Preached 19 November 2006 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
It’s Tuesday, 31 March, AD 33 and Jesus and his disciples are on their way out of the temple in Jerusalem. They’re about to head back to the Mount of Olives where they’re spending their nights, sleeping rough, along with hundreds of other Jews who have travelled to Jerusalem for Passover. By this time, on Friday, only three days hence, Jesus will be dead – though only Jesus himself knows it. The opposition to him is growing by the day, and again, this very afternoon, he has clashed with the priest and the scribes and the Pharisees. But now they’ve gone back to their plotting and scheming, and the temple courts are quiet once again, and as the setting sun throws great shadows over Jesus and his disciples as they head for the Golden Gate, one of the disciples – we don’t know which one – perhaps to lighten the mood a bit, comments on the mind-blowing spectacle that is all around them. What wonderful stones!
And so they are. They are of white marble and they are huge. To give you some impression of their size let me tell you that could only just get one of them in the chancel and another in each side of the church. In height, each would reach to the second level of panes in the east window. Each was 40 feet by 18 feet by 12 feet.
What wonderful stones! Indeed, what a wonderful new temple! Already a “wonder of the world”, with people coming from all across the Roman Empire to marvel at it.
There had been a temple here before, of course; but never anything like this one. The first had been built by King Solomon about 1,000 years before Christ but it had stood for only 400 or so years before it had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. He took the Jews into captivity and exile, and when they eventually returned some seventy years later, the temple they had built on the site of Solomon’s temple had been a poor sort of affair. However, it had stood for 500 years, and it was only in 19 BC – just 15 years before Jesus was born, that work on the new temple – Herod’s temple – had begun.
Herod the Great loved huge building projects and he saw this one – the building of a new temple in Jerusalem – as a way of both indulging his passion while at the same time ingratiating himself with the Jewish people, whom he had the difficult task of governing. The Jews hated Herod because he was only half-Jewish, but the fact that he was prepared to give them the biggest and the most beautiful temple in the world did quite a lot to help them tolerate him.
Herod’s idea was that, if as the Jews believed, God dwelt in the heart of the temple itself – in the Holy of Holies – the temple should shine with his glory. And so he built it so that it did. The stones were, as I’ve said, of white marble, and much of it was faced with beaten gold; so that as you climbed towards Jerusalem, the sun turned the temple into a kind of beacon blazing out, dazzling to the eyes.
Now I’m not going to say much today about Jesus’ response to the disciple’s comment on the stones – except to say that, of course, he was right when he said: “I tell you, not one stone here will be left standing upon another.” Within forty years that prophecy had come to pass. This wonderful temple that had been forty years in the building, was totally destroyed by the roman General Titus, along with the city of Jerusalem, in AD 70. But I used to wonder: how could he actually destroy the stones. Why aren’t they still there for all to see? Then, last week, when I was doing some research for this talk, I found out. You may already have known this, but I didn’t: marble is flammable. You can set fire to it. And unlike granite, say, or other kinds of rock, it just burns away to ash if you do set fire to it. And that’s what Titus did. He burnt the temple to the ground, and all that remained were bits of the foundations that now form part of Jerusalem’s eastern wall.
But enough of that. Let’s get back to Jesus and the disciple who said: “Look, teacher, what wonderful stones!”
How very right that disciple was – but in ways that he didn’t then know. For it struck me forcibly as I read and re-read this Gospel passage set for today that there were indeed wonderful stones to look at in the temple that day – but they were not the great pieces of marble all around him. No, no, no: they were people; and the first of them was the very person he was speaking to: Jesus himself.
What do I mean? Well, way back in the time of Solomon’s temple, you see, about 700 years before Christ, the prophet Isaiah had begun to tell of someone very special indeed who would one day step out onto the stage of history. A Messiah. A chosen one sent by God. And one of the descriptions of this chosen one is found in chapter 28 of the book of Isaiah. There we read: “So this is what the Sovereign LORD says: ‘See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation’.”
But a sure foundation for what? Solomon’s temple had a foundation stone, a corner stone that set the temple’s position and direction and scale; and one that had been laid with great rejoicing. So too had the second temple. And in recent history, so too had Herod’s temple. But of what temple could the Messiah be the cornerstone, the sure foundation? Surely only a temple that had no physical reality at all: a temple not made with hands? And what kind of nonsense was that?
The Jews couldn’t fathom it, get their heads round it. And so it was left to Peter – possibly the very disciple who passed the remark about “What wonderful stones!” – to declare in his first letter to the Christian church, written some thirty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, that Jesus is the cornerstone, the foundation stone, of “a spiritual house,” the living temple of the living God.
But, of course, there’s got to be more to any temple of any sort than its foundation stone. It must have other stones too, that form its walls and arches and gates. What are the other stones? If Jesus is the cornerstone who are the rest? Well, the other stones were, and are, as Peter goes on to make clear in his letter, all the followers of Jesus. They were the disciples standing with Jesus in the temple courts that Tuesday evening on 31 March AD 33, and they are the disciples of Jesus sitting here this morning. We are all living stones. As Peter put it in his letter: “As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
Let me pause here and ask you a seemingly-unrelated question? What was it that Stanley, a newspaper reporter from New York said to a very famous long-lost British explorer in 1871 when he finally found him on the shore of Lake Tangyanika in Africa? Think about it?
Yes! “Dr Livingstone, I presume”. Well, I think that’s what the apostle Peter would want each of us to say to ourselves every time we look in the mirror. And to say to each other. Living stone, I presume. (You can drop the doctor.) Living stone. We are all living stones being built into a spiritual house.
“Being built.” I like that. The work goes on, you see. So that, as all over the world today, people become followers of Jesus, give their lives to him, they too become living stones, built into this spiritual house, this living temple, standing firm on the foundation of Jesus himself.
But what’s it for; this “living temple”? What is the purpose of the spiritual house that Peter talks about? Well, it’s first purpose is the very same purpose for which Solomon’s temple, and the second temple, and then Herod’s temple all were built: that it might be a place for God to dwell in, on the earth. A place where he can be met and called upon and encountered. And we now have the privilege, together, of being that place.
What wonderful stones!
But Peter says the second reason we are being built into a spiritual house is that we might be “a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” What are spiritual sacrifices? They are sacrifices of praise. As Peter says, we are built together into this living temple to “declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light”.
And it is not only Peter who says these things. Listen to what Paul says to the Christians at Ephesus (and I’m reading from The Message translation): “Christ brought us together through his death on the Cross … That’s plain enough, isn’t it? You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He’s using us all – irrespective of how we got here – in what he is building. He used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day – a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home.”
What wonderful stones!
Of course, only three days after that anonymous disciple uttered those words in the temple courts on Tuesday, 31 March, AD 33 – on the Good Friday that seemed anything but good – it didn’t look as if there’d ever be a kingdom of faith, a church of God or anything like a living temple, not ever. For though Jesus was the prophesied “stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious stone for a sure foundation” he was also the prophesied “stone that the builders rejected”. And the builders – the teachers and leaders of Israel – had rejected him indeed.
Once (we are told in John’s gospel) they had taken up stones to stone the Living Stone himself. Now they had had him crucified and looked with satisfaction at the stone across his grave. But, thanks be to God, the Living stone could not stay dead. And he moved the stone away and became for once and for all the foundation on which you and I and countless millions have been and are building our lives. And who, by doing so, are being built into God’s living temple.
What wonderful stones!
Let’s rejoice in them this morning. Our Lord Jesus Christ – the chief cornerstone, whom we worship and glorify – and each other – the person next to you, in front of you, behind you – indispensable, vital parts, every one of them, of the very fabric of the temple of the living God.