Sunday, February 2, 2020. Rev. Dr. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Colossians 1:15-20; John 2:13-22
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We are continuing our 4-week sermon series on the Intersections of Heaven and Earth. We began a couple of weeks ago with a consideration of the mobile Old Testament symbol of the tabernacle. Last week, Pastor Jen led us in reflections on the good news around the established temple in the holy city of Jerusalem. Today, we are reflecting on the ways that Jesus himself becomes the foundational intersection of heaven and earth for the church, and next week, Pastor Annamarie will bring it home as we consider ways that the church itself embodies and practices the intersections of heaven and earth.
We have spoken about how the Celtic Christians spoke of these intersections between heaven and earth as “thin places,” places where the boundary or veil between heaven and earth seems to become almost transparent. Special locations (maybe the beach or the mountains) can be thin places for some, where we are conscious that we are close to that which is transcendent. Being present at the birth of a child is a thin place for very many people, as is being present at the time of death.
What is it that happens at thin places? When we become aware that we are at a thin place, time can feel like it slows down. Heaven and earth seem to align. We are consciously in the presence of the sacred, which has a healing effect, a forgiving and accepting effect on us. When we are in a thin place, the things we have done that are not congruent with God or with love or with grace, those things are exposed, which can be uncomfortable, but they are also loosened up, so that we can get – even if for just a moment – some space from them. We are less driven by fear and anxiety in thin places; we are less driven by greed or grasping, and we can become more accepting of other’s differences. When we are in a thin place, we may find that forgiveness and honesty and vulnerability become more available and possible.
Some people have this experience with a loved one at the time of death. Because there is an awareness that time is short, people are sometimes willing to say things to a loved one at the time of death that they have not been able or willing to share before. They can say, “It really hurt when you did that,” or “I need to tell you about this thing.” The time of death can be a time to clear the air and to say things that have needed to be said for a while. At the same time, because time is short and because death is near, there can also be a greater willingness to forgive things that might, in less thin places, be held onto. Thin places can be times of forgiveness and healing. Spiritual depth and power flow somehow more easily and readily in thin places, where heaven and earth intersect and draw near.
The tabernacle and the temple were intended to be precisely such places. The ritual sacrifices performed in the temple that we read about in the Old Testament, and which can seem so strange to our modern, Presbyterian sensibilities, were designed to facilitate the reconciliation between broken, sinful people and the almighty, holy God. The temple was to facilitate forgiveness and reconciliation and healing.
But while biblical tradition does reference and provide for these kinds of religious spaces – temples, church buildings, sanctuaries – biblical tradition is also aware of a particular danger that hovers around those places. The danger is that religious spaces, which are intended to facilitate healing and forgiveness, can become distorted to the point that they becomes places of religious control and manipulation, where religious leaders take advantage of people’s devotion in order to puff up the institution and promote their own self-indulgence. When that sort of distortion happens in the Bible, we characteristically see the prophets arise with voices of denunciation and critique. We see Jesus bringing just this kind of prophetic critique at the beginning of John’s gospel in our 2nd reading this morning. He disrupts the normal mode of operations in the temple, turns over the money-changing tables and rips a hole in the authoritarian control of the temple leadership. “Take these things out of here!” he thunders. (This is not the gentle Jesus, meek and mild, that you may have heard of.) Religious leadership had tried to turn the thin places into a commodity that could be bought and sold, and the life of heaven will not be mocked that way.
Jesus then takes upon himself the meaning of the temple, which means that we can ponder for days all of the symbolism of the temple from the Hebrew Bible and how that symbolism stretches and enlivens our understanding of Jesus.
How is Jesus a temple? The Christian narrative teaches us that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah of Israel, God’s agent in whom the kingdom of God – where heaven and earth are in complete alignment – draws near. As John 1:14 has it, he is the Word of God, the creative, organizing pattern of reality, made flesh. As Colossians 1 has it, he is the image of the invisible God. In Jesus the Christ, all the fullness of God was made to dwell. He is, as the tradition has it, fully human – which means he gets headaches, he goes to the bathroom, he gets angry, he gets hungry, he hurts, he aches for justice and righteousness and neighborliness, he loves, he is tempted as we are – and he is fully divine – the fullness of God, holy, righteous, compassionate, merciful, powerful, with capacity to heal and forgive, creative, generative. He is our brother and friend, you can talk with him and walk with him, you can take your fears and your concerns and your disappointments and your raging fury to him in prayer. He is our Savior, whose death and resurrection broke the grip of death around us, so that we no longer need to be afraid of anyone or anything, anymore.
Our tradition teaches us that Jesus himself is available to us as a thin place. Reading the gospel stories and engaging with Jesus in prayer, having conversations with him and sitting with him in silence, we can approach him as a thin place. I sometimes imagine that I am talking with him as I drive around town. I suspect that other people might think that I’m talking to someone on speaker-phone, which I suppose, in a certain metaphorical way, I am. We’ll talk about all kinds of things. Lately we’ve been talking about my dad’s cancer; we talk about the impeachment proceedings and how I should respond. We talk a lot about things that are scary to me, because those are the things that are on my mind. But we also talk about practical details of what is going on in life. Because of Jesus, a thin place is available to us at any time. The life of heaven is brought to bear on life on earth. We do not need to be in a temple or at a tabernacle or in a beautiful outdoor space. It simply requires entering consciously into Christ’s presence.
This is very much a developing practice for me, and if you would like to talk about this, or argue with me about this, or ask about this, I’d be delighted to talk with you. As you may suspect, any time that we imagine that we are engaging in conversation with God, it is entirely possible for our own egos and agendas to grab the wheel and try to manipulate the outcome of the conversation in our own favor. That is surely a risk. And that risk seems to me to be somewhat parallel to the risks associated with any thin place, that we would try to manage and control the thin place to achieve our own desired outcome, rather than receiving the gifts and the guidance and the energy and the love of the thin place.
The promise of the Christian faith is that Jesus is available to us as a thin place, a temple if you will, through whom we can encounter the triune God and become – with all of the potentially challenging and problematic aspects that this will entail – an intersection of heaven and earth ourselves. To God be all the glory. Amen.