Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 15 November
15 November 2009 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon of Westminster
Readings: Dan 12:1-3; Hebr 10: 11-14, 19-25; Mark 13: 1-8
On Friday I had dinner with a friend. She told me why the first hymn we sang this morning has a tune called Michael. Michael was the son of Herbert Howells, who died suddenly at the age of nine. The tune was written to go with Robert Bridges’ fine words, ‘All my hope on God is founded: he does still my trust renew. Me through change and chance he guideth, only good and only true. God unknown, he alone, calls my heart to be his own.’
That calling of the heart, perhaps especially through suffering, is central to the Jewish and the Christian faiths. Again and again, Christians have borrowed Jewish language to talk of this longing: ‘My soul hath a desire and longing to enter into the courts of the Lord. … Blessed are they that dwell in thy house: they will be always praising thee. … For one day in thy courts: is better than a thousand.’ (Ps 84) The psalmist, of course, sings about an actual place, the temple in Jerusalem. This for him is the place where God is especially to be found. When the prophet Isaiah had his vision of the Lord, he saw him ‘sitting on a throne, high and lofty: and the hem of his robe filled the temple.’ (Is 6:1) The temple was the place where the Ark of the Covenant, with the tablets on which were written God’s commandments, had come to rest. At the altar there were daily sacrifices to sustain the relationship between God and his people. The temple had outer courts into which people from all the nations might come, and at its centre, behind a great curtain, was the Holy of Holies. Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies, once a year on the great Day of Atonement, to restore and renew the covenant-bond between God and Israel. There, in the temple, was access to God’s throne, the mercy-seat, and there was the living presence, the ‘glory’ of God.
Many believed that God had pledged himself never to leave the temple; others warned that if Israel did not stay true to the demands of the covenant, the presence of God could and would leave from the temple. This is what Ezekiel sees in his vision in Babylon, by the river Chebar: ‘The glory of the Lord went up from the midst of the city [that is, from the temple], and stood upon the mountain which is on the east side of the city [that is, the Mount of Olives].’ (Ezek 11:23) Ezekiel later describes how the Lord renews the heart of his people, promising, ‘I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you … A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; … I will put my spirit within you …’ (Ezek 36:24-27) God will prepare the people for return to Israel and a temple for the return of his glory (Ezek 43: 1-5). The second temple was built by the exiles when they returned from Babylon. In the time of Jesus this temple was again believed to be the place where the glory of God was especially to be found on earth. Jesus would have known the psalms we sing as the songs that were sung in that temple. We are told in the gospels that he was brought to the temple for circumcision; as a child he listened to the teachers in the temple – he called it ‘my Father’s house - and when he came to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, he threw the money changers out of the temple before spending time there daily, teaching.
This is all essential background to our Gospel reading. We are told that:
As [Jesus] came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’ When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ (Mark 13:1-3)
To understand what Mark is hinting at, we need to put this together with Ezekiel and John. Like the glory of the Lord in Ezekiel, Jesus leaves the temple and rests upon the Mount of Olives. The glory of the Lord goes into exile; Jesus dies outside Jerusalem at Golgotha; and only forty years after his execution the Romans destroy the whole temple so completely it has never been rebuilt. It is John’s Gospel that makes sense of these events, for in John’s gospel Jesus, not the temple, is from the beginning the bearer of the glory of God: ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.’ (Jn 1:14). For John, the hour of Jesus’ death is the hour when Jesus is glorified: the glory of God is seen not in the temple but in the cross and resurrection.
The Letter to the Hebrews (or Jewish Christians), from which our second reading came, develops these themes a good deal further. Jesus is seen as the high priest who at the cross tears open the great curtain in the temple. In God’s heavenly dwelling place, like the high priest on earth, he enters the holy of holies, having made the sacrifice that atones for sins. He opens the way for us to follow his footsteps into the presence of God. The echo of Ezekiel is clear: ‘Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.’ (Hebr 10:19-22) For the followers of Jesus, the earthly temple in Jerusalem no longer matters. If it is destroyed nothing is lost. What matters now is God’s heavenly dwelling place. That can never be destroyed, and the way to God’s heavenly throne now lies open for every one whose heart yearns for his presence.
If, for the Christian, there is now a temple on earth, it is no longer in Jerusalem. It is the body of every human being who is filled with the spirit, the glory of God. Where the Holy Spirit brings life, the human body becomes a temple for God. This is the place where above all God now chooses to dwell. This is why, in the Christian faith, there is such respect for the created human body: it is human beings, not God who so often despise or reject, idolise or conceal, the human body. In Jesus, God glorifies the frail human body as he makes it his dwelling place.
Which brings us to our first reading, that ‘many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.’ We know that at some time our bodies must return to the earth, from which the elements that make them have come: ‘Remember that thou are dust and to dust thou shalt return.’ But our hope, for this life and beyond, is founded on the living God, who has made of our mortal, time-limited bodies a temple for his glory. As we sang to the tune ‘Michael’: ‘Pride of man and earthly glory, sword and crown betray his trust: what with care and toil he buildeth, tower and temple, fall to dust but God’s power, hour by hour, is my temple and my tower.’