This Wednesday night, along with son-in-law Andrew, I managed to be thrown out of the Tower of London and then locked back in. All I can say: it’s complicated.
We were there for the Ceremony of the Keys, when the Tower is locked up for the night. It involves one set of keys, two yeoman, one lantern, a small group of guardsman with a bugler, lasting seven minutes precisely.
As ceremonies go, nothing particularly remarkable. Except its age.
The Chief Yeoman Warder, in his splendid pre-ceremony briefing, informed us that it has taken place every night without fail since 1340 – even during the blitz. Just one night, after the Tower took a direct hit, it was delayed by 12 minutes.
As such the Ceremony represents a remarkable continuity at the heart of our national life.
Nearly eight centuries may seem impressive but not as impressive as the daily sacrifices in the temple of Jerusalem. By the time of Jesus, it had been going for one thousand years.
Not quite every day. As far as I can recall, there had been two breaks – the first following the sack of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, for seventy years from 587 BC. And then during the Maccabean Revolt, 167 to 160 BC.
The daily ritual of the temple was at the very heart of the Jewish faith. It was where heaven met earth. It was where sins could be atoned, true worship offered to God the Lord of hosts. Along with its huge stones and great size, it represented permanence.
You cannot over-estimate its importance. It was the one place on earth where the people of God encountered God.
And yet within a generation of Jesus’ bloody death it simply disappeared, dismantled at great cost by the Romans. Just like that.
It must have seemed like the end of the world. For many Jews, it was. Some literally, as they hurled themselves to their deaths from the mountain fortress of Masada.
All this was foreseen by Jesus. He prepared his disciples for this epochal event.
“But be ready to run for it when you see the monster of desecration set up where it should never be. . . . If you’re living in Judea at the time, run for the hills; if you’re working in the yard, don’t go back to the house to get anything; if you’re out in the field, don’t go back to get your coat. . . . Hope and pray this won’t happen in the middle of winter.” (Mark 13:14ff)
However, the destruction of the Jerusalem temple was more than just the result of a revolt gone wrong. Other more powerful forces were at work.
For following the cross of Jesus, his offering of himself as a sacrifice for sin, the temple is now redundant, no longer needed or necessary. Its job done.
So we read in the epistle to the Hebrews we read “By calling this covenant ‘new’, God has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear. (8:13). And it did.
So where is the new temple? As Jesus himself taught, it is his body.
“Jesus answered (the Jews), ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’ They replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’ But the temple he had spoken of was his body. (John 2:19f).
That is, his body nailed to the cross but also his body, the fellowship of those who have believed in him. For we are the body of Christ.
For as the apostle Paul writes to the dysfunctional Corinthians: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27)
So as we are united to Christ so we take over the function of the Jerusalem temple, above all where God is to be encountered.
As my former teacher Gordon Fee explains: “The significance of the local church is not in what the church does (preaching, sacraments, programs, etc). The significance of the local church is in what the local church is: the dwelling place of God.
“God dwells, through his Spirit, amongst a Christian community in a particular area. This is the one, true defining mark of a true church.”
This gives us an awesome responsibility, as together we aim to share Jesus with everyone, beginning with our community. It is through us, through our life together, they are to encounter the living God.
So the risen Christ entrusts us with the authority demonstrated by keys: I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ (Matthew 16:19)
That’s why we need the Holy Spirit, to be filled afresh by him, to be the people God wants us to be.