Herod's Temple – Rt. Rev'd Tom Butler

Lord may this word be spoken so that it is your voice that is heard and your name that is honoured. It’s a great pleasure to share your worship this evening and a privilege to give this address.

Our reading from S Luke’s gospel tells of Jesus’s final approach to Jerusalem. He knew full well what this meant, whatever the success of his public ministry in the north, in Galilee he was now going to the heart of the spiritual battlefield, Jerusalem, the city which stones the prophets, and as he climbs towards it from Jericho he knows that a Rubicon has been crossed. There is no going back.

With his disciples he stands on the Mount of Olives and looks across the Kidron valley to the city of Jerusalem and its magnificent temple, and Jesus and his party from the north, provincial folk, like virtually every visitor to Jerusalem must have caught their breath at the beauty of it all.

The temple was one of the wonders of the world. And the man responsible for that most remarkable of religious buildings was king Herod. He was not a pleasant man – indeed he was a mixture of contradictions.

He’d had been imposed on the Jewish people by their Roman overlords as King of Judea, but he was never really a king of the Jews, because he never won their hearts & minds – they feared him at first, & then they hated him.

His behaviour confirmed their view. He was a tyrant, adamant, ambitious, imaginative, merciless – a highly volitile mixture of policy & passion. He built cities whose foundations lasted into the 21st century, yet his name became a byword for cruelty. In fits of insane rage he slaughtered his own wife & two sons, whilst, S. Matthew’s gospel tells us of the babies he slew in trying to kill the infant Christ, whom he, mistakely assumed would be a rival for his earthly power & pomp.

A developer of massive projects Herod transformed the appearance of Judeah’s cities & the money for all this came from harsh taxes – he razed to the ground any town or village who refused to pay, & sold their inhabitants into slavery. His temple project, replacing that built after the return from exile in Babylon, was designed to be his crowing glory.

But under Herod, even the priesthood in the temple had become corrupt, with the office of high priest being bought & sold, so when he decided to rebuild the temple, the priests became suspicious – they protested, but they were overcome. Herod proceeded with his grand design. He allowed nothing to get in the way of his project.

The priests said that their faith required that no sound of hammer or chisel could be heard in the temple precincts during the construction, clearly requiring a miracle. Herod had the stone quarried & worked upon elsewhere & carted in silently.

The priests said that only they could undertake the work, & unfortunately they had no skills as artisans – Herod set up a civil engineering training programme for the priests, & before long a thousand of them were employed in construction.

The result of their labours was an architechtural triumph. It was said that from a distance, because of the profusion of its white marble, the temple glittered like a snow covered mountain.

It was this wonderful human construction over which Jesus stood on the hillside and wept to the bemusement of his friends and enemies as he spoke the scandalous, ridiculous words, “not one stone will be left upon another.” Such challenging words and actions the following week took him into conflict with the powers that be, religious and political, until the people of Jerusalem crucified this latest prophet.

“Not one stone will be left upon another.” Jesus said, Was he mad? Not in the judgement of history for the years following Jesus’s execution saw the land beset by difficulties, with a series of rulers who had little knowledge of Jewish ways, and who cared less.

It had always been a troubled land – in Galilee a rebel army had sacked two roman legions & were punished in the Roman style – 2000 men nailed to crosses but some thirty years after Jesus’s death things came to a head. In Judeah for four years the Jews fought the Roman forces, then in the year 70 ad four legions laid siege to Jerusalem for five months, the city was reduced to starvation. Its inhabitants died in the streets. Jewish zealots made the temple their last fortress, but the Roman forces stormed in, & burned it to the ground. There was nothing left of Herod’s temple but ashes, not one stone was left upon another.

Christians, as much as Jews were horrified by this desecration. But as they reflected upon all this, incidents & words from the earthly life of their lord & master began to take on a new significance.

They remembered how Jesus had been horrified at all the materialistic activity in the outer courtyards when he had come to the temple. How he had turned the tables of the money changers over & drove out the traders, “my house is to be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.”

They remembered how Jesus, when approaching the city from afar & seeing the great temple glittering in the sunlight had wept over it all, “oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that murders the prophets & stones the messengers sent to her. How often have i longed to gather your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you would not let me.”
But above all they remembered how he had said mysteriously, “destroy this temple, & in three days i will raise it up again.”

Now the temple which had taken 46 years to build was dust & ashes, but Jesus from Nazareth, crushed & crucified, was in their belief, Jesus the Christ, risen, ascended, glorified – the foundation stone of the Christian church. A different sort of temple was being constructed.

The first epistle of St Peter put it like this, “come & let yourself be built as living stones, into a spiritual temple,” And it was this temple of living stones which planted itself in every city and town around the Mediterranean sea, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ bringing forgiveness and reconciliation to the people of a broken world.

A former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, when preaching at the opening service of a Lambeth Conference in Canterbury cathedral, pointed to the stone arches supporting the roof of the magnificent nave and chancel.

He asked us to look up and note that each arch was made up of many blocks of stone and that each block was both supported by a neighbour, and was holding up a neighbour. It was this framework of reliance and support, he maintained, which provided the flexibility and strength of the whole edifice.

And so it is for us. In our life of service of others, in this community called church we need to both lean upon our Christian friends and help support and encourage them and by so doing we create a community which is both good for itself and a blessing for others.

As we’ve heard, we have a good opportunity this week to give expression to this network of faith and service, for Christian Aid Week begins today, when the churches of Britain put aside any doctrinal or historical differences and work together for the good of others, helping people in poverty to move out of poverty

Around the globe today it’s estimated that there are one billion people living in poverty. One billion. If we started to count them, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and so on, it would take us 32 years to reach the final figure. Put that way bringing people out of poverty seems to be a hopeless task. Why even try?

“Well I always reflect upon the two companions walking along the sea shore on an African coastline after a severe storm had stranded tens of thousands of small star fish. The fish lay dying on the beach under the hot tropical sun. As they walked and talked one of the companions kept stooping down and picking up a star fish and throwing it into the sea. After a while his friend said, “I don’t know why you’re doing that, it can’t make any difference, you can’t rescue them all.” His companion bent down and picked up yet another creature and threw it into the sea. “No,” he said, “But it makes a difference to that one.”

And so it is with global poverty. It will take the political will of people and leaders at national and international levels to impact upon the enormity of the challenge. It will take skills of financial and development management hardly yet seen to impact upon the scale of poverty growing worse in times of financial crisis and climate change. And nothing we do in support of Christian Aid week should excuse us from being involved in such political and economic challenges, and some of you, I hope, may spend your professional lifetime so engaged.

But this Christian Aid Week in Britain some 22 thousand churches will be working together. Some 350 thousand volunteers will be visiting a fifth of the households in Britain. And the result of their efforts will be the raising of some 15 million pounds to help combat poverty.

It will make a difference to that one and that one and that one, and it will be an indication that the community called church which meets for worship Sunday by Sunday is also prepared to meet in the service of suffering humanity. In that way the spiritual temple made up of the community of hearts and souls, meeting for worship in beautiful buildings of stone such as this chapel, becomes also a spiritual temple reflecting the saving holiness of God.

People of God, may God bless you and your own efforts for the common good, this week and long into the future. Amen

Rt. rev’d Tom Butler, Former Bishop of Southwark
15th May 2011

About the author