Sunday, 11 March 2012

Lent 3: What kind of Temple? A sermon by Kevin Bright

One of many frustrations in business, particularly with larger organisations is getting decisions made in good time. Often there are so many layers of bureaucracy to work through that you end up wondering exactly who is responsible for giving the appropriate authorisation. I know I get more like Victor Meldrew every day but the other thing that really winds me up is faceless corporations where you are a number in the system and they ask you to hold as they transfer you to their call centre!
Contrast this with the experience of the Israelites at Mount Sinai. They get their instructions direct from the CEO. Not Moses interpretation, no messengers, no prophets, and no preachers putting their own bias on his instructions here we find God speaking directly to his people. If they want a meaningful relationship with God, one which reflects his glory, then the Ten Commandments set out the essential ingredients for this.
Everyone will find something to challenge them here, and the most difficult challenges may change over generations. We might need to update our ideas about coveting what belongs to our neighbour I thought to myself yesterday as he took his convertible Porsche out of the garage for a spin in the Spring sunshine.
Possibly one of the biggest challenges of our generation, partly because of working practices which assume you are always available and partly due to economic pressures to minimise down time is finding ‘Sabbath time’. The priest and author David Adam says ‘that this must be the first generation which has sought to destroy the sanctification of time.’ It’s an elegant description of something which we will be much the poorer for if we lose, which risks breaking the natural rhythms of life which need to include stillness and rest as well as time set aside for God.
You’ll probably be aware that several people from our church will be confirmed on Palm Sunday this year, 3 weeks away, on 1st April, April Fools Day. Paul’s letter talks about perceptions of foolishness and he was a living example of what it meant to be a fool for Christ. Saul of Tarsus was originally a strict Jew and Roman citizen, he persecuted the early church but eventually he gave all this up, taking the new name of Paul as he set about building up Christian communities. As a result the Jews turned against him and he suffered imprisonment at the hands of the Roman authorities. To any person who didn’t know about the compelling love of God through Christ he would have certainly appeared a fool but he knew he was doing the right thing and was happy to be called a fool for Christ’s sake.
If the Jewish authorities thought Paul a fool what label would they give to Jesus himself after his actions in the temple? If we saw this happening in a public place today we would be shocked but this wouldn’t come near to how the Jews felt as the man from Galilee who was challenging people to turn their values upside down was now doing the same thing with their tables, as well as tipping out coins and driving animals away.
It’s worth considering what the temple was and what it symbolised for the Jewish people in order to appreciate how truly shocking Jesus behaviour was. In several places it has been described as the beating heart of Judaism, their centre around which all else is organised. It was the place where the people could meet with their god, make sacrifices and receive forgiveness. It was the centre of Israel’s national and political life and the power of the Chief Priests extended far beyond its walls.
Isaiah had said the temple should be ‘a beacon of hope and light for the nations, the city set on a hill which could not be hidden’ but it had become a place of systematic injustice and corrupt economic gain.
Things had come to a head at the festival of Passover. Large numbers of people would travel long distances to attend and offer their sacrifices. Sometimes despite transporting an animal over a long distance the temple authorities would rule that it was of unsuitable quality to offer as a sacrifice and it would therefore be necessary to buy one from them as a replacement. This would test your patience in itself but as you reluctantly reach for your coin bag they advise you that it is not possible to use Roman coins with the emperor’s head on it that would be idolatry, but you are permitted to change your coins for special temple currency. Your early ‘Bureau de Change’ had arrived only it wasn’t being operated as an open commercial enterprise it was charging a margin to worshippers under the pretence of being part of their religion.  The crowds for the festival were being ripped off in the same way the some people propose charging 10 times the normal price for renting their flat out during this summer’s Olympics.
Jesus fully understood all this and more so his actions were not those of some madman. As Jesus had preached and acted out his ministry he felt called to be what the temple should have been for the people, particularly those disadvantaged and oppressed. He was offering them a new way which didn’t involve the temple building which had been carefully constructed over forty six years. He offered a new dwelling place for the glory of God and all could have access to God through him. Of course all this meant that he was set on a collision course with the authorities.
We can see the purpose in Jesus actions but can we still find ourselves in the story today? Can we feel that we’ve sometimes exploited the needs and lack of alternatives facing others? Or perhaps we feel that we are on the receiving end and wish that someone would stand up for our concerns.
I don’t think Jesus would be too interested if we told him that we feel we pay too much tax or that the neighbour’s cat keeps messing up our garden but I feel certain that he is still enraged when he sees the likes of Assad in Syria or Gaddafi before him in Libya living with every imaginable luxury whilst their own people suffer and are brutally oppressed when they speak out.
A lot of us will own up to getting grumpy and moaning about things we see and read about but how often is that translated into justifiable anger which motivates us to do something radical in an effort to make it better? I’m not suggesting that you storm into the offending organisation and start smashing the place up but I’m sure you will admit that it’s so much easier to shout at the TV than it is to take positive action.
Whilst I’m not entirely clear of the aims of the ‘Occupy’ movement in both London and New York, if their objectives included a debate about corruption and greed then they have achieved something. Their anger and frustration manifested itself in mostly peaceful action and their location between St Paul’s Cathedral and the London Stock Exchange highlighted tensions which resonate with the temple.
The encouraging thing is that many among us do ‘get’ the many reasons why Jesus was furious and we have some great examples of reactions to suffering and injustice here in our own church community. Where children are seen suffering and facing danger some collect for the Children’s Society, where we see injustice and suffering in the poorest parts of the world some collect for Christian Aid, where we care about local democracy and accountability some serve on committee’s and Councils, where ex-servicemen seem abandoned many help though the British Legion and Help for Heroes.
When we stop to think about it many of us are actually doing something to act against the things which seem wrong and unfair and in doing so we join our actions with the righteous anger of Christ.
God leaves us to decide what sort of temple we choose to be in. There’s the type that fits our convenience and self interest or there’s the one that he inhabits. If we feel we’ve slipped into the former, Lent offers an excellent opportunity to move back to the temple in which God dwells.

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