Sermon - Sunday, 26 August 2018

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 26 August 2018.

Scripture: 1 Kings 8: 22-30 / Philippians 2: 1-11

Text: But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!                                                                                           (1 Kings 8: 27)

IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT, AMEN

Walking down the Mound with four year old granddaughter Caterina following a visit to the Chambers Street museum, our attention was taken by a crowd gathered at the plot of grass just in front of New College.

Was it some festival street theatre or one of these remarkable human statues attracting the crowd?

No.

What had taken the crowd’s attention was a little robot making its way slowly up and down the slope, cutting the grass as it went.

And fun as it was to watch the robot, it was just as much fun to watch the excited reaction of the crowd – although I wonder what people back home will make of the photographs of Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace and a little grass cutting robot.

Robots, artificial intelligence, computers, smart ‘phones, my new car with all its electronic wizardry which is ten times cleverer than me – the development of new technologies and the pace of change never ceases to amaze.

In a recent article Oliver Moody, the science correspondent in The Times, made reference to a book on algorithms, Hello World, by the mathematician Hannah Fry.

Fry describes how a piece of software was instructed to tell the difference between wolves and huskies, not by looking at the animals but by scouring the images for evidence of snow.

Apparently when Fry told a colleague about the study, his colleague replied that his four year old grandson had remarked how much a husky he had seen in the street looked like a wolf.

How did you know it was not a wolf his grandfather asked?

Because it was on a lead, the boy replied.

If the first lesson to be taken from that story is to be wary of the wisdom of four year old grandchildren, the second is the value of a little humility.

As Moody’s article went on to point out, modern technology has created many brilliant tools - but they are not intelligent.

They can solve almost any problem put to them but they cannot come up with the questions.

They can distinguish between wolves and huskies – but they cannot tell you what a dog is or what the dog is doing and why it is bothering to do it in the first place.

Moody’s conclusion was to suggest that if we are serious about devising a truly intelligent computer, we must give the human brain the respect it deserves.

A plea for a little humility was one of the key messages of Moody’s article.

A plea for a little humility is one of the key messages in King Solomon’s address to the people of Israel.

The occasion was the dedication of the temple.

Constructed on the eastern point of what is now known as Temple Mount, almost 2,500 feet above sea level, and facing east to the point where the sun rises over the Mount of Olives, the sheer size and scale of Solomon’s temple must have been overwhelming to pilgrims coming to Jerusalem from the surrounding towns and villages.

In fact there were two temples built in Jerusalem, the first by Solomon between 960 and 950 BC which was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC, the second by Zerubbabel in 516 BC, rebuilt by King Herod, and finally destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.  

Sadly no tangible remains of either temple survives but if you visit the Temple Mount today you will find a Muslim shrine, the golden Dome of the Rock, as well as the mosque of al Aqsa, while nearby you will see Jews praying at the western or wailing wall, all that remains of the outer wall of king Herod’s temple courtyard.

Yet in Solomon’s day Jerusalem’s temple dominated not just the skyline but the religious and political life of ancient Israel.

Over the years the people of Israel had worshipped at a number of shrines, Shiloah, Bethel, Shechem and Gibeon, but these shrines paled into insignificance when compared with Solomon’s temple.

Yet what was the temple for?

What purpose did it serve?

Whose need did it meet?

At one level the question is easily answered.

Solomon’s temple was built to house the Ark of the Covenant, the gold covered wooden chest containing the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.

It was also built to be the place of worship where sacrifices were offered to God.

Beyond these religious purposes, however, the temple also served a political purpose.

It re-established Jerusalem as the dominant city in the area, providing Solomon with a seat of power. 

Yet as Solomon himself was wise enough to recognise, the deeper question remained unanswered: who was the Temple really for and what purpose did it ultimately serve?

So, standing in front of the altar at the dedication ceremony, the whole assembly of Israel gathered before him, Solomon spread out his hands and asked;

Will God really dwell on earth?

Solomon was of course quite right.

God cannot be confined or contained in one place, certainly not by any man made structure, even one as magnificent as Jerusalem’s temple or as historic as Cramond Kirk.

Then or now God’s ways are always much greater and higher than ours.

Omnipotent and omniscient, all powerful and all knowing: these are some of the words people have used to speak about God?

Yet surely it is because we believe God cannot be contained in one place, we run the risk of failing to discern God’s presence in any place.

An old Scottish word tryst provides a clue.

A tryst is a meeting or an appointment to meet and one of the purposes of any temple or church building is to be a trysting, a meeting place.

Within our lifetimes tremendous changes have taken place in patterns of home and family and working life affecting our sense of belonging and our experience of community.

As opportunities in education and employment have increased, especially for women, as international travel has become far more accessible and as means of communication have grown exponentially, all of this has had a significant impact on our sense of belonging and what it means to be part of a community.

There was once a day when it was the ‘stair heid’ or the corner shop which created a sense of community and belonging as people bumped into one another and caught up with one another’s news.

Today our experience of community is far more fragmented.

How many of us drive our children to school, drive ourselves to work, shop at the edge of town shopping centres such as the Gyle, and go days and weeks without seeing, never mind speaking to our wider family circle, our friends, even our neighbours?

So at a basic human level the role of a church in providing a community trysting place becomes even more important, indeed, research indicates that one of the reasons parents request baptism for their children is that they instinctively seek a more human setting for them within a group (the local church) which they know to be committed to nurturing and valuing the experience of community [1]

Yet however important socially, if our meeting here, our trysting, was only with one another it would not be enough.

We come to church to meet with God – and because we come to church to meet with God, a little humility is always important.

As he built his temple, Solomon could never have known a time would come when God would indeed dwell on earth, not in a temple made of wood and stone but in the living, breathing, laughing, weeping and loving person, Jesus.

And as people met Jesus, listened to his stories, thought about the life he lived and the way he lived it, and in particular the events of the first Easter with its cross and empty tomb, the gospels tell they experienced gifts of healing and hope and peace and life as they had never known before.

What is more, they came to see that none of it was earned or deserved, the humbling realisation that all of this was offered to them through the divine grace, generosity, forgiveness and love which lie at the heart of all things.

So what of Solomon’s temple and what of Cramond Kirk?

A meeting place, a trysting place, a welcoming place, a friendly place, a caring place, an encouraging place, a comforting place, a hopeful place, an inclusive place, an engaging place, a traditional old fashioned place, a tranquil and peaceful place, a holy place, a place to bow our heads in prayer and lift our hearts in praise – a place to meet with one another, a place to meet with God.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen 

 


[1] George Whyte  ‘Theology in Scotland, Vol X111 no 1, Spring 2006, St Mary’s College, University of St Andrew’s, p59ff