john davies
notes from a small curate

    The Temple and the Shepherd

    Good Shepherd 2/5/2004

    Acts 9.36-43, John 10.22-30

    They call it Hanukah, our Jewish brothers and sisters. The festival which celebrates the time they got their temple back. For the eight evenings of the festival candles are lit from right to left on a hanukkiah, a nine-branched candlestand - one candle for each evening. The ninth candle is the shamach, the servant candle, from which all the others are lit.

    On Hanukah the Jewish people say, a great miracle happened when the Maccabean brothers defeated the Syrians in 165 BCE. For a people whose temple had been captured by enemies, desecrated, a people who had lived in the darkness of loss, Hanukah celebrates a time when the lights came back on. [1]

    We live in a different time and place to the people of Jesus' time; which makes it hard perhaps for us to understand the importance of The Temple to them.

    We live in a country which is full of ruined temples - from churches desecrated by Henry VIII at the time of the Reformation all the way back to prehistoric temples like Stonehenge, so old and so ruined that we have no idea any more what they were for, we can only guess at their significance.

    We don't seem to mind having all these ruins lying around us; we're not too upset seeing all these places of worship which are now rubble. We like to go and visit them and read the signs left by the National Trust showing us pictures of what the place used to be like with its roof on, inviting us to imagine what it would have been like living there, working there, worshipping there, in a different age, an age of faith.

    There's very little yearning among tourists and heritage organisations to restore these temples to their former use, to let their walls ring with God's praise again. Perhaps that's because we worship in different temples these days. We might like to give some thought to the question, what are the equivalents of The Temple in our society....

    Here's what The Temple meant to the people of Jesus' time and place:

    It was the place God lived - the place they could go to meet with their God, set apart, special, holy... the centre of the universe - where earth met heaven and God met humanity;

    It was a symbol of political power - built by Israel's first rulers to show how God had turned them from a community of slaves into a powerful kingdom, the temple was where the rulers of the day asserted their power;

    It was a place of communication - where people could go and hear God's word speaking to them, and where they could respond in songs and prayers;

    It gave the people their identity - having a temple made the people feel like they knew who they were; they knew what their faith was about, they knew what their nation stood for;

    It symbolised their hopes for a future of justice and peace - in The Temple law was taught and practised, judgments were made; people went up to The Temple in the hope that things would improve for them, that they would progress....

    We also know that The Temple was a place of commerce and trade, the marketplace where people would go to buy the things which would instantly satisfy them, like sacrifices which would pay for their sins... and we know how Jesus felt about that: his anger

    We might like to give some thought to the question, where are the Temples in our society....

    those places 'god' lives;
    symbols of political power;
    places of communication with God;
    places that gave the people their identity;
    symbols of our hopes for a future of justice and peace;
    places of commerce and trade....

    (congregational discussion named football stadia; concert arenas; shopping precincts; churches/places of worship; parks and gardens where people go for leisure... expecting to find identity / rest, refreshment / strengthening their family relationships... etc etc...)

    In all the excitement of Hanukkah the leaders of The Temple people had all sorts of expectations of Jesus. They wanted to know if he was the Messiah, a king who would who would strengthen The Temple's political influence in a troubled time, the key to their future prosperity and success.

    Jesus didn't stand outside The Temple; didn't condemn The Temple; but he challenged the leaders of The Temple people to see things in a very different way.

    Jesus took The Temple to himself - the way he spoke about it he became the New Temple:

    Jesus is the person God lives in - ³The Father and I are one"
    Jesus is the one who holds political power - ³What my Father has give me is greater than all else"
    Jesus is the person who helps us communicate with God - ³My sheep hear my voice"
    Jesus is the person who gives the people their identity - ³I know my sheep and they follow me"
    Jesus is the person on whom our hopes for the future rest - ³I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand"

    Jesus was saying, don't think about The Temple as a place any more; think about it as a person. Don't think about God as limited to one place any more, think about God as being on the move. Don't think about yourselves as having to go up to The Temple to improve yourselves anymore, think about yourselves as ones who hear my voice and follow me.

    In the British Isles there is one ancient ruined Temple which has been restored. The Abbey on the Isle of Iona. You'll perhaps have heard the story before and you'll no doubt hear it again from me, but briefly, in the middle years of the 20th century the Glasgow clergyman George MacLeod made it his project to rebuild the birthplace of Christianity on these islands, taking with him an unusual mixture of trainee ministers, shipyard workers and craftsmen to do the work together.

    Iona Abbey is now unique - a tourist destination run by Historic Scotland which has a roof on it and plays host to a community of people living and working within its walls.

    MacLeod wasn't obsessed with buildings, as such. He was obsessed, though, with a vision of Christ who was with us in all things, of a church as a living, human Temple itself, of people bound together and to God by the love of the Good Shepherd himself.

    Every Friday morning in Iona Abbey one of MacLeod's prayers are spoken. It is a prayer which doesn't diminish the power of The Temple, but, just as Jesus did all those years ago, reminds us about the new Temple, and our place in it.

    O Christ, you are within each of us.
    It is not just the interior of these walls:
    it is our own inner being you have renewed.
    We are your temple not made with hands.
    We are your body.
    If every wall should crumble, and every church decay,
    we are your habitation.
    Nearer are you than breathing, closer than hands and feet.
    Ours are the eyes with which you, in the mystery,
    look out with compassion on the world.
    Yet we bless you for this place, for your directing of us,
    your redeeming of us, and your indwelling.
    Take us outside, O Christ, outside holiness,
    out to where soldiers curse and nations clash
    at the crossroads of the world.
    So shall this building continue to be justified.
    We ask it for your own name's sake. AMEN.

    [1] Information about Hanukah from The Shap Working Party on World Religions in Education
    [2] From Iona Abbey Worship Book