Andrew McKearney’s sermon for Sunday 17th April —
‘Christian belief is really about knowing who and what to trust’ – so wrote Rowan Williams in the Introduction to his book ‘Tokens of Trust’ (p.viii) – ‘Christian belief is really about knowing who and what to trust’.
Throughout the Bible there is, as you would expect, the conviction that God is the one in whom we should put our trust – but there are nuances, differences of emphasis and at times even conflict over quite how this works out.
Take the Temple at Jerusalem where we heard that Jesus was walking in the portico of Solomon.
The centrality of the Jerusalem Temple for much of the religion of the Old Testament is something largely on a page for us, rather than in our hearts.
The psalms in the Old Testament were the hymn book of the Jerusalem Temple, and there in the psalms the feelings evoked by the Temple come out very strongly. Reading the psalms it becomes clear that Solomon’s Temple was not just one religious building amongst many. The Temple embodied the trust between God and his people; it was the place where God spoke to his people.
In the psalms, any description of Zion and the Temple is deeply bound up with the assurance of God’s presence there – the Temple was central to the relationship with God.
Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC. And because of all that the Temple meant to the Jewish people, its destruction was much more than a military or political crisis – it was a theological and spiritual catastrophe. Their trust in God was bound up with the fate of the Temple.
So as a consequence, when the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, some of the hardest, cruellest and darkest verses in the whole Bible are used in the psalms about the Babylonians:
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us!
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones,
and dashes them against the rock!
A second Temple was started when the Jewish people returned from their exile in Babylon, and their hopes were high. But despite these hopes, this second Temple at Jerusalem did not live up to expectations. It wasn’t until Herod, in 19BC, that a third Jerusalem Temple began to be built, and this was one that the Jewish people could be proud of again! It took 80 years to complete, and it is in the middle of building this third Temple that Jesus’ ministry takes place.
What was Jesus’ attitude towards the Temple?
There are a number of occasions when Jesus has things to say about the Temple that his contemporaries did not take kindly to. And the action that led to Jesus being arrested in the first three gospels was when Jesus cleansed the Temple – this seemed to be a dramatic challenge to the place of the Temple – its days were numbered.
Given all that I have outlined of the importance of the Temple to the Jewish people, it’s not at all surprising that this challenge was to lead to Jesus’ arrest. And you’ll recall that at his trial witnesses stand up and say:
We heard this man say, “I will destroy this Temple
that is made with hands, and in three days I will
build another, not made with hands.” (Mark 14.58)
Some of the same dark emotions, that had been stirred up towards the Babylonians when they had destroyed Solomon’s Temple, had been fanned into life again – now by Jesus.
Today’s gospel opens with Jesus walking in the Temple in the portico of Solomon – this was the only part of the original Temple that was still standing at the time of Jesus.
It was winter, which makes sense of why Jesus is walking in the portico of Solomon and not out in the open.
And taking place in Jerusalem was the festival of the Dedication, sometimes called Hannukah.
This festival was all about the Temple. It had been started by Judas Maccabeus after he had retaken Jerusalem from Antiochus Epiphanes.
Antiochus had been the king of Syria who had captured Jerusalem and had desecrated the Temple by offering sacrifices to the god Zeus in the Jerusalem Temple itself. This had triggered a rebellion by the Jewish people and after a 3-year struggle they eventually defeated the Syrians. The pagan altars that had been erected in the Temple were removed, the Temple was rebuilt and refurbished and finally rededicated. And it is this event that was commemorated each year at the festival of the Dedication.
So in this festival, the Jewish people gave thanks to God for his ongoing protection as evidenced by the recapturing of Jerusalem and the rededication of the Temple.
God could be trusted – look at the Temple!
The teaching we heard Jesus give as he walked in the portico of Solomon, takes us in a very different direction, so much so that in the next verse after this morning’s Gospel reading, his hearers take up stones again to stone Jesus. (John 10.31)
What was he saying that was so offensive?
It was all about knowing who and what to trust.
The assurance of God’s presence is the person of Christ, whose works testify that God is with him – the Father and I are one.
God’s voice is to be heard in the Good Shepherd, whose sheep hear that voice and recognise it – they follow me.
Trust is to be placed in him, and no one can snatch any who follow, from his hand – I give them eternal life.
Christian belief is about knowing who and what to trust!