Sunday 15th November, 2 before Advent, morning
Revd Kate Tuckett
Earlier this year I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There is apparently an actual psychological disorder called Jerusalem syndrome in which people returning from visiting this place exhibit irrational and obsessive religious fervour. It was an amazing trip. Parts of it were very moving and really made the events of Jesus’ life feel very close and real. But it was also possibly the most disturbing place I have ever been. In particular the area in front of the Western wall of Jerusalem, a relatively small segment of the structure which originally composed the western wall of the second Jewish temple. It faces a large plaza in the Jewish quarter of the city, and on the other side is meant to be the tombs of Abraham, Sarah, Leah, Rebecca and Jacob. The huge walls around the tombs were built with the Jewish ruler Herod the great; then when the Byzantine empire ruled the area, they build a Christian basilica. That was destroyed by the Persian empire who built a mosque, and then when the Christian crusaders conquered the land, they in turn built a church. The Muslims then made the church back into a mosque. It remains a charged and holy place for all three religions, and one of the abiding memories I take with me from the trip is of Jewish pilgrims praying right up against the wall, and hundreds of young soldiers patrolling the area with machine guns.
Just as that did not make me feel excessive religious fervour, so the appalling events of Friday night in Paris have been a starting point for many to criticise religion. Dawkins, never to miss an opportunity, tweeted ‘If you don’t like religious fundamentalists, you may question the fundamentals of your religion.’ In the immediate aftermath, lots of very tense religious people are going to insist their scriptures answer these questions about what happened. Lots of them and parts of us will try to hustle us into a response of vengeance. But I think we can do better than that. All we have are the facts of what has just happened but we can gather them together and try and see what light comes from that.
So what do we know? We know the world is a very dangerous place, that we are an extremely vulnerable species. Jesus’ warnings of war and rumours of war could have been written today. ‘What large stones and large buildings’ say the disciples. ‘Not one of them will be left, they will all be thrown down’ replies Jesus.
And where do we find grace and light? If you mean today, I’m not sure there is any answer but nowhere. Grace doesn’t always reveal itself straight away.
For the Jewish people of Jesus’ time, the temple was the place where they met God, the place set aside for holiness, the place God was to be found. It’s worth remembering though that God had not always lived in a temple. For years and years the Divine Presence was content with a tent – the tent of meeting as it is called by the Hebrew Scriptures --- which was not where God lived full-time, but where God camped out with people who were also on the move. God met them outside the tent as well, but the tent was the face-to-face place, the place where the presence of God was so intense that Moses was the only person who could stand it. When Moses came out of the tent of meeting his face was so bright that he wore a veil over it.
The tent suited God very well for hundreds of years. It suited God so well in fact that when King David proposed giving God a permanent address, God balked. ‘Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I haven’t lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.’ So David did not build God a temple. His son Solomon did though, and from that day forth God was to be found at Mount Zion, Jerusalem. And people from around the world still go to pray into the foundation stones of God’s own house.
I don’t think Jesus is saying there is anything wrong with the temple in itself. We know that he spent plenty of time there. But I think he does say something about the danger of trying to fix God in one place in time and space. He says that the temple that was still standing when he was speaking was not the ultimate sign that God is faithful. It was not something eternal. And we might ask ourselves what the large stones are that we are so reliant upon standing in our own lives, as Dawkins would have us question. What do we treat eternal that is not? What must stand in order for us to place our hope in God? Maybe the health and safety of our family? Or the economy? Or the fact that we can walk down the road without suicide bombers attacking concert halls? None of these things are wrong to want or work towards, but they are not eternal and cannot love us as God loves us.
Of course Jesus was right. The temple did fall. It fell in 70 AD although it wasn’t God who destroyed it – it was the Roman army. There will be wars and rumours of wars. There will be catastrophe and immense tragedy as there has been in Paris and as there is daily in Syria, in Beirut, in the Central African Republic. All of this will happen because building walls will lead to violence and separation and distress.
But the good news in Jesus is that God no longer needs the temple. God no longer lives in a shiny big temple with lots of walls and bricks and stones. God lives in flesh, in a body, in the body of a newborn baby and the body of a tortured man on the cross. God shows up and meets us where we are.
And while I have no answers to say to what happened in Paris, or wherever we are confronted with extreme violence, evil, or deep mental illness, I am fairly sure that grace will come in the people that show up, in the emergency services, the hospitals, the people who will break bad news and sit with the bereaved. And maybe after an appropriate time of being stunned, that is all we can do, to continue to show up. To volunteer for the night shelter. To return phone calls or library books or smiles. To make eye contact with others, including those we find slightly scary or strange. To pick up litter even through there will be more tomorrow. The light shines in the darkness. We may be powerless but are not helpless.
As we enter the Christmas season we will be considering the great mystery and great beauty of God made flesh, God who came out of the temple, God who pitches his tent among us, who lives among us and shares fully in what it means to be human.
This is a text of great hope.
Because although the temple in which the disciples place their hope will be
torn down, and while suicide bombers did create carnage on Friday night, this
doesn’t mean that hope itself will be torn down, because Jesus is the new
temple and although we tried to do that to him as well, he rose again. It is
God and not the actions of those who follow God who lives. It is God and not the
containers we give for God who lives. God became flesh and dwelt among us, God
took all our violence and hatred and calls for vengeance and wall building sins
into his own body. The flesh of God made flesh bore all of it on the cross,
disarms the violence of humanity and promises always to meet us where we are.