March 17, 2019, A Temple Made of Bones (Luke 13:31-35) – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000125
One of my favorite books is Watership Down, which is about a group of wild rabbits whose home warren is destroyed when humans bulldoze their plot of ground to build a new housing development. Only a handful of the rabbits escape with their lives. And they have to face one perilous situation after another, as they go on a long and dangerous journey, searching for a new home. One of the rabbits in this little band of travelers is named Fiver. He’s kind of a runt, and he keeps to himself, and most of the other rabbits just think he’s weird. But Fiver has visions, which turn out again and again to be true.
One of the visions that Fiver has happens when they come upon another warren. The rabbits in this new warren are sleek and fat, and they’re very friendly. They welcome this little ragtag band of rabbits and invite them to join their warren. And, of course, all of the rabbits are delighted to have found a beautiful new home. All except Fiver, who has a bad feeling about the whole thing. The new rabbits invite them in, into their underground meeting hall, which is so cleverly built under the roots of a huge tree, that it’s big enough for all the rabbits to gather together at once. But all of a sudden Fiver panics. He starts to tremble all over, and he bolts out of the warren and refuses to go back inside, even though it’s pouring rain. And when his companions ask him why he’s acting so crazy, he tells them he’s had a vision. In his vision the beautiful hall was all made of bones. It might look wonderful, he told them, but in reality this warren is a place of death. And you have to read the book to find out if Fiver was right, and what happened next.
This week, and in the weeks to come during this season of Lent, we’ll be reading what happens as Jesus and his little band of disciples travel steadily towards Jerusalem. Jerusalem, we have to understand, was so much more than just a capital city, so much more than a center of commerce like many large cities. Jerusalem was the spiritual center of Israel, the holy city. The beautiful Temple was there; the Temple that had originally been built by King Solomon, son of David. It had been destroyed twice by invading armies, but each time they had rebuilt it, and if the new Temple wasn’t quite as spectacular as Solomon’s original structure, it was certainly breathtaking. Jews would travel from all over Israel to be in Jerusalem for the festivals like the Passover and the Day of Atonement. If you asked any Jew in Jesus’ time, they would tell you: Jerusalem, and the Temple, that was the beating heart of Judaism.
But Jesus, in the reading today, has a very different vision of the City of his famous ancestor David. Jesus has his face set resolutely towards Jerusalem. When the Pharisees come to warn him about Herod, Jesus just looks ahead, toward the holy city, and cries out, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I longed to gather your children as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings,” he said, “But you would not.” He mourns what could have been, and he reveals his vision. The holy city, Jerusalem, magnificent, awe-inspiring in its beauty – Jerusalem was full of bones. Instead of the house of the living God, Jerusalem had become a place of death. “I have work to do today, and tomorrow, and the next day,” he tells the Pharisees, “and then I will surely come to the holy city, because no prophet can be killed outside Jerusalem.” Jesus isn’t worried about any threats Herod might have made, because he knows that his death awaits him in Jerusalem.
And then he turns to the Pharisees and he says to them, “Your house” – and notice he says your house, not my house, not the house of God – “your house is left to you, desolate, an empty shell.”
The very last thing the Jews would have expected as they anticipated the coming of the Messiah was that his coming would spell the end of their religion as they knew it. Messiah was supposed to come in and sweep away the Roman occupying forces like so much straw. He was supposed to bring back the glory days of King David with all its pomp and ceremony – Messiah was supposed to make Israel great again. Instead the first thing Jesus would do when he arrived in Jerusalem was to march in and disrupt everything by driving men and beasts out of the Temple with a whip and knocking over the tables of the money-changers and scattering their coins everywhere. And all the rabble that always seemed to flock around him like sheep would follow him into the Temple courts with their dirty feet and their shabby clothes and their insignificant offerings. Was it really any wonder the religious authorities plotted to have him killed? What kind of a Messiah was that?
It turned out that the kind of Messiah Jesus was, was a Messiah who was much more interested in the hearts of his disciples than in the trappings of their religiosity, all those empty traditions and magnificent buildings that were full of bones, dry and dead as dust. When the Pharisees and Scribes had come down from Jerusalem at one point to complain that Jesus’ disciples weren’t following the rules of ceremonial hand-washing, Jesus answered them with the words of Isaiah, “These people, says God, honor me with their words, but their heart is really far away from me. It’s no use for them to worship me, because they teach human rules as though they were my laws!”
God’s people had forgotten that the inaugural event of the whole nation of Israel was simply that a man – Abraham – believed the promise God made to him. And God counted his faith as righteousness. It was as simple, and it was as profound, as that. God was never looking to establish a new bigger and better religion. His desire was always to raise up a people after his own heart. God spoke through Asaph, the psalm-writer:
“Listen, my people, and I will speak;
I will testify against you, Israel.
I am God, your God.
I don’t reprimand you because of your sacrifices
and the burnt offerings you always bring me.
And yet I don’t need bulls from your farms
or goats from your flocks;
all the animals in the forest are mine
and the cattle on thousands of hills.
All the wild birds are mine
and all living things in the fields.
“If I were hungry, I wouldn’t ask you for food,
for the world and everything in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?
Let the giving of thanks be your sacrifice to God,
and give the Almighty all that you promised.
Call to me when trouble comes;
I will save you,
and you will praise me.”
God is not nearly as invested in the traditions and forms of our worship as we think he is. It is a word that we need to hear, and that we need to meditate on, and that we need to take to heart. Because we are not very different than the Jews of Jesus’ time. It is just as easy for us to get so fond of the trappings and traditions of our religion, our beautiful building, our vestments and candles and linens, the familiar prayers and liturgies and music that we love so much. We have an incredibly rich heritage of worship in our church, and we are right to be thankful for it.
But we need to know that we could worship God equally well in a barn, or in a crowded living room, or outside under a tree. We could equally well praise God with our imperfect voices alone as we can with our lovely pipe organ. If we lost the power of speech altogether; if we were too sick or too sad to pray; if we had not a penny to our name to put in the offering plate; if we had nothing to wear but rags – we could still believe his promise of love to us, we could still simply put our trust in him, and he would count that as righteousness for us. We could give an offering of thanks, and call upon him, and he would save us.
When Jesus talked to a Samaritan woman by a well one day, she asked him a denominational sort of question. “You Jews say that Jerusalem is the only place to worship God,” she said, “but our fathers worshiped God right here on this mountain.” She wanted to know who got it right. But Jesus’ answered her, “Believe me, the time is coming – has come now, in fact – when the right place to worship won’t be in Jerusalem or on this mountain. The place won’t matter any more. The tradition won’t matter any more. The forms and rituals won’t matter any more. Because God is seeking true worshipers, who will worship him in spirit and in truth.”
One of the benefits of getting together with the other churches in Norwood, like our community Thanksgiving service and our Lenten luncheons, is that we get the opportunity to be reminded that our tradition isn’t the only way to be the Body of Christ. One of the dangers, of course, is that we are tempted to pat ourselves on the back because we think our tradition is the best way to be the Body of Christ. But the happy truth, of course, is that there is no ‘right’ way to worship. There is no one right way to be or to define the Church, because the true Church isn’t a building or a tradition or a denomination, and it certainly isn’t an institution. All those things will pass away, and we do well to hold them lightly. Because the true Church is made up of people, not bricks or bylaws or budgets or books. And the true Church will endure because it is God’s family, a people after his own heart, that God is gathering to himself. You, and I, and the people sitting with you in the pews, we are the most holy things in this place, because he has made us holy.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, we give you thanks for the fellowship of those who have worshiped in this place, and we pray that all who seek you here may find you, and be filled with your joy and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.