Things are not as they appear. That is the lesson of “Little Red Riding-hood” remember – the wolf in grandma’s clothing? Why was that story told? Why did the Brothers Grimm consider it worthy of a place in their collection? Simplistically some say it is a cautionary tale warning the young and naive about a world full of hidden danger; “be careful, there are wolves out there.” But others suggest that there is a lot more going on in that story – the ravenous predatory male out to devour vulnerable females…. Others say it is even deeper and more symbolic; perhaps it is.
But one thing is certain: the story gets its power from the experience that all of us have had, that things are often not as they appear. Not only is grandma with the “big teeth” not really grandma, but Red Riding-hood, we discover, is not as all alone in the world after all. There are good hunters about who may come to the rescue just in time. Things are not as they appear.
The story we just read of king Solomon’s prayer of dedication of the temple is also a story of things that are different from the way they appear. Solomon looks great on the surface of this story – very regal, very pious – in fact the perfect combination king-priest; confident as a leader, excels in public prayer, even blesses the people. But Solomon is not at all as he appears.
The temple that has just taken 7 years to build looks great too – covered in gold – glorious; the perfect home in which the God of Israel can comfortably dwell. But the temple is not as it appears either.
Nor are things as they appear for us. On the surface our lives seem to run a lot like Red Riding-hood’s. We are single selves, vulnerable in a world of predatory evil that takes many forms. We are vulnerable to attacks of evil internally; the evil in our own heads (doubts, desires, anxiety, fear, depression); and externally; the evil of a world of predatory large teeth and big appetites, seems to be going for us all the time. But our lives are not as they appear.
Let’s spend a moment together on this story of Solomon’s dedication of the temple, because this text was written to people like us, who need to have eyes to see what does not appear, so that we will be able to deal with life as it does appear to us.
Assembled before Solomon?
The first hint that things are not as they appear comes in the first line; listen again:
1 Kings 8:1 Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the Israelites, before King Solomon
It sounds at first as though the author made a mistake: Solomon assembled them before King Solomon – sounds awkward. But the awkwardness is intentional and betrays the reality behind what “appears” to be happening. Normally when the people of Israel are assembled, they are assembled “before the Lord” or “to the door of the tabernacle” – but here they are assembled “to Solomon” and he is specifically identified as “king” – as if we needed to be reminded. Maybe this event, this dedication of this luxurious temple is as much about that man as it is about that building.
That man, Solomon, is not what he appears. He came to the throne in a bit of a palace coup, cooked up by his mother (1 Kings 1). After ascending to the throne he had his older brother – who was ahead of him in the succession order – killed, along with a whole list of others (1 Kings 2). He re-organized the land into taxation districts and enslaved thousands and thousands of people as forced-laborers to build his palace and the temple (and by the way, he spent double the amount of time building his palace as he did the lavish temple). He had 700 wives, 300 concubines, and even built shrines for the gods of his pagan foreign wives. We could go on. Anyway, this is the man who is standing up there making this pious prayer and lifting his hands in the pose of a priest to bless the people.
I hope you are beginning to see that this story of Solomon is meant to be read with bitter irony. Now we are prepared to hear his prayer differently. Now we hear the “if” clause when he prays:
23″O LORD, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart,
The key phrase is “ for your servants who walk before you with all their heart,” – which describes people that Solomon is clearly not among.
No god like God
And yet, his description of the Lord is correct. God is like nothing “in heaven above or earth beneath.” He is not like the nature gods of the surrounding pagan nations; he is not the sun, the moon or the stars. He is not the spirit of the storm or the guardian of the realm of the dead. God is the Creator of the heavens and the earth, and of everything in them. He is the ultimate source of all of life, for every creature, every plant and animal, and of every human being, made in his image. This assertion of the absolute uniqueness and omnipotence of the God of Israel is bedrock, foundational theology for the descendants of Abraham. There is no god like God; God alone is God.
But this brings up an interesting and even troubling question: where can you put such a god? How will you get him to fit into a temple? Even if you spend 7 years building it, bankrupt the country and cover it with gold – can it contain God? Solomon makes the most pathetic admission of his life so far:
27 “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!
We can almost see the gathered elders and clan-chiefs begin to shuffle their feet and glance around to see if anyone else caught that line, and we can almost hear them whispering to each other, “then why did we just break the bank building this?”
This too is essential theology for Israel. The prophet Isaiah confirms:
Isa 66:1 Thus says the LORD:
Heaven is my throne
and the earth is my footstool;
what is the house that you would build for me,
and what is my resting place?
Hearing from heaven
The temple is not what it appears. Then what are you doing when you come to this place in which God does not dwell because he cannot be contained – this vacant space? Solomon gets this request correct:
30 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.
Heaven, not “this temple,” is God’s “dwelling place” so the most he can ask for is that when people pray “toward” the temple, God will “hear in heaven” their confession, and forgive their sins. We did not read the whole prayer, but in it 7 times Solomon instructs the people to pray for forgiveness toward the temple, and God, who is in fact not contained there, he says will “hear in heaven” and answer.
The greatest truth here is that the God who cannot be contained in a temple is the God who is accessible everywhere, at all times, and by everyone who calls on him. This is the final acknowledgement that we read in Solomon’s prayer:
41 “Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name 42 — for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm– when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, 43 then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel,
We are not what we appear
This is why we are not in the situation we appear to be in. It is not exactly correct to say that because God cannot be contained in that temple, therefore the temple is vacant. It is more correct to say that no place is vacant. The God who cannot be limited to a temple is unlimited – available to, as Solomon said, “all the peoples of the earth” and at all times.
This means that if we feel like we are living in the middle of the Red Ridding-hood story, at the mercy of internal and external wolves, that is not the whole story. We may go through times when we feel alone, helpless, vulnerable, out of control and without a prayer – but things are not as they appear. We are never in a place that God has vacated; there are no vacant places in the universe.
This is both liberating and challenging for us. The God who is not in a temple, or in a statue, or a tree is everywhere, but invisibly so. No image can be made of God because God cannot be localized. But not seeing God means that our faith is challenging.
The Dark Night of the Soul: vacancy?
Many people have gone through times in which God’s invisibility became overwhelming; God seemed absent. I have gone though such times – and they are terrible. The phrase “dark night of the soul” emerged from the writings of Saint John of the Cross, a Carmelite priest in the 16th century, as a way to describe the feeling of God’s absence.
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, a 19th-century French Carmelite, spoke of her doubts about the afterlife, she reportedly told her fellow nuns, “If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into.”
Mother Teresa of Calcutta, according to letters released in 2007, experienced that “dark night of the soul”, from 1948 almost up until her death in 1997, with only brief interludes of relief between.
Why we go through these times of feeling as though God has vacated the world is a mystery. The fact that even our Lord, from the cross, cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” should give us comfort.
What do we do when we are in such times?
First, the spiritual discipline of persistence is our best friend. Practicing the discipline of persistence means that our wills take the place of our hearts. Perhaps the feeling of devotion has left, but nevertheless, we commit ourselves to worship, to prayer, to study, and to fellowship anyway. Persistence kept Mother Teresa ministering to the dying poor in Calcutta all those years, helping them to feel loved by God even when she did not. In the end, thousands of people experienced God’s grace through her discipline of persistence. She kept doing what she knew was right by her will, even when her heart was not helping.
The other response we can make while in the dark night of the soul is to allow the church to do for us what we are unable to do for ourselves. When our faith is weak, we can rely on the faith of the church to believe for us. When we find it hard to pray, we know that the church is praying on our behalf. When we are in doubt and even despair, the church still affirms her faith and proclaims her hope. We are not alone. In fact the church is the one visible sign of the invisible God’s presence in this world. It is in fact when we come together to break bread that we are enabled to see the risen Christ.
You do not need to be in a temple nor church in order to be in the presence of God. You do not need to be in a church in order for God to hear your prayers. Nevertheless, the church – meaning the people – the community of faith that regularly gathers to worship our invisible God can help get you through the dark nights when they come. We can be the visible presence of Christ to you when you need it the most.
Despite appearances, you are not alone, and there are no vacancies in God’s world.