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Evening Prayer      31st January 2021
Haggai 2:1-9 and John 2:18-22
Andrew Penny

Haggai 2:1-9 and John 2:18-22

You will probably not have realised this, as it is obscured by the translation, but the word used for “Temple” in this evening’s readings shifts, as does its meaning at different times and for to different people. I want to explore these meanings and how they change and what they might mean for us, who don’t apparently, have a temple.

For Haggai, who uses the word “house” meaning the temple, the Temple is where God lives. David and Solomon are cajoled into building the first temple because the rich and powerful in the new capital, Jerusalem, had built palaces for themselves but built no home for God. Haggai similarly almost taunts his contemporaries, who have just returned from the captivity in Babylon, but for him, the rebuilding of a house for God is a restoration of Israel’s former glory under David and Solomon. As the earlier temple was constructed with the precious materials brought from afar, so God will shake the nations, to make them drop their valuable fruit or the contents of their pockets, to make a splendid home for the God of Israel. It’s a nationalistic enterprise, to put Israel back on the map.

For the Jews of Jesus’ day, the Temple, which John starts by calling the hieron, or holy place, has perhaps less international ambition, but is clearly the focus of the Jewish nation, a centre at which they would gather from the diaspora- think of all those unpronounceable regions listed at the day of Pentecost. As for Haggai, Herod’s restored and expanded Temple, magnificent in its architecture and furnishings, was also symbolic of a restored Golden Age, the fruition of the Promised Land which under Solomon achieved territorial integrity and respect from its powerful neighbours. That integrity and that respect, were of course somewhat compromised by the Roman occupation, but the Temple and Temple worship kept the flame of nationalism alive.

Politics and religion can perhaps never be fully distinguished but one can say of 1st Century Judea that in addition to its more political aspect, the Temple was also the focus, indeed the essential and unique location for a religion based on sacrificial worship. It was the symbol of the old covenant; a house was built for God who would look after his people provided they worshipped him, and worship meant both prayer and sacrifice in his Temple. Judaism was already moving away from the emphasis on sacrifice, as it had developed in Babylon where there was no temple and therefore no sacrifice was possible, but for the religiously conservative and the priestly families, the temple was the essential feature of Judaism.

We can understand then, the shock and offence that Jesus would give by talking of the destruction of the temple; it was not just absurd in physical terms- it would take a great deal longer than three days to demolish Herod’s temple, let alone rebuild it, but it was also attacking the unifying symbol of Jewish nationality and the vital location for its relations with its God. No wonder that asked for a sign, some divine explanation and reason for such a radically destructive suggestion.

The Gospel is indeed an apparently revolutionary message; it is indeed saying that God is the God of all people, and that his relations with his people are governed by grace not contract; the sacrifice he requires is not a matter of substituting animals for humans, but simply the alignment human will with the divine.

The word that Jesus uses for temple in the latter part of this short passage from John, is naos; the naos was the centre of a temple, where in a Greek or Roman Temple, the cult statue would be found; in the temple of Jerusalem, it was the Holy of Holies, where God’s presence was most keenly felt. Not, perhaps, so much a home for God, as where his presence could be experienced. Jesus’

claim is therefore that his risen body will be where God resides and can be recognised and begin to be understood. In his physical life Jesus claims to be the Son of God, claims that is that his actions and his teaching, show us and tell us what God is like (and what God wants us to do). That residence or abiding is, however, somehow perfected by the resurrection which I believe, shows us our own potential. We were made in God’s image, but through the resurrection our lives are given a deeper dimension, one that transcends the earthly physicality and temporality of our existence. We are not just made in God’s image, but he abides in us. We become God’s body and his instruments and agents in this world. We are all temples now; we are where God lives and where he interacts with his creation.

The disciples come to this realisation after the resurrection, and they don’t see it as something entirely new, rather they “believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” What they witness, and what we witness, is the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophesies and of Jesus’ own words. The temple that was the focus and culmination of Israel’s destiny as a nation and religion, has become in Jesus’ resurrected body, the perfection, inspiration and divine empowerment of all people. Amen.

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