Jesus wasn’t Jewish.
Well, ethnically speaking, he was. Religiously speaking… well, Jesus didn’t have a religion. He had a relationship.
As one of my friends recently put it after using that phrase: vomit.
Yet it’s true, isn’t it. We have made it in to some sort of cliche, but Jesus related to God in a way that we didn’t even know was possible. What Jesus didn’t do was turn that relationship into another religion. He left that for us to do for him.
First, some history.
From the Altar, to the Temple, to the Curtain
The first people didn’t have a clue what was going on. These outside forces: wind, rain, sun, moonlight, heat, cold… they were all exerting forces upon cave man and cave woman that neither fully understood. Yet they made an important step: they recognised that they were not in control.
Out of this evolved the idea of an altar: sacrificing a portion of worldly goods – crops, mainly – to please these outside forces (‘gods’). What good is some grain to a god? Well, we get hungry, so maybe they do as well?
And so the sacrificial system was born. And it needed regulating. You couldn’t just throw a few crops in their direction every now and then. You had to give the right amount. You had to give the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason. And someone needed to tell you how to do this.
And so, priests.
Priests could tell you exactly what it was you needed to do, and when, and where, and to which god. Often the priests would complete for attention, using scaremongering tactics and insisting that you must give to their God because it is their God who requires your attention at this particular time.
Sound familiar? And there are those that say we have come a long way.
Then a breakthrough happens.
A man named Abram, a Hebrew, hears a voice.
The god’s didn’t speak. They were somewhere else, minding their own business. But this God spoke. This God was something new. And Abram chose to follow this God and disregard the unenlightened idea of many gods and many sacrifices. But the idea of sacrifices was so culturally embellished it would have seemed insanity to Abram to be done with them.
And so, Leviticus.
A book that today we read and think “How barbaric is that?” which was, at the time, a giant leap forward! Only one God, rights for women and slaves, retribution limited to the crime (an eye for an eye) and so on.
But this system wasn’t perfect. People lost sight of the relational God and caught sight of the legalism of sacrifice. All. Over. Again. The very epitome of this reality? The temple to house the presence of God. The God who no longer roamed in the desert with them. The God boxed away in the temple.
And so, finally, Pharisees. And Jesus and a curtain.
But God wasn’t going to stop there. God had brought people so far. They had gone from primitive disaster-prevention keep-God-on-our-side theology (again, sound familiar?) to the understanding that this God forgives, draws a line under, and moves on. He didn’t want them to slip back into preventative legalism forever.
So God sent his one and only son so that “whoever believes in Him may have life and have it to the full”. This one and only Son carried the presence of God as a part of his being. Wherever he went. People didn’t understand this. It didn’t make sense. But the biggest surprise came the day Jesus was crucified…
The temple curtain tore, and there was nothing there.
No great ball of light,
No golden calf,
No raging beast,
No rush of wind,
Nothing at all.
There was no presence contained within the Temple.
Perhaps there had been, but that was irrelevant now. There was no presence there any more. You couldn’t sacrifice to a temple that had lost its God, now, could you? But you could devote yourself to the God within you, within me, within us, within the earth, the air, the water, within everything.
And that’s the point, God is in all things. And yet beyond them as well.
God simply cannot be confined to a building. Jesus came to make sure that was clear. Jesus came to give us a new way. Jesus came to do away with the boundaries of religion and instead provide us with a meaningful understanding of what it is to relate to God.
And so, us.
Somehow we have lost sight of this. Every week we are encouraged to make sacrifies (often a tenth of our financial income, or perhaps some emotional burden we have been carrying) in the temple courts (our church buildings) and to then accept that God loves and forgives us, so we can then go and love and forgive others.
Something, somewhere, went wrong.
Jesus lived in such a way that he forgave and loved others that he might know what it is to be loved by God. Jesus’ understanding of this system is turned on its head. It makes so much more sense. It is so much more meaningful.
Recently I heard stories of some sort of revival/holy-spirit-encounter going on in Wales. Now, admittedly, I haven’t been to check it out – and I will be doing so soon – but I have been doing a lot of thinking about it. I have seen references to God’s glory being present at the church meeting (inside what looks like an old warehouse. I mean, if you’re going to build a temple, come on guys…) and great and miraculous and wonderful things happening.
Now, I don’t believe for a minute that God can’t and doesn’t do these things. Sure, God can heal. God can give people an encounter with something beyond the physical. But as a culture we seem hellbent on this happening inside our church buildings, at our church services.
Take your mind back to 1904. The Welsh Revival. Stories of people falling to their feet on the streets being overcome by the power and presence of the divine. Now that’s the kind of revival I can imagine God being involved in. But I struggle to see how he would want to be contained within a building. It goes against everything he has been doing with us for thousands of years.
Perhaps then, we have taken a step backwards, and God recognises that.
Perhaps he knows that we simply cannot cope with the idea of a pervasive, ever present divine. Perhaps we have to first rediscover the power of God in buildings before we can accept that it is something which can be found everywhere.
In any case, we have taken a step backward and we must go forward.
Again, I want to reiterate. That doesn’t mean I disapprove or disbelieve what is going on in these sorts of ‘revivals’ (however short-lived and overhyped they often turn out to be). But I do think we need to get to a place where they don’t happen any more because we encounter God outside of the temple.
Let’s take a step forward, friends.
You don’t need to sacrifice to some unknown being. The biggest sacrifice has been paid. You can’t out-do God on that one. Instead, you can simply accept that the sacrifice was made in place of yours. You can accept that the God who was present in the temple is now present everywhere. You can choose to see Him in the places Jesus says he is: in the eyes of the orphan, the widow, the blinded man, the leper, the destitute, the unloved, the weak, the sick. You can choose to see him in nature, in your own life, in your dreams, in your visions.
You can find God everywhere, you can encounter God in all sorts of ways. Ways that don’t require heightened emotions or dramatic music. Ways which don’t require someone shouting at you through a microphone. Ways that can’t be construed to be manufactured. Better, deeper, more divine ways.