Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Second Sunday before Advent 2019

‘See, the day is coming, burning like an oven.’

The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Sacrist

Sunday, 17th November 2019 at 11.15 AM

‘On the 8th of the Jewish month of Ab, in late July AD 70, Titus, the Roman Emperor Vespasian’s son who was in command of the four-month siege of Jerusalem, ordered his entire army to prepare to storm the Temple at dawn.’

So Simon Sebag Montefiore begins his ‘biography’ of Jerusalem – with the destruction of the Temple.  There follows a truly gruesome account of the tortures and executions of the people of the city, as the Romans and their mercenaries moved-in, and a description of the fire that was set in the Temple itself, melting the silver cladding its doors, spreading to destroy the fabric and exquisite artistry of what was surely one of the greatest buildings of antiquity, and arguably the most significant.  In the words of the prophet Malachi; ‘See, the day is coming, burning like an oven.’

The gutting of the building by fire was followed by the ignominy of its great stones being deliberately toppled.  To quote a famous rabbi, crucified some 40 years previously – ‘the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’

The significance of Jerusalem, in geopolitical terms, cannot easily be overstated.  Its significance to three of the largest global religious traditions (and the various sub-groups of those traditions) means that only in the most remote and isolated of human communities would Jerusalem mean nothing at all to anybody. 

Even in secular Britain most people still love to bellow out those lines about Jerusalem being built in England’s green and pleasant land.  It feels like it means something, even if it’s hard to quite put your finger on it.

The significance of Jerusalem rumbles through history, sometimes more, sometimes less loudly, as Montefiore narrates with great verve, but at the time of Jesus, for the Jewish people, Jerusalem and especially its Temple had nothing less than cosmic significance; the city of the living God, the dwelling place of the Lord of Hosts.  In the words of the psalmist:

‘Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth … if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.’

All the evangelists record Jesus making reference to the destruction of the Temple, and as the events of AD 70 unfolded, it’s not surprising that these sayings became especially important for the fledgling Churches.  The fact that Jesus had predicted the destruction was, in a way, the least significant or surprising thing – the important thing was what the destruction of the Temple suggested about the mission of that fledgling Church.

‘Destroy this Temple and in three days I shall raise it up’, Jesus is reported as saying very early in John’s gospel – a phrase also attributed to Jesus in Mark.  The significance of the Temple is, as it were, re-located and re-focused in Christ; in his body crucified, and in the body that shares his risen life, the Church; us.

In the words of the hymn:

Not throned above the skies, nor golden-walled afar,
But where Christ’s two or three in His name gathered are
Be in the midst of them, God’s own Jerusalem.

This relocation and refocusing of Jerusalem and the Temple to Christ’s body, and thus his Church, has all too frequently been interpreted in terms of simple secession – the idea that God decisively abandoned his ancient people and their Temple and set up shop with his shiny new Church.  Old Jerusalem bad; new Jerusalem good – the bitter and enduring root of anti-Semitism.  Such an apparently simple narrative betrays appalling theology – a capricious god who skips from one tribe to the next; a god who bears no relation to the one who made a solemn and binding covenant with Abraham, and sealed it in Christ’s sacrifice.  There have certainly been and continue to be divisions, but continuities are important here – the ongoing relationship of the Church with the earthly Jerusalem, its Temple, and all its complex history, as we journey towards a heavenly fulfilment and resolution – in the wedding feast that this Eucharist pre-figures.

The Jerusalem Temple doesn’t stop being significant just because it no longer stands.  It continues to inform how we understand ourselves; each as a Temple of the Holy Spirit, severally as members of one body built up into a spiritual house.  This isn’t just borrowing words, or appropriating them, it is expressing continuities that bind Christians and Jews to this day – the Temple, even in its absence, binds us and identifies us.

Even a cursory reading of this part of Luke’s gospel suggests that there was no sense of ‘told you so’ or triumphalism around the fulfilling of Jesus’ prediction.  Instead the destruction of the Temple became a symbol of Christ’s own passion and a sign of the suffering that his followers might expect – their persecution and betrayal by even their nearest and dearest.  This part of Luke’s gospel is a call to endurance, not point-scoring.  It would have been so easy in AD 70 to say, ‘this is it, this is our final vindication’, but the evangelist soberly reminds his hearers that it is not their job to put two and two together and make 5.

‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; …and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven’  ‘Beware that you are not led astray’

At no point can we say ‘this is it – this proves that we are right and you are wrong.’  At no point can we do anything other than point to Christ, to his passion and resurrection – the destruction and the raising up of this Temple – and say ‘as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.’  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.  The Christ that returns will be the Christ that died.

We are witnesses, not groupies who can expect special favours or inside knowledge.  If the Temple is destroyed, that means we cannot expect to be immune from destruction.  But if the Temple is raised… then there is hope beyond all imagining; the sun of righteousness shall indeed rise, with healing in its wings.

Margaret Barker, a Methodist theologian, has for many years been suggesting that the liturgy of the early Church was consciously modelled on the liturgy of the Temple – not, in fact, the one burned and toppled by the Romans but the first Temple, built by Solomon.

The Temple, she argues, was not just some local Shrine to a tribal deity, but a microcosm – a universe in miniature.  The Temple signified creation – all of it – just as the God worshipped there was the God who created all heaven and earth.  The liturgy of the Temple was not so much about expiating a wrathful god, or seeking special divine favour; the liturgy enacted nothing less than the restoration of Eden – the healing of Creation - by a divine act of atonement – an act into which the worshippers were drawn and made one with each other, with creation, with God.

The Eucharist, in which we share in the atoning work of Christ – his body broken, his blood offered - and are built together into one body, reconciled to one another and to God in him, Barker argues, has clear continuities with the traditions of the first Temple.

If she is correct, then these continuities, these deep streams of significance that flow through the Temple have the potential to re-invigorate Christian-Jewish relations, and to remind the Church that what we are about is not sitting on the side-lines as a smug holy club saying ‘told you so.’  The continuities that feed from the Temple into this Eucharist are about the agony and the healing of creation – a new Jerusalem which is not a forgetting or a rejecting of the old, but its fulfilment and resolution – a fulfilment and resolution that we cannot claim or control, but to which we humbly bear witness in Christ, and for which we gather and hold out our hands in hope.