This is not going to be a sermon about sheep.
We hear a lot about sheep in the Bible, and they make for a good metaphor, but I want to talk about temples.
You see, I think it’s important that our gospel reading begins by mentioning the feast of the dedication, which is better known by its other name of Hanukkah.
You may have seen the 9-branched candlesticks that are lit for this feast, or the similar ones that sometimes make their way into Christmas decorations.
Around 200 years before Jesus was born Jerusalem was captured by Syrian invaders and the temple was filled with statues of Greek gods.
The invaders even put up an altar to Zeus inside the temple and sacrificed pigs there.
This was horrifying to the Jewish population and eventually there was a revolt.
The invaders were defeated, and the temple was rededicated to God, with a candle being lit as a sign of his presence.
So, the nine-branched candlestick that’s used during the Hanukkah festival symbolises God’s help in difficult times.
And the festival celebrates the lights coming back on after a time of disaster and loss.
It’s perhaps hard for us to understand how much of a disaster losing the temple was to the Jews.
We can get a glimpse of it if we think about how devastated so many people were by the fire at Notre Dame, as they saw an ancient and beautiful place of worship go up in flames, not knowing if it could be saved.
But on the other hand, we’re surrounded by ruined temples – from prehistoric Stonehenge to the abbeys torn down and the churches damaged in the Reformation – and we don’t seem to mind this.
In fact, many people enjoy visiting ruined places of worship, looking round, reading the information put up by English Heritage or the National Trust, and seeing pictures of what places might’ve looked like with the roof on and more walls.
But, important though these places of worship were in their time, no-one has tried to restore them to their former use – and maybe that’s partly because we see things differently these days.
THe temple in Jerusalem
For the Jews, the temple was the primary place where God could be found.
They knew that God wasn’t contained to just one spot, of course, but the temple contained the holy of holies, an inner sanctuary where God’s presence dwelt in a special way.
People could speak to God in the temple and listen to his word.
And it was a political symbol, stating that they were, as the USA later said about itself, one nation under God.
The temple set Israel apart from other countries, giving them a sense of identity by showing them who they were and what they stood for.
And it carried their hopes for a future of justice and peace when the Messiah would come and set up his throne.
So the temple was for the Jews a special place to meet with God, a place that gave them a sense of identity, and a place that gave them hope for the future.
All of that was lost when the temple was desecrated, and brought back when the temple was restored.
But what does this have to do with life here in the UK in 2019?
Well, the world today still has more than its fair share of shock, horror and loss.
There are wars across the world, not all of which get onto the news.
We hear a lot about terrorism, violence, abuse, intolerance and prejudice.
Natural disasters strike at random and climate change is an increasingly urgent emergency.
There seems to be a lot of disaster, loss and darkness around.
But we still have light and hope, and everything is not lost, for we still have our temple.
Our temple can’t be lost.
Our temple rose from the dead on Easter Day and nothing can overpower him.
“The Father and I are one” says Jesus.
God came to us in Jesus and is still here through the Spirit.
He lives, loves and works within and among us.
Our temple goes with us everywhere so we’re always in the presence of God, even in the worst of times.
“What my Father has given me is greater than all else”, Jesus says.
For Jesus has ultimate power and authority in the world – even when it seems like everything might be descending into chaos, and when those who want to hurt and destroy seem to be getting the upper hand.
Jesus explains that “my sheep hear my voice”.
So in Jesus we can hear God speaking the words we need to hear.
Words of encouragement, direction, comfort, peace and understanding.
And we can speak to God in every place and at every time because our temple is always with us.
Jesus also gives us identity and purpose, saying: “I know them and they follow me”.
In Jesus our temple we have a sense of who we are and what our purpose is that can never be taken away.
And Jesus gives us hope for the future: “I give them eternal life and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand”.
Death and destruction don’t get the final word.
In Jesus we have hope because he shows us that death is not the end, suffering will be transformed, and evil won’t get its own way for ever.
So, while we need and should cherish our places of worship, they aren’t ultimately our temple.
History shows us that buildings can fall out of use, be damaged or destroyed, and that triumphs and disasters come and go.
