The temple had become a stumbling block to the understanding of Judaism, the Jewish faith and the heritage of our own Christian faith, as a spirituality of journey. The tabernacle and tent of meeting, established during the wandering of the Hebrew through the desert during the exodus from Egypt back to the promised land, a structure that could be packed up and moved, had become a permanent fixture as a temple of stone. Judaism had transitioned from being journey to having arrived. It seemed clear to me that a part of what Jesus had come to do was not to destroy the temple, but remind the people of God that faith in Yahweh was a journey, not arrival or even destination.
The Christian tradition since Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, had been on a journey, especially in relation to its buildings, as they continued to grow in their understanding of who God was through Christ and as they found their position in society. The early Christian Church had always had a flexible and transitional relationship with where it worshipped and what those buildings would look like. I suggested that it was ironic that since the reformation, the last great transition of the Church some 400 years ago, which led Anglicanism into being, we have stopped this journey and become settled. Whenever there has been changes taking place within the life of the Church, there is outcry with people leaving vowing they would never return again. Ironically, this either meant that they went somewhere where things were different anyway, or they stopped worshipping anywhere.
I recall being told that when the candles came out on the altar, here at St Stephens, people left, never to return. I heard that, just recently, in one of neighbouring more catholic Anglican parishes, some very tall candles were used on the altar, simply because the sacristan like the look of them, and a number of people complained that it was too catholic.
I did note, however, the transitions that had taken place in St Stephens, including the development of communion on the round in the reordering of the chancel and sanctuary and the installation of the Evans lead-light window.
I want to continue that theme of recapturing the transitional nature of our faith, that Christian faith is a faith of journey, not arrival or even the destination, in exploring the danger of allowing things that are only signs or symbols to become idols, when those signs and symbols become stumbling blocks to our relationship with God.
We are confronted with the story from the exodus of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land. In the midst of the journey, God’s people begin to grumble. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” They were recalling that in Egypt that they had homes and food and drink. But Egypt also meant slavery along with those things. They were slaves in their permanence and enslaved by their settlement.
I can’t help myself comparing this situation to our own. in all the churches I have been in, the congregations are in slavery spending most of their time and energy raising money and spending their own money trying to maintain the buildings and the way they worship in the face of the facts that there are fewer and fewer people to do it. We are slaves to keeping things the same.
In the light of this desire to make things and be settled, the writers of the story of the exodus believe God sends a plague of snakes, poisonous ones, to bite the people and kill them.
I find myself chuckling at an idea, when people say to me, “You’ll move one pew in this church over my dead body,” to which I reply, “That can be arranged. And people tell me I do a really good funeral.”
God is opposed to things remaining permanent.
When the people of God realise what is happening, they turn again to Moses and acknowledge that they have been speaking against the Lord, asking him to intercede on their behalf. According to the writers, God tells Moses to make a serpent of bronze, put it on a pole, and whenever they are bitten by a poisonous snake, that person should look at the bronze serpent and they will live.
We would have thought, in the context of what was taking place, the Israelites would have thought that it was by God’s power that they were healed of their snake bites, and the bronze serpent was only a symbol of God’s faithfulness to them. But we read in the second book of the kings,
In the third year of King Hoshea son of Elah of Israel, Hezekiah son of King Ahaz of Judah began to reign… He did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done. He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan. 2 Kings 18:1-4
The people of God took this bronze serpent, set it up in some holy place, gave it a name and offered sacrifices to it. What was meant to only be a symbol became a thing to be worshipped. Let me make it clear, they were not using it as a symbol to help them worship God, it had become a thing being worshipped in its own right.
All too often, those things that are meant to be signs for us, we give so much power to, that they become things of worship. The evidence of this is expressed in our changing of them, or our removal of them, and the outcry that ensues.
As Anglicans we are a sacramental church. By this I don’t mean just those 2 ordained sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, and 5 commonly called sacraments of Confirmation, Marriage, Ordination, Confession and Absolution, and Anointing. If a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward a spiritual grace, then we are a church of many symbols and signs that remind us and prompt us of who God is and what God has done.
The question we need to ask ourselves, as a church and as individuals, is “Can we worship without them?” If our answer is “No!” This does not mean we should discard all symbols and signs. It does, however, challenge us not to be enslaved to them and by them, not to give them the power and glory that belong to God alone. It is so easy to allow these things to become idols to which we are slaves.
There is another important symbol that we often forget and that is us, especially as a church. May I remind you that I am not talking about the building here, I did that last week, I am talking about the people of this congregation and all of the members of St Stephens. We are a symbol.
I have quoted Richard Giles previously from his book Re-pitching the Tent, the church throughout history has continued to transform itself and its places of worship according to how it understood the God who was revealed in Jesus Christ. We have not always got it right and we live with the burden of some of those transformations today.
Our understanding of God continues to grow and develop, and our understanding of ourselves as church, therefore, continues to grow and develop. We will, or ought to, then, be a symbol of that. I finished last week saying how excellent it is that our church building looks like an impermanent tent. I finish today asking the question, what image do we reveal to those who would walk into this church for the first time? Is it an image of how we understand ourselves as moving toward growing a Christian community for all, are we expressing a church that is growing as a ministering community, are we worshipping in a way that reminds us of our call to be a ministering community?
It seems to me that we need to allow symbols to be the reminders of the internal and spiritual grace they are meant to be and allow ourselves to create new symbols that reminds us of what God is calling us to be. Otherwise, we may be continuing to call ourselves into the enslavement of idols.