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Date: November 1, 2021/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
Dedication of the Temple

1 Kings 8:1-13

Chapters 5—8 of 1 Kings tell the story, in great and exacting detail, of the building of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Our reading for today comes from the last episode of the chapter, the dedication of the completed Temple.  But if we read that, with all its pomp and celebration, without knowing about how we got here, we have missed a great deal, sort of like when we go straight from Palm Sunday to Easter without stopping to take a look around Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

Solomon’s father, King David, had wanted to build a temple once his reign was secure, but God said no.  God didn’t need a temple.  God had been among the people ever since they left Egypt, and the portable tabernacle served perfectly well as God’s earthly dwelling place.

But God had also told David, according to 2 Samuel 7, that David’s son would build the Temple.  Solomon was the first of David’s descendants to take the throne after David’s death, so just as soon as he sat down on that throne, he started thinking about the Temple.

I find it sort of interesting that, while David went to his prophet, Nathan, to see if it was indeed God’s will for him to build the Temple, Solomon went only to his father’s ally, King Hiram of Tyre.  Solomon didn’t ask God about building the Temple.  Was he afraid God would say no, like he had to David?  Was he worried that God’s mind might have changed in the years between the beginning of his father’s reign and the beginning of his own?  Or did he figure that when God told David his son would build the Temple, that was the last word on the subject so there was no need to ask again?

I don’t know.  Personally I think he should have at least asked God, “Is this still what you want?”  Maybe if he had, he would have done things differently.

The importance of the Temple on Mount Zion is one of the major themes of the Hebrew Bible.  It was the place where God’s Name would dwell “forever,” just as a descendant of David was supposed to sit on his throne “forever.”  It became the main place where the people went to be in God’s presence—in fact, kings after Solomon were evaluated by the historian partly by how they treated the places out in the countryside where people had once worshiped God, places like Shiloh (where Samuel served as a boy) and Bethel, among others.  It was a very holy place to the people of Israel and Judah—and even though the Temple itself is long gone, along with the Second Temple built after the return from exile and then remodeled by King Herod, its site remains a holy place not just to Jews, but also to Christians and Muslims, to this day.  But it was built with slave labor.

Well, “slave” might actually be too strong a word—but only a tiny bit too strong—and 1 Kings 5 doesn’t actually say whether or not anybody other than King Hiram’s workers were paid for their labor.  But it does say that people of Israel were forced to work on Solomon’s building project.

It’s sort of interesting to me that the information about the forced labor conscription comes right after a verse that, again, makes quite a lot of Solomon’s great wisdom.  It’s almost like—and actually this is borne out in other places in the story about the building of the Temple—the historian is ambivalent about Solomon and about the Temple.  He had great wisdom, and he built God’s holy Temple, and he did this thing that looked for all the world like something Egypt had once done to God’s people.

Some commentators see the mention of “all Israel” as indicating that most of the forced labor came from the northern part of the nation rather than the southern, which eventually became the kingdom of Judah.  Other laborers are described as being from “the hill country,” which was in Israel rather than in Judah.

At first glance, this forced labor, at least the workers who were drafted to work in Lebanon, seems not to be all that odious.  The workers were divided into three groups, and each of them went to Lebanon one month out of every three, then came home.  They worked for a month in Lebanon, and then they were home for two months—doesn’t sound like a horrible work schedule, right?

Maybe so; but this is just how it started.

It doesn’t appear that Solomon put an end to forced labor once the Temple was built, but required it throughout his reign.  And then, when his son Rehoboam became king, young and not really in possession of the same kind of wisdom as his father was described as having had, it got worse.[1]

Rehoboam had heard the request of the northern people, represented by one Jeroboam son of Nebat, to lighten the burden of forced labor that Solomon had placed upon them.  Rehoboam started by doing the right thing:  he went to the older men who had been his father’s advisers, and asked them what they thought about Jeroboam’s request.  They said he should be a servant to the people, rather than forcing them to serve him; by doing so, he would earn their loyalty and service so that they would follow him to the ends of the earth.

But Rehoboam utterly disregarded these elders’ advice—perhaps because he was young, and he had advisers of his own who were his own age and urged him to go a different way.  He went back to Jeroboam and the Israelite people and told them this:  “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.”

It begins to sound quite a lot like Egypt, doesn’t it.

The people of the north, who seem to have borne a significantly heavier share of the forced labor, decided they were over it.  Led by Jeroboam, they rebelled, and eventually they formed their own nation, with its capital at Samaria and religious center at Bethel.

