Encountering God

This sermon was offered by the venerable David Bailey, Archdeacon of Bolton, in our churches on Sunday 10 September. It was the anniversary of the re-dedication of St Margaret’s.

‘Daddy,‘ said a little girl one day, ‘Where does God live?’ ‘God lives everywhere,’ came the reply. She lifted her Dad’s empty coffee cup from the table. ‘Well, is he in this cup?’ ‘I suppose he must be in the cup!’, replied her father. She dropped her hand straight down to cover the rim. ‘Got him!’, she shouted.

That little story illustrates a vital truth about God contained in the later verses of our first reading this morning.

‘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!’

[This] church, literally, rose from the ashes of the arson attack in 1985. I’m sure some of you were around at the time and played some part in the project to rebuild St Margaret’s…successful building project.

The great building project of the Bible was the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. King David had been prevented by God from building ‘a house for his name’. Instead that honour and responsibility was held over for David’s son, Solomon, who set about it with extraordinary vision and energy. He constructed a building of breathtaking splendour and furnished it with vessels and treasures beyond compare. Into the Temple was brought the Ark of the Covenant containing the tablets of stone from Mount Sinai on which were written the Ten Commandments; and the ark symbolised the great theological principle that God becomes present with us through his word. So the presence of God was guaranteed amongst the people – so they believed – by this wonderful Temple that now stood in their midst.

‘So they believed’. But there was another great truth to uphold, even at the very point when they were celebrating the presence of God in Jerusalem in the newly dedicated Temple. In Solomon’s great public prayer of dedication, he declares to God:

‘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!

 Even with this wonderful building dominating the skyline; visible from every part of the city, promising that God indeed lived right there among them….another truth still had to be told: that God can never be contained in a building, or a coffee cup, and that even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain him. Close and accessible he is; but his majesty is so immense that he cannot be fitted into the vast universe itself.

Well, impressive though it is, I don’t suppose we can claim St Margaret’s is quite a match for that Jerusalem Temple.

And there are good theological reasons for that, of course. Jesus Christ made it plain that he himself superseded the Temple. Now it was in his body that the presence of God was found on earth. In his physical body during his earthly ministry and in his body the church, in the power of the Spirit, now that he lives and reigns in heaven.

A subtle but crucial change has taken place. Where once God promised his presence among us in a building, the Temple, now he promises it among us in his people, the Church.

But buildings do matter.  Because they are part of the story of the Church. Beauty enhances worship; comfort enhances welcome; flexibility enables mission. So it is good to recall and celebrate today what was achieved here after the fire, with all those aspects in mind: beauty, comfort, flexibility. I will remember St Margaret’s as one of the most appealing buildings in the Archdeaconry.

But even as we give thanks for the restoration and  dedication of this building, let’s not lose the perspective that Solomon’s prayer bring to any occasion such as this. Whilst we pray that people will always find God here whenever they enter, for whatever reason, it can never be a place where God is confined, as the little girl thought God could be trapped in the coffee cup. Heaven and earth cannot contain him, much less this house that was restored. The God we meet with here; the God we meet with this morning as we bring our praise and prayer, and share bread and wine, is a God who fills the whole earth, not just the buildings we construct, the special places where we go to look for him, and the services and ceremonies that we happen to like most.

He is the transcendent God, who dwells in the highest heaven and surveys the whole universe. He is the God who, by his Spirit, is to be found ‘out there’, at work long before we show up to help him and at work in places where we’d never dream of showing up. His knowledge of us and power over us is infinite. We are clay in his hands, but thankfully those hands are the hands of a loving craftsman, determined but gentle, shaping us and moulding us into what he intends us to be.

Our domestic church life must never domesticate God. If we are tempted to do that he will find ways of letting us know that he is bigger than our intentions, ways that might just be rather uncomfortable.

Looked at another way, what Solomon’s prayer reminds us of is that God is at the same time both accessible and immense. The Temple, and our church buildings today remind us that God is accessible. Just as the Jewish people went to the Temple at the great festivals and other times to meet with God, so the people of Prestwich and Simister can indeed come to St Margaret’s, and George’s and expect to meet with him. He makes himself available to us, above all in our worship. One of the great challenges facing us is to make sure that our buildings and what we do in them and with them make that message real to the outsider – that God, in Jesus Christ, is accessible and can be accessed here, not just on Sundays but on every day of the week.

We can bring our prayers to him, like Solomon did, and he hears them and can do something about them. Solomon’s plea is well-founded:

Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray towards this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling-place; heed and forgive.

God will hear, especially when we come before him in honesty about our faults and failures, and he will forgive. He is accessible even in our guilt and shame.

Solomon’s prayer goes on, beyond where we read, to encompass serious and terrifying scenarios in the world: drought, famine, siege, war, captivity. We too can bring the environmental disasters, the bitter conflicts, the worst fears of our own day to him, in the knowledge that he will heed and hear

But the God whom people will encounter here is immense. He is a God who is powerful enough to answer our big prayers about the hurricanes in the Caribbean, political and economic uncertainties across the world, the seemingly insoluble conflicts in Syria and beyond. He has the measure of rogue states and dangerous tyrants. He is a God who has thrown broken down barriers and overthrown regimes before; he can do it again..

Accessible, yet immense. A God who truly is worthy of our utmost love and generosity – on this Gift Day and in the whole of life.

Accessible, yet immense. There is a glimpse here, of course, of that great but mysterious truth of our faith, the incarnation – that an immense God became an accessible human being – perhaps the most accessible human being there has ever been.

So, even as we celebrate the dedication of this building, if you like, as a house of prayer, and more besides, let’s be quite sure that what we do here, what this place is, is not just of local significance because this is for us a point of access to the God that no building can contain, the God whose presence and power fill the whole universe in which we are just a pinprick. So lets not shrink him to the size of our churches, but marvel, with Solomon, at his glorious presence in and above this world and beyond.

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