Choral Evensong 3rd February 2019
Meeting God in Metaphor
John 2. 18 – 22
‘But he was speaking of the temple of his body.’
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the Feast of Candlemas, and the core story of this event is a temple story. Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Jewish temple to give thanks for his birth, to ritually purify Mary following her pregnancy, and to ask for God’s blessing on this miraculous new life. It’s an intergenerational story: the ancient Simeon, whose response to Jesus we have just prayed together – ‘Lord, lettest now thy servant depart in peace’ – is a very simple and heartfelt prayer. The theologian Anne Lamott says that there are three categories of prayer: help, thanks, wow. This is Simeon's ‘Wow’ moment, his own epiphany, as he takes the 40-day-old baby, looks into his eyes, and realises that he is holding not only a small child, but also the source of salvation for all people – not just his family, not only the Jewish people – but everyone. Globally. Forever. And he responds by saying, in so many words, ‘Thank God – this is amazing, beyond anything I ever hoped for, and I can die happy!’ The other wise person in the story is Anna, a widow in her 80s, who is a prophet. When she sees Jesus she tells everyone she meets about him. She is the first woman to preach about Christ’s salvation, and that makes her vitally important, though her part in the Bible is this tiny cameo role. A baby, parents, and spiritual grandparents, all together in the temple. That’s what today is about.
This evening, then, we get two readings that extend our shared narrative of Christ in the temple. The lectionary – the readings set out each day for the Church to explore together – can create profound juxtapositions and resonances. Today the readings we have radically concertina time – a whole life in a few hours. This morning, Jesus was in the temple as a baby. This evening, he is in the temple as an adult, and he is speaking as a bold prophet and a true force of nature. Our short reading from the Gospel of John is from the moment after Jesus cleanses the temple, claiming it back as a holy place rather than a place of greed and injustice. He’s been speaking truth to power, opposing oppressive collusion between a political regime and a corrupt religious elite, and then, perhaps somewhat anti-climactically, a group surround him and ask for proof that Jesus is as powerful as he appears to be. Jesus’ response is deliberately subversive. Destroy this temple.
Destroy this temple? It’s vast, expensive, took decades to build, and more than that, it is holy – the place where God himself dwells. The very idea of destroying it would have been deeply strange. And, Jesus speaks of the temple’s sudden destruction and rebuilding in three days. That trio of days is a clue for us, but not for his aggressive audience in Jerusalem. They take this timeframe as proof of his absurdity. But to us, the timeframe is proof of Christ’s truth. That trio of days points ahead to the span of time between Christ’s crucifixion and his resurrection. This is the ultimate dramatic irony. John’s Gospel tells us that it is only after Jesus’ resurrection that the penny drops, they remember this dramatic moment of confrontation and confusion, the lightbulb of insight springs into luminous action, and they react: they choose to believe. They believe in Jesus and in what he said and did. But, John tells us, it took nothing less than his death and resurrection to make Jesus’ claims about the temple credible.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus makes use of metaphor and simile. The Kingdom of Heaven is compared to people, plants, and objects. In his intense conversation with the woman at the well, he compares the Israelites to a group of people having a feast, and the woman’s own people to dogs. She stays with the metaphor and retorts – even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the dinner table. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed; the Kingdom of heaven is like treasure buried in a field. The analogies that Jesus uses aren’t understood sometimes, and that’s part of where and how we learn. It’s meant to be a challenge. We learn in making meaning out of paradox, in reading between the lines, in getting to know Jesus by hearing his stories, comparisons, truths, and wisdom over and over again.
In E. M. Forster’s novel A Room with a View, the clergyman Mr Beebe exclaims, ‘”Life” wrote a friend of mine, “is a public performance on the violin in which you must learn the instrument as you go along”.’
In John Green’s book The Fault in Our Stars, Augustus, a teenager dying of cancer, says ‘my thoughts are stars I cannot fathom into constellations.’
And tonight we have another powerful metaphor: the people around him think Jesus is talking about physically tearing apart their holy place, dismantling the temple stone by stone. But he is suggestively pointing towards his body as a holy place that will be taken apart, wholly consumed by the darkness of others, and then rebuilt, filled with light, truly resurrected.
There is no doubt that the issue of metaphor combined with the wildness of what Jesus seems to claim is the root of the crowd’s confusion. He says he will destroy the temple. He is not taken seriously – why should he be? His audience is being literal. Jesus refuses to comply with their demand for literal readings. However, though Jesus is indeed speaking of the temple metaphorically, it also goes beyond metaphor. And this goes some distance to creating a better understanding of why Jesus is so furious about the desecration of the temple, turning it into a marketplace that undermines its holiness and indicates the extend to which God’s values have been marred by greed and power games.
The temple is the place where God dwells with his people in a uniquely intimate way. It is profoundly holy because of its promise of God’s presence. Jesus is the Son of God – effectively, the destruction of his body by the violently gruesome method of crucifixion is the destruction of the ultimate temple: the body of the Son of God, and indeed the holy reality of God incarnate in Jesus. Only Jesus – truly God and truly human, brought to the temple as a baby, and recognised by Anna and Simeon to be their and the world’s eternal salvation – only Jesus could truly rebuild the way God dwells with his people. Only through Jesus can reconciliation between God and humanity take place, so that justice and mercy reign. So that God might dwell with us in true unity of Spirit. That could only happen through Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection. And God does dwell with us. In eternal life of Jesus. In the gifts of the Holy Spirit at work in us tonight and always. And in the loving truth of God the Father, responsive to our needs. Our beloved Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, dwells with us, in this temple, and in the temple of our hearts. Amen.
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