Dedicating the House of God with an Eye to Outreach
Text: 1 Kings 8:41-43
David wanted to build a house of God where the people of Israel could worship him. But the Almighty decided that particular privilege would be given to David’s son, Solomon. When the magnificent temple was finally completed, the king of Israel led the priests, the elders of Israel, and all the heads of the tribes and the chiefs of the Israelite families in a grand worship experience. What a spectacle it must have been! The God who had dwelt in a tent now had a permanent home at the geographical and spiritual center of Israel’s life. In his dedicatory prayer Solomon acknowledged:
“But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple that I have built” (1 Kings 8:27).
In his prayer he asks that the temple may be a place of personal forgiveness for sin, of corporate repentance and restoration for the nation, and of refuge in times of natural disaster, “so that they may fear you all the days that they live in the land that you gave to our ancestors” (v. 40). It is clear that this was a house of God for the covenant people of God.
But it may be surprising to note that right in the middle of this prayer for God’s house at the center of Israel, Solomon is led by the Spirit of God to look beyond the people of Israel:
“As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name–for men will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm–when he comes and prays toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your name” (vv. 41-43).
Solomon, king of Israel, in his dedicatory prayer of the house of God, was thinking outside of the box and had an expansive vision that went beyond his nation’s borders to include “all the peoples of the earth.” Solomon, wise man that he was, realized that God’s house wasn’t only for the covenant people, but for the “seekers” of the whole world as well.
Today, in almost every church, people are discussing the style and content of their worship. They are engaged in conversations about which “target” group of people their worship should be intended for. As the people responsible for hospitality in the house of God, this is a natural pursuit. But it is also difficult, because the intended audience for our worship is God, and not any particular group. God is the Host, the Lord of Hosts, in fact! And we are all there to worship God, who, by his Spirit, makes us “at home” in his presence through his grace, mercy and peace. God himself is welcoming not only us, but also our neighbor, whether he or she is a church member or not.
In his book Welcoming the Stranger, Patrick R. Keifert makes it clear that hospitality in the house of God was an essential ingredient of the faith of Israel:
Over a period of 1,500 years, no matter where the people of Israel were located, their worship was focused on the stranger; indeed, the prophets were critical of Israel whenever it failed to reserve a place for the stranger. Concern for the stranger is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for public worship, according to this tradition” (p. 59).
So, when worship committees, and worship planning teams wrestle with worship style it is a good thing. Every worship experience is a complex mixture of personal, corporate, earthly, heavenly, cultural, theological, biblical and practical elements. And we are not the hosts, offering (hopefully) hospitality to the stranger; we are all strangers being welcomed by the Host himself to a celebration of his grace to us in Jesus Christ.
While some would separate worship and evangelism, they both inevitably come together as we all bow down before the God and Father of us all in humility and worship, whether it is for the first time or the one-thousand-and-first time. We cannot presume that the frequent worshiper has an upper hand on intimacy with the Almighty, while the stranger will need to work at it for a while. God will be the judge as to who earnestly seeks him, and only he who looks upon the heart will determine the nearness of the one who draws near to him. In that sense worship will always be a truly public act, and not a matter of personal taste or preference.
Whether worship takes place in the temple precincts of Jerusalem, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Westminster Abbey in London, the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., the Crystal Cathedral in suburban Los Angeles, or Willow Creek in suburban Chicago, “God is spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Our style of worship may run the gamut from a highly liturgical expression with baroque music in a European cathedral to a “cowboy church” with harmonicas, boots, and jeans in the American desert southwest. Style may vary incredibly from the drums of South Africa to the sound of the sitar in rural India. The cultural context of the people who worship will greatly determine the way they worship. But the focus must be on God, “so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you” (1 Kings 8:40).
Whether or not we “really got something out of it” is not the point. Whether the music, the drama, or the particular sermon we heard was to our liking matters little to God. What really counts is whether we experienced God’s hospitality, grace, acceptance, and love. What really matters is that we encountered the living God in the midst of our joys and sorrows, our happiness and pain. What makes a difference to God, the host, is whether we are aware of the stranger among us, and whether we welcome that person who is seeking God with us.
If we feel welcomed by the Lord, do we share that sense of joy, gladness, and acceptance with our neighbor at worship? Do we actually look to see who is around us, and ask whether God might use us, as an integral part of our worship, to greet the stranger among us? It certainly was on Solomon’s mind to do so. Even on such a special day as the dedication of the temple. How can we do less?
- How does your worship service say “welcome” to strangers and visitors?
- How do you personally extend hospitality to newcomers and strangers who may visit your church? Do you make a point of looking for them?
- What impression do your church building and grounds, bulletin, and worship service make on someone who sees them for the first time?
- How could your congregation’s worship experience be made more “hospitable” to the stranger who visits?