St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 2nd March 2014
So who was listening to our two readings this morning? Can anyone tell me what is the common theme between the two?
That’s right, it’s the temple. In our reading from John’s gospel Jesus says: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” While in our reading from 1 Corinthians – our memory verse for today – Paul asks his readers: Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?
From our modern, western perspective we can sometimes forget just how important was the temple in Old and New Testament times. The temple was a magnificent building at the heart of Israel’s religious life. It had originally been built by King Solomon to provide a place where the Lord would dwell among His people. There in the temple all the regular sacrifices were held, morning and evening. Three times a year all the people went up for their major festivals of Passover, Weeks and Tabernacles. And once a year the High Priest entered the most holy place to offer sacrifices for the sins of the people. The temple was the focus and the epicentre of the Jewish religion, and you would do whatever you could to be there and so fulfil your duty to the Lord.
Now the temple we read about in John’s gospel was not the original temple. The temple here was the one that had been rebuilt and made bigger by Herod the Great, and as we can see in our reading, work on the building had already been going for 46 years. Clearly the temple was a great source of national pride as well as religious fervour, and even today if you go Jerusalem the Temple Mount still dominates the skyline, even though the temple itself was destroyed in 70 AD and it has been the site of the Al-Aqsa mosque since the 7th century.
So you can imagine the shock and the puzzlement when Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” After all, think what would happen if a bishop stood up and said this sort thing in St Paul’s Cathedral today. It would be such an outrageous claim that everyone would either laugh or be completely baffled.
But actually what Jesus is saying is something incredibly important that all of us here this morning really need to take on board. If you want to meet with the Lord of heaven and earth you don’t need to go a place. You need to go to a person, and that person is Jesus Christ. You see, Jesus Christ is the perfect high priest who has opened up the way into God’s presence not just on one special day of the year, but permanently and forever. Jesus Christ is the perfect sacrifice who has dealt once and for all with the sins of the world, including yours and mine.
So if you want to find out who God is and what it means to love and serve Him you don’t need a complicated religion with lots of rules and regulations. You don’t need to make special pilgrimages to holy places of worship. You don’t even need a special person called a priest to pray on your behalf. You just need to believe and trust in Jesus.
Now I hope that message is one that you are all very familiar with this morning. I hope there is no-one here who has never heard that Jesus died and rose again for them. If there is anyone who has not discovered that message, then please do pray with me afterwards. But the reason why I have spent some time talking about the temple is that even folk who know and love the Lord often have – if I might put it this way – an Old Testament view of the Christian faith, that it is really all about places and priests and sacrifices. Let’s be quite clear – at the heart of the Christian faith is a person called Jesus who died and rose again for us, and in the end all that really matters is a relationship with Him.
Of course, someone might say, “That’s all very well. But where you I see Jesus today? You talk about faith and trust in Him, but where I can actually find evidence of Him at work?”
Well, the apostle Paul gives the answer to that question in our memory verse this morning: You yourselves are God’s temple. Now let’s be very clear. Paul here isn’t talking about a building. He is talking about us, about you and me. Because the astonishing truth is, where people gather together in Jesus’ name, there God chooses to reveal His glory. Just think about that for a moment. Where people gather together in Jesus’ name, there God chooses to reveal His glory.
And if there’s nothing else you take away from this sermon, I want to remember this. Because, if we can really grasp what Paul is saying here, it should revolutionise our understanding. Yes, if we look at this church in purely human terms, I admit that in many ways it is struggling. We don’t have a large number of people on a Sunday morning. We struggle to raise enough money to keep going. We don’t have the resources to carry out all the ministries we would love to see happen here. And it is quite understandable if sometimes we are tempted to lose heart or become discouraged. But no matter how it seems from a human point of view our gathering is a place where God chooses to reveal His glory.
So why go to church? Well, earlier on in the service you gave me a whole range of perfectly reasonable answers. But the ultimate answer is that the Lord of heaven and earth has chosen to make Himself known when 2 or 3 are gathered in His name. Isn’t that an amazing and a most wonderful thought? Right here, as we come to worship Jesus, the Lord is moving in the power of the Spirit and making Himself known. I don’t know about you, but I find that tremendously exciting.
And if it really is the case that together we are the temple of the living God, then I suggest there are three very simple things we should do.
The first thing is come.
Now I know what it’s like. I’m on holiday and I’m just starting to wind down. I wake up and it’s Sunday morning and the weather’s beautiful outside. Wouldn’t it be great just to skip church for once? I have to be honest, and say that thought does sometimes cross my mind. But in the end I go. Not because I’m a vicar and that’s my kind of hobby. No, simply because as a believer I understand that wherever I am, God chooses to reveal His glory where His children are gathered in worship. And I for one, don’t want to miss out.
