By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts
February 3, 2002



2 Kings 22:1-13 Repairing the temple

Josiah was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem for thirty-one years. His mother's name was Jedidah daughter of Adaiah; she was from Bozkath. He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and walked in all the ways of his father David, not turning aside to the right or to the left.

In the eighteenth year of his reign, King Josiah sent the secretary, Shaphan son of Azaliah, the son of Meshullam, to the temple of the Lord. He said: "Go up to Hilkiah the high priest and make him get ready the money that has been brought into the temple of the Lord, which the doorkeepers have collected from the people. Make them entrust it to the men appointed to supervise the work on the temple. And make these men pay the workers who repair the temple of the Lord--the carpenters, the builders and the masons. Also make them purchase timber and dressed stone to repair the temple. But they need not account for the money entrusted to them, because they are acting faithfully."

Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, "I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the Lord." He gave it to Shaphan, who read it. Then Shaphan the secretary went to the king and reported to him: "Your officials have paid out the money that was in the temple of the Lord and have entrusted it to the workers and supervisors at the temple." Then Shaphan the secretary informed the king, "Hilkiah the priest has given me a book." And Shaphan read from it in the presence of the king.

When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes. He gave these orders to Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Acbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary and Asaiah the king's attendant: "Go and enquire of the Lord for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the Lord's anger that burns against us because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us."

John 2:13-22 Jesus clears the temple

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove them all from the temple area, both the sheep and the cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, "Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!"

His disciples remembered that it is written: "Zeal for your house will consume me."

Then the Jews demanded of him, "What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?"

Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days."

The Jews 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. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.

Apocalypse Revealed #192 The symbolism of the temple

The temple symbolizes three things: the Lord, the church in heaven, and the church in the world. These three make one, and cannot be separated from each other.

Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, "I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the Lord." (2 Kings 22:8)

Our Bible readings this morning speak of both the destruction and the rebuilding of the temple. And as I contemplated these readings while preparing the thoughts I would present to you today, I could not make up my mind whether to focus on our individual spiritual growth as usual, or to continue last week's broader look at our church as a whole.

Then it occurred to me that this isn't necessarily an either/or situation. We can look at both of them together because they are essentially the same thing, only on a different scale. Each of us as an individual is a microcosm, whereas the church and the wider human community are macrocosms. The smaller reflects the larger, and vice versa. Swedenborg puts it this way in Divine Love and Wisdom #319:

The people of ancient times called a human being a microcosm because an individual reflects the macrocosm, which is the universe as a whole. But these days, people do not know why the ancients described a human being in this way. All we see of the universe, or macrocosm, in an individual human being is that we are nourished and live physically from its animal and vegetable kingdoms, and that we hear and breathe by means of its atmosphere. But these are not what makes us a microcosm reflecting the macrocosm of the universe and everything in it.

Rather, the ancients called the human being "microcosm," or "little universe," because of their knowledge of correspondences (which the most ancient people had), and from their contact with the angels of heaven. Heaven's angels know from what they see around them that everything in the universe, if considered as to its function, resembles the human form.

In other words, the universe as a whole functions on the grand scale just as an individual human being functions on a small scale. And this is true of everything in between, too. So when we look at the way our church works, we are also looking at the way each one of us as an individual works, and vice versa.

One of the things that we know, both about the church as a whole and about ourselves as individuals, is that sometimes we lose sight of the purpose of our existence.

We may think that the church has a whole different reason for existing than we as individuals do. After all, the church is a religious sort of thing. It's all about God and heaven and spirituality and all that stuff. But we're just plain, ordinary people; and we're all about . . . what? What are we all about anyway? Are we all about working and eating and drinking and wearing clothes and having houses and driving cars? No. None of these is what we're really all about. These are simply things we do in order to achieve our greater goals. Or at least, that's what these material things are supposed to be, and not ends in themselves.

So what are we here for? What is our greater goal? Didn't God put us here, like the church, to be all about God and heaven and spirituality? About love and understanding and serving our neighbor and our Lord? Aren't we really here for exactly the same reasons that the church exists?

In fact, what would the church even be if it weren't for the people who make it up? It would be nothing. As I said last week, we are the church. There is no