When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with cymbals, took their places to praise the Lord, as prescribed by David king of Israel. With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the Lord:
“He is good;
his love toward Israel endures forever.”
And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.
-from Ezra 3
Before we jump into Ezra, let me provide a little flashback. Out in the desert, God met with the people on Mt Sinai. We often focus on the laws that they were given – the Ten Commandments, and then six hundred and three more – because when we see a rule, we know what we’re looking at.
The other thing that the Hebrew people were told to do, though, was to build a tabernacle. This was essentially a big fancy tent to house the presence of God. It even had a chair inside, called the Ark of the Covenant, on which God had promised to sit.
So, as the people wandered through the wilderness, the priests carried this tabernacle with them so that their God would have a place to live. Makes sense, right? The people lived in tents, and so God lived in a bigger tent.
Ok, keep that tabernacle in mind while I sum up everything else that happened between that moment on the mountain with God in the wilderness and the text we have today:
The Hebrew people made it to the land that had been promised to their ancestor, Abraham. They took over most of it, built a glorious temple to house their God in their city of Jerusalem, and then settled down to a life of idolatry, oppression, and occasional half-hearted revivals. The Assyrian Empire took a bunch of them out, and the Babylonian Empire finished the job. All the political and religious leaders of Jerusalem were marched off to serve in Babylon.
When King Cyrus and the Persian Empire took over, Cyrus offered these Jews the opportunity to go home. Most of them didn’t- by this point, Babylon was all they knew. A few lonely bands of faithful people, though, made the long trek back to Jerusalem to face the wreckage of their ancestral kingdom.
Last week, we read hopeful prophecies from Isaiah: “Comfort, o comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak kindly to Jerusalem…”
That’s beautiful, but this week we face facts about what it looks like to return to a broken down city. So, the book of Ezra starts with numbers and names. The returning exiles brought with them thirty golden bowls and one thousand silver dishes. 28 of the men of Anathoth returned, and 52 of the men of Nebo, and 223 of the men of Hashum, and that goes on for awhile. They had 736 horses, and 245 mules.
It’s not, necessarily, the most exciting reading to be found in the Bible- unless you take a moment to think about what you’d be feeling on such a trip. They’re on their way home! It’s a home that most of them have never been to before. They’re hauling along 5400 gold and silver items to help rebuild a temple that most of them have never seen. How would you feel?
But, here’s another question for you, Friends: Why rebuild a temple? Or, for that matter, why build a tabernacle in the first place?
I mean, God is everywhere, right? If we go up to the heavens, God is there. If we make our bed in the depths of Sheol, God is there, too.
Last year, I got to help teach the Primary Sunday School class. It was not exactly a rousing success, overall. The lesson that stuck with me, though, was the one about how God is everywhere. We made it into a silly set of questions: Well, what if you went to Columbus, could God find you there? What if you went to Disney World? What if you went to the MOON?
But no matter how silly the questions got, the answer was always the same: yes. Yes, God can find you there. There’s nowhere you can be where you’d be without the God who loves you.
But, if that’s true, then why build a temple? It’s not as though God is going to be any more present inside your temple than outside. Why come back to Jerusalem and rebuild a temple when you could worship wherever you’re at?
Let me give you a couple answers to that question. The first one is a practical sort of answer for the people who were travelling homeward- you build a temple to have something to do other than sit around in the rubble, mourning. I mean, otherwise, you’re just going to sit on the broken bricks and bemoan the city that should have been.
Building a temple gives you something to do with your hands as your heart learns to let go of the past. I think you see some of that grief in today’s passage- all the people praised the Lord when the foundation of the temple was laid, but some of the older people who had seen the earlier temple were weeping, and between the cheering and the weeping it was all so loud that you couldn’t tell the difference.
Building something new, in other words, can be a way of grieving what you’ve lost. Your heart can’t figure out what this new future is going to look like, but your hands can still build it. Seeing the new temple go up can both help you recognize that the past is really past and that the present still offers space to worship the God who is still with you.
And here’s another reason we build temples- to mark the places where we’ve known God to be present with us. That’s not quite the same as building a place for God to be present, right? God is present everywhere – you know that abstractly – but in how many places are you aware of God?
God is omnipresent, but we’re not always aware. We keep returning to the places we’ve met God before. We mark those places as holy, as shrines of sorts, as places where we know our hearts can unfurl like flowers and connect with the loving spirit of the universe.
Okay, but today you’re building a temple to house this love. You’d better get to work, right? You want this to be PERFECT. That’s what those first couple chapters of Ezra are about, as they count up their dishes and cows and drachmas and donkeys and the sons of Sotai and Peruda. It MATTERS that there are 435 camels and 200 singing men and women.
When you picture tallying all that up, don’t try to get the numbers exact. Instead, think of a child at a toy kitchen, cooking you dinner. Every detail is perfect, from the child’s perspective. The saucers are arranged just so. The plastic cupcakes are each fitted to their plastic frosting dabs. The lump that vaguely resembles green peas is tucked right in next to the one that looks sort of like a chicken breast.
You’re not actually going to eat this dinner, anymore than God needs you to sacrifice a pigeon or mix some mortar. But that love – the love in the little fingers arranging fake food on a plate – that feeds your soul. The God who created you accepts your acts of love in the same way.
But a temple, though, is more than just a place where we’ve had a great experience. It’s a place where we cultivate that experience together. Building a temple requires a community. You’ve got to have someone mixing the mortar while someone else is firing the bricks. Someone has to cart the mortar around, and someone else has to place brick after brick.
Building a temple requires you to work with people who are willing to worship and to work with you. A temple is a place where we experience the presence of God individually- but also as a gathered community. We have to build a temple together.
But a temple is more than even that togetherness, though- a temple is a promise.
As we tell the Old Testament story, we hear that God gave the people the law, in the wilderness, and we tend to hear it as though God laid down the law. That’s not the story, though! The story is that the people went out into the wilderness because they wanted to know how to be present with their God.
God chose to be present with them, and they chose to receive that presence. And so, they built a tabernacle- a temple tent with ropes and stakes. Did God stop being present all around them? No. That’s impossible. There’s nowhere where the spirit that created the universe doesn’t reside.
It would be more accurate to say, I think, that the temple is a reminder to the people that God is present with them. It’s a place to remember, with a little fear and trembling, that this is holy ground.
A temple is built when we choose to provide hospitality to the Divine Mystery. There’s no particular reason for God to ask for hospitality – it’s not like God is homeless or something – except that God’s overwhelming desire to dwell fully with us.
You can’t dwell fully, you know, with that which you haven’t invited in. So a temple marks the spot in which a community arranges the peas and the chicken just so on a place and says: here, God, this is for you, come in for dinner.
In one sense, God doesn’t need us to build a temple. God doesn’t need a home. We’re the ones who are the natural-born temple builders- who, if we aren’t worshiping the God who created us, will be worshiping the next idol to come along.
But, God enjoys it when we invite the Presence in. Did you hear that? When we choose to live present to the Holy Mystery, it makes the Creator of the whole universe happy.
That’s why the Jewish people went back to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple: partly because they didn’t have anything better to do with their hands, and partly because they needed to keep marking the spot where God had shown up before, and partly because they needed to remember that God had promised not to leave them alone, and partly because every one of us humans is built with a deep need to find some way to invite the holy in.
Okay, so let’s Quaker this up. You are the temple of the Holy Spirit. You: each and every one of you, in all the messiness and imperfection of your own life- you are the place where God promises to reside.
So when I talk about plastic peas and plastic chicken on a place, please don’t think that I’m belittling anything that you have to offer. I just mean that whatever you put on that plate, whether it’s a sacrificed pigeon or a seven course meal or some paper clips that you’re pretending are french fries, your offering is not just accepted but adored.
You are the temple of the Holy Spirit. You are the place where the Power that spoke the world into being longs to dwell.
But this isn’t just about you and me- it’s about us. A temple is a corporate promise. It means that as we come together to seek the face of Christ, each of us odd-shaped bricks will be mortared together into something that can receive a visit from God Almighty – as a place where the Holy Spirit can dwell.
This is our Christmas promise, Friends. I’m reading here from Ephesians 2: you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
Look. God chose to dwell in Eden, with Adam and Eve. God chose to journey with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. God chose to dwell in a tabernacle, in the wilderness, then in a luxurious temple in Jerusalem.
I know I’ve spent the whole fall preaching out of the Hebrew Scriptures, and many of you have asked me about that- it’s been a lot of Old Testament to wade through! I hope that you see, though, as we’re coming up on Christmas, how the whole Old Testament tells a story of a God who keeps trying and trying to live with these stubborn creatures.
Because look: you’re each temples, and we’re a temple together. In both the singular and the plural, this is the place where God wants to reside. The story of human history, though, is the story of forgetting that truth. The story of human history is a story of people trying and failing to build the right kind of temple.
So as we’re coming up on Christmas, with all these Old Testament stories in the rear view mirror, ask yourself this question: what recourse does this God who wants to dwell with us have, except to show up among us, as one of us, to teach us to be temples and to be the cornerstone of a church that invites God in?