Sunday, January 13, 2019

Sermon - The New Temple

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here.            

Then he led me to the gate, the gate facing east. And behold, the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east. And the sound of his coming was like the sound of many waters, and the earth shone with his glory. And the vision I saw was just like the vision that I had seen when he[a] came to destroy the city, and just like the vision that I had seen by the Chebar canal. And I fell on my face. As the glory of the Lord entered the temple by the gate facing east, the Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the Lord filled the temple. - Ezekiel 43:1-5

In the Disney movie, Pocahontas sings:
What I love most about rivers is: You can't step in the same river twice. The water's always changing, always flowing…. I look once more just around the riverbend, beyond the shore where the gulls fly free.  Don't know what for. What I dream the day might send just around the riverbend for me. Coming for me. [Stephen Schwartz, “Just Around the Riverbend,” 1995]
            Sir David Attenborough says, “We only know a tiny proportion about the complexity of the natural world. Wherever you look, there are still things we don’t know about and don’t understand.... There are always new things to find out if you go looking for them.” []
            While Sir David is speaking of the natural world, the same thing is true of the spiritual world. We serve a lord of new wineskins, a God of constant re-creation. We who are caught up in the tragedies of day-to-day life in this world know that the what is and what-will-be are not the same. There is always something new around the riverbend.
             Pam Mark Hall’s words, as sung by Amy Grant, speak to us:
No longer what we saw before, but not all that we will see tomorrow, when we lock the door on all our disbelieving. When He appears, our view will clear, and we'll be changed by His glory. But I'm caught in between the now and the not yet; sometimes it seems like forever and ever that I've been reaching to be all that I am, but I'm only a few steps nearer, yet I'm nearer.... [Pam Mark Hall, “The Now and the Not Yet,” 1984]
 What has God got new, just waiting for you?
The last nine chapters of Ezekiel are hard reading. They tell of Ezekiel’s last vision, an extended description of a new temple that is yet to be built. He is taken to a high mountain and given a tour by one who resembles a man but is surely not human. This angelic tour guide gives Ezekiel a detailed report of each detail of this new structure, which from a distance resembles an entire city. Ezekiel is instructed to tell all of Israel about this new temple, with its surrounding lands and districts.
These chapters can be tedious, as they resemble the parts of Exodus that lay out the details of the tabernacle or the parts of First Kings that provide the plans for Solomon’s Temple. If you read this chapter verse by verse, you may not get much spiritual value out of it.
            But if you have read the whole prophecy and understood the significance of the people’s sin in Ezekiel’s eyes, and if you remember last week’s sermon about how the glory of God left the temple, then these last eight chapters mean something else. You have read of the exile, of the terrible penalty to be paid for failing to obey, the pain of separation from God. And then, in these last eight chapters, Ezekiel is shown, in excruciating detail, God’s plan for a new temple.
            And that is how this book ends, with the idea of the new temple. Next week, we will discuss one particular facet of the new temple, but for today we are going to look at the temple as a whole.
            What could God be telling us when He speaks to people in exile about the building of a new temple?
            Biblical interpreters who look for a literal interpretation have trouble with these chapters, which is largely why they are rarely taught and why so many people describe this as difficult scripture. Those who look for a specific, literal counterpart for what is described in these chapters generally fall into four camps.
            First, could Ezekiel be describing Solomon’s temple? Unlikely, since that temple had been destroyed before the people were taken into exile. More to the point, this new temple has no place for the ark of the covenant, no holy of holies. This is not Solomon’s temple.
            Well, what about the replacement for Solomon’s temple, the  so-called Second Temple built by Zerubbabel when the people came back from exile? Was Ezekiel seeing a prophecy about that? Again, it does not seem so, since that temple was much smaller than what Ezekiel visualizes. We know what that temple – which stood until 70 A.D. – looked like, and it did not match all these details. Again, this temple has no place for the ark.
