Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 28 August 2018.
Anyone who has cooked a meal knows that the purpose of the meal is that it should be eaten, and not kept on display. Anyone who has run a race knows that when the race has been run then it is complete and cannot be repeated.
Both of these things exist for the moment and while they may well be remembered with love or respect, but when they are completed then they are over.
A piece of music can be played again and a piece of writing can be read and re-read. A painting or a building can be viewed many times but there are things which exist in their own moment and then they pass into their own place in history.
It is with this in mind that we can think of Solomon’s temple which was perhaps the first great work of his reign. To him had been granted the task of fulfilling his father’s dream of building the House of the Lord.
And yes, it was intended to last – and so it did until it was destroyed by the Babylonians. But it was never intended to be a monument to or for Solomon. It was to be visited by the whole of Israel including King Solomon, but once complete and dedicated then Solomon would have to let go of it.
For when it had been fully dedicated then the glory of God came upon it in a cloud and Solomon’s role was complete. He would have to let go and allow the priests and temple officials to do their own work.
Solomon would have other things to do, but perhaps the most difficult of all was going to be in letting go of the temple.
Perhaps the best illustration we can know is that when a loved one has died and we have interred the body or the ashes, then we have to enact our own commitment of the departed into the care of God by walking away – and not looking back. And yes, this can indeed be difficult, even if we revisit the grave of place of interment.
So Solomon also had to let go of his work and return to it only as a worshipper, who would offer prayers and sacrifice and then return to his own life. As an offering he would have to leave it with the Lord.
But when we look at Paul’s letter to the Ephesians there are two things to keep in mind.
One is that the Christian life is going to be met with difficulty and opposition. Part of this is contending with our own sinfulness and part is in recognizing that there is an enmity between the spirit of God that is in us and the spirit of the world that is against us.
But Paul’s central lesson is not that the church has to attack anyone or anything – it is only that it has to stand on the ground that is already won for it. Whereas Solomon would return to the temple as a worshipper, the church would hold onto the ground already won as permanent holders of it.
They might be assailed by doubt, sorrow, temptation, division an any number of other trials but they would never have to abandon the ground of their faith and their hope.
And so Paul stressed that they should always be in prayer, and the kind of prayer that continues to trust and to abide in the person of Jesus Christ.
And that means in Jesus Christ and none other – not what others say of Him, although these things can be useful and should point to Him. Not the bureaucracies of the church or even the glory of its worship, although these should also point to Him and none other.
They were to be alert at all times and, in that state of alertness to pray in the Spirit – to pray as led, guided and inspired by the Holy Spirit Himself, and to do so without discouragement of doubt. This demands perseverance.
This brings me to the gospel in which Jesus’ teaching was found by many to be too difficult. This could mean several things.
Was it too obscure – and the people would have to ponder it and reflect on it until they had entered it more fully? Would it demand a perseverance beyond their natural inclinations?
Perhaps it was too radical in another way, as it demanded that the people commit to Him beyond and before all else. Maybe it would upset the authorities, or in our own times, be seen as intolerant and exclusive.
Maybe it was too demanding: that the people place Jesus indeed in the holiest place in their lives and hearts, just as His word and person rightly belonged in the holiest place of the temple. Jesus was never going to take second place or be second best in the lives and hopes of the disciples.
And so yes, many turned away. You can almost hear the sadness and disappointment in Jesus’ voice as He asked His closest disciples what they would do.
But then there was Peter’s robust and determined reply: ‘Lord, where else can we go? Having seen and known You, how can we really turn aside?
Who else is there who offers such teaching, such mercy, such wonder and such majesty? Indeed, who else is there who forgives sins and rises from the dead? There really is no alternative.