When Herod the Great did a building project he thought big. Very big!
The Temple in Jerusalem is a case in point. The finishing touches were still being added by the time Jesus was taken to the temple when he was twelve years old. But it was as good as finished and it really was impressive.
The Temple had originally been built on the rocky hill top at the head of the city of Jerusalem by Solomon, King David’s successor who when given the opportunity to ask God for anything, asked for wisdom not riches and ever since has been regarded as the Great Wise King, being associated with the Book of Proverbs.
It was the place where more than any other God’s presence touched earth in the Holiest of Holy Places.
That temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians four hundred years later and then rebuilt in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.
But Herod the Great felt it was not grand enough. And so he set about virtually rebuilding it. By now the city had spread considerably: but the hill top the temple stood on was still as prominent as could be.
The Temple building would remain where it always had been. But, and this was Herod’s brilliant idea, he would flatten the hill top by building a massive stone box effectively extending the hill top and creating an enormous plaza. An open air courtyard the size of several football pitches. In the middle of this, now flat area the temple stood in all its splendour.
When the Romans forty years after the time of Christ destroyed the Temple, what they destroyed was the temple in the middle of the Plaza. They left the plaza intact. In due course it was the Roman Emperor Hadrian who built a temple to Jupiter on that spot.
When Constantine adopted Christianity and Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, the temple to Jupiter fell into disrepair and was demolished, but the plaza remained. It had not significance in itself and became the city’s rubbish dump.
Constantine’s mother, Helen, identified another stony hill top that had been just outside the city, with tomb caves just underneath, and identified that as the place of Christ’s crucifixion and burial. So it was that Constantine had an enormous church with a big dome built over the hill of calvary and the site of the tomb. The temple site had no significance for Christians. More significant now was the place of crucifixion and resurrection.
Three hundred years later the Dome of the Rock was erected in the first generation after the death of Mohammed. It marked the spot where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac and shortly after became associated with the place from which Mohammed ascended to heaven before returning to earth. That was the rocky outcrop that had been the site of the Jewish temple in the middle of that plaza on what had been the Temple Mount.
Out of respect for the prophet Jesus, second only to Mohammed in Islam, the Christian church marking the place of the Holy Sepulchre was left untouched. The dome of the Rock was made just a metre bigger … and constructed from gold.
For Muslims the Dome of the Rock is the second only to Meccas as a place of pilgrimage and as a holy shrine. Jewish people want to get as close to the holy of holies, at the western end of the Temple as possible and so they pray at what they used to call the wailing wall, but since taking over control in Jerusalem they now call the Western wall – that’s the wall of the box that holds the plaza as close to where the temple used to be as possible.
This is the nearest Jewish people can get to the location where God’s presence has been located and felt more than any other.
I came to see the significance in Constantine choosing to mark the hill outside the city wall where Jesus was crucified and buried … but it perturbed me to see that Christians have made that place into a ‘holy place’.
It seems to me to miss the point. For Christians it is a different story. The place, the location does not have the same kind of significance.
At the southern end of the Temple Mount excavations have revealed the steps that originally led up to the only tunnel-like gateways that were the only access point up on to Herod’s phenomenally big plaza and so to the Temple itself.
To walk up those steps is to walk up the very steps Jesus would have walked whenever he visited the Temple, not least on that first occasion he would be able to remember when he was just twelve years old. Maybe he was just like the family we saw marking their son’s Bar Mitzvah, his coming of age.
What did Jesus do on that occasion? When our group was asked that question, we had to rack our brains … Jesus was lost by his parents who eventually found him up on that Temple Mount, on that plaza, maybe under one of the colonnaded areas that provided shade … and our memory suggested he was discussing with some of the teachers who would regularly gather there.
That’s not quite what the text says.
Luke tells us in 2:46 that After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.
That’s what caught my eye.
Listening and asking questions.
That’s something Jesus was to do for the rest of his life. The Gospels are full of questions Jesus asked. So often when asked a question, Jesus would ask another question in return. Later on our journey as we sat in the synagogue on the site of the earlier synagogue where Jesus spent so much time in the city of Capernaum which he used as a base for most of his teaching ministry, we shared what would happen in that synagogue. It was a place of listening. But also a place of asking questions.
This was the way of learning for Jewish rabbis. It is through listening and asking questions that you learn, not just about God and his word … you learn of God, you learn of God’s presence in the world, in your life and in all that you do.
When Matthew tells us in 4:23 that Jesus went throughout Galilee teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every sickness and disease, the kind of teaching Jesus engaged in there in the synagogue would have involved listening and asking questions.
Our time in the synagogue over, we went up the mountain, just as Jesus had done. And there as we walked down towards the sea of Galilee we stopped in the shade of olive trees and heard the opening words of Jesus’s sermon on the mount.
This was his proclamation of the good news of the kingdom.
As he comes to the end of his sermon, he begins to wrap things up in chapter 7. The first six verses seem to be all about what you do with what you learn, and about how you learn of God. Don’t judge others. Don’t pick faults in others, attend to your own faults first, don’t throw your teaching away.
Then it is that he comes to words I have always tended to see in quite a different light. I have always thought they were to do with prayer and asking for things from God.
But having walked up the very steps Jesus walked up to the Temple where he ‘listened and asked questions’, having sat on the site of the synagogue where his teaching would have followed that pattern of listening and asking questions, I saw these verses in quite a different light.
This is the key not just to learning about God, but it is the key to discovering the presence of God. Ask, seek, knock: For then you will receive, you will find, the door will be opened for you.
This is how to do discipleship.
But asking, seeking, learning is not enough.
The learning, the sense of the presence of God, must be matched by action.
In everything ‘do’.
For Jesus, listening and asking questions, important though that is, is never enough. That must lead on to action.
On the way into our seminar room, was a poster with the golden rule in many different faiths, not least Christianity.
Do to others …
This is the heart of the matter.
That involves putting yourself in other people’s shoes. Seeing as other people see. Doing to others as you would have others do to you.
Then we come to the climax of all this teaching.
For many in Jesus day the presence of God had a very specific location. It was in the holy of holies in the temple on the temple mount. Jewish people still regard it as the holiest of holy places. Muslims have come to regard it as a shrine second only to Mecca.
But for Christians … location is not all important.
Jesus comes to the end of his magnificent sermon and he has a story to tell. How we trivialise it! It’s the story of a wise man and a foolish man. Anyone who knows their Hebrew Scriptures as all those folk would have done would instantly have thought of the first nine chapters of the Book of Proverbs – that book of Solomon’s wisdom. They contrast the wise and the foolish.
Anyone who hears these words of mine, says Jesus, and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.
The presence of God itself, is located, not on that rocky outcrop on the Temple Mount where once stood the Temple, and in the holiest of holy places. The presence of God itself is located wherever anyone, us included hears the words of Christ and acts on them.
Listen and ask questions – that’s for all of us to do, not least Becky as you join us in your work as pastoral assistant.
Do to others as you would have others do to you – that’s for all of us to heed, not least Becky as you join us in your work as pastoral assistant.
Hear these words of Christ and act on them … for in doing that you will be the place where God’s presence is located on earth