            Some – of a dispensationalist bent – believe that Ezekiel is talking about what they call the millennium temple, the home base for Jesus’s future literal thousand-year reign during the captivity of the beast. This requires a certain reading of Revelation that I do not share, but it is certainly a respected view.
            A fourth view is that Ezekiel is describing the church, looking into the future to the era of the New Testament. There is a problem here, though, since Hebrews makes it clear that there is no longer a need for sacrifice after Jesus’s crucifixion, so the animal sacrifices described by Ezekiel don’t seem to fit with the idea of a New Testament church.
            I have a different answer. It is admittedly an interpretation. If you are a dispensationalist or one who takes one of these other more literal views, you won’t agree with me. Our difference here won’t interfere with our fellowship, so please bear with me for a few minutes. I bet we can still find some common ground in the meaning, if not in the exact interpretation.
            As I said last week and have said before, one of the ways we have to read the Old Testament is as a description of how God deals with us individually. We all are creations of God. We all face our version of giants and Philistines. And we all go through exile and need restoration.
            I read the Book of Ezekiel personally, as an essay on our personal exile caused by sin and about what God does for us when we are restored. When we read the book on this side of the resurrection, we recognize the end of the Book of Ezekiel as a description of what Jesus Christ does for us.
            Jesus makes all things new. If anyone is in Christ, behold, they are new creatures. We need a new wineskin – if we try to capture Jesus in all of the old forms, it just does not work. The old is gone; the new has come!
            That is the gospel according to Ezekiel.
            Let’s start with the significance of the symbolism of the temple. The temple was more to the Jews – and is more to many Jews today – than simply a geographical place or a architectural structure. Grand as it was as an edifice, the temple was much more: a representation of the presence of God. The temple housed the Shakina, the glory of God’s presence. The temple is where God was found. To worship, they went to the temple. To seek remission of sins, they took their animal sacrifices to the temple. To ask God’s blessing, or forgiveness, or mercy, they spoke to a priest at the temple, and then the priest went into the inner holy place, and for the most important prayers, the high priest went into the most inner holy of holies, for that is where God was. Orthodox Jews today still await the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, praying for the Third Temple and the resumption of the Korban worship there.
            The destruction of the First and then Second Temple was thus a blow of monumental proportions, and the thought of rebuilding the temple was critical. That is why Ezekiel’s prophecy about the glory of God leaving the temple that we studied last week carried such weight.
            We are not Jewish, but we are Christians, and we are followers of God. We do not have a temple – indeed we believe with Stephen that the Most High does not dwell in any building built by human hands [Acts 7:48] – so for us as followers of Jesus, there is a deeper meaning to be found in Ezekiel’s prophecy than simply a rebuilt building. Biblical authors from Moses at the beginning to John at the end, writing on the isle of Patmos, give pictures of an incomplete temple, the locus of the presence of God.
            The point here is not a building that will someday be erected but instead something new that God will do.
            Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit? [1 Corinthians 6:19] We are the temple, and when we come out of exile, when we face the fact that we have driven away the glory of God, then God promises us that a new temple is coming, and as we read last week from Haggai, the glory of the new temple will outshine anything that existed before.
            This is the gospel according to Ezekiel.
         Exile means separation from home, separation from God’s plan. Remember the sad passage from last week from Ezekiel 10 – the glory of God has left. When we disobey and repeatedly turn our back on God, we face exile. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God [Romans 3:23], and the wages of sin is death [Romans 6:23a]. The people of God are taken off into exile, captured and enslaved and kept away from the Promised Land. Get past the literal history of that for an ancient people and focus on what that means for you, on the literal history of how you have spent time in your life separated from the glory of God, exiled by your sin. Think of those friends, co-workers, neighbors, and family members who are exiled right now.
            There is a new temple waiting, and as we just read from Chapter 43, the glory of God is ready to come back in. Jesus makes all things new.
            The outline for this week is even simpler than usual. Only two points.

