Sunday, 1 February 2015

Candlemas: The Lord and his temple

“The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple”, said the prophet Malachi in our first reading.

He was writing sometime in the 5th century before Christ and it sounds as if everything was going pear-shaped for the people of Israel. They’d come back from exile in Babylon full of hope that they could rebuild a better, stronger, more just nation, but human beings are human beings and it hadn’t worked out that way. From the end of the reading we can tell how much of a mess things had got into. Personal relationships were poisoned by unfaithfulness and manipulation, injustice was rampant, the vulnerable were exploited, those in need went unsupported, trust had failed.  It sounds depressingly familiar. It could be today, really. But then or now, where do you even start to sort it all out? Malachi was clear that he knew. In the Temple, that was where. The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple, he says.

That might seem a bit odd. Surely the answers should lie in politics or economics, in new laws or better administration. But I think Malachi was right, and to understand why we need to know a bit more about the Temple. For Jewish people the Temple was at the heart of their national life. Originally all they’d had was a tent, made to house the Ark of the Covenant which contained the Ten Commandments God had given them. Eventually King David decided that a tent wasn’t really grand enough for his God. He’d built palaces for himself, so surely God deserved a better house than this tent. According to the prophet Samuel, who advised David, God wasn’t really all that bothered. A tent would do fine – after all the world and all that was in it was his home, as we heard in our Psalm today – but David insisted that only a fine stone temple would do, and his son Solomon finally built it. After the exile a new Temple was built and eventually King Herod almost completely rebuilt it.

So the buildings came and went, but the significance of the Temple was always the same. It was the place where the people of Israel believed they met with God. It was where they offered the sacrifices that were central to their worship, where they came to pour out their hearts, where they came to set themselves right with God.  It was where they were reminded about who they really were Gods children and what they were called to do to “do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God”.
It was a place of encounter.

The word temple comes from the Latin templum  which literally means a place that is marked out. We get template from it too. It is a shape,  a space that is set aside.  But it is only a space. On its own it is empty. The point of a temple wasn’t the building but what happened inside it.

Time and time again the people of Israel forgot this. They were distracted by the splendour and the magnificence of the building, their work, and missed the real point of it, to meet with God, to bring themselves, their joys and their sorrows, into his presence. It’s something that we fall into just as easily. We love our church building, with all its history and beauty. We cherish it and we are proud of it. We take seriously its importance to us and to others, and we do our best to take care of it. But it’s not supposed to be an end in itself, and there is an ever-present danger of that happening.   We may value our buildings but the true Temple, the true meeting place we have with God isn’t supposed to be made of stones; it is in our hearts. If we are going to encounter him here or anywhere else for that matter - it will be because we have made a Temple, a space, for him within us.

Perhaps that’s why it is only Simeon and Anna who recognise and acclaim Jesus when he comes to Jerusalem on the day we heard about in our Gospel reading. The Temple would have been crowded that day; people bringing sacrifices, priests and other officials bustling around, people debating theology and philosophy. It would have been full of the noise of animals too, and the smell of blood. Into this melee come an anonymous looking mother and father carrying their six week old son. They could be anyone.

There are probably plenty of other families there on the same mission. Every family had to present an offering when their first child was born. This baby doesn’t glow in the dark; his parents don’t have haloes. They aren’t rich or important. They bring the smallest sacrifice the law allows as a thankoffering for their child, two pigeons ; it’s all they can afford.

So how do Simeon and Anna recognise him? We aren’t told, except that it is clear that they have spent long years waiting, long years praying, long years with their eyes and ears open to God, and in doing so they have created a Temple within themselves, a space where God can dwell. Over those long years of prayer their hearts have become tuned in to his heart.
Everyone else goes on with business as usual that day in the Temple. After this encounter Mary and Joseph slip away with Jesus, still unnoticed by the crowd. But for Simeon and Anna the world is utterly changed. 

On that day in Jerusalem, just as Malachi promised, God has indeed come to his Temple, but it isn’t the building but  the people who are that Temple, and it will be in them in people like Anna and Simeon - that God will get to work, building his kingdom. 
For most of the early centuries of Christian faith places didn’t really matter at all to Jesus followers. They didn’t set up shrines in Jerusalem why would they want to mark the tomb where he had lain, or the cross where he had died? Jesus wasn’t there; that was the whole point. They met in one another’s houses, or down in the catacombs the burial chambers under their cities - sometimes in secret. There were no church buildings. It wasn’t until the fourth century, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire that places started to become important.

The Emperor Constantines mother, Helena was partly responsible for that. She decided to set out todiscover”  the sites where Jesus ministry, death and resurrection had taken place and mark them, just as other faiths marked their sacred places. Before long a thriving pilgrimage industry grew up often little more than tourism really. Churches began to be built, on the pattern of the grand Roman basilicas audience chambers where powerful rulers met their subjects. If Christianity was going to be a proper religion, fit for an emperor, surely it was going to need the trappings of empire too.

But Christian faith was never meant to be about bricks and mortar. In its essence it is a matter of flesh and blood. That is what is so distinctive about it. Its message is that God comes to us in the body of Jesus, in a child, in human form. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, a living person. Living people don’t stay still like bricks and mortar do. Our meeting with Christ isn’t tied to a particular place, any more than our meeting with anyone else would be. If we bump into each other in Sainsbury’s we are the same people as if we met in church or at work or on the train. We may be doing different things in each setting, but we are the same people. It is the quality of our relationships which will determine whether that meeting is worth having, not where we have it. We can pass each other by with barely a nod, or we can share a smile or a greeting or a word or two that uplifts or comforts. It all depends on the space in our hearts we have made for each other, our willingness to listen and be open to one another.

It’s the same with God. If we make space in our hearts, a Temple, a place where we are ready to welcome him then we will find him wherever we are. The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple.” He may not come in the form we expect, or with the message we expect, any more than that little child of a poor family was what people expected, but he will show up. It may be in a moment of wonder. It may be as we are helping someone in need. It may be through the words of the Bible or in the stillness of prayer but he will show up, and his presence will change us if we let it, refining us like silver or gold. Our part is to make that Temple, to make time and space, to lift our eyes and ears, if just for a moment, from the busyness that consumes us, from the self-important bustle of our lives.

Today we celebrate the feast of Candlemas. At the end of the service, I will go to the font, the place of baptism, the place where we are first called to  open up our lives to God. We will light our candles to remember Christ, the Light of the World, but then we’ll blow them out. We do that to remind ourselves that that light we really need is now inside us, in the Temple of our hearts, where the living God promises always to be present.

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