Littlewell
Christ Centered Church Resource Site

Worship at the Wailing Wall

1 Kings 8:1-53
Sun, August 27, 2000
Rev. Ed Searcy
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.