1.     Jesus will make things new eternally.
The temple vision of Ezekiel is a picture of heaven, better yet a picture of eternity with Jesus. We students of the New Testament find familiar strains when we read Ezekiel, for this book’s key themes and images are reflected in the Book of Revelation. The new temple – the place where we will dwell with God permanently – is a picture of what it means that Jesus makes all things new. Revelation describes a new Jerusalem [Revelation 21:2] – it is the same idea: a new representation of where we celebrate the presence of the Lord and our eternal relationship with Him.
We have read about every tear being dried. Henri Nouwen says it this way:
Our life is a short time in expectation, a time in which sadness and joy kiss each other at every moment. There is a quality of sadness that pervades all the moments of our lives. It seems that there is no such thing as a clear-cut pure joy, but that even in the most happy moments of our existence we sense a tinge of sadness. In every satisfaction, there is an awareness of limitations. In every success, there is the fear of jealousy. Behind every smile, there is a tear. In every embrace, there is loneliness. In every friendship, distance. And in all forms of light, there is the knowledge of surrounding darkness .... But this intimate experience in which every bit of life is touched by a bit of death can point us beyond the limits of our existence. It can do so by making us look forward in expectation to the day when our hearts will be filled with perfect joy, a joy that no one shall take away from us. [Henri J. M. Nouwen, Making All Things New: An Invitation to the Spiritual Life, 2010]
        We will leave exile. We will be restored. The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. [Romans 6:23] You know it is true, and you may be tuning me out even now because it sounds so fundamental, so elementary. Please don’t: this is the gospel. Jesus saves. When we are lost, He comes and offers something new and better. He builds us a new temple. God will be with us, and it will be glorious.
When I say that we have to read the Old Testament as an explication of God’s relation to us, think about these stories in the context of what I have just said:
  •      Cain commits egregious sin but receives a mark of protection. [Genesis 4:8-15]
  •    Jacob swindles his brother, his father, and his uncle, and God meets him at Bethel, changes his name, and sends him forth as the patriarch of a new people. [Genesis 25-37]
  •    God uses Moses to lead His people out of slavery into the Promised Land. [Exodus 3 – Deuteronomy 34]
  •     Job loses everything but is restored to twice what he had before. [Job 42:10]
  •     Daniel is saved through the lions’ den to a position of prominence. [Daniel 6]
  •     Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego walk out of the fiery furnace because of the presence of a fourth person in the furnace with them, and Nebuchadnezzar himself recognizes and honors Yahweh. [Daniel 3:8-30]
  •     The Hebrew people reject God – who speaks to them through cloud and fire, tablets inscribed by His own finger, prophet, song, and physical manifestation – and find themselves in exile, weeping by the waters of Babylon; but they are not left there, and they are led joyously back to Jerusalem, where they can rebuild.
  •    Restoration is preached again and again by prophet after prophet, assuring God’s people that He has an eternal joy stored up for His people.

The idea of eternal restoration is not new. No matter what we have done, no matter how far we have wandered, no matter what kind of exile we have created for ourselves, if we know Jesus, all of that stuff will be wiped away. We shall be with God forever. Revelation tells us that those of us whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life will reside with God in the new city, the city with sure foundations. [Revelation 21:27] Not surprisingly, the Book of Ezekiel ends with the disclosure of the name of the city where the new temple will be. The name of the city is The Lord Is There. [Ezekiel 48:35]
Eternity with God. We call that salvation. We call that restoration. When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

2.     Jesus makes everything new right now.
Eternal salvation is not the only gift we receive as a disciple of Jesus Christ. We are new creatures. The old is gone; the new has come!
We talked last week about how our dry bones can be reknit, how God will call the four winds into us to re-create us into what He has called us to be. That has eternal meaning, to be sure, but it is not only eternal in its meaning. The new temple represents what God is in the business of rebuilding right now; reconstructing us into His dwelling place, His image, His disciple presently, as we speak.
William Law, an eighteenth century priest in the Church of England, famously encouraged all of us to: “receive every day as a resurrection from death, as a new enjoyment of life; meet every rising sun with such sentiments of God's goodness, as if you had seen it, and all things, new - created upon your account: and under the sense of so great a blessing.” []
This is the message of the miracles of the New Testament. What was water becomes wine. Who was blind can now see. Lameness becomes nimbleness. Storms are ancient history as a new peace falls. When Jesus is there, we never know what new mercies are just around the riverbend.
The gospel for today, then, from the bearded prophet, is that the glory of God returns. The wonderful verses we read from Chapter 43 are focused on just that point. God is building a new temple, and the glory of God will fill it. But don’t miss verse 5 – the Spirit brings us into the inner court. This is not the Old Testament temple of the huge curtain, the temple governed by rules that allow only the priests to enter the inner court. No, we are there. We commune with God. The presence of God is with us, and our presence is with God.
That is why there is no holy of holies. We no longer need to construct a separate place where only the high priest can go. We no longer need an ark of the covenant, a golden box that carries the presence of God. God has filled the whole temple. We are indwelt by God – we are His temple, and He lives within us. There is no requirement for an ark for us to follow or for a high priest to represent us before God.  Jesus is our great high priest. [Hebrews 4:14-15]
The new temple is why Paul says he can do all things. He is not talking about his own power.  The verse is “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” [Philippians 4:13] The strength comes from the presence of God, who lives in us. The glory of God has returned. This is Jesus making all things new, taking our weakness and making it His strength.
What in your life needs to be made new?
Depression is a serious mental condition, and I don’t mean to suggest that all medical conditions are subject to being prayed away, for I believe that God works through doctors and medicine and hospitals and therapy. But I also believe that many of us are trapped not in a diagnosable mental illness but rather in an overwhelming sense of sadness, of purposelessness, of loss. You feel abandoned, useless, set aside, ignored. You have outlived your usefulness, or you never found your place. Jesus makes all things new. This is not just a matter of Jesus telling you “it’s all right because you are going to heaven someday.” This is a story of what can happen right now, of what God is building right now.
Let me suggest that many might look at Trinity River Church and say that we are now all we are ever going to be. We don’t have a cadre of twenty-somethings with young children to be our growth center. We are not using light shows and electric guitars to attract the masses. Jim and I don’t wear jeans and don’t have visible tattoos. I am not knocking churches who worship that way, at all; I am simply saying that because we have chosen a different, traditional approach and have started with folks who are, shall we say, no longer in our twenties as our core group, many would tell us that there is nothing that God can do with us. I don’t believe that. I believe that a new temple is being built, that the glory of God is coming in.
Do you need Jesus to make your relationships new? Whether we are talking about a marriage or a relationship with your child, whether it is a friendship or a job relationship or a sibling, are you at the end of your rope? Are you ready for Jesus to make all things new?
I am sure it was not new when I first heard it, but because I was hearing it for the first time, it was profound to me. My college pastor Ron Durham preached a sermon called “Behind the Eight Ball,” and somewhere in the middle, he told us that the old saying that “God helps those who help themselves” is not scriptural. Ron raised his voice a pitch or two, as he was wont to do, and said that the point of scripture is that God helps those who cannot help themselves.
That is what building the new temple is all about. We tend to busy ourselves with fixing up and painting up and cleaning up the old temple. We focus on what we can see, what is in front of us. God is so far past all of that. Jesus says that He is making all things new. We focus on trying to make our hearts better, but the Psalmist asks for a new, clean heart. [Psalm 51:10] Lamentations says:
My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is so I say, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord.” Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” [Lamentations 3:17-24] 
God says that He is building something new, a new temple, the new most holy place where we go to find Him and worship Him, the place where we find mercy and seek guidance. It is a place where His glory has returned and filled and invites us inside with Him.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The Book of Revelation ends with Jesus’s invitation to come. The new temple awaits. It is not a physical place for you. It is what God through Jesus will make of you.
If you have just discovered and accepted this remaking, this promise that God is waiting to fulfill in you, come down and tell me as we sing.
If you have long ago accepted His gift, I challenge you today to commit in 2019 to explore your new temple, to ask yourself – and ask God in prayer – what new thing He has made of you, and what new thing He will do in you and through you. I challenge you to seek earnestly what God has for you, just around the riverbend.

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