Are there particular places or locations that are holy? Many people seem to think so. What about you? Are there special places that you consider holy?
The First Nations people of Canada speak of their burial grounds, mountains, and even certain groves of trees as sacred places. We may be puzzled by such spiritual attitudes, but in all fairness we Christians who have come from other parts of the world have to admit that we aren’t much different. We allocate and define sacred space, too – usually spaces of our own making.
Regardless of the nature of those spaces, the real question is this: Just where is God? Where should we turn so that God might attend to our needs?
A number of years ago, two men came into the former Augustana church building in Vancouver, where I was the Pastor. They were respectively the father and the boyfriend of a young woman who had gone missing from a town in the province’s interior. They came with flyers for our use in our Sunday worship service. I invited them to my office where we sat and talked about their loved one and their mission to find her. The two men were, of course, distraught and desperate.
When the men were about to get up and leave, I said, “Let’s go to the altar and pray right now.” Both men began to weep. Through their tears, they told me that no one in any church in Metro Vancouver had offered prayer at the altar in response to their plight. I was dismayed at the lack of spiritual welcome among us. But I held my own emotions in check and led them to the altar rail, where we knelt and prayed for the safe return of their family member.
Now, we could have prayed in my office. That’s what I could have offered. And I would have done that with no less confidence. For I know that, because of Jesus Christ, we can pray to God wherever we happen to be. Moreover, our posture makes no difference to God: we don’t have to kneel in front of an altar, nor must we face east.
But I also know that we benefit from symbols, icons, stained glass windows, the act of kneeling, and defined space. So I invited the two men to join me at the altar rail, beneath a lovely stained glass window and its crucifix. We knelt before a stately altar, with its carved image of the Lamb-Who-Was-Slain, and the symbols of the Alpha and the Omega — Jesus, the First and the Last. And I led them in prayer for the safe return of their loved one.
When the two men got up from the rail, I don’t know if their hope in God was promoted in any way, but I know that they gained a renewed sense of confidence in the church as a faithful instrument of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ. I say this even though their loved one was never found; for as far as I know the matter remains to this day an unsolved and tragic mystery.
What did King Solomon think about symbols and their value? What were his beliefs about location?
Our First Lesson for today comes from his long prayer of consecration of the temple that he had just constructed. Solomon asks God to hear people’s prayers, forgive their sins, restore them after military defeat, send rain, remove plague, heal the sick, give victory in battle, and return them to their land.
In particular, with respect to the temple, his prays these words: “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! Regard your servant’s prayer … that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place. 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 acknowledged that neither this temple that he had just completed, nor anything else in all creation, could contain the Creator and Master of the universe. Even so, he asked that God would hear the prayers of God’s people when they prayed toward this place.
Note what Solomon requested. He did not ask that God heed just the prayers offered within the temple. Rather, what he asked is that God would listen to the prayers addressed in the direction of the temple.
Location, Location, Location!
That’s a favourite theme especially among real estate agents and other professions. But not only them. We all have some sense of location, whether our concerns are the pragmatics of convenience, the frills of landscape and view, or our anxieties over our social status.
Like his father before him, Solomon was shrewd in his relationship with God. He claimed about as much as he might dare. He had built a house for the Lord, and he then asked the Lord to confirm the central importance of this temple, for the sake of Solomon’s political purposes.
And like his father, David, Solomon knew that his power was granted and bounded by the Lord of Hosts. He knew that the temple which he had just built could not contain God. So it is also to Solomon’s credit that he concluded his prayer of consecration with words that were inspired not by the spirit of politics but by the Spirit of God.
Solomon’s wisdom endured through the ages, down to the time of Jesus. The religious leaders of that day likewise knew and taught that God was the God of everything that exists, and not just of their own nation. Even if they believed that their glorious temple in Jerusalem was the most important location in the entire created order, they understood that their location could not contain God, nor God’s terrible wrath, nor God’s incalculable love and mercy.
Even so, they were unprepared for the utterly new thing that God was doing in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God is dislocating sacred space.
God is no longer contained within the heavens that God had created, so that the one who prays need not necessarily raise his or her hands heavenward. Nor is God willing to be located at a particular place on earth, so that it is not necessary to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to pray at the temple (or now at its ruins) — or even to pray in that direction, or in any other particular direction.
It is not necessary to come to our church buildings and kneel before our altars, as if those were the only places where God might listen to the prayers of friends and strangers.
In fact, even though we still find it helpful to orient ourselves in some way and in some direction – for example, “up” – in good spiritual conscience we may direct our prayers to the pebbles beneath our feet, to the weeds by the roadside, even to the sewers constructed beneath our streets. For God is in it all and is upholding it all.
God will not be located in any one location.
But that’s after Jesus has ascended to his heavenly Father once again. While Jesus walked the earth of Galilee and Judah, his followers and many other unnamed characters in the gospel story would have prostrated themselves before him and thus offered their prayers to God. People would have turned and faced the location of Jesus, wherever he might be, and in righteousness and good faith prayed to him.
For in the person of Jesus, God-in-heaven is dislocating heaven and earth, earthly temples, shrines, the “high places” that still persisted in the countryside, and any other space deemed sacred – all for the sake of a broken and estranged humanity. That’s why in our gospel lesson for today Jesus speaks of himself in the corporeal terms of his flesh and blood.
Whatever else he was getting at, he certainly was saying this much: God so loved the world that God gave the only beloved son – gave him even unto death – so that nothing could separate God from the creation and the people which God loves so dearly.
In Jesus, God meets you and me in the frailty of our humanity. If we want to speak of location, we can say that God is as near to you and me as the ground that we walk on, and the air that we breathe.
The biggest shock of all is this: In Christ, God is relocating the sacred to a place of horrible execution outside the precincts of the temple. And if that weren’t scandalous enough, then to a tomb, the place reserved for the dead. And if that weren’t morbid enough, then – according to the Epistles of Peter – even to Hell itself to minister to the damned.
And then, against all expectation, once again to heaven – that secret, mysterious realm where God rules over all.
Location, location, location.
Dear friends in Christ: in our thoughts about the institution of the church, maybe sometimes we worry too much about location. Now, we would be fools to locate our church facilities in places completely out of reach of the average person. We owe it to our church to be smart about such matters, and choose locations wisely. And yet, if the viability of our church institutions depends solely upon location, then we have the wrong institutions, the wrong ministry, the wrong ideals, the wrong vision, and the wrong spirit.
Let us be faithful to what God in Christ has entrusted to us. Let us preach, teach, learn, pray and care for one another, and play and grow together in the spirit of St. Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus Christ: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
This is good news for those who are near, as well as for those who are far away. This is why, as a church, we gather in our places of worship, and why we make those places available to one and all.
God grant us full and vibrant ministry to one another in the name of Jesus Christ. God grant us faith to see God at work in the places that we regard as sacred … as well as in those places which seem ordinary and mundane.
With eyes of faith, let us see God at work in all things for the sake of divine good purposes: the redemption of our world; and fullness of life that begins here and now, and comes to perfection on the day of Jesus Christ.