Turning Tables and Temples

Isn’t it amazing what you can see through an image formed in an artist’s imagination and the graphic crafted by the skill of their hands? My thanks go to Chris Bambrough for his skill and for allowing me to share the picture he created.

The Jerusalem temple was certainly one of the ancient world’s most impressive architectural structures. Originally constructed by King Solomon in around 1000BC it dominated the hilltop city and the land it rose above for nearly a thousand years. It was for the Jewish nation the one place where the presence of the God they worshipped could be found on earth. At its heart was a place so holy, that it could only be entered safely once a year, by one person, and they needed a rope tying around their ankle so their body could be dragged out should they not survive the encounter with the God whose presence was there. Most people who saw it must have imagined that it would be there forever.

The idea that because something we knew in our childhood still exists today this is how it should always be, is a common human experience. The world is a massively complex place and trying to make sense of anything at all requires our minds to move much into the categories of ‘known’, ‘understood’, and ‘unchanging’. Familiar people, and places fill our days alongside our repeated rituals and routines, allowing our limited mental capacity to focus on today’s unknowns and new experiences. Any change to the known and familiar is unsettling, even though change is a daily reality. That is why moving home is known to be so stressful, and why people put so much faith in things that appear not to change. The Jews their temple, and for many Christians, our churches.

In the Bible, all four accounts of the life of Jesus record a time when this man of patience and kindness demonstrated a surprising side to his character when he visited the temple courts and saw them filled with money-changers and stalls selling animals for sacrifice. In a moment of righteous anger he turned the tables over, drove the animals out, and declared in a loud voice that this was a house of prayer, not a place for thieves. His actions, the historians record, made him so unpopular with the temple leaders, that they determined that he should be killed for his crime.

But this happened thousands of years ago, how can it be relevant today? I happen to believe that if the God who the ancient Jews worshipped, is who they understood him to be, then we still need to take him seriously today. And if Jesus is this same living God in human form, who was killed by the Jews but somehow came back to life again, then what he did and said then, can point us to what he is saying to us today.

All four writers agree on the words Jesus said in the temple courts. He quoted two writings of the Jewish prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah (Isaiah 56 & Jeremiah 7), which when read in full, together warn that what the temple had become was no longer aligned with God’s vision for it, and because of this the physical temple building would be destroyed. These prophecies had been realised when the first temple had been destroyed in 586 BC by the Babylonians.  Jesus’ warning also proved to be timely because only 30 years later, the second temple was burned to the ground by Rome’s forces.

As humans, we have this fixation with buildings. But Jesus, we know, went on to reveal how the idea of ‘temple’ as a place of God’s presence on earth would take on a new form, first in his own body, and through this and the giving of his Spirit to all believers, how ‘temple’ would become the collective bodies of all who put their trust in Jesus. This ‘temple’ we call the Church, where God’s presence lives today on earth.

A close reading of the whole of the Bible reveals that ‘temple’ can be: all of creation, a tent, a stone building, burned down, rebuilt, re-modelled, destroyed, a human body, crucified, poured out, raised to life, empowered, persecuted and married as the bride of Christ. You see God’s temple is where God is present and at work.

What I saw in Chris’ painting, that I had never considered before was the doves. The dove freed from its cage taking flight. The bars of the cage, resembling the columns of the temple. The dove hovering above the scene, in almost the form of an angel, and reminding me of the description of God’s Spirit coming down to rest on Jesus at his baptism. But here and now being released from the temple, ready to return after Jesus’ resurrection in the form of fire, falling on the disciples and filling them with God’s presence.

Like the custodians of the Jerusalem temple before us, we face the risk of putting our faith in structures, both buildings and organisations built by human hands. We often have an unquestioning faith that the church we know, the one we remember from times past, the buildings, the way of doing things, the structures, roles and routines are where God’s presence is to be found on earth. Each of us, approaching it from our own angle and viewing it through the lenses of our own experiences. And yet the church we picture is, like the temple before it, not always the church that is aligned with God’s vision for it.

In this nation, and in and around these North Yorkshire Dales the church we inherited is in crisis. Attendance and finances are declining as the challenges of maintaining buildings and recruiting and paying staff increase. Does God care? I am certain that he does. Is he finished with this part of Yorkshire and left to go to bigger towns and cities? I am sure that he has not.

In 2008 I saw a vision of ‘church-without-walls’ that is for this place and this time. Quite how God will work this into being is still being revealed. But what I do hope is that you might look at Chris’ image of Jesus turning the tables in the temple, read the gospel accounts (Matthew 21:10-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48; John 2:13-25) and consider if in all this there might be a nudge from God for us to look again at our own vision of ‘temple’ and understanding of ‘church’ and to reimagine how God may be wanting to transform it from what it has become to what he wants it to be now, for this time. God is a creative God, he sets the seasons and he leads us on because he is the God who is always doing something new. He is the one who will make a way in this wild place. Do you perceive it?

Be encouraged!

Chris Bambrough 2024

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