Evesning Prayer on Zoom 3rd May 2020
The people could not distinguish the sound
Ezra 3; Ephesians 2
In the history of the people of God the Temple occupies a defining role. Its setting and buildings focussed the hopes and aspirations and religion and practice of God’s people. It was on Mount Moriah, where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac, and the plot was bought by King David after his capture of the city. There he brought the Ark of the Covenant to what had been the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.
David was prevented from erecting a building, and the Ark remained in the tent, the Tabernacle. Solomon started the building, and it grew and expanded after his time. It was not simply a place of worship: the way everything happened - in what was more like a campus than a cathedral – was shaped by and defined by worship and faithfulness to the commandments. The Temple Mount became the focus of the religious and social and community and ethical health of the nation. Even the kind of money you carried into the temple had to be kosher, not idolatrous. That’s why there were money changers, to help you fulfil the law.
The destruction of the Temple was therefore much, much more than the sad demise of a heritage asset. The Temple embodied the presence of God, and the hope of God’s people. Exile could have meant separation from the presence of God, the removal of the life force of the nation. But in Babylon the people recovered their vision of what it was to be faithful. Without the Temple as the focus of sacrifice and ritual, they shaped their worship and action and belief so that they recovered their confidence: they had not been abandoned by their God, but rather brought into deeper faithfulness and relationship. This was not the end of the Covenant, they realised, but its continued life.
Under Cyrus, some of the exiles were able to return. The seventy year period from destruction to return meant that there was no normal to get back to, and a new life had to be established. It was not recovery, but, in the words of an NHS leader I heard this week, they were to go back to what they wanted to be, not what they were. There could be a renewal, a reset, of the life of the people of God, embodied and enacted in the City of God. They had to ask what this would look like, and what to rebuild. It took time for them to get round to restoring the Temple, but, with great rejoicing, the foundations were laid, as we heard from Ezra 3.
The very old had seen the First Temple, and they wept. I wonder what characterised the weeping. Had something been lost for ever? Was return a second best? As it happened the enthusiasm then stalled for a decade or two, and it took prophets like Haggai and Zechariah to remind the people that they had looked after themselves first, building their own panelled houses while the temple remained only a set of foundations.
Eventually the Second Temple was built, and, centuries later restored by Judas Maccabeus before being enlarged by Herod the Great. This was the one Jesus and Paul knew, and was finally destroyed by the Romans. It’s remains are still there, visited and prayed at by Jew, Muslim and Christian today.
The rebuilding of the Temple in the time of the first chapters of the book of Ezra was a physical expression of the rebuilding of the people of Israel as those with whom God dwelt, and who lived out God’s kingdom, God’s society. This took constant scrutiny, constant reflection, learning and re-learning.
The Temple embodied this, but did not contain this, just as our buildings, and our gathering together embody but do not restrict our being the people of God. I miss our church, and miss our meeting, but I know that we dwell now in a Temple not made with hands. Paul says that, unlike the Gentiles who could go so far but no further in the Temple, we have been brought in. Not just that. we have been welcomed through Christ into the presence of God, into the Holy of Holies, where no one but the High Priest could go in the physical Temple.
That doesn’t need a Temple. Our citizenship is of the Kingdom of Heaven, which does not depend on geography or building. But it is embodied by them, given form and presence by them, and for now we dwell in this odd form of exile, knowing that we have never been closer to God, but longing to make that closeness visible and physical in the place and with the people and in the ways we have found to be sacred and divine. When we return, our foundations remain laid, and it may be that there will be new forms, as we reset, and go back to what we want to be, not just what we were.
Above all we will return, perhaps hesitantly and step by step, confident that each of us, joined together in love, are part of a Temple which can now never be destroyed, with Christ our eternal cornerstone.
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