‘It’s on the tip of my tongue. It’ll come to me in a minute.
No – it’s not coming. As soon as I get home I’ll remember.’
Are these familiar words to you? We call it ‘having a senior
moment.’ Memory loss caused by age.
And in Acts 7 Stephen accuses the religious authorities of
having a senior moment. Time has passed and they have forgotten something
important. He has been brought before them accused of ‘speaking against this
holy place [the Jerusalem
Temple] and the law’
(6:13). Had we read on, we would have heard how he had criticised their
approach to the Jewish Law. But in these verses we hear the climax of his case
against their attitude to the Temple.
And his case is that theirs is a wilful senior moment. They have deliberately forgotten important
principles about God and worship behind the construction of the Temple. They have
detached themselves from their spiritual history and distorted faith into
religion. Like his Saviour, Stephen had every right to criticise. And like his
Saviour, he would die for his troubles, asking God to forgive his killers as he
Today I want to say that I fear we too have ‘senior moments’
when it comes to the question of holy places and worship. I’m rather hoping you
won’t stone me – but I am sure it is true. I saw it most vividly in my first
ministry appointment. I was told as soon as I arrived that the church had a
catchphrase: ‘Flo won’t like it.’ And Flo never did like it. I soon discovered
why. Flo’s late husband had, in the early 1960s, put many thousands of his own
money into the fund for a new church building. So woe betide anyone who
proposed change. She idolised the building. It was like a monument to her late
husband, an empty mausoleum, lacking one thing – his body.
We develop an imbalance, if not at times an obsession with
our places of worship that lead us from faith to religion. And that’s not a
journey worth taking.
Stephen refers to the tent and the temple. His basic
criticism is that ‘the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands’
(verse 48). You’re domesticating God, keeping him in one place like a pet, he
says. Actually, it’s worse than that. You’re saying that the God who made all
creation is limited to a particular time and place. This is what other
religions believed – that God was limited to certain territory. In other words,
it’s paganism pure and simple.
And when we idolise our holy places we are turning God
either into a pet or a pagan idol, not the Almighty Creator, Father, Son and
Holy Spirit. So I think it would be worth us playing with Stephen’s categories
of tent and temple – both of which were commanded or permitted by God – and
exploring what they might say about true worship.
Stephen reminds his accusers that their ancestors in the
wilderness had the tent of the testimony as the place denoting special
encounters with God. That tent came into the Promised Land with Joshua, and
things only changed substantially with David’s request, once the kingdom is
secure, to build a temple.
The tent, then, is the model of worship gathering for a
nomad people, a pilgrim people. Not that God is portable but that wherever we
go, God is there. And more importantly, where God goes, we are to go.
So it is an image that calls us to recall the possibility
and desirability of worshipping God anywhere and everywhere. For those of us
who worship in a fixed building it is that memory jog that worship doesn’t end
with the blessing at the close of a Sunday service. That is simply when the
week’s worship begins.
The tent becomes a reminder to pay attention for the
presence of God wherever we go. If we have the eyes to see and the ears to
hear, then we shall sense God present at the office, despite all the company
politics; we shall find him in the TV and the newspaper; we shall find him in
the midst of our families and on our journeys.
Susannah Wesley, mother of John, Charles and many other
children, found the presence of God in the midst of hectic family life by
throwing her apron over her face and having her own private sanctuary with God.
The power of her prayer life was surely significant in what God did through
John and Charles.
For me, a music lover, I recall going into a record shop (if
you really can call them that any more) where the front window had had some
distasteful displays. In this murky place I was suddenly aware of a deep peace
within and I realised I was not alone. Of course I was not alone! The presence
of God was truly there and my heart lifted to him.
It was the same once when I bought a CD by the country
singer Emmylou Harris called Stumble Into Grace. It sounds
like a religious title, doesn’t it? But Emmylou Harris has had Christian
friends in the music industry for many years without ever finding faith in
Christ for herself. Yet when I put on the CD the opening song, ‘Here I Am’, had
lyrics that might just as well have been written by someone who believes. Let
me read you the third and fourth verses, because I think you can read this as
an appeal from God:
I am in the blood of your heart
The breath of your lung
Why do you run for cover
You are from the dirt of the earth
And the kiss of my mouth
I have always been your lover
Here I am
I am the promise never broken
And my arms are ever open
In this harbor calm and still
I will wait until
Until you come to me
Here I am
And an appearance of God in the everyday world happened
quite clearly to Debbie and me recently. Our daughter is a pre-school; our son
will be soon, too. Debbie is on the pre-school committee. But the pre-school
has been having a rocky time. A lot of parents have seen the gleaming lights of
a nearby rival that receives a huge amount of council funding. It is like the
supermarket dwarfing the corner shop and threatening the latter’s existence.
One night a desperate email came in from our pre-school’s treasurer, saying that
if the current trend continued, then ‘god help us.’
‘God help us.’ Something rose in Debbie and me as we read
those words. It was that moment of inbreaking, that sense that God could help
the pre-school, that knowledge that God wasn’t confined to a religious
location. We set out to pray. Every day that we prayed another set of parents
signed up their child for the pre-school. Things aren’t sorted yet, but now two
out of five mornings are full. This is ‘tent spirituality’ – the belief that
God is available everywhere to be prayed to, worshipped and encountered.
