus Christ, let us remember that we can either build on or tear down the foundations which others have built. Paul wrote that the gifts of the Spirit are given for the building up of the church, for building and strengthening the body of Christ, so we should be careful how we build.
We are singing some great hymns about the Christian’s call to build the church, the faith, the kingdom of God. From Luther himself: “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing…” From a contemporary hymnwriter: “Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live, a place where saints and children tell how hearts learn to forgive. Built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock of faith and vault of grace; here the love of Christ shall end divisions; all are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.”
The one we are singing in just a minute best expresses what I am trying to get across this morning. The words are printed in the bulletin: “We would be building; temples still undone o’er crumbling walls their crosses scarcely lift; waiting till love can raise the broken stone, and hearts creative bridge the human rift; we would be building; Master, let Thy plan reveal the life that God would give to man. O keep us building, Master; may our hands ne’er falter when the dream is in our hearts, when to our ears there come divine commands and all the pride of sinful will departs; we build with Thee; O grant enduring worth until the heavenly kingdom comes on earth.”
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
David J. Bailey
October 29, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church