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God in a box (January 1, 2023)

A uniform lesson for January 1, 2023.

Uniform Lesson for January 1, 2023
Scripture passage and lesson focus: 2 Chronicles 7:12-22

Having seen how God prepared a way from darkness to light in the birth of John and through Jesus, we now step back and review some of God’s prior promises regarding such way-making through stories and words from the Hebrew scriptures. We begin with an appearance of God to Solomon after he’s finished building a temple for God in the city of Jerusalem. It’s God’s second appearance to Solomon following the initial conversation regarding the gift of wisdom and one that carries both promise and peril. God promises to hear and forgive God’s people regarding any prayers and sacrifices they offer up from this particular place of worship. But there’s a condition attached to this promise; their prayers must be accompanied by a turning of their hearts and habits, lest these promises from God lead to destruction. The text says, “then I will pluck you up from the land I have given you” (v. 20). Yes, this is a promise with an edge and a promise requiring a response. Maybe we should watch out for what we ask and pray for!

A conditional promise

I can remember way back in my childhood VBS when I made a replica of the Jerusalem Temple using a shoebox. I was proud of its columns, proud of its square edges and I could almost see and smell the smoke going up from the sacrifices our teacher described happening there. The text explains, “God had chosen to make this place God’s house” and God states that God’s name would be there forever
(v. 12, v. 16). Further, God declares that God’s eyes and heart would be there “for all time” (v. 16). “Wow!” I thought, as I carried my box home. This was a happy lesson and an unbelievable promise. God was with me and us forever—almost like a Happy Meal I could carry around and maybe share.

What I don’t remember from this lesson was a warning rumbling beneath it. Indeed, the warning is so explicit most scholars believe 2 Chronicles must have received its final form after the exile. Listen carefully. Remember the plucking up passage cited above? Then, everyone passing by will be amazed and ask, upon seeing the ruins of Solomon’s Temple, “why has the Lord done such a thing to this land and to this house?” (v. 21). As a rationale for such judgment, God cites the adoption of other gods and the service of other powers as proper justification for the calamity God will bring upon them (v. 22). Yes, this is a promise that carries peril and a presence that demands a response. So much for my aesthetically pleasing God in a box!

A demanding presence

We church folk might dodge this conditional promise by pointing out that neither Jews nor Christians now limit God’s presence to a temple in Jerusalem, no matter how impressive or imposing. God’s presence and promises are now available everywhere and anytime. As Jesus says to the Samaritan woman, the day is coming when true worshipers will worship God not on a mountain nor in Jerusalem only, but also “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). As he later promises the disciples, the day is coming when God will make God’s home not in a building or a box, but in us (John 14:23). This is an even more remarkable promise than our lesson for today!

However, even here, Jesus makes it clear this promise is given to those who keep his commandments and follow in his way (John 14). The conditionality with which our passage today begins – “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways” – becomes even more fierce if God’s presence and promise is with us all the time (v. 14). How can we get ourselves out of this box, one we carry with us always?

New Year’s resolutions

Maybe it’s appropriate this lesson on God’s Promise to hear and forgive hits us on New Year’s Day. This is an occasion when many of us make casual and quickly forgotten resolutions. What if instead we remember God’s promise to be with us and available to us whenever and wherever we may be—and then pledge our allegiance to walk in God’s ways, with the promises of God beneath us and the presence of God all around. God built God’s new temple in us at quite a price. It should produce some square edges and sacrifice in our lives. Yes, this construction may take more than cardboard and glue!

For discussion:

How do we still try to put God in our boxes?

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