St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 1st Sunday after Epiphany
January 13, 2019
“I BESEECH you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.”
Let us go on an archeological exploration. We are scientists, history buffs, guys and gals in khaki shorts, pith helmets and Vibram soled boots with our native bearers, all riding camels, maybe. Or yaks. I think they ride yaks. Make it elephants. We ride high and pass endless jungles, scale mountains, dare steep shale slopes that kick up sharp stones falling off downhill below us. We are looking for history, history in stone. No wooden hut, or grass shack interests us. We search the religions of ancient man, and ancient man left a heap of stones somewhere further on, and higher up.
Around a sharp turn we ride and a massive structure comes into view. Protected by the outcroppings of the mountain, this evidence of a powerful older culture rises from the jungle floor. Layer upon layer of close-cut stonework, carefully turned cylinders forming pillars and engraved with pictures of animals, symbols, pictographs and deities. We have found a legendary temple and feel the darkness inside pouring out, and in the darkness a brooding presence.
That’s the movie version that leads to mummies or weirdly dressed natives defending their sacred place from the rudeness of western scientific inquiry. Science, and science fiction, aren’t often friendly to religion. A modern analysis of ancient beliefs too often looks down on them like biologists into their cultures in Petri dishes. We archeologists know a temple from a house or palace. We know, because we’re smart, and we hold no foolish superstitions like the people of old.
What is a temple? The Latin templum is a structure built and dedicated solely to the worship by humans toward deities in prayer and sacrifice. In the architecture there is a demonstration of the grandeur of the god worshiped there. A large building indicates a large being. So, a temple indicates the belief that the deity comes there, or lives there, and is served by its designated priests. The priests offer sacrifices of all kinds: animals slaughtered, smoke or incense, fruits of the earth, money, verbal expression, ceremony, and honor. Some vicious old religions even demanded human sacrifices—the willing or unwilling offering of a human life.
Temples of all kinds exist throughout the world, from Stonehenge to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing to the Golden Temple of India to the tombs of the Pharaohs of Egypt to the Incan pyramids of Yucatan. These places can give you the creeps. And that’s good. You should feel the creeps. It is more than ancient stones and silly empty superstition. There was something going on in those sites. It just may not have been with God Almighty, such as we know Him. And if not Him, then whom?
The oldest known temple is in southeast Turkey and estimated to be almost 12,000 years old. The newest temples are the flat upper sides of our human heads. And there’s a connection more than a language circumstance.
There is something in humankind that universally wants to raise up places for worship. The evidence around the world from Ephesus to Rome, from New Guinea to Bangkok, from Moscow to Easter Island is that people will worship, and usually seek a fitting place to meet and behold a deity. The true God is seen in His handiwork and is felt in a likeness to ourselves, but is reduced into a golden doll or bull or multi-armed horror as a real and prideful mistake. God is not properly represented in earthly images. The true worship of the real God must belong to Him, and be done in a way He directs, not of our own devising, not of our invention.
There are few Christian structures in the world that bear the name “temple.” We relegate that term to only one holy structure, no longer in existence, that the Jews built in Jerusalem. Solomon built the first glorious temple in about 940 BC. That temple destroyed by the Babylonians was rebuilt around 500 BC, and enlarged by Herod about 25 years before Christ was born. That temple was destroyed by Rome in 70 AD. Only the western ‘wailing wall’ exists today. But there are living dreams of it rising once again and overshadowing the Dome of the Rock of Islam.
But Jesus Christ spoke of a temple that would be torn down, and yet He would build it up again in only three days. He was speaking, not of the stone building where the world’s only true sacrifice was offered, but of His own human body, the only true location on Earth where God actually lived in a structure made of flesh. In His body resided God the Son, and He was preparing for the one true sacrifice that would satisfy the one true God for all mankind forever. When He had been brutally killed, He did in fact rise up again and the future of humankind was forged in the furnace of His Resurrection. We would never be the same.
As modern people, we shutter at the primitive forms of religion whose practices are engraved in the stonework of the ancient temples. Their aim was faulty, that many centuries back, but the principle was oddly a correct one. We are to make sacrifices to the One who made us and who is looking out for our welfare. He has died and risen again. The myths of other religious paths come to reality in an historical figure who lives out what others could only imagine. Life beyond the grave. A deity in the heavens. Mankind dignified by the indwelling of God. A holy meal of fellowship with our creator.
And these temples, up here on our heads? The indentations on either side of our foreheads? Like pillared halls leading to the holiest of places, we may enter these skulls and find places made ready for the holy presence of the Almighty. We are certainly here in church today to experience God, and to hear of Him, and think of Him. Our minds are to be transformed, as St. Paul writes, to prove that God’s will is good and perfect. We reason out what is right and find we are to make a sacrifice to this Deity, and the sacrifice is our entire bodies, our whole selves.
Luckily, Christ has done the heavy lifting in this religion, and the offering we make is to be living sacrifices, not dying ones. Not usually. But living or dying, we are His. We no longer own ourselves. Paul also asked, “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.” 1 Cor 6:19-20 You are now the Temple of the Living God. Your archeological quest has succeeded and you have found it. Get off the elephant. You are God’s Temple on earth.
Jesus was emerging into manhood. It was about the time young Jewish boys in our day get their Bar Mitzvah. He traveled with Joseph and His mother Mary to Jerusalem, to the Temple, a trip required of all Jewish people at Passover, if possible, to make their sacrifice to God in thanks for their freedom from Egyptian slavery. The family traveled with other Nazarenes, close relatives, in large number for safety, and arrived at the thronged streets of Jerusalem. They managed to make their offering, offer the prayers, see the majesty of Herod’s Temple, now some 40 years old. The true God of this world entered His own Temple for the worship of His Father. And, knowing Himself to be the Son He was, this True God on earth stayed behind to speak to His priests and scribes.
Joseph and Mary had gotten used to having a perfect Son. He was never any trouble, and had always respected and obeyed them. So, assuming He was in the company returning northward, they didn’t worry that they’d not seen Him all day until evening. Then, in a panic, they realized He’d been left behind in Jerusalem.
They rushed back all the night, crying and pleading with God not to let their precious son fall into the hands of wicked people. They searched high and low all the next day until they fell asleep in tears the next night. On the morning, thinking they had better present their grieving hearts to God, they dragged themselves to the Temple, almost fearful that God would strike them down for the carelessness of losing His Son like that. And there He was: Jesus, sitting with elders and conversing with them. These were all amazed at His wisdom and knowledge, and His questions so shrewd. Mary screamed at Him, “Son! Why have you done this to us? We have searched high and low for you, crying and fearing you’d been captured! You scared us to death!”
Jesus answer is our lesson today. “But why did you need to search?” he asked. “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house, doing His business?” Luke 2:49
The answer is not to build another Jewish Temple. It is not to offer young rams and pigeons in a restored form of Judaism. It is not to shed blood again. These were all the Old Law that has been fulfilled and is now the past. These were made old by the coming of the new. Jesus is the fulfilment of Judaism, and now we are new creatures in Him. He has obeyed what we could not perform and He is our perfection, our righteousness. In Him, we have offered the one, acceptable sacrifice for sin. In Him, we have entered the Temple of God and never have to leave. We enter Him and He enters us, not through walls and columns of stone, but in the living stones of a temple built by faith and made of all believers, all of us parts of this Temple.
St. Paul says it, we are many members of one body in Christ. We have been assembled, each with a purpose, and every one of us offering our souls and bodies to build this Temple.
There is no need to search for us anywhere else. Are we not about our Father’s business and living in His will; we exist only to glorify Him in His Son, and by being this Temple?
The crumbling ancient stones of historic attempts to appease the gods of forgotten people have an interest to some, but our eyes are on the Living God and we exist as the Temple of His Presence on earth. His Spirit lives in us, and our temples guard the holiest places where the thoughts of Him raise us higher than we were before. Our faith may not require the shedding of new blood, but the Blood of Christ is still with us, as we drink from that cup, remembering and reliving His sacrifice, making it our own.
Tear this Temple down and I will raise it up in three days. He’s done it. And the Temple on earth that He raises this day is you.