I thought it was rather appropriate that this eveningís readings should all be about the Temple, since today is our Church Anniversary and Dedication Festival.†
The first reading was part of King Davidís prayer at the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the second ends with Jesus driving out the money-changers from the Temple, which had, perhaps, become very changed from Davidís vision all those years before.
I donít know about you, but I find it very difficult to get the Temple, somehow.† I canít visualise what it must have been like.† Oh, Iíve seen pictures of the floor-plans of the various epochs, from Davidís temple to Herodís, but I canít understand what it must have been like inside.† Our own traditional churches and cathedrals tend to mirror the floor plan, with the nave representing the court of the Gentiles, the Choir representing the court of the Israelites, and the Chancel the Holy of Holies, where nobody could enter except the priests.† And that, we are told, not without blood Ė in other words, they had to take blood with them so that God would not see their sins.† Rather as we sometimes talk about being covered by ďthe blood of the LambĒ.† And even in our lifetimes, of course, women were never allowed into the Chancel, except perhaps to clean it or to do the flowers.† Thank goodness that has changed!
But what I really canít understand was what it must have felt like inside.† What did it smell like, quite apart from anything else?† All that bloodÖ.† I know tradition has it that God kept the flies and other insects that might have been attracted to it away, but I wonder!† Still, the priests seem to have coped with living there remarkably well, so either they didnít mind flies in those days, or God really did keep them away!†
But what was it like to worship in a place where the proper way to worship was to kill an animal?† And in the messiest possible way, by slitting its throat, into the bargain.† I canít imagine it, can you?† We know, a bit, what it is like to use incense in our worship, as they did, but burnt meat?† Blood?† I donít think so!
Of course, what David and them would have had no way of knowing was that the Temple was due to become obsolete.† When Jesus came, there was no more need for a Temple, and, of course, it was destroyed shortly after.† Actually, if you look back, you can see how it all came together.† Originally, when the Israelites were a nomadic tribe, or group of tribes, they could do their sacrifices wherever Ė shrines under trees and on hilltops were the norm, staffed by the Levites, who could live off what was brought for sacrifice.† Then, after they were settled and had become farmers, rather than nomads, the Temple became the only place where sacrifices were allowed, and the synagogues came into being for every-day worship.† The Temple was where you went if you lived in Jerusalem, and if you didnít, you went to your local synagogue most of the time, and up to the Temple in Jerusalem on special occasions.† You remember how the Holy Family went up, the year Jesus was twelve.† Incidentally, when sacrifices became limited to the Temple, it also meant that Levites had charitable status along with widows, orphans and refugees, and it also meant the introduction of a new profession: that of butcher.
And of course, the Temple itself is now obsolete.† Jesus came, and was the ďone perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole worldĒ, as the old prayer-book has it.† We donít need a Temple any more.
But when Jesus was still alive we did need one, and, as far as we can tell, Jesus took one look and didnít at all like what he saw.
So what had gone wrong?† Why had the project that started so hopefully and with such joy degenerated into something that looked very much like a swindle?
Well, of course, to start with, just the passage of time.† About a thousand years has passed between our two readings; we have moved from the Iron Age to the Modern Age, from local petty kingships to one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen.† The Temple has been rebuilt twice, each time bigger and grander than the time before.† This last time, it was rebuilt with Roman money.
And, of course, human nature and human greed.† It made sense for animals to be available for potential worshippers to purchase when they arrived, since if you were coming from a long way away, you would have trouble bringing your own.† And perhaps you didnít have a perfect animal, good enough to be offered Ė well, again, it made sense for you to be able to buy one when you arrived.† But, of course, who can resist making two pennies when the opportunity arose?† It was easy enough to cheat just a little on the exchange rate for the Temple currency.† It was even easier to declare that an animal a punter had brought was not quite suitable, so you would have to buy another one Ė and who was setting the price?† And, of course, you could sell on the so-called ďimperfectĒ animal as perfect to the next country bumpkin that came along.† The corruption probably started small, and then, human nature being what it is, grew and grew.† And nobody dared say anything.† Those who were involved in it were too fond of their profits to wish to do so, and those who were stung either assumed that a visit to Jerusalem would be an expensive business, anyway, so didnít notice, or were too afraid of the Chief Priests who, in effect, ruled Jerusalem, to want to make waves.
Until Jesus.† He was not afraid to make waves.† He saw the corruption, and dealt with it in rather a spectacular fashion.† Of course, I donít suppose for one moment that it was permanently dealt with Ė the traders were probably back again next day with a good story to dine out on Ė but at least he made his point, and in such a fashion that it is remembered to this day.
And, ultimately, in AD70, the Temple was permanently destroyed.† It was no longer needed.† The blood of Jesus had been shed for the sins of the whole world, whether they recognised that fact or not.† The sacrifices had always been a symbol, of course.† Even back in Davidís day, he could write, in psalm 51, for instance:
ďFor you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God+ is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt-offerings and whole burnt-offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.Ē
In other words, the sacrifice was to be the result of putting things right again, not the means by which it was done!
But what does this mean for us, here in the 21st century, three millennia since the Temple was first built, and two since it was destroyed?
We no longer need a Temple, but we do need some sort of house of prayer.† The synagogues, for us Christians, have become churches, and in many, many different ways.† But thatís only church buildings, of course; the church, really, is the people.† The congregation.† We could meet in my front room, or in the middle of Brixton Market, and weíd still be a church.†
And thatís whatís important to remember this Dedication Day.† Itís a funny time for us, celebrating something that may not exist this time next year.† We donít know what the future holds.† We know what we would like the future to hold, of course, but still. †
We have to remember, not only that we are the church, but that we are Godís church, and it is for God to say what happens to us.† If we are truly Godís people, truly surrendered to God Ė oh, isnít it difficult!!!† I find it almost impossible to pray, because I am so tempted all the time to tell God what to do!† But thatís wrong.† I have to get to a place, we all have to get to that place, where we can say to God ďNot my will, but yours.Ē† ďThy Will be DoneĒ.
What does God want for us?† We can say blithely, well, of course God wants this church to go on, and have its own minister, and so on Ė but is that so?† I hope it is, you hope it is, but hoping doesnít make it so if it isnít.† We donít yet know what God plans for us.† And God, as Viera Gray once said to me, has a lot of trouble with the Church of England!
I do know, though, that Iíd value your prayers while I explore options for perhaps going a little further than being a local preacher and being able to help Kingís Acre a bit in that way.† I donít know in what direction, or even which denomination yet!† Iíve made an appointment to explore the Methodist options with Cameron in a couple of weeksí time, and I expect I shall make a similar appointment with Nigel Godfrey, who supervises that sort of training on the Anglican side, and see what is what.† But I donít yet know whether anything will come of it, only that itís a road I need to explore.† Please pray for me.
And please, when you are praying, as I know you are, for the future of our church, do letís all try to pray ďThy Will be DoneĒ.† I know it isnít easy, I know we all want to ask God for this solution or that solution, but anything less than ďThy Will Be DoneĒ does strike me, rather, as being the Den of Thieves solution, rather than the House of Prayer one.† Letís make this Church, us, you and me, a House of Prayer. †A place where God is not only worshipped, although that too, but a place where God likes to be present.†† But that is down to us, to you, and to me.† Amen.