Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
Luke 21:5-6 (NIV)
I was recently asked to preach on this passage as part of a series through Luke and it got me thinking about the role that buildings can (and should?) play in our lives and in our worship. Jesus’ response to his disciples’ awe and admiration of the great Temple in Jerusalem must have been shocking to their ears. Its sheer size and grandeur reflected the glory and majesty of the presence of Yahweh in its Most Holy Place, even if Herod was motivated more by a desire to reflect his own glory and majesty. Some of its stones measured more than 20 metres long and the 12-metre-tall pillars were cut from single pieces of white marble. Its complete destruction was inconceivable, and yet in AD70 Jesus’ prophecy saw its fulfilment.
In these days of Coronavirus pandemic with its necessary restrictions on the use of buildings for gathering, we have inevitably experienced a mixture of feelings in response. These have included deep sadness and frustration at being kept out of them and apart from one another, loss of identity and security associated with a particular place, joy and relief at being ‘set free’ from our walls and barriers, excitement at the opportunity to engage more with people outside the church, and fear as we begin to re-occupy these places together. Deep down we all know that the Church is the people and not the buildings, and yet we find ourselves, and our worship, inextricably tied to these ‘bricks and mortar’ in quite fundamental ways. Why is that? And is it necessarily wrong?
Before the First Temple was built by Solomon, God chose to meet with his people through the form of a tent or tabernacle. This was the perfect medium through which to be present, and engage, with a people on the move. However, once they had settled in the Promised Land, David felt compelled to build a ‘resting’ place for God that was more glorious than his own. In David’s vision, the building was to bring glory to God, and to draw people to Him in worship. And Solomon brought that vision to reality in the most opulent of buildings. One of my favourite holiday destinations is France. I love to drive through the many miles of countryside, passing through small, quiet rural communities. One thing they have in common is that at the heart of each, stands an enormous church building, much larger than has ever been necessary to contain the population in a service. But that’s not the point. These places were built to point people to God’s glory, majesty and power, and remind them of His desire to be present amongst them.
I think the problem with buildings comes when we make themthe focus of our worship, even sub-consciously, rather than God. But equally, I feel it is problematic when we disregard the importance of gathering, and underestimate the crucial part that these symbolic places have in focussing and resourcing our mission in our communities. So, as is often the case, it needs to be ‘both and’ rather than ‘either or’. And we will be wise to make every effort to maintain both the online and the in-person opportunities to celebrate and communicate the good news of Jesus.
So we at HEBA are praying for you all as you seek to achieve that balance.
With love in Christ,
Neil Le Tissier