(Note: This sermon was preached at the dedication service for a renovated sanctuary.)
Many Christians are familiar with the words that are found in 2 Chronicles 7:14 in which God says to Solomon:
If my people that are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sins, and will heal their land.
I cannot tell you how many times I have heard those words invoked as people talk about the importance of prayer, or about God’s ability to answer prayer, or even about what God requires in terms of spiritual integrity from those who turn to God in prayer. There is no doubt that 2 Chronicles 7:14 is among the most widely heard and most frequently invoked passages in the Bible.
What is less widely known is that 2 Chronicles 7:14 is not a verse that can be read or interpreted as a stand alone passage; instead it must be read and considered in the wider context of several chapters in 2 Chronicles. 2 Chronicles 7:14 is the end of a story that focuses on the dedication of the great temple of Solomon in the ancient city of Jerusalem. That temple no longer stands today. Its walls have long since been knocked down, and the only part that remains is one wall, called the western wall or the Wailing Wall, which is considered to this very day to be holy ground for Jewish worshipers.
However, even that wall is not an original part of Solomon’s temple; that wall was built when King Herod tried to rebuild the walls after one of the many times when conquering armies marched into Jerusalem and burned down the walls as a sign of their conquest. There is a magnificent Islamic structure that stands upon the ground where the temple of Solomon once stood; it is a mosque called The Dome of the Rock. It has a brilliant, gold colored dome that sparkles in the sun and can be seen from miles away in every direction. When modern travelers to Jerusalem see The Dome of the Rock they get some idea of what it would have been like to be in Jerusalem when the temple of Solomon was still standing. It would have been the most majestic building that any Jewish person, and also that most foreign travelers had ever seen.
There is a story behind the construction of that temple. King David had wanted to build the temple to God’s glory when he was alive, but God would not allow David to build that religious structure because of David’s past sins, and most especially his sin with Bathsheba. Therefore, the honor of overseeing the construction of the temple that would stand to the glory of God fell to King Solomon; David’s son and successor. In the earlier chapters of 2 Chronicles the description of the building process can be found. Then, in the sixth and seventh chapters, Solomon offers a prayer of consecration for his newly finished temple. The familiar words of 2 Chronicles 7:14 occur as God’s response to Solomon’s prayer of dedication.
In his prayer, Solomon seeks to establish an understanding with God wherein God would hear and answer any prayer that originated within the walls of that temple. Solomon urges God to enter into an agreement with Israel that when the people pray to God, whether to relieve a famine, or to give them victory in combat against an approaching enemy, or to grant them forgiveness from their sins against God and against one another, that God would grant their request. The only two things that would be required for the prayers of the people to be answered would be for the people to enter into the temple, repent of their sins, and seek God’s forgiveness. When that was done Solomon wanted God to give him the assurance that all of the prayers of the people would be answered.
I am glad to report to you today that there is nothing you can pray for and ask of God that God is unable to perform. God can heal the sick; my soul is a witness! God can feed the hungry when they had no idea when and where they might receive their next meal. God can forgive us of all of our sins. Of course, there are some things that we might not want to worry God about. Last week at the laymen’s golf outing someone there asked me to pray to God that he might win something during the raffle held at the end of the day. I tried to assure him that God did not take sides in raffles and 50/50 contests. Of course, that man not only won one of the prizes, but he promptly thanked me for my prayer (which I had not prayed) and asked me to pray again so he could receive a second prize. I try to avoid drawing God into athletic contests and games of chance. However, you can be sure that I will be calling on God fairly regularly about the upcoming election for President of the United States.
There is no doubt that God can do everything that Solomon was suggesting. God can send the rains and refresh the earth. God can keep our enemies from having victory over us. God can forgive us for all of our sins whether directed against God or against one another. God is assuring Solomon that everything he was asking for was well within God’s power and capability. However, in 2 Chronicles 7:14 God seems to be pushing back a little against Solomon’s proposal.
