Where do you feel at most at home with God? Is it in a beautiful building, in bed at night, in a garden or by the sea, or none of these places? Maybe the place doesn’t matter. Do we need church buildings to worship God?
Our little church building is nothing like a vast temple, but it is an oasis of calm, a beautiful jewel in a stunning location, a place where God has been worshipped for a thousand years. Those of us who worship there feel connected to those who have gone before us and feel the presence of God in a special way when there. Prayer has seeped into the brickwork.
Many church buildings are in a poor state of repair and we cannot afford the present number of buildings and clergy. Whatever happens won’t be as traumatic as the events which led to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
There is no building today that functions like the temple did. It was the most holy Jewish place. All male Jews were expected to visit in their lifetime, and those living within a radius of fifteen miles were expected to attend at all festivals.
Sacrifices for sin were made in obedience to the law so Jewish people could meet with God.
People from all over the known world came to celebrate the festivals swelling the population of Jerusalem at Passover to over two and a half million. They would sing psalms as they journeyed and see the temple shining in the sun from many miles away, beautiful, grand and covered with gold and marble.
Because Passover, the most important feast of the Jewish calendar was near, Jesus went to Jerusalem with his disciples to celebrate the feast. In the temple as expected, he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. He drove all of them out. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. Jesus expressed his anger in a way we would find unacceptable. He was not having a temper tantrum. He planned his action using a whip of cords. Why?
The reconstruction of the temple was begun by Herod the Great, the king of Judea who tried to kill all the male babies at the time Jesus was born, who slaughtered many members of his own family. The Ark of the Covenant representing the presence of God no longer dwelt there.
By the time Jesus ministered it had been under construction for forty six years and wasn't complete. The long Western Wall of the Temple Mount was the length of about 4.5 football fields. It stood 10 to 16 storeys tall, having many rooms. At the back was the Holy of Holies, cut off from the rest of the building by a heavy curtain. Only the high priest could enter with the blood of an animal once a year on the Day of Atonement to make an offering for the sins of the people.
Next to the Holy of Holies was the Sanctuary with its golden altar. Only selected priests could go there about once in their lifetime to burn incense and worship at the golden altar. Next to the altar was the bread of presence and lamp stand. Only chosen priests, were allowed anywhere near it.
The inner courtyard of the Israelites was where the men gathered. In the outer courtyard there was the court of women, the farthest point that women were allowed to go. Within it stood four massive lamp stands, each 86 feet tall and 13 collection boxes where the rich made a show of giving their offerings.
As you entered the complex, there was the court of Gentiles, the only place they were allowed. It was far from a place where they could worship.
The money changers, unlike our own volunteers were paid to maintain and finance worship. The upkeep of the temple and payment of priests was costly. Heavy financial and physical burdens were placed on worshippers.
Each Jew over the age of nineteen had to pay a temple tax on top of their taxes to Romans of half a shekel, the equivalent of two days wages. It could only be paid in shekels as other currencies were considered unclean. Many different currencies were used in Jerusalem but they couldn’t be used in the temple. The money changers exchanged other currencies to shekels. They would charge for this service and often made another day’s pay out of the worshipper on top of their tax.
The wealth the temple was bringing in was immense, far more than was needed. This was unjust. Pilgrims seeking God were being fleeced and they couldn’t afford it.
The Jews were expected to sacrifice animals either in thanksgiving or as a way of making atonement for their wrong doing.
It made sense, since the sacrifices took place in the temple which was often awash with blood, for the animals to be sold there too. The atmosphere of the temple was smelly, noisy and smoky.
The animals had to be examined before being killed to see if they were without spot and blemish. If worshippers bought the animal outside the temple precincts, faults would be found. Worshippers were trapped into buying the most expensive animals available.
The inspectors took their fee and the cost of animals within the temple might be as much as eighteen times more than the cost of an animal bought outside.
The only place the Gentiles could worship in was in this marketplace. The temple was meant to be a house for all nations. All the people of the earth were supposed to be blessed through Israel. Instead they were excluded and distanced from the place where Jews believed God resided.
Jesus may have been angry because temple worship was a sham. The temple was not reconstructed to reflect the glory of God but to increase Herod’s power, enabling him to control the Jews. It privileged the priestly elite. It was hierarchical and socially unjust Jesus ordered, “Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ because it provided the opportunity for many employees and entrepreneurs to fleece the people.
More importantly Jesus cleared the temple to show sacrifices of animals were no longer needed. Centuries before, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea proclaimed that God had no delight in burnt offerings.
According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus’ act of vandalism took place just after he had rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and been hailed as King. It was direct provocation before his crucifixion and death.
John places this incident at the beginning of his ministry. This doesn’t mean it happened twice. It was sandwiched between Jesus turning water into wine and teaching on being born again, a sign that Jesus was the new place, the temple where we can find God. The old covenant where animals were sacrificed had come to an end. Jesus was giving his life, as the sacrifice for everyone’s sin and though his body would be destroyed on a hill outside the temple precincts, in three days he would rise from the dead.
Jesus, the life giver is the temple we go to for forgiveness and new life.
Like Jesus we need to be angry and speak out when we see injustice both in our society and church. Profiteering from our congregations is unacceptable.
The temple was finally completed around 63 AD. Just seven years later in 70 AD, the temple and much of its surroundings were totally destroyed by the Romans. All the money put into it was wasted. Jewish and early Christian communities were dispersed and worshipped wherever they were able, in people’s homes, and in catacombs. New life in Christ became available for all. As Christians placed Jesus at the centre of their worship and served the poor they grew together in love and faith.
Do we need church buildings, priests and temples to worship God? No! We can feel at home with God whenever we reach out to him in prayer. We become the temple the Holy Spirit fills with himself, full of love, praise, power and glory, both when we meet together, in a home or online and when as individuals we pray alone.
give us insight
to discern your will for us,
to give up what harms us,
and to seek the perfection we are promised
in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen