A Choice of Temples
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SERMON: A Choice of Temples
Today I would like us to consider our choice of temples. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Jesus and his disciples are visiting Jerusalem. This city is the center of their world, and at the city's center stands the temple. The sight of the temple almost overwhelms them, and the more talkative ones go on enthusiastically about the beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God that appear almost everywhere they turn there in the temple precincts.
These remarks can't be dismissed because they come from the unsophisticated, folks whose piety predisposes them to be awestruck. By anybody's accounting, the Jerusalem temple in the time of Jesus was a magnificent place.
This temple was the third one to stand on the site. The first one had lasted four hundred years until it was destroyed by the Babylonians. The second remained intact for five centuries before it was desecrated by Antiochus Epiphanes.
The third temple had been in place for nearly half a century when Jesus and his disciples came for their visit. It was twice the size of the previous enclosure. Ten thousand people had been put to work on its construction. The building was completed within a decade, but the word of decoration and detail continued on for years afterward. To see this vast complex, to walk through its precincts, must have been a wondrous experience.
Almost everyone in Jerusalem was engaged in some work connected with the temple. There were craftsmen, blenders of incense, dealers in sacrificial animals, innkeepers who offered hospitality to pilgrims, and currency changers, such as those Jesus chased out of the temple one memorable day. All told, the temple personnel numbered about 20,000 people, not including the priests and Levites. To the leadership of this institution was entrusted the supervision of ritual and sacrifice, the operation of a financial system, and the maintenance of the temple police force. It is not too much to describe Jerusalem as a temple with a city attached. There a religion had become an economy.
In the light of this majesty and power, the words of Jesus seem all the more remarkable. When those with him cannot help but praise the glory of the temple, he speaks a prophecy of destruction: "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down." This prophecy came terribly true a generation later when the temple was once again destroyed, this time by the Roman army.
These words of Jesus must have sounded strange, even horrible, to those who heard them. The temple appeared so secure. It was a place unlike any other so far as the Jews were concerned. To speak of its destruction while walking its precincts must have been like having somebody stand up at a VFW meeting and announce that flag burning was the wave of the future. For the temple was not simply a place, even a holy place. It was a way of life, an ideology, to which captive and oppressed people held tight.
According to New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, the number of Jews who publicly dissented from this ideology during the first century can be counted on the fingers of one hand. All but one of them expressed their opposition shortly before or after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. That once exception spoke out at an earlier time. His name was Jesus. [Marcus J. Borg, Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1998), pp. 180-81.]
Now let us leave behind for a moment the Jerusalem temple in the first century, that place where a religion had become an economy. Let us return to our own time and our own country, to Great Lakes Crossing, a shopping center in Auburn Hills, Michigan that opened for business on November 12, 1998.
Perhaps you were there. Many people were. 13,000 had gathered by 10:00 am when the stores opened. Some had traveled two hundred miles, taken the day off work, pulled their kids out of school. By closing time that day, more than 54,000 people had visited Great Lakes Crossing.
The new mall cost $200 million, and was expected to draw 17 million visitors a year, a figure more than the population of Malaysia. It boasted 140 stores and 7000 parking spaces, not counting the spaces for 2500 employees.
Opening day was a big deal. Door prizes, marching bands, Miss Michigan, raffle tickets, free samples. People thronged to the mini amusement park and theme restaurant, the virtual reality and video arcade, and the cafe that featured chest-thumping gorillas. (Whether these gorillas were real or mechanical I do not know, nor do I know which would be more impressive.)
All in all, Great Lakes Crossing represents, not simply a way for some people to spend money and others to make it, but more specifically what the Detroit Free Press terms, in a remarkable understatement, "the ever-growing consumer need to be entertained while shopping."
Many in the vast crowd that opening day were very taken up with the whole thing. A resident of St. Clair Shores shouted, "This is history!" as she shouldered somebody else out of the way in order to get through the mall entrance. [Molly Brauer and Ruby L. Bailey, "A Mall Crawl," Detroit Free Press, November 13, 1998.] A pair of sisters in their late sixties waited outside for two hours in temperatures around freezing. Another woman, visiting from Windsor, Ontario, reported that she was sleepless the whole night before, and that this is what she had been waiting for--a big mall. [Justin Hyde,
"Shoppers flood new mega-mall," Port Huron, Michigan Times Herald, November 13, 1998.]