What God told Solomon in response to his prayer of dedication was that the temple was a place with a very clear purpose. The temple was not simply a place where prayers were offered and answered. The temple was the place where the heart, and mind, and soul of the person doing the praying was shaped and formed so that the person asking something of God would be in “good standing” with God when the request was made. God told Solomon that he would not hear or answer any prayer spoken by someone whose heart was full of pride and arrogance, or whose prayers were selfish and narrowly focused, or who are not constantly seeking to know God’s will, or whose life is marked by unrepentant sin. By all means the people should pray to God when they gather in the newly built temple, but they have to follow the guidelines that God sets down in 2 Chronicles 7:14.
It is important for us to remember that the words of 2 Chronicles 7:14 are the words spoken by God at the end of the dedication of the new temple because today we are rededicating our renovated sanctuary. It might be a good idea for us to revisit the words of 2 Chronicles 7:14 in their fullest context. As we begin to worship God in the context of this space that has been redesigned, rebuilt, refurbished, and renovated, we need to understand what it is that God expects from us when we pray to him from this sanctuary. We need to know that God is not going to answer every prayer we utter just because we speak those words within the walls of this sanctuary. God is not going to give us everything we ask for just because we are asking for it when we gather in this beautiful worship setting.
There are four things that God will require of us as a precondition for hearing and answering our prayers. First we must humble ourselves in the presence of God and recognize that without God we can do nothing. It is important for us to keep the process of prayer clearly in mind; we ask God for help and not the other way around. God does not ask us to help him keep the universe in order. God does not ask us to help him shift the seasons from spring, to summer, to fall, to winter. God can do all of that without any help from us. God did not need us to help him create the world. God did not need our advice or assistance in settling our sins at Calvary. We all need to humble ourselves and realize what the songwriter meant when he said:
Without God I could do nothing,
without God I would fail.
Without God I would be drifting
like a ship without a sail.
We need to humble ourselves every day in the presence of God. That is the first thing God says to Solomon: My people need to humble themselves.
The second thing God says is that God’s people must pray. In addition to preaching and singing we must be a praying church. We must put as much emphasis on prayer as we do on Bible study. We must be as committed to prayer as we are to any other form of activity in this church. The church is a place with a purpose, and a significant part of that purpose is prayer.
Of course, there are many kinds of prayer and we should be familiar with all of them. Most of us are familiar with the form of prayer that Solomon had in mind in 2 Chronicles 6, which is the prayer of petition. Most of us are expert in petitioning God to give us the things we want for ourselves. There are, however, many other forms and types of prayer that we must practice if we are to participate in the purpose for which this church exists. There are prayers of intercession where we ask God to move beyond our lives and be a blessing in the life of someone else. There are prayers of adoration and praise where we just rejoice over the glory and majesty and grace of God. There are prayers of thanksgiving where we do not talk about what we want God to do in the future because we cannot stop thanking God for all the great things he has already done for us in the past and up to any present moment. There ought to be somebody here today who is so aware of how good God has been to you that if you never received another blessing you could spend the rest of eternity thanking God for the blessings you have already received!
Of course, there are also prayers of confession and contrition. These are the prayers we speak when we stand before God and acknowledge the sins we have committed, and the mistakes we have made, and the gossip we have passed on, and the slander we have spoken. Is there anybody here today who does not need to prayer the prayers of confession and contrition? I don’t know about anybody else, but I need to have my sins forgiven. I need to be forgiven for my prejudices and my bigotries toward certain groups. I need to have my sins forgiveness when I knowingly do what I know is unbecoming of a child of God. I am not a perfect person, and I know better than anyone else where it is in my own life where the only thing God wants to hear come out of my mouth is a prayer of confession and contrition. Somebody else might want to join me in standing before God and saying, “I’m sorry, Lord.” Part of what God wants us to do when we gather in this place is pray to Him with this whole range of prayers.
Next, God says to Solomon: My people who are called by my name need to seek My face. This is a way of saying that we need to discover what God’s will is for our lives. Before we decide what we are going to do as a career we need to seek God’s face. Before we decide whom we are going to marry we need to seek God’s face. Before we decide something as simple as how to respond to someone who has annoyed or aggravated us, or someone as significant as what church to join and what level of financial support we will offer to that church, we need to seek God’s face.
