THE PLACES OF CHRISTMAS: A PLACE TO CALL HOME
I Kings 8:1-12 – Hebrews 10:19-25
The Rev. Helen Havlik
Advent 3 – December 16, 2018
Advent is our four-week countdown to Christmas where get ready for the coming of Christ into the world. This year we’re looking at the places of Christmas. These places are more than our personal roots and memories that have shaped our celebrations. In fact, we find our place in the biblical story of a God who created Eden and then lives with us. Two weeks ago we heard about the disruption we humans caused in paradise—that led first to our displacement and then to our longing to find our way home. Generations passed as God continued to care for the children of Adam and Eve, including claiming the Israelites as God’s particular people and giving them a home, which we heard about in our first reading. Now I’m reading from Hebrews 10, beginning with vs. 25. Hear these words from the book that we love.
Traditions spring up in the strangest ways. Why does your mom cut the ends off the Christmas ham before she bakes it? Because her mom did. Why did her mom do it? Because her mom did. So that must be the proper way to cook a ham, right? But it really has nothing to do with the right way to cook a ham—grandma cut off the ends to make it fit in her roasting pan! And the cooks have been doing it that way ever since, even when using a bigger pan. When I was growing up, we weren’t allowed in the living room except to read a book. Why? My mom wanted that room neat and tidy at all times. Why? Because she learned from her mother, who learned from her mother, the Victorian custom of setting aside the parlor for company only. Back then, with no phones and no texting, people would drop by when they were in the neighborhood—no warning so no time to clean up, so the parlor or living room was the “public” room, always ready for guests. The family lived in the “private” spaces guests never saw. We didn’t have many drop-in guests that I can remember, but my mom still followed the custom. No Kids Allowed.
In our first reading, Solomon is praying over the newly built Temple that his father David wanted to build but never did. So when Solomon ascended to the throne, he set about the work of building a home for God and God’s people on earth. And, according to the previous chapters in I Kings, it was splendid. Thousands of square feet, the best materials money could buy: cedar, cypress, gold, silver, bronze, massive stones cut and polished. The décor was amazing—flowers, palm trees and those odd creatures, the cherubim, were prominent, and gold covered everything including the floor. And sure enough, there was a room, an inner sanctuary called the Holy of Holies, set aside for the Ark of the Covenant, that no one except the high priest could enter—and then only during the holy festivals. They knew God was present because when they finished the Temple and moved the ark to the Holy of Holies, a shimmering cloud filled the room. It was a reminder of the cloud that led the Israelites out of Egypt—and covered Mt. Sinai when Moses received the Ten Commandments and then the ark that carried the holy tablets on their journey to the Promised Land. The cloud was a sign of the covenant God had made with the people and now in the new Temple it reminded everyone of their relationship with God. It was a big deal, made even bigger by another covenant God made with David. The one where God promises to establish David’s royal line forever, starting at Mt. Zion, the Temple Mount, a place God and God’s people call home, even to this day.
Jump ahead many years and the writer of Hebrews is welcoming us home, too. The previous chapters talk about who Jesus is and how great he is. The Temple that Solomon built no longer existed—and the one King Herod built to replace it was gone, too, destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. The author of Hebrews, according to well-known Presbyterian preacher Tom Long, tells us the lack of an actual Temple doesn’t matter, Jesus makes it possible to enter a virtual Holy of Holies and join in communion with the merciful and generous God of all the ages. Jesus is the one who lets us into the parlor—no room is off limits anymore because of who he is and what he has done. Which is nothing less than moving into our human history to go through everything that we go through—all the sorrow, all the pain, all the longing—in order to lift us up to heavenly places. The whole world shimmers with God’s glory because of Jesus—and we are invited to go with him into the true sanctuary of God’s presence here and now, to finally have a place to call home. (Hebrews, p. 104)
The disciples were really impressed with the magnificence of the Temple when they arrived in Jerusalem with Jesus for the last time. We, too, are a people impressed with bigger, better, greater, grander—the gold floors of the original Temple have become bigger houses, bigger cars. Despite the tiny house fad, most homes being built are huge—and Ford and GM both have decided to stop making sedans in favor of SUVs and trucks. We LOVE grand gestures—marriage proposals show up on jumbotrons—even prom dates require a storyboard to pull off. Look at the Christmas baking shows and the Christmas lights battles. Bigger is always better.
So when Hebrews tells us that worship right here in this sanctuary is our new home with God, we’re like wait—what? Nothing of significance happens here on Sunday morning—or only rarely, right? “The local video store has better drama,” Tom Long says, “television has more interesting stories; the pool club has friendlier people; the park has a nicer view; the Sunday paper has more intrigue, and sleeping in provides a more profound Sabbath rest.” What’s more, he continues, “nobody at the beach or backyard barbecue is going to hand us a pledge card, call us to pray for people in a country whose name we can’t pronounce, or ask us to teach the junior high youth.” (Hebrews, p. 108) Thing is, this community—that means us—has been gathered by a grand and great mystery beyond what we can see or know. Here is where we are washed pure and clean by the waters of baptism. Here is where we are reminded again and again of the transforming power of forgiveness. Here is where we find the reassurance of God’s acceptance. Here is where our sin-sick souls are healed by God’s grace. Here is where we cling to our hope in God’s promises—even though they have yet to be fulfilled, we Christians live in hope as we eagerly wait for the world’s redeeming. And in the meantime, we keep pushing each other along the right path—by prayer, by encouragement, by example. “Whenever Christians cluster together for worship,” Long says, “we walk through the doorway of an ordinary building, an ‘earthly tent,’ and find ourselves in the company of heaven singing praises with the heavenly hosts.” (Hebrews, p. 107) If that isn’t a home we long for, I don’t know what is.
Two sanctuaries. The only part of the Temple still standing is the Western Wall, commonly referred to as the Wailing Wall, where people from all over the world come to pray. It’s not splendid or spectacular, but people say God’s presence still shimmers there. God’s presence shimmers here, too, because Jesus gives us a place to call home.