I don’t mean necessarily that I’ll have a sudden, amazing encounter in the power of the Holy Spirit, or I will necessarily feel His presence descend upon me. More often, God chooses to reveal His glory through the simple actions or words of my brother or sister in Christ – maybe the kind word of a stranger, or the words of a prayer offered at the front. And actually when I understand that, I also begin to see that if I’m not there, then maybe someone else will miss out on the blessing God wants me to give to them. You see, if it’s true that together we are the temple of Christ, then we are all connected to each other, and it grieves the Holy Spirit when I choose to stay away.
It’s interesting that over the past week a number of us have quite independently been thinking about Lent and what we should do to mark this season of discipline and reflection. Without exception, we have all come up with the same idea – that the one thing all of us should aim to do is come to church each week. After all, to change the picture slightly, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, and if we are family, then we should learn to spend time in each other’s presence.
Now I realise that some of you won’t be able to make it for very good reasons, so here’s the deal: if you know you can’t be there, let us know in advance so we know where you are, and we can pray for you in whatever you’re doing. But as far as it lies with us, let’s all of us make Lent a season of fellowship, of sharing, and let’s really pray for the Lord to reveal His glory here.
So the first thing is come. The second is give.
Of course one of the problems when you talk about giving is that you can end up sounding as if people aren’t already giving that much. Actually I understand that so many people give in so many different ways already and I want to thank each and every one of you for the contribution you make. The other problem is that, when you talk about giving, those who are already giving sacrificially tend to give even more. The point I am simply making here, is if we are God’s temple, then each of us has something to give.
After all, if you go back through the Old Testament and read about the original temple, you will see it was beautifully furnished and very best craftsmen worked on it. The temple wasn’t filled with the cast offs of second hand furniture and financed with the odd donation of loose change. Of course the system could be abused, and there was a good reason why Jesus drove out those selling animals and overturned the tables of the money changers.
But the reason why we as believers give is not in the first instance to have a beautiful building or to fill the coffers of the church. It’s because we want to see the good news of Jesus Christ proclaimed as widely and as fully as possible. If it’s true Jesus died and rose again for us, then we want to give whatever we can to make this good news known right here in this local area.
Now our giving will to some extent involve spending on a building that is an attractive place for believers to meet, but if you look at our accounts, the main item of expenditure we face is maintaining a Christ-centred, gospel-driven ministry to support our mission statement. So if you haven’t looked at your giving before, or you haven’t reviewed it recently, may I just ask to think how it means to you that Christ died and rose again for you? You see, we give not out of a sense of guilt, or because we want to prop up an institution, but because we want to give thanks for a God who gave up His only Son for us and who meets us week by week as we gather in His name.
I realise, of course, there are other ways in which we can give, but I don’t have time to cover these fully today. But can I just flag up for you the morning of 26th April? It’s Saturday morning when we’ll be looking at how each of us can use our gifts, and as part of that morning, each church will be holding its Annual Church Meeting. Obviously that kind of morning can only work if as many of us as possible can be there, so please do make a note of that date in your diary.
So if we are God’s temple where God’s Spirit lives in us, then we need to come. We need to give. And we need to go.
Again, if you go back to the original temple, you will see that many people were excluded from the heart of Israelite worship. If you were a woman, or if you were from a different nation, you were confined to the outer courts. Only Jewish men were allowed into the inner courts, and as we have seen, only the high priest could enter the most holy place once a year.
Sadly, when people look at the church today, they often see an institution that also seems designed to exclude certain groups of people. People look at the church and think that’s not a place for them. It’s a place for the rich, the respectable, the self-righteous. One reason why we’re looking at 1 Corinthians over these weeks is because Paul’s words are designed to deal with that attitude. The amazing truth, as Paul explains in chapter 1, is that God uses the foolish and the week to build His temple. And while there is much I could say about our mission, the one thing I want all of us to go out and share is that the good news really is good news for all.
It’s good news for the lonely neighbour we only see when she comes round to complain. It’s good news for the angry teenager who hates everyone and doesn’t see the point in life. It’s good news for the colleague who is only interested in making money and doesn’t care about anything else. They just don’t realise it yet. And it’s up to us to show in word and deed that the church is a place for them as well.
So back to our memory verse for this morning: Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? We are God’s temple. Where we gather in Jesus’ name, there He chooses to reveal His glory. That’s not just a theory or something that’s true of large, busy churches. It’s something that’s true of us, here this morning. So my prayer is that this morning that Lord will open your eyes to this wonderful truth, that God comes among us by His Spirit when we gather in His name. So will you come? Will you give? And then will you go? To the praise and honour of his name. Amen.