Evensong - Haggai 2: 1-9; John 2: 18-22
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Tonight we combine two themes that at first sight have precious little in common – proof that the true spirit of the Church of England is alive and well.
In the rest of the church, today is the feast of the Presentation of Christ at the Temple, and whilst this morning the readings focused on the actual presentation, the readings we’ve heard this evening shift to the Temple itself.
But Thursday, January 30, was the anniversary of the execution of King Charles and is therefore the Feast of Charles King and Martyr, and tonight we, along with other local parishes, as a result of a historical bequest, celebrate that Feast with a sermon.
Charles was executed in 1649 in Whitehall. His statue still stands looking down towards the site in Whitehall. I paid my respects there yesterday. The stone plinth is looking a bit worn, but the statute itself is in good nick. Quite remarkable, considering it actually dates from his reign. After his execution, the Parliamentarians sold it to a brazier in Covent Garden on condition he melted it down. So for the next few years, he made a nice living selling little ingots of metal to devout Royalists on the promise they were from the actual statue. Then, after the restoration of the monarchy, he dug up the intact statue from his yard and sold it back to the new King – for £1600, which I reckon was pretty good going in those days.
Evidence, depending I guess on your politics, either of laudable business acumen by royalists, or that the British establishment always finds a way to come out on top.
And therein lies the problem, because what we think about Charles, someone most associated with a civil war, will depend a bit on our own politics. We celebrate Charles King and Martyr – but what exactly was he martyr to?
Those in the church who seek to keep his memory alive have no doubt what he was a martyr to – a specifically high-church form of religion. In their eyes he was probably a martyr to male-only bishops, male-only priests, and if truth were told probably the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, even though Charles was executed in .. err.... 1649.
And it’s true that Charles was high-church himself, and if he hadn’t tried to impose bishops on the Presbyterian Scots he wouldn’t have had a war with them so, along with other reasons, he wouldn’t have run out of money so he wouldn’t have had to recall parliament which eventually triggered his downfall.
But you’re a martyr to the things you will die for rather than give up. And for Charles, that wasn’t just or even primarily bishops, it was the Divine Right of Kings. He had been given a sacred trust to rule his people – as he said at his trial “I have a task committed to me by God, I will not betray it”. And it wasn’t an arrogant, dictatorial thing either, he really wanted the best for his people, their liberty and peace and prosperity, but he believed that the only way to get the best for them was to allow God’s appointed ruler to rule for their benefit.
And who’s to say he was wrong? St Paul speaks quite favourably of the rulers God has put in place for our benefit. Charles had a belief in something fundamentally quite positive, he just got so obsessed with it that he took it to a distorted extreme – no role at all for the people in their own destiny – and got himself executed for it.
And that – latching on to something that is good in itself but ending up getting it wrong – is also pretty much what the Jews did with the Temple.
All those years wandering in the desert, they carried the Lord with them in the Ark of the Covenant, and because they were a wandering people, they camped each night in a different place, and had to erect a tent – a tabernacle – for the Lord. They yearned for security and stability, they yearned for the promised land of their own, and one emblem of that security would be that they could build a permanent home for their God. And so, when they did settle in the land, Solomon eventually built the first Temple as somewhere worthy of their God to dwell and to be worshipped – and somewhere permanent. When they went into exile, an emblem of that was the destruction of the temple, and when they came back from exile, the sign of that was building the second Temple. Then much later Herod built the second second Temple and this was the unsurpassed splendours of the building of Jesus’s time.
But somewhere along the way, the temple as a means to enable the worship of God had got supplanted by the Temple as an end in itself – Jesus didn’t object to the noble ideal of the temple as the place where God dwelt and could be met by his people, he objected to the way the very glories of the building and the industry around it had defeated its objectives.
So Charles became so wrapped up in his right to rule that he lost sight of what it was the King was there for, and the determination to have a Temple worthy of God came to distort the actual worship of God. And sadly we don’t have to look very far today to find other examples of our ability to latch on to a laudable idea then become so obsessed we lose the real purpose.
I courted mild controversy earlier by touching on the politics of monarchy, so, in for a penny in for a pound, now let me court real controversy by observing that the people of Israel today still yearn for the elusive security of a land of their own, and it’s hard to look at the Holy Land today, with the settlements, and the wall, and Gaza and the missiles, without at least wondering if that obsession with security is leading them further away from what God intended when He promised them the land in the first place.
Or come closer to home. We have the indescribable privilege of worshipping in this beautiful building. We rightly want it to be the most perfect building for worship we can make it – but when people ask questions and debates start about enabling the worship of today and tomorrow, don’t you sometimes wonder if our love for the inheritance of this building has led us to want a worshiping community that fits the building, not a building that fits the worshipping community?
But lest you think that’s one sided, remember those Jews wandering in the wilderness, aspiring to a future perfect Temple, a building fit for purpose – it was when they got everything just as they wanted it that they started relying on what they’d achieved not on God, and they were never as close to God as when they were still travelling, still aspiring. The building as it is now – the building as we want it to be – they will both lead us stray if we lose sight of what it’s there for. Just like Charles and his sense of calling as King. And just like each of us no doubt with those things we unwittingly allow to become our obsessions.
So what’s the solution to this universal human tendency to turn a good idea into a distorted end in itself?
It’s there in our Gospel reading. Tear down this Temple and I will build it up in three days. The temple at the heart of our worship isn’t a building, it’s a man, the man Jesus who becomes the Temple himself, and we did tear it down, and he did build it again in three days, and he’ll keep on doing so no matter how often we humans get things wrong. Keep our focus ruthlessly on that Man, and the Divine Right of Kings, and buildings whether on Temple Mount in Jerusalem or here in Leatherhead will all sort themselves out.
On Charles’ execution day, the Bishop of London, Juxon, said to him “There is but one stage more which though turbulent and troublesome, yet is a very short one; it will carry you from Earth to Heaven.” After that rather euphemistically described “troublesome” step, when Charles duly arrived at the gates of heaven, do you think St Peter said to him, “now, let’s have a chat about whether the Scots really did need to have bishops?” I don’t think so. Earlier on his execution day, Charles himself said “this is my second marriage day, for before night I hope to be espoused to my blessed Jesus.” Faced with that simple love for Jesus, whatever else he got wrong, he’ll have been welcomed straight into that paradise.
And I don’t expect St Peter will say to us, “so where did you stand on the pews versus chairs debate?” Earthly temples will indeed lead us astray and be torn down, but if we fix our love on the one Temple that was torn down then built again in three days outside the city wall of Jerusalem, then we, when we arrive in heaven, like Charles (though hopefully not after such a “troublesome and turbulent” way of getting there) can be sure of our welcome – “this is my second marriage day, for before night I hope to be espoused to my blessed Jesus.”
In the name of Jesus, Amen.
A PDF version of this sermon may be downloaded here