Great Lakes Crossing is designed and presented as a sacred site in our society. Certainly its proportions are impressive, monumental, designed to welcome the visitor and make that visitor seem small, just one of the crowd. The mall is the size of a city. It is one vast temple of consumerism and entertainment under the direction of a large and efficient hierarchy.
The response of the opening day crowd had to it elements of religious devotion: pilgrimage from distant points, eager longing, the willingness to undergo hardship for some great good, losing oneself in a mystery that offers significance and salvation. The Jerusalem temple was where a religion became an economy. Great Lakes Crossing does something similar: there an economy becomes a religion.
Jesus, while visiting the temple, foretold its destruction. That solid, secure structure and the ideology it represented would not last forever. All would be swept away within a generation. There are also words in the Bible which, it seems to me, point to the transitory nature of even so great an enterprise as Great Lakes Crossing. They appear near the end of the New Testament, in the eighteenth chapter of the Revelation to John.
Here is the context. A bright angel descends from heaven and announces the destruction of Babylon, the great city, shopping mall for all the earth. Another voice from heaven summons God's people forth from that place. Then, in dramatic language, Babylon's destruction is foretold.
Finally a mighty angel picks up a huge boulder, throws it into the sea, and announces:
"With such violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again. The music of harpists and musicians, flute players and trumpeters, will never be heard in you again. No workman of any trade will ever be found in you again. The sound of a millstone will never be heard in you again. The voice of bridegroom and bride will never be heard in you again. Your merchants were the world's great men. By your magic spell all the nations were led astray." [Revelation 18:21-23 NIV]
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Audacious as it may sound, my claim us that Great Lakes Crossing is a temple. Certainly it is if we give our hearts away to what it has to offer. If shopping and entertainment are the summit of our humanity, then this is our holy site, our midwest Jerusalem, our Babylon with plenty of parking.
And audacious as it may sound, Scripture promises the eventual overthrow of every such place and its ideology, whether that ideology means a religion has become an economy as in the time of Jesus, or an economy has become a religion as in our own day.
The problem reaches beyond developers, merchants, and customers. The problem lies in the human heart, yours and mine. And as a collect in The Book of Common Prayer says it, "we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves." [The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1979), p. 218, Collect for the Third Sunday in Lent.]
So then, the Jerusalem temple is no more, and the temple of Great Lakes Crossing will be gone someday. Is there another temple, one that will remain forever?
Is there a temple whose sacrifice, by God's grace, is pure and holy, where humanity, with clean hearts, can meet the true God?
The answer is yes. We find that temple in a surprising spot. It is no vast structure that dominates the landscape. The temple of which I speak is the body of Christ.
Jesus declared this. While in Jerusalem he said, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it again." [John 2:19 NEB] He did not mean a building; he meant his body. That body was destroyed in death, yet raised to unconquerable life. That body still abides. It includes all his people.
This is the new temple, the everlasting temple, raised not by human construction, but by the mercy and victory of God.
This temple is not a place where in any human sense a religion becomes an economy, or an economy becomes a religion. This real and mystical and visible body, this organism of human members and divine life, is obedient to God's economy, the ways of God's household, the divine patterns of justice and mercy. All are welcome to live in this family. The doors of the temple stand open.
So, my friends, what about the life of this household? The prayers we make, the pledges we fulfill, the talents we use, the time we dedicate--these are gifts offered in the only temple that will remain.
We do not give these gifts to maintain a building, support an institution, shore up something temporal or transitory. We give these gifts so that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be turned and transformed into the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. [See The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1979), p. 236, Collect for Proper 29.] We give these gifts as members of the body of Christ, the household of God, who await that final day when the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his wings. [Micah 4:2]
Nothing that we give as members of God's household is ever lost: nothing of our labor, our suffering, our prayer. What we give is placed on the secure altar of Christ's successful sacrifice where saints and angels are one with us, and alleluia sounds forth forever.
I have spoken these words to you in the name of our victorious and eternal God: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
-- Copyright 2004, The Very Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.