It is the same ‘tent spirituality’ that is seen in the
coming of Jesus. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’, says John 1:14.
But ‘dwelt’ is too tame a translation. More literal is ‘The Word became flesh
and tabernacled among us’, or ‘The
Word became flesh and pitched his tent
among us.’ Jesus is the embodiment of tent spirituality. God takes flesh and
gets stuck into the world. This is the arena for our worship, our divine
encounter, every bit as much as what we are doing now. Sunday is a gathering,
and it is representative of all our worship. But Jesus has pitched a tent, a
tabernacle, in the world, and he calls us to meet and worship him there too, if
we are to be people of faith and not merely of pagan religion.
You could say that Stephen’s fundamental criticism was that
the religious leaders were treating the Temple as ‘the house of God’, for he
says, ‘the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands’ (verse 48)
and promptly quotes Isaiah 66 in support. Yet God had looked for no more than a
place for his Name to dwell. The Temple
wasn’t his initiative. He acceded to a request from David, who had enjoyed his
favour (verse 46) and then gave instructions as to exactly how it should be
In other words, it was one of those times when God
accommodated himself to human wishes. Yes, he was present in great power when
the Temple was
dedicated. Yes, wonderful things would happen there. Yes, our reading from 1
Chronicles depicts glorious and passionate worship. But then God hadn’t wanted Israel to have
a king, either, but once they went down that route he made it clear at least at
first who should be chosen. David was his second candidate, following Saul. And
although he didn’t want Israel
to have a king he would in later times inspire prophets to see ‘king’ as a
model for his coming Messiah.
So just because God agrees to one of his people’s requests
and even then blesses it does not mean it is his best will. Sometimes in his
grace he goes along with our second-best ideas. I happen to think that in the
contemporary church he does that with ordination. I believe our ideas about who
should be ordained do not remotely match the greater vision God has. Yet he
uses our short-sighted views of life and graciously blesses them.
With temple, God uses the imagery just as he used the ‘king’
imagery for the Messiah. And ‘temple’ for the New Testament-literate Christian
conjures up important references to Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
In terms of Jesus, we find his own reply when he cleared the
moneychangers from the Temple
to those who challenged his authority. ‘Destroy this temple and I will raise it
again in three days,’ he said (John 2:19). He was referring not to the physical
temple but his own death and resurrection (John 2:21). The crucified and risen
Lord is our temple. Central to our worship is our devotion to him. To be temple
people in the New Testament sense is to be disciples of Christ. And had we read
on to the next few verses of Acts 7, we would have found Stephen berating the
religious establishment for rejecting Jesus.
So it’s not the building that matters, whatever English Heritage or other bodies
say. It’s Jesus. If we are consumed with bricks and mortar instead of being
devoted to Jesus then we have defaulted to religion instead of faith. This is
not an argument for plain buildings over ornate ones; it is an argument about
priorities. Which takes up more of our time in church: property or discipleship?
It’s not only Jesus; it’s also the Holy Spirit, as I said,
who is a reference for Christians seeking out true temple worship. Let us go to
1 Corinthians. In chapter 3 verse 16 we read that we are God’s temple and the
Holy Spirit lives in us; and in chapter 6 verse 19 we read that our bodies are
a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in us. To be ‘temple worshippers’ today,
then, means a commitment to holy living. Whatever we do and say on Sunday needs
matching by whatever we do and say on Monday.
The story is told of a Christian businessman who was asked
his priorities. ‘On Sunday it is God first, family second and work third,’ he
replied. ‘On Monday the order is reversed.’ I suggest to you he was not a
temple worshipper in the New Testament sense. Reversing the order and putting
God last is pretty certain to mean he would do his work in an unholy way. It is
not the way a disciple of Jesus is meant to behave. It is not worshipful.
The notion of ‘temple’ has historically been associated with
the church being at the centre of the nation’s life, just as the Jerusalem Temple was for the Jewish people. But
recent events and not least the current debate over the Sexual Orientation
Regulations and the insistence of some Government ministers who apparently want
down the church, especially the Roman Catholic Church, shows clearly we are
not at the centre of the nation by any means.
We need to keep the ‘temple’ sense of being disciples of our
crucified and risen Lord, seeking to live holy lives in the power of the Holy
Spirit. But as the Church of England’s ‘Mission-Shaped Church’ report says, the
‘tent’ model may be more relevant today than the ‘temple’ – especially if the
latter deludes us into expecting we are privileged, because we are not any
the account of a spiritual seeker who
interrupted a busy life to spend a few days in a monastery. ‘I hope your stay
is a blessed one,’ said the monk who showed the visitor to his cell. ‘If you
need anything, let us know and we’ll teach you how to live without it.’
Our call may well be to do without the trappings of temple
whilst keeping the principles of devotion to Jesus in the power of the Spirit,
whilst also embracing a tent spirituality of worshipping not only when we
gather but also when we disperse into the world.
Technorati Tags: worship, church, tabernacle, temple, Susannah+Wesley, John+Wesley, Charles+Wesley, Emmylou+Harris, Jesus, incarnation, English+Heritage, Sexual+Orientation+Regulations, Roman+Catholic+Church, Philip+Yancey