Temple builders

Several of us went on a trip to Germany last year. It was the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Lutheran reformation, and we toured places where Martin Luther had lived and worked. Before we got on the bus to Wittenberg, Eisenach, and Leipzig, though, we did some sightseeing in Berlin, where our plane had landed.

We got to visit the Bonhoeffer House, and we saw the Brandenburg Gate and the Holocaust memorial. The Bonhoeffer House is a rather ordinary house in a suburb, but it was extraordinarily moving to step into the room where Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s small desk was sitting under the dormer window and to think of him sitting there reading and writing. The Brandenburg Gate is just one more example of grandiose, imperial architecture, except that many of us, for many years have only seen it with a wall running across the front of it, dividing the city and the country and the world; seeing the gate without the wall was touching. With people moving freely through the open spaces between the massive columns the place had become a living memorial to freedom and unity. Only a short walk from the iconic gate, an entire city block has been rebuilt as a Holocaust memorial, a large structure reminiscent of a cemetery, an attempt to give, in the heart of the capital, a place to the memory of the systematic murder of millions of European Jews and others whom the Nazis had classified as ‘unworthy of life.’

On our first day in Berlin, though, most of us were tired from the long flight and the seven-hour change in time zones, and so we only planned a short visit to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. The church was built at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century and in 1943 it was almost completely destroyed in a bombing raid. All that was left standing was a portion of the steeple and the entrance hall, and after the war the remaining structure was turned into a memorial. The construction of the church was part of a Protestant church-building program initiated by Kaiser Wilhelm II to counter the German labor movement by a return to traditional religious values like piety, humility, and obedience. The foundation stone was laid on March 22, 1891, the birthday of the Kaiser’s grandfather, Wilhelm I., and the Kaiser named the church in his honor.

Like I said, much of the church was destroyed in WWII, but when I walked into the entrance hall that houses a historical exhibit, I looked up to the ceiling and the upper walls, framed by Neo-Romanesque arches, and covered with mosaics of colorful figures against a background of heavenly gold – magnificent workmanship. Only where I expected to see Biblical scenes or renderings of prophets and apostles, I found myself looking at images of the Kaiser and his wife and other members of the Prussian aristocracy.

When the Kaiser builds a church, he will tell the whole world that it’s to the glory of God on high, but at the same time he’ll make sure that a good portion of that divine splendor also shines upon his own person and throne. When the Kaiser builds a church, the people do the work they cut the stone, they lay the brick and tile, they install the glass, they carve the wood, they haul the slate up the roof, they assemble the mosaics, and, one way or another, they foot the bill but it’s the Kaiser who determines whose images are installed in proximity to the divine, and by what name the magnificent edifice shall be known.

In 1 Kings we read that King Solomon sent word to his neighbor and friend, King Hiram of Tyre, “I intend to build a house for the name of the Lord my God.”[1] He ordered cedar and cypress timber from Lebanon for which he paid with wheat and oil from the royal store houses. And he conscripted forced labor out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men. He sent them to the Lebanon, ten thousand a month in shifts; they would be a month in the Lebanon and two months at home; Adoniram was in charge of the forced labor. Solomon also had seventy thousand laborers and eighty thousand stonecutters in the hill country, besides Solomon’s three thousand three hundred supervisors who were over the work, having charge of the people who did the work. At the king’s command, they quarried out great, costly stones in order to lay the foundation of the house with dressed stones.[2]

This detailed description continues for two entire chapters in 1 Kings, but no mention of the thousands of workers: “In the four hundred eightieth year after the Israelites came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, he began to build the house of the Lord.”[3] Solomon built the house and finished it. He lined the walls of the house on the inside with boards of cedar. He covered the floors with boards of cypress. He overlaid the wood with gold. He made two cherubim of olivewood and overlaid them with gold. He carved the walls of the house all around. He made doors of olivewood and covered them with carvings and overlaid everything with gold. In the fourth year the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. In the eleventh year the house was finished in all its parts. He was seven years in building it.[4]

And then he filled the house with intricate bronze work and vessels of burnished bronze and gold. And Solomon led the dedication of this magnificent new building. Solomon gave the big speech. Solomon offered the prayer of dedication. Solomon blessed the assembly. And Solomon led the party that lasted seven days.

It makes me nervous when the king builds a temple or Caesar builds a church, because inevitably, royal and imperial interests will shape the building, the order of worship, and the language of the liturgy. It was common in the ancient near east for kings to build sanctuaries for the gods, complete with thrones on which the deity could sit, and it’s difficult to sort out to what degree images of divine rule shaped earthly kingdoms, or conversely, how royal power arrangements became the templates for how people envisioned the reign of their gods.

There is, however, in Solomon’s long and eloquent prayer of dedication, an important memory, a line reminding the king and the people and us that the Lord God of Israel cannot be boxed in, cannot be domesticated: “Will God indeed dwell on the earth?” the kings asks. And he answers, “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”

Nothing we build can contain the creator of heaven and earth, no house, no church, no theological system can contain the One who called Abraham and Sarah, who brought Israel out of the house of slavery, who made covenant at Sinai, who spoke through the prophets, who became incarnate and dwelled among us, the One who raised Jesus from the dead and poured out the Spirit on all flesh.

Whatever dreams of containment we may have had, when Jesus died, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.[5] This God will not be domesticated. This God will not be put in a box, be it made of stone or wood or gold or royal  or any other ideology.

When Jesus was arrested, witnesses came forward who said, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’”[6] The next day Jesus was crucified and those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!”[7] He didn’t come down, but in three days this son of David began to build a house of God not made with hands. A house built not with forced labor or any kind of coercion, but with compassion and forgiveness and the call to loving service. A structure made of living stones.[8]

In Ephesians, the apostle writes, “In [Christ] the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”[9]

We have long known that any place can be the place of encounter with the living God and that no place can contain the presence of the Holy One. But now Jesus is building the temple, and he challenges us to see every encounter with another person as the place where God is at work, extending the holy of holies.

When King Solomon asked, “Will God indeed dwell on the earth?” it was a rhetorical question tempering the monarch’s royal ambition. But in Revelation, John of Patmos describes with powerful images his vision of creation come to completion and life fulfilled. This is the horizon against which he invites us to see our own lives unfold:

I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
[God] will dwell with them;
they will be [God’s] peoples,
and God … will be with them…”

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.[10]

In John’s vision, there is no temple in the city because humankind is at home in God and God is at home in humankind, finally.


[1] 1 Kings 5:5

[2] 1 Kings 5:13-18

[3] 1 Kings 6:1

[4] See 1 Kings 6:14-38

[5] Mark 15:38

[6] Mark 14:58

[7] Mark 15:29

[8] 1 Peter 2:5

[9] Ephesians 2:21-22

[10] Revelation 21:2-3, 22

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