The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      2nd February 2020
What Sign Can You Show Us?
Handley Stevens

This is not the first time I have been asked to preach on an occasion connected with our support as a church for the performance of great music to the glory of God.  This evening many of us will be going on to the Annual General Meeting of the Friends of the Music. We are so very fortunate to have a wonderful team of musicians, and, thanks to the generosity of Charmian England and other benefactors, the resources to pay them.  It gives me great pleasure to pay tribute on behalf of us all to the contribution they make to our worship.  But that’s all I’m going to say about our music because tonight’s readings don’t lend themselves to such a theme.

What sign can you show us?  Signs are important – whether it be the digital clock-face in Downing Street or the heavy shroud of scaffolding which hid the face of  Big Ben ! A sign, or a picture, is said to be as powerful as 1000 words.   And signs are an important feature in John’s gospel.     

This evening’s story about the overturning of the tables of the moneychangers in the temple follows hard on the heels of the wedding at Cana, which John describes as the first of Jesus’ signs. The fracas in the temple courtyard is not itself a sign.  But John uses the challenge it provokes – What sign can you show us? - to prepare the reader for the full sequence of seven signs, culminating in the raising of Lazarus, which – taken together - prepare us for the most powerful sign of all time, the sign of the cross, the sign of Jesus’ own death and resurrection.

What sign can you show us?  Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.  The disciples are as baffled by Jesus’ answer as the temple authorities who have challenged him, but John uses Jesus’ words to point the reader firmly along the path leading to faith, as he adds the little aside which contains his explanation:  ‘[Jesus] was speaking of the temple of his body.  After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.’  That’s what it’s all about, and John doesn’t want us to miss the point.

Going back to the story, Jesus’ ambivalent attitude to the temple and temple worship has deep roots in the Old Testament.  The covenant relationship between God and his chosen people did not require a temple.  The ark of the covenant was portable.  But once the nomadic people settled in the land of Israel, and built houses for themselves, the clamour for the building of a house of God, a worthy place of worship, was hard to resist.  Even so, when King David first broached the concept of a temple, he encountered an unexpected reluctance.  God could not be confined to any location.  God was everywhere.  However, the generosity of David’s impulse was recognised, and God agreed that David should begin to take the project forward. 

That first temple, constructed at the height of Israel’s secular power under King Solomon, was destroyed some 300 years later when the uppity little kingdom of Judah was defeated and its leaders exiled to Babylon.  It had to be rebuilt a generation later when the first wave of exiles returned. We heard in our first reading tonight how the prophet Haggai galvanised the flagging zeal of the builders.

As a sign of the restoration of Israel after the trauma of the exile, the rebuilding of the temple, at a pivotal point in the nation’s history, helped to overcome the tensions between the people who had stayed and the exiles who had returned, the leavers and remainers as we might call them.  The project was an expression of God’s will for his people, and it prospered accordingly. But the situation was very different in Jesus’ time.  The new and grander temple started by King Herod the Great, and still building 46 years later, was more an expression of that reckless national pride, that would lead to a second crushing destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. 

What sign can you show us for doing this?  We sense the undercurrent of criticism from the Jewish authorities.  What right do you have to upset the apple-cart like this?   Some of his disciples are impressed by the zeal of his action, which has Messianic overtones.  But Jesus doesn’t side with his critics or with his supporters, as he adroitly moves the debate onto fresh ground.   Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up (v 19).  His critics scoff at such nonsense, but they are baffled and fall silent.

Yet what Jesus says has the deepest significance.  He clearly doesn’t intend to knock down and rebuild Herod’s great temple inside three days.  His temptations in the wilderness had taught him to resist any such demonstration of divine power.  His enigmatic words are a veiled reference to his own body, the temple of his humanity, which his enemies could destroy, yet he, amazingly, could indeed raise it up.  Jesus’ words signal his willingness to allow the religious leaders of his day to destroy the temple of his body – to take away his life.     

They must have thought that would be the end of the Jesus story, but in God’s plan the cruel death which they procured became the truly pivotal point of all history.  Forget the prophet Haggai’s turning point, when the first temple began to be rebuilt under Zerubbabel, forget William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings, forget the voyage of the Mayflower 400 years ago, forget the proclamation this week-end of a new post-Brexit era.  The one truly pivotal event in all human history, the event that changes everything, that gives us hope in whatever dark place we may be in – nationally or personally – that event occurred when Jesus allowed the temple of his human body to be crucified for us on the hill of Golgotha. 

What sign can you give us?  Destroy this imposing temple that we have been building for 46 years?  Destroy this dream of fame and fortune, or at least success, this castle in the air which I have built for myself?  Destroy this magnificent national destiny that our leaders have imagined for us?  Yes, perhaps all of that, and we shall be left commanding a heap of stones.   But destroy this body, Jesus’ body, and in three days I will raise it up.  The sign that Jesus gives us is the sign of the cross.  When the God of all creation reached down into our messy self-centred world and laid down his life for us, he taught us how to find in the path of humble service the gateway to a life suffused with the radiance of the love of God. 

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