We as Christians need to remember that we are not entirely independent. We cannot simply do whatever we want to do. Rather, we must seek to know what God’s will is for us in any situation and then apply ourselves to do what God desires. Consider a paraphrase of the famous line from President Kennedy, who, in his 1961 inaugural address said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” In the context of 2 Chronicles 7:14 we might say, “Ask not what you want God to do for you, but ask God what we can do for God and for the kingdom of God.” That is what should be going on when we gather in this place from week to week; seeking God’s face so we can know and o God’s will.
Finally, says God to Solomon: My people need to turn from their wicked ways. God seems to acknowledge the possibility that we might apologize for our sins but then go right back out and keep doing what we had been doing all along. Just because people apologize for what they have done does not mean they will not do it again. Therefore, God wants more from us than an apology; God wants us to stop doing whatever it was we were doing that made the apology necessary in the first place. “Turn from their wicked ways” is what God declares.
In the New Testament we are introduced to the word repent. The Greek word for repent is metanoia. That word means to make an 180-degree turn in one’s direction. It means to turn around and start walking in the opposite direction. How different would the world look if God’s people agreed to make an 180-degree turn in their lives? We could impact the grip of racism, sexism, poverty, oppression, the abuse of power, the physical and sexual abuse of women and children, and so much more if we could just convince God’s people to turn from their wicked ways.
Inherent in this phrase “turn from their wicked ways” is the observation by God that just because we sit inside the church does not mean we do not engage in some wicked action whether inside or outside of this place. The black Baptist church came into existence because of the racism within so many of the white Baptist churches in the southern United States in the 19th century that offered justification for slavery, wicked ways. Women have to leave their own Baptist church home and seek ordination in other denominations because so many black Baptist churches will not recognize the right of God to call a woman into the ministry, wicked ways. Not everybody comes to church to find God. Some people come to church to find a man or a woman they can marry. Some people come to church to enjoy the music but not bend their lives to its message. If we come to church for any other reason than to be in the presence of God, and celebrate His goodness, and confess our own sins, then we have come to church for the wrong reason, wicked ways.
What happens when we finally do conform our lives to these four things that God has set forth in 2 Chronicles 7:14? What happens when our lives fall in line with the purpose God has for the church? God has promised to hear our prayer, and to forgive our sins, and to heal our land. I have great respect for the political process, even if I am constantly disappointed in the conduct and selfishness of some politicians.
Nevertheless, I believe that politics alone cannot fix what is wrong with our world. We need God to heal our land. I have great respect for the benefits of education and lifelong learning, but there is no academic degree that will lead the world into peace or harmony or tolerance for diversity. Only God can heal our land. I have great respect for philanthropy and for the way by which our money can be directed to causes such as ending hunger or caring for the victims of natural disaster. However, no amount of money donated by people of wealth to people in need can bring about any lasting change to our world.
There is one promise to which we can safely turn. If we conform our lives to the will of God, then God will not only forgive ours sins, but God will also heal our land. God will not only heal what is wrong within us, but God will also heal what is wrong in the world around us. If we pray right when we come in this place, God will hear our prayers and bring healing into our lives and into our world. That is the arrangement that God offered at the end of Solomon’s prayer; if we do our part God will surely do God’s part. I believe God will do it. I believe God will bring wars to an end when we turn to God in prayer and truly seek God’s face. I believe God will bring hatred to an end when we turn from our wicked ways. I believe God will end all of the strife between nations, and regions, and tribes, and political parties, and even next-door neighbors when we take the first step and truly humble ourselves.
Today we dedicate this renovated sanctuary, and in doing so we recall the prayer uttered by Solomon upon the completion of his great temple in Jerusalem. We cannot and we dare not come here week after week with nothing more on our mind than what we want God to do for us and give to us, as if God is little more than a spiritual ATM waiting to dispense blessings when we enter the password. Instead, like that ATM, God seems to be saying that if you do not put something in you cannot get anything out. Put in these four things; humble yourself, pray, seek God’s face, and turn from your wicked ways. Then God will do as has been promised: God will forgive our sins and God will heal our land.