Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
We've been working our way through the readings for Isaiah over the last several weeks. Some things have been pretty familiar to us, but others have stretched us a bit. Last week, for example, was a little rough. Not only was it a hard word to hear, but we had to work through ancient Israelite fasting to get there. Before we could tackle how the text applied to us, we really had to do some heavy lifting to figure out the cultural context. But don't worry; that was last week. This week we get something different. This week we get syncretistic Temple worship practices.
To make a long story short, today's reading centers around the Temple. It’s actually organized very clearly; you can split it up into three chunks of two verses each. In the first two verses, God says that he is not limited by the temple. He created everything. He made all that exists. Why in the world would we think that we could contain him or limit him by building a temple? That's just not how it works. The next two verses talk about people abusing God's temple. Their problem wasn’t that they weren’t going through the right motions; they were fulfilling their duties at the Temple well enough. No, their true problem was syncretism—they worshiped God and a whole bunch of other gods as well. Finally, the last two verses describe God's actions from the temple. He is not done with this place. In spite of not being limited to this place, in spite of being abused in this place, in spite of false worship going on, God still chooses to work salvation through His temple. This threefold pattern—1. God not being limited by his temple, 2. people abusing the temple, and 3. God's still choosing to offer salvation from it—that pattern shows up all throughout Scripture.
We see it first in Solomon's temple. This is the first temple that's built after the people settle in the land, after the tabernacle’s about 400 or so years old. Here, God chooses to dwell with his people. You see it in Solomon's prayer of dedication. As the temple is just finished being completed, Solomon gathers everyone together. They have a worship service, they pray, and dedicate this temple for its purpose of salvation. In the middle of his prayer in 1 Kings 8, Solomon says, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!” This temple and all its splendor and grandeur cannot contain God. There's no way. There is no way that the temple could contain God at all. And yet he still chooses to be present and work his salvation from this place.
But it's not long before the Temple and God Himself is abused. Only three chapters later in the book of 1 Kings, we read this: “Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and did not wholly follow the LORD. He built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. And so he did for all his foreign wives, who made offerings and sacrificed to their gods.” Solomon didn’t fully turn his back on Yahweh, but he also chose to worship a whole bunch of false gods as well.
In spite of Solomon's faithlessness, the Temple continued. Sacrifices went on from one day to the next. Salvation and forgiveness both came through the activities that happened in that place. In spite of the temple being too small, in spite of the king’s idolatry, God continued to offer salvation through the Temple.
The same thing happened after this temple was destroyed and rebuilt. Ezra describes the rebuilding of the Temple. And in chapter three, he focuses in on the old folks—those who had seen the first temple and now saw the second being built. He says they wept. They wept not for joy, but because this second temple was smaller, disappointing, less grand, even less fitting for God than the first. It was just not good enough to contain God Himself.
And just like the first, the Second Temple was abused, In the time between the Old and New Testaments, we hear of some rather startling things that took place in the temple: actual, physical idols being set up in the temple, sacrifices being made to these false deities, and men claiming to be god.
And yet the temple continued. Sacrifices went on from one day to the next. Salvation and forgiveness both came through the activities that happened in that place. In spite of the temple being even more pitiful, in spite of the people’s idolatry, God continued to offer salvation through the Temple.
We see this pattern playing out again in Jesus Himself. The author of Hebrews loves to talk about how Jesus is greater than many key Old Testament things. The temple is no exception. In Hebrews 9, the author describes how Jesus is greater than the temple. Jesus is the ultimate temple. Earthly temples, the ones that humankind has made are but copies and shadows, things that are passing away. The true temple, the place where God actually, fully, really dwells is not usually on Earth, but in heaven. But Jesus is that place. Jesus is where God dwells with these people. And Jesus came to live here among us as the ultimate temple, the place where God dwells with us and offers His salvation.
But we know that the temple that is Jesus was abused just like the physical one, not only with false worship, but an actual, physical abuse. That Thursday night, Jesus was betrayed, He was arrested, He was beaten. The next day, His sentence was confirmed and He was nailed to a tree. There, He wasn’t left for dead, but He was actively murdered. “Left for dead” makes it sound like they put Him up there and couldn't care less what happened to Him, but that’s not how it was. They made sure he was dead.
And yet, in spite of that, in spite of the abuse that He experienced, salvation still comes from Christ. Isaiah talks about a cry coming from God's temple. We hear that cry on the cross. “It is finished.” Jesus is God's salvation. Jesus is God's vindication of you and me, destroying what is evil and wicked and harmful, and bringing about salvation and life for all of God's people.
This pattern we see time and time again shows up even in our own lives. Paul talks in 1 Corinthians 6 about who you and I really are. He says, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who lives within you?” You and I are God's temples. It's actually one of the reasons that God forbids idols in the first commandment, no graven images. Because God doesn't live in those things he lives in us. He lives in you and me, in His creatures who are far too small and unworthy to have the living God in us.
Yet we still abuse Him. We abuse Him when we claim to worship Jesus—and we do—but when we also worship all sorts of other gods. I’m pretty sure that every one of us has a shrine to the god Television sitting in their homes. I’m sure there’s at least one room in your house where all your furniture is arranged so that everyone can see and hear what that magic box says. How many of us participate in the liturgy of Sports. You have your game-day rituals, rules about what clothes you can and can’t wear, times and locations that trump anything else going on in your life. Many of us look for salvation not in Jesus only, but also in the next politician. You look at everything in life through a political lens, claiming that some votes will bring salvation while others will damn you. In this way, you and I are abusing God's temple, God Himself.
But even in spite of our sinfulness, in spite of our worshiping false gods, for those of us who do belong to Jesus, who have the Holy Spirit within us, we have this promise. God will bring about salvation in us. Yes, we will pay the price for our sin: the wages of sin is death. But the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus, our Lord. He will recreate us. He will resurrect us, raise us from the dead. He will give you and me a new heavens and a new earth, a new body resurrected, made whole, and purged from its idolatry.
We're still waiting for that final cry, that sound from God's temple saying that evil has been defeated and salvation is at hand. But we see that this is how God works. This pattern plays out time and time and time again. This world is far too small for God, we even abuse Him, yet He still chooses to save His people. Repent of your idolatry and turn fully to Him. For His salvation is coming, just as He has promised. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
Lobe den Herrn
B. A. Woell