Based on 1Kings 8:22-30, Psalm 84, Ephesians 6:10-20, John 6:60-69
Humans have an intrinsic response to something or someone that is lovely or beautiful. Different cultures and different times have a varied sense of what is considered lovely when it comes to humans, but people around the world tend to perceive loveliness in the natural world in a similar manner. Many humans look in awe at the beauty of rainbows, the majesty of the Grand Canyon, a pristine beach by an azure blue ocean, old grove forests, snow covered mountains, northern lights, meteor showers or the star-filled Milky Way to name just a few of God’s lovely creations. Many people come to Madison County to walk the trails or experience the Skyline Drive and its lovely vistas and are so moved that they come back again and again.
Lovely, when used as an adjective (as defined by Dictionary.com) means: charmingly or exquisitely beautiful; having a beauty that appeals to the heart or mind as well as to the eye, as a person or a face; delightful; highly pleasing. In this vein, anything or anyone can be seen as lovely if it hits the eye, heart and/or mind in just the right way. The Psalmist writes, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, indeed, it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing with joy to the living God….” This song is entitled, “The Joy of Worship in the Temple” and folks often think of it as a pilgrim song that was sung as weary travelers approached the temple mount or arrived at the outer gates of that wonderful building. However, there may be more to it than just an appreciation of the majestic architecture of Solomon’s temple.
Our scriptures today have us considering how lovely it is to have God in our lives. We hear the dedication prayer of King Solomon for the new Temple as well as the psalmist’s song of praise. We hear Jesus winding up his teaching on being the bread of life and pointing out that only those who know and believe in him will stick around to receive that blessing. Paul is finishing his letter to the believers in Ephesus that if they clothe themselves in the lovely things of God that they will be able to better struggle against the forces of evil. Let us go to God now in prayer and thanksgiving that God has given us so much loveliness to live into…
The Apostle Paul has been teaching over the last chapter and a half about how the followers of Christ should live in the world. They are to give up Gentile or pagan ways, obey each other and serve one another. Finally, in today’s reading Paul uses the metaphor of putting on armor to help us understand how our loving God equips us in our daily struggle against “…rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil…” Our God is almighty and shares that power with us to be used to defend ourselves against “the wiles of the devil”. When we clothe ourselves in God’s love, we can use truth and righteousness to proclaim the good news of the peace found in Jesus. Further, we can shield ourselves with faith and protect ourselves with the knowledge of salvation – all presented to us through God the Holy Spirit’s intervention on our behalf. How lovely it is to have this armor available to us every day of our lives!
Jesus is finishing his teaching about him being the bread of heaven. Many of the teachings of Jesus fly in the face of worldly belief and “wisdom” and thus present us with a challenge. Do we accept what Jesus is offering – lovely and abundant life both here and in the future, or do with go away like the outer ring of disciples to live our lives as we choose? Jesus knows that many are just hanging around for a handout or for the miracle show, but do not believe in him and his promises. He even tests the Twelve saying, “…Do you also wish to go away?…” Peter offers the truthful and poignant response, “…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….” How lovely it is for those few who can honestly say, like Peter, that they have tried other ways of life and followed other teachings or teachers and have found them wanting. Only following the teachings of Jesus leads the disciple to eternal life.
The readings from 1Kings and Psalm 84 are intertwined. King Solomon is dedicating the lovely and awesome temple in Jerusalem. The psalmist is writing about how lovely it is to be with God in God’s dwelling place. Yet, both the King and the psalmist are aware that human-made dwellings can never contain God. King Solomon says, “…But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!…” Thus, the lovely and awesome building that King Solomon spent years and untold amounts of money building was never meant to be God’s only home – rather, it was a place where God’s lovely and sacred name could be found. Where then, is God’s lovely dwelling place?
To my mind, the key to understanding where God’s dwelling is, lies in that concept of finding the place where God’s name can be found. While the children of God were wandering in the desert for 40 years, God’s name was found in a traveling tabernacle and in the manna, quail and water which God abundantly provided. In the conquering of the Promised Land, God’s name was found on the battlefield aiding and abetting the Israelite army. In King Solomon’s time and for about 500 years thereafter, it was found in the first Temple. When The Babylonians destroyed the Temple, God dwelled again with the people in exile. Throughout eternity, God’s lovely dwelling place has always been wherever God’s creation called on God’s sacred name. That is why people can find God in nature, in silence, in prayer, in everyday activities of life, as well as in a church building. Anywhere that the name of God is spoken in faith and in truth, there God dwells.
It is often easier to find God’s name being spoken in a church building, however, especially in our current day and time. Here’s how the spiritual writer, Rachel Held Evans, put it in a Washington Post opinion piece in 2015: “…You can get coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality. You can be dazzled by a light show at a concert on any given weekend, but church is the only place that fills a sanctuary with candlelight and hymns on Christmas Eve. You can snag all sorts of free swag for brand loyalty online, but church is the only place where you are named a beloved child of God with a cold plunge into the water. You can share food with the hungry at any homeless shelter, but only the church teaches that a shared meal brings us into the very presence of God….” How lovely it is that we have a place we can come to be reminded of God’s promises and speak the sacred name of God! Too few places in the world nowadays have the capacity to remind us to whom we belong.
In the final words of John 6, a large number of Jesus’ followers leave him. He asks the Twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” In my mind’s eye I see Peter shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” That is what is resonating with me today. The reality of the question of where else would I go; where else in this crazy and mixed-up world can I find the lovely and healing name of God reliably spoken? Even if The United Methodist Church splits asunder in one year’s time, the truth of God is not contained exclusively within its doctrine or church buildings. Like Solomon’s Temple, The United Methodist Church is not big enough to contain God. Yet, God’s sacred name is available wherever believers congregate; wherever we can hear those words of eternal life and find ourselves worshipping with other believers, saying to Jesus: “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God”. How lovely it is to know that no matter where we go, God is present with us. How lovely is God’s dwelling place in and among God’s people who speak God’s holy name! Thanks be to God, amen!