“Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” say Jesus’ disciples, in awe at the sheer scale of the walls of the Temple in Jerusalem.
This morning at our All Age Worship we thought about walls, and what they mean to us. I told some Biblical “wall” stories. There were stories about walls coming down – the walls of Jericho tumbling at the blast of the trumpets and the shouts of the Israelites. And there were stories of walls being built up – Nehemiah building the walls of Jerusalem after the exile, struggling for every cubit against those who didn’t want to see Jerusalem fortified again, eventually telling the people to build with one hand and hold a sword in the other to fight off their attackers.
Walls can be wonderful, protecting and sheltering, or they can be obstacles, things that cut us off from one another. The Temple walls were no different. There had been a Temple in Jerusalem from the time of King Solomon – before that they had worshipped God in a tent, and God had been quite happy with that. But that didn’t seem right to the great and good of Jerusalem, so a Temple it had to be, built of stone and cedar wood, and a very fine Temple it was too.
|...and some knocking down|
Solomon’s Temple stood until the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 587 BC, but after the exile a new Temple was built. It wasn’t as splendid as the old one, though. There weren’t the resources to rebuild as Solomon had done, so around the time of Jesus’ birth, plans were afoot to extend it and beautify it. Those plans were the brainchild of King Herod the Great – the same man who ordered the massacre of the children of Bethlehem – and frankly it was more of a vanity project than a genuine spiritual enterprise. He was a paranoid megalomaniac, who had murdered some of his own family to prevent them dethroning him, and he wasn’t even considered properly Jewish – he came from a neighbouring tribe which had converted to Judaism out of convenience, and he’d been put on the throne by the Romans. So he needed to curry all the favour he could, and what better way than by starting a great big, glitzy building project. Unfortunately the building works over ran by several decades, and it was only just finished by the time Jesus spoke these words to his disciples.
As you can imagine then, the idea that this grand new building was going to be thrown down, didn’t exactly go down well with those who overheard him saying it. In fact it was one of the things that got him crucified.
He was quite right though. Herod’s Temple was reduced to rubble by the Romans in AD 70 – only part of the Western Wall remains, a place of prayer for Jewish people to this day. But Jesus wasn’t really just talking about the physical building when he said these words. It was the whole system of Temple worship which he could see coming to an end.
The thing about the Temple was that it walls had become a bit of an obsession among those who built in and ran it, in a way that wasn’t always helpful at all. As I said earlier walls can make a home, providing shelter and protection. Or they can be obstacles across our way. The Temple was constructed as a series of courtyards, one inside the others. At the very centre was the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest could go and then only once a year, screened off behind a curtain. Beyond that was the court of the priests, then one for Jewish men, then one for women, then one for Gentiles. Some people – those who were ritually unclean – couldn’t enter it at all. That included people with disabilities and diseases. The Temple was the place where you went to encounter God, so the walls which kept people in their place – or excluded them completely – also cut them off from God. Gentiles were forbidden, on pain of death, from going any further in than their own court, and stones etched with the warning have been found by Archaeologists in Jerusalem.
It may have been an impressive building, but for many people – especially those who were already marginalised – it’s walls were more of an obstacle than a home.
Jesus’ words here, though, pointed forward to something the early Christians were keen to bear witness to. They had found a new Temple, a new way of encountering God. They had found it in Jesus himself, and they found it in one another as they gathered together in the Christian community. They were living stones in a new Temple, one in which there were no dividing walls. The walls of hostility between Jews and Gentiles, men and women had been broken down. The sick, the poor, the sinners – those who had been excluded from the old Temple – were explicitly included here. All could have “confidence to enter the sanctuary by …the new and living way that he opened”. All could find within the walls of God’s love the safety and warmth they needed, a home in God’s heart.
Tonight in the silence let’s think about the walls in our lives; the walls that are obstacles to us and to others, blocking the way, cutting us off from one another, and the walls we long for, welcoming, protecting walls that give us the shelter we all need. Let’s pray for all who need strong walls around them at this time – those who are homeless or refugees, those in Paris who are feeling terrified and unprotected at the moment, and those in the Middle East who live with that vulnerability all the time. And let’s pray that those of us who call ourselves Christian, part of God’s living temple, would always build walls which make homes, not barriers to others.