The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      4th February 2018
The Latter Splendour
Jeremy Fletcher

Haggai 2; John 2. 13 - 22

Today, the celebration of the presentation of Jesus and his proclamation as the Light of the World, is a Temple day. It is to the Temple which Mary and Joseph go with their first born, to acknowledge that, along with everything first born in Israel, he belonged to the Lord, and to offer the sacrifice which would enable them to keep him rather than leave him there. It is a Temple day, where those who inhabit it are given the ability to see God’s new and long anticipated thing, the Messiah, whose light will shine way beyond God’s people.  It is a Temple day, in which the place of the Temple itself is challenged, and its re-formation is pre-figured. 

In the history of the people of God the state of the Temple stood for the state of their relationship with God. It’s not as if the people had forgotten this in Jesus’s day. Even the kind of money you carried into the temple had to be kosher, not idolatrous. You wouldn’t want to bring anything which depicted a foreign God in – so nothing with Caesar’s head. Outside the Temple Courts were people who could help you be a faithful Jew by exchanging the idolatrous money for coinage you could use to buy the animals to sacrifice – as commanded. Every detail covered. 

On the third of Jesus’s Temple days, he has a challenge to make. Once presented in the Temple as a child, once asking questions and learning as a young man, he now redefines the Temple as an adult. Faithfulness to God is more than a matter of ritual and action. It is about the heart and soul, and it is for all. Every barrier will be broken down. No longer will the Gentiles be allowed so far but no further. Mo longer will there be a place only the High Priest can enter. Indeed, in Christ all will be able to go to the very heart, to the holy of holies.  

The Temple looked solid but had been changed many times. Up until David’s time the presence of God was found in a tent: the tabernacle. Only under Solomon is there a building, of stone and wood and precious things. It fell into disrepair, and in the time of Isaiah was restored by Hezekiah the King. Again it fell into decay, until Josiah rediscovered the law, and right practice was restored. Again they failed, and this time the Temple was destroyed as the people were exiled. Our reading from Haggai tonight is about what followed. When the Israelites re-inhabited Jerusalem, after a 70 year absence, they took some time to lay the new Temple’s foundations. Even then the building work stalled, and a decade later they had to be challenged by prophets like Haggai and Zechariah, who remind them that they are living in panelled houses while the Temple remained unbuilt. 

The Second Temple was completed, and became again the symbol of the presence of God and the faithfulness of the people. Three centuries later, after further attacks, worship was restored under Judas Maccabeus, commemorated by the seven branched candle stand at Hanukkah. It was enlarged under Herod the Great, and a century and a half later it is to that Temple which Jesus was brought, and then took himself, to worship, to pray and to teach. He knows it well, and he knows what it means.

What Jesus found a system of worship and action which has become separated from the commandments and purposes of God. Though they might obey the demands of the law, it became clear that outward form and inward motivation had become disconnected. What the money changers were helping was a business transaction with God, not an act of devout worship. When Jesus had been presented in the Temple as a child the words spoken of him were both praise and prophecy. Praise, that he was to be the light of the world and the glory of Israel, and prophecy, that he would be a sign that would be opposed, a challenge. Haggai spoke of a God who would shake the earth. Jesus speaks of the power to destroy and raise from ruin. If they but knew it as they picked up their tables and rearranged their piles of money, something greater than the Temple was among them. 

When a building, or an institution, takes on a sense of permanence and stability, it is all too easy for its purpose to be lost, its founding principles to become obscured. The history of the Temple shows that it was in its constant renewal that the people of God learnt again and again how to follow, how to worship, how to believe, how to tell. And so with us. The Declaration of Assent used in ordinations and licensings in the Church of England calls upon us to ‘proclaim afresh’ in each generation our inheritance of faith and our hope in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Renewal means rediscovering our foundations, rejoicing in our heritage and reflecting on how we can speak afresh to a new and changing world. 

May our ‘latter splendour’ be worthy of our ancestors, and may what we build be to God’s glory, now and for ever. Amen. 

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