Solomon had begun the forced labor in the name of God.  Was it actually God’s will?  The historian doesn’t say.

Did God—the God who had freed Israel from slavery in Egypt—really approve of forced labor for this enormous building project?  Or would God have been happier with a smaller, less ornate Temple that could have been built without Solomon having to enslave his own people—or maybe just to have kept the tabernacle?

It’s hard to say from here; the text is pretty ambivalent about the whole thing.

On the one hand, the Temple is the one place where the people knew they would be in God’s presence.  But on the other hand, can we really pin God down and control him?  Should we try?  Or is the effort to do so a sign of something more about ourselves than about God?  We like our certainty, and we like to build things that will make sure we’re remembered.

But at the dedication of the Temple, God weighs in on the notion of being tied down, even controlled, in that building.  This happens in chapter 8 of 1 Kings, in today’s reading and the verses after it.  There is an elaborate ritual going on, placing the ark of the covenant—the tangible symbol of God’s presence that goes clear back to Israel’s time at Mount Sinai—in the Temple, offering sacrifices, probably making speeches (because you know how we religious professionals like to talk)—and all at once the cloud that signified God’s glory filled the Temple and interrupted the proceedings.

Then Solomon spoke to God, again demonstrating some mixed feelings on the part of the historian, and perhaps on God’s part as well.  First he said, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness.”  God will live where God chooses to live, and nobody gets to tell God where to go.  But then Solomon says, “I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.”

God isn’t going to move into a house and live there forever.  Solomon just said that; yet he has built God a house to live in anyway.

One begins to wonder who Solomon built that house for.

Unintended consequences are universally part of just about every human endeavor.  They can’t be completely predicted—hence the word unintended—and sometimes they don’t happen right away.

Solomon’s choice to conscript forced labor out of his own populace—while apparently paying King Hiram’s workers pretty handsomely—got the Temple built, and it was a big, beautiful Temple that God did indeed inhabit, although perhaps not exclusively; after all, God is too big for any house to hold.  But since that forced labor continued on for many years after the Temple was finished, and Solomon’s son Rehoboam declared his intention to continue and even increase his father’s use of forced labor, it eventually led to the division of the kingdom.

Maybe building the temple was God’s will; but just saying God wanted something done doesn’t excuse us from the law of unintended consequences.  Sometimes we act like it does:  this thing we did was what God wanted us to do, therefore we must not question it, even though it caused some problems down the road.  But since God works through humans, and humanity is fallen, there will always be unintended consequences.

There are plenty of examples throughout Christian history, but let’s reach way back for one, and see if we can use it to understand how we might become aware of those consequences in our own lives as individuals, congregations, denominations, and maybe even the Church universal.

Not too long after Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Rome, as the Empire weakened and ultimately came to an end, a group of Christians rejected the growing wealth and power of the institutional church, and sought to remain faithful to what they saw as the true teaching of Christ.  This movement, led by Benedict of Nursia, set itself apart in communities that came to be known as monasteries.[2] 

Benedict wrote a Rule that governed life in these monasteries.  The Rule, which is still followed in many monastic communities to this day, gives a great deal of attention to the prayer life of the communities; but it contains instructions about more mundane concerns, as well.  For instance, everyone who lives in a monastery and is able is required to do some kind of work.  Some weed the gardens, some cook, some clean, and some engage in skilled crafts.

If you’ve ever read Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries or watched the TV series based on them, you will be familiar with a couple more activities that occupied monks.  Cadfael was the closest thing a 12th– or 13th-century monastery would have had to a doctor:  he maintained a garden of medicinal plants, which he formulated into draughts, ointments, and even pills to treat various conditions.  And monks living in the abbey at Shrewsbury, right on the border between England and Wales, were assigned, on a rotating basis, terms of service to a nearby leper hospital.

The goal is for the community to be entirely self-sufficient.  What ended up happening over the years—and keep in mind that monks worked six hours, maximum, six days a week—was that the monasteries started selling their excess produce, as well as the goods they made (even today some monastic communities make items to sell, such as candles, soap, baked goods, or even caskets).  As a result, these communities became pretty wealthy.  There also came to be a division within communities, between some monks who were wholly devoted to prayer and others who did the actual farming and other manual labor.

Unintended consequences!

These communities, living under a Rule that required everyone to work, eventually prospered from that work to the point that it became a problem.  About five hundred years after Benedict, some leaders in the monastic movement, including Bernard of Clairvaux, determined that there needed to be some reforms, and the excessive wealth of these monasteries—where, after all, everyone had taken a vow of poverty—needed to be disposed of.

The lesson for us to learn isn’t just that even decisions that seem to be in keeping with God’s will have unintended consequences.  What we can also learn from the story of monasticism from Benedict to Bernard is that unintended consequences can, if we recognize them, be corrected.

Nobody in the royal power structure in Jerusalem seemed to have noticed that the building of Solomon’s Temple was having the unintended consequence of a permanent class of Israelites who were little more than slaves.  Had they noticed, perhaps they could have done something about it before the northern part of the kingdom rebelled and split the nation in two.

Even when we truly believe what we are doing is God’s will, there will be unintended consequences.  The challenge is to pay attention to them before they really cause harm.

Mainline churches in America have for some time been in the midst of a crisis that is rooted in the unintended consequence of something that was very good and right in its time. 

The spirit that won the Second World War, particularly (but not only) in this country once we entered the conflict, believed we could win as long as we all did our part.  So women went to work in factories; men who were able went to fight, while men who could not fight were placed in other essential positions—like my grandpa and great uncle, who looked after the security of the Army munitions plant in Parsons, Kansas.  People out on the prairie, in North Platte, Nebraska, and no doubt in other places pooled their resources to provide hospitality for servicemen passing through their communities on their way to or from the fighting.

Even children did what they could, like my uncle Barry, six years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed.  He had a set of rubber toy soldiers, and he had heard that rubber was needed for the war effort; so he loaded his little soldiers up in a wagon and went off to town to turn them in.

And because everyone did their part, fascism and tyranny were stopped.

After the war, the folks who had come together for the sake of victory decided they wanted to keep working together in their communities and their churches.  And so they—every generation in an institution inevitably remakes the institution in their own image—set up structures that gave everybody a part to play.  There were large committees that oversaw every aspect of life and mission in churches as well as service organizations like Lions and Rotary Clubs.  These committees met regularly, and the meetings were in large part social occasions.

Women who were used to having some influence because they had worked to support the war effort came together in women’s missionary societies with names like Christian Women’s Fellowship or American Baptist Women, to the point that in a lot of churches it is still a given that a pastor crosses the women’s group at their peril.  (This is, of course, not to say that these missionary societies didn’t exist before 1945, but they, like churches as a whole, were remade to suit the culture of the generation that had worked together to win the war.)

But the law of unintended consequences is one that cannot be ignored.

Churches organized by the generation that won the Second World War have hung onto that structure for dear life, even as the world around us has changed.  Many of the kids raised by that generation grew up to reject the institutions their parents had remade in their image, so a great many of them checked out and weren’t present to remake them in their own image when their time came.  And many of them raised their kids outside those institutions.

So instead of lasting for one generation, the structure that worked well for the World War II generation has hung on for three or even four generations at this point.  And it’s not really working anymore.

Many of the folks who built and maintained that structure are growing elderly and passing away.  The younger folks who are still part of churches aren’t particularly interested in meetings as social occasions, and there aren’t enough of them to fill all the slots needed to continue the structure as it has been set up.  But because it’s been around for so long, a lot of us cannot conceive of any other way of being church.

Unintended consequences!

What can we do about unintended consequences?  There will always be some, no matter how hard we work to make sure we’re acting according to God’s will. 

I think at least part of the answer is continual prayer, and continual evaluation.  We say God does not change; but God’s will for a church can change, because the world around us changes, and if we want to be the body of Christ in the world, we may need to change.

But first we have to admit that what we’re doing isn’t working.  The house our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents built doesn’t serve us well today.

And it is perfectly okay to say, “We don’t know what to do!”  Because once we have said that, we make room to be shown God’s vision for our future. We allow for God to show us the best way to remodel that house so we can continue to welcome all those who seek God into the body of Christ.

[1] 1 Kings 12 tells about the early days of Rehoboam’s reign and the rebellion of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which began over this forced labor and split the nation, very nearly touching off a civil war.

[2] Monastic communities were nothing new in Benedict’s time, of course; he drew on the tradition of the Desert Fathers and Mothers from a couple centuries earlier.  There had also been monastic communities in the British Isles well before Benedict, which functioned quite a bit differently from the way the later communities that followed Benedict’s Rule functioned.

Sunday morning worship, October 31, 2021. CCLI streaming license#20546947.