Thursday, December 18, 2014

Where God's Glory Dwells

RCL Advent 4B
21 December 2014

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC
         In January of 2012 I made my first and so far only trip to Israel as part of a Jewish-Christian clergy study tour.  Some of the more memorable moments were spent in the city of Jerusalem.
         The first day of our visit to Jerusalem was spent under grey skies and frequent downpours.  If the truth be told, I have never been as wet nor as chilled to the bone.  As our guide became more aware of the wretchedness of his charges, he sought refuge.  In a narrow alley we waited as he negotiated the opening of a museum whose staff had been hoping to close early to prepare for the approaching Shabbat.  Compassion, however, overcame the desire to do some last-minute shopping and the doors were opened to us.
         As we entered the museum, we were led through what seemed to be a warehouse.  We then descended a number of staircases until we arrived at our destination:  several metres beneath the streets of present-day Jerusalem we entered the ruins of the Jerusalem Jesus and his contemporaries had known.
         The museum preserved the ruins of the homes of Jerusalem’s religious elite in the years before 70 ce.  Here they awaited the Roman soldiers who were bent on destroying the city as the first Jewish rebellion ended in disaster.  Here they saw Herod the Great’s Temple, a wonder of the ancient world, burning and its religious officials killed, some being thrown off the Temple Mount.  Here they died as their homes were burnt around them, the timbers falling down upon them.  I know this.  I have seen it.
         The destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 ce was a catastrophe both for the followers of Moses and the emerging Christian movement.  Both communities understood Jerusalem and its ritual heart, the Temple, to be the earthly place where God’s glory dwelt.  For all the descendants of Abraham this was holy ground.  Here the sacrifices, attended even by the Jerusalem community of disciples, were offered.  Here Jesus, along with other religious teachers, had interpreted the Scriptures and debated their meanings.  No matter where you turned, the city was filled with religious meaning.
         With the destruction of the city and Temple, the residents of Jerusalem fled to Galilee in the north, to Syria and the Persian empire in the east, to Alexandria and Egypt to the west, to Rome and Spain in the far west.  The spiritual heart of two religious traditions ceased to beat and it no longer had a concrete geographical presence in their lives.
         In many and various ways the religious cousins began to ask a new question:  Where shall we find God’s glory if not in Jerusalem?  For the followers of the covenant of Moses, whom we now call the Jews, the answer was found in a renewed commitment to the study of the Torah and to the creation of a tapestry of traditions, practices and laws intended to protect the identity and integrity of the Jewish people.
         For the followers of the covenant of Jesus of Nazareth, whom we now call the Christians, the question was answered somewhat differently.  Among them a Greek rhyme began to circulate:  Naos tou Theou, laos tou Theou --- The temple of God is the people of God.  God’s glory was not to be found in temples of stone but in the midst of the Christian assembly, in the faces, the lives and the deeds of the baptized.
         When imperial authorities seized our books to prevent us from teaching and worshipping, we simply asked our elders to recite them from memory as we prepared new copies.  When our meeting places were seized, we simply moved to someone else’s home for worship.  When our leaders were arrested and some executed, we simply took counsel with one another and chose new ones.  We did not need the physical artifacts of an organized religion to thrive, because we believed that God’s dwelling place was found, first and foremost, in human hearts, in human souls, in human minds and in human faithfulness.
         No doubt this understanding of God’s glory underpins Luke’s story of the annunciation of Mary.  When Gabriel delivers God’s message to Mary, there is a subtle shift from bricks, stones and mortar as God’s dwelling place to the body, soul and mind of a young woman who agrees, against all logic, against her own self-interests, against all social mores, to participate in God’s great work of re-creation, reconciliation and renewal.  She had heard the prophets speak of God’s carving the covenant upon human hearts; now she would embody this with one simple word, ‘Yes’.  And with that ‘Yes’ a new vision of God’s glory took flesh and a new movement towards the true freedom of every human being was set in action.

         Look around you.  Behold the human vessels in which the Word of God now becomes flesh and dwells among us today.  Behold the ones who have said ‘Yes’ to God and who go forth from this place of wood, stone, glass and mortar to be the glory of God in homes, in schools, in work places, in malls, in all those places wherever the people of God are found.  For the glory of God cannot be contained in buildings or institutions.  The glory of God is found in human beings who are becoming fully alive as they choose to follow the way of Jesus of Nazareth, a path of justice, compassion and humility, a path of light in the midst of darkness, a path open to all and any who share God’s dream of the peaceable kingdom.  May that day come soon.  Amen.