But a living temple that has been through death, and risen again, will stand strong for us for ever.
Song of Solomon 3 / Matthew 28.16-end
A talk for Morning Prayer on Wednesday of Easter Week
We don’t hear much about the Song of Solomon in church.
It’s a bit too romantic and passionate; even, if I dare use the word here, sexy.
We hear it read at weddings a lot, and in fact I had some of it at my wedding, although there the reading was from Chapter 4 rather than Chapter 3.
On one level it’s a very human love story, a description of a passionate encounter between two people in love.
Yet it’s here in the Bible, which to my mind suggests two things.
The first is that human love and romantic relationships are, at best, important and beautiful and to be celebrated.
The second is that maybe, as is often the case in puzzling parts of the Bible, other layers of interpretation and meaning are possible.
One level of meaning is that it’s a story about God’s love for his people Israel.
It’s about a God who pursues his beloved people even though they keep turning away from him and a God who is faithful and passionate about those he has chosen, no matter how often they let him down, get things wrong and turn away from him.
God’s people may sometimes be faithless, as we see throughout the story of the Bible, but God is always faithful.
And then this interpretation can be expanded into seeing the Song of Solomon as a story about God’s love for his Church – about his love for us, in fact.
We in the Church also have a history of letting God down, getting things wrong, turning away and being faithless – but God is always faithful.
The strongest evidence of God’s love for us is of course the death and resurrection of Jesus, which we are celebrating right now, and in one sense Chapter 3 reflects that.
It talks about looking for the beloved, who has gone missing, just as Jesus seemed to be gone forever when he died.
But then he’s found and his lover doesn’t want to let go, which may remind us of Mary Magdalene holding on to Jesus in the garden after the Resurrection.
And the chapter talks about the beloved coming triumphantly, crowned and ready for his wedding, as Jesus was raised and glorified by the Father and we, the Church, have become his bride.
For the Easter story is all about how far God will go to show how much he loves us – even to death and back again.
It’s about a passionate God, full of wild love, who won’t let anything stand in the way of reconciliation and mending the broken relationship between God and humanity.
Love for the world
Then, fired up and motivated by God’s love for us, we are called on to show such love to others, to let them know the good news that God is calling for them, and show them the way to him, remembering that our Saviour has promised to be with us always, to the end of the age.
For God is love, and we are his beloved.
Happy Easter to you all!
4th Sunday of Easter / Year B
Every year, in the summer, I go to the Lake District with my husband, where we like to go walking and climbing the hills.
They are usually long and hard climbs, but the views at the top are worth it.
What does rather unreasonably annoy me though is that often I’m just about at the top and I’ll come across a sheep calmly looking down at me and chewing away in a relaxed fashion.
I may be paranoid, but this comes across as rather smug when I’ve just spent a couple of hours struggling up to this point.
However, apart from that, I rather like sheep.
In this country they don’t really have too much to worry about.
There are a few animals that might attack them, especially when they’re lambs, but they don’t have to worry about wolves, big cats or bears.
Neither do they generally struggle to find food or water.
This is lucky for them because sheep are pretty defenceless animals.
So they need a leader, someone to take care of them who they can trust and follow.
When Jesus talked about being a shepherd he was talking about a very tough job.
I’m sure being a shepherd is a hard, physical job at any time or place but what Jesus had in mind was a bit different from shepherding in this country.
Here sheep have plenty of grass to graze on, water to drink, fields to be penned up in, shelter at night if needed, and no predators that a human would be scared to face.
But in Israel shepherds had to prepared to stay with their sheep day and night, always ready to fight off wolves, bears and lions, sleeping in front of the sheepfolds in case of trouble.
During the day they had to lead their sheep across miles of barren land to find enough grazing and water for the flock.
And they had to know each member of the flock personally.
This was because with no fields to separate one person’s flock from another, sheep belonging to different people would become mixed up during the day.
Then at night, when they needed to be put in their own sheepfolds, their shepherds would call them by name to come and follow him – or her, incidentally, as women could also be shepherds in Jesus’ time.
For this to work the sheep really did have to know and trust their shepherd.
They had to recognise the shepherd as their leader, defender and guide to food and water.
They had to know that this was someone with the authority, power, ability and willingness to look after them.
If they were faced with a stranger or a shepherd who mistreated them they might well run away or refuse to go with that person, so the relationship between shepherd and sheep was vital.
It’s said, by the way, that sheep can recognise up to about 50 different people and other sheep, and distinguish between different sheep and human voices, so this way of shepherding was entirely possible.
So when Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd he’s saying, ‘I am the person you can trust to provide you with what you need, defend you in times of danger, to look out for your needs, and to bring you home at the end of the day’.
Jesus is the one who goes out looking for us when we’re lost in the dark, scared by storms or have fallen down a hole because we weren’t paying proper attention.
He defends us from the things that try to take us away from him and destroy us.
And although we still face difficulties and sorrows, and must still eventually face death, he stays with us and helps us through everything.
Jesus is also saying that he knows every one of us by name, with all our quirks, flaws, gifts and talents.
He knows who will run and hide when things are hard and who will stand and fight – and loves us all equally.
He knows who will be the life and soul of any gathering and who would rather stay at home with a book – and rejoices in and works with our variety.
He knows who can do what, the things that make us laugh or cry, our likes and dislikes, and our secret hopes and fears.
And he wants only those things will help us flourish and grow in the best way for us and his kingdom – even if they look very different from what the world or even the Church calls good, useful or successful.
Of course, if we follow a shepherd then we also need to remember that in some ways we are sheep.
This doesn’t mean we need to follow blindly and not think for ourselves, although sheep are known to be able to solve problems and so are not quite as stupid as people think.
What it does mean is that we’re meant to be Christians with others.
Sheep are highly social flock animals who become stressed if left alone.
When threatened they draw together for defence, not leaving anyone out to face the danger alone.
From the very beginning God said that it is not good for man to be alone, and the same holds true today.
As Christians we’re called into a new family, a new community, a new kingdom, in which all have a known and cherished place, we’re accepted as we are, and no-one is to be left out in the cold to fend for themselves.
We may be very different from one another, and we may find Jesus bringing people to join us who we find it hard to understand, get on with or agree with.
But they, like us, are beloved sheep belonging to our shepherd – the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
And our job is to be his flock together, to listen, trust, follow and play our part in it, and to welcome in all his sheep as he has welcomed us.
Some thoughts on Wednesday of Easter Week
1 Corinthians 15.20-28
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
This is the simplest of all our Christian creeds, yet it contains the most central facts of all.
For without these three facts – Christ’s death, resurrection and return – we have nothing really to hope for.
In Jesus we see the beginning of the world being put back to how it should be, and how it was always meant to be.
For Jesus comes to conquer everything which tears the world away from its true purpose and nature as a good, beautiful, love-filled and worshipful place in harmony with its Creator.
Jesus comes to put an end to sin and evil, suffering and sorrow.
And he comes, above all, to put an end to death, the result of the ways in which the world has gone wrong.
For death is the ultimate enemy.
There’s a poem which is popular at funerals, perhaps in an attempt to soften the blow of bereavement, but which I really don’t like.
It’s the poem that begins Death is nothing at all.
Apologies if you happen to like this poem but to me it denies the reality of what death is.
Death is something, something terrible has happened, and nothing is how it used to be.
I know it’s a hard reality to face but denying the true tragedy of death can lead us in the long run to all sorts of emotional and even physical problems down the line.
Death is an enemy of all the goodness, beauty, power and love of God’s good creation because it destroys all the things that God has made.
And in the death, resurrection and future return of Jesus we see the defeat of death.
Though his death, Jesus takes on our sin and hurts, releasing us from them and destroying the power of evil.
In his resurrection, Jesus overcomes death’s hold on humanity and breaks its curse.
And when Jesus comes again he will bring about our resurrection into eternal life, where there will be no more death, no more sin and no more sorrow.
Of course we haven’t seen death’s full defeat yet but in Jesus’ death and resurrection we see the beginning.
His rising from the dead is our guarantee for the future.
And so we can have hope, even when everything seems dark and uncertain, because
Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.