Homily for Evensong, Candlemas 2011

In Uncategorized on January 30, 2011 at 10:26 pm

Jerusalem is never far from the headlines.
That city, for centuries viewed as the very centre of the world,
if not the whole cosmos,
is no stranger to violence and war.

Jerusalem, that same city,
is the centre of attention in our readings tonight,
as it is for much of Holy Scripture.
Recognised as a sacred focal point,
the hub of the political and religious life of God’s people.

At the heart of Jerusalem, now as then, is the Temple Mount, Zion.
Where Al Aqsa Mosque now stands,
once stood the symbol of Yahweh’s resting place,
the Lord’s dwelling place: where earth and heaven met.

In the Holy of Holies, the very heart of the Temple,
stood that unique space, unlike any other temple in the ancient world,
without image or word,
where God was.

At ancient Israel’s very heart
was this symbol, a metaphor and a reminder,
that this people were to be God-centred,
that the Law and the sacrificial code were pointers towards this:
God incarnate, dwelling in the holy nation.

This, too, was the message of the prophets,
that while lip-service may have been paid to God,
too often it was shallow, empty, and hypocritical.

And if the Temple was to be a constant reminder of God’s presence,
when it was destroyed
once in the 6th Century BC by the Babylonians
and again in 70 AD by the Romans –
this was a clear indication to many of an abandonment of and by God.

Exile, one of the great metaphors of the Old Testament,
was made very real — even for those who were left in the Holy Land —
by the fact that the House of the Lord was in ruins.

Yet out of the despair of exile and the ruins of Jerusalem
comes a voice of hope.
Haggai, in tonight’s first lesson, is given by God a message to proclaim,
that even though the Temple building is no more,
“my spirit abides among you; do not fear”.

More than this, pointing to the soon to be rebuilt Temple,
he is told that
“the latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former”.
And this, on the face of it, was most certainly the case.

The Second Temple was made even more impressive under Herod the Great.
The Temple rebuilding he began and his son completed,
which Jesus is told has been under construction for 46 years,
was considered by many one of the wonders of the ancient world.
It was huge, and spoke volumes not only of God’s glory,
but of Herod’s.

In fact, in Jesus’ time, just after Herod the Great,
even though the Temple was grander and more extravagant than ever,
some within Judaism no longer recognised its legitimacy.
For them, the Temple was merely symbolic and symptomatic
of a social and religious system that was far from God-centred.

The community that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example,
was adamant that the Temple rebuilt and enlarged by Herod the Great
was not the one in which God could be properly worshipped.
For them, the building standing in Jerusalem was itself a symbol of exile.
So much so that they abandoned it
and took to the desert in a literal act of exile,
rather than stay and be reminded of an emptiness at their nation’s heart.

So it is that Jesus the adult comes to the Temple,
and in John’s gospel at the very beginning of his ministry.
He is challenged to offer some sign to back up his prophetic action
in chasing out the traders and money-changers at the heart of Israel.

Today we also ponder the meaning
of Jesus’ first visit to the Temple as an infant.
There he was greeted by the prophetic words of Simeon and Anna,
some of which we’ve sung tonight as the Nunc Dimmitis.

Now here is Jesus the adult, himself wearing the mantle of prophet.
His enigmatic response to those who question him
is to speak of himself as the Temple.
And we who come after can see that here is God incarnate.
Here is the Holy of Holies.
In Jesus of Nazareth,
we have an image of God at the centre of being human.
Of God in the very heart and life of an individual,
God’s very self in full humanity,
not encased in stone, but expressed in love and compassion and cost.
St Paul speaks of the human body as a Temple,
while the Church – the community of believers –
is described elsewhere as a temple made of living stones.

The term “Temple”, exactly like our “Church”,
may be conveniently applied to a building,
but it is cannot rightly remain there.

The Temple is only so if God is at its heart
and incarnate in the human community centred upon it.
The Church is a description of community,
not simply the designation of a functional building.

That means that where believers are,
there too must be the presence of God,
and an awareness of that presence.

Clearly, for all the tangible reality of Jerusalem,
the prophets and the gospel bring us to the realisation
that God is not caught up in structures.

God is not solely to be found in certain places
or predictable, ritualised ways of being.
It is far too easy to try to shut God up in a box or a building
or to a certain day
and to get on with doing what we do the rest of the time.

The hard teaching, the living and dying of Christ,
is that this is not how to attend to our relationship with God.

The symbol of the Temple has God at the very centre of the universe,
of the political, the sacred, the social, the economic.

God is not ghettoised, but glorified.

Individuals do not live incongruously, but as complete people.

In the language of the modern rendering of the Nicene Creed,
we can be, like Christ, fully human.
Not simply living, but having life in abundance.
Not without pain and frustration
and all we know is part of the human condition,
but with God.

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is to us
a reminder and a symbol
that the Temple is where God is to be found.
You can take it with you.

Or you can leave it to sit as a safe, solid, immovable edifice.

The only problem is that the Temple that is in Jerusalem
or in Maheno, and nowhere else will fall over.
It’s just a matter of time and gravity and wind,
of armies and the movement of tectonic plates.

This feast of the Presentation, this Candlemas,
we are to be light to the world.
A light to lighten the Gentiles,
wherever they may be found.  Amen.


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