A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 1 October 2017 by Canon Edward Probert, Acting Dean. Readings (I Kings 8.22-30; Matthew 21.12-16)
A middle eastern rebel warlord captured a city inhabited by an alien people, and made it his capital, proclaiming himself king, building himself a palace there, and using that place to extend his realm and his prolific family. One of his many ambitious sons ultimately succeeded him, and having consolidated the kingdom, decided he would boost the official religion by building a massive and impressive place of worship, grander than all the ancient cultic centers which already existed in his kingdom.
This all happened roughly 3,000 years ago, and we know that conquering warlord as King David, his temple-building son as Solomon, and the conquered city as Jerusalem.
A minor European ruler, generally known at the time as ‘the bastard’, seized the moment offered by political instability in a neighboring kingdom to mount an invasion and seize the throne. He set about consolidating his grip on this restive alien kingdom by fortifying cities, new and old, and wherever possible putting within them a castle and a cathedral cheek by jowl, so demonstrating both the raw threat of power and the presence and endorsement of Almighty God.
This happened about 1,000 years ago, and we know that opportunistic ruler as William the Conqueror, the kingdom as England, and one of the cities where he concentrated temporal and spiritual resources as Sarum, or Salisbury, where he caused a cathedral to be built. This building, in which we worship today, is the direct successor to the one built during that demonstration of conquering power; this one was made in order to have a more impressive cultic centre than the earlier one, which had been built with the limited resources of uncertain times.
The temple in Jerusalem to which Jesus and his family, and Jesus and his disciples, went was also a successor building, in this case to Solomon’s original. Over its thousand years its history had reflected the political disasters of its people - plundered, dilapidated, subject to various periods of repair and rebuilding, most recently by a questionable princeling called Herod. Several things are evident about our Lord’s attitude to the temple. One is that it was an important focus for his devotions, just as it continued to be for his disciples after the Resurrection, as we learn from the book Acts. Equally, as for all Jewish people, it was not the only place in which he worshipped God, for he went regularly to synagogues, places with no sacrifices or cultic ritual but where, as is implied by their title (which is simply a Greek word), people came together to pray and worship using the scriptures. Synagogue worship allowed Jewish people to worship anywhere, and to survive as a worshipping people during the various periods and places when and where their temple was unavailable - most recently the entire period till today since the Romans destroyed the temple in 70 AD.
But it wasn’t simply that Jesus worshipped in other places too. One of the charges against him at his kangaroo court was that he had threatened to destroy the temple; and the gospels all proudly record him brazenly disrupting it, and accusing its authorities of corruption. What he meant by this show of overturning the tables remains a subject of debate to this day: was he seeking to purify the worship of this holy place, this house of God?; was he saying that this pompous temple with its endless sacrifices was no longer important?; was he pointing to himself as the true place in which God dwelt?
I don’t exactly know what the temple meant to Jesus, but certainly he never conceived of it as more than a means and a focus for the worship of God. Whatever the claims may have been for the dwelling there of God himself, even those scriptures which described the dedication of Solomon’s temple were at pains to express how useless would be such a claim. In the rather airbrushed account in Kings we are told that Solomon said: ‘Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!’ The best we can hope for is that what we might call the house of God will help people to find him.
Our wonderful cathedral grew out of just the same kind of complex of moral ambiguity as its forebear in Jerusalem, the fruit of a regime sprung from a ruthless exercise of power and seeking to mix up the exaltation of earthly rulers with the exaltation of God. It too has been built, used, worshipped in and repaired by people of dodgy morals and dubious example. It too asks as many questions as it answers.
Today, our Dedication Festival, reminds us to think of this place; and, as we thank God for it, to ask ourselves some of those enduring questions. Are we in danger not just of worshipping in here, but of actually worshipping here? Do we conceive of this place as somehow containing God, when we know that God’s messengers are to be found in the strangers outside the tent, and that God himself is to be found in the abandoned man on the cross? Remember that in Matthew’s account of the incident in the temple, we see the presence of God when the sick are healed by Jesus, and when some idle urchins parrot a scriptural refrain.
Really this place exists to be a kind of giant bungee. Its building, its worship, its community, draw us in, but the further we go in, the more that huge elastic band of God will spring us out again, flinging us into the places and amongst the people we can’t see when we’re here. Because those places, those people, can be and perhaps are every bit as much the dwelling of the unseen God as this place, with all its extraordinary tradition and beauty.
Thanks be to God for his uncontainable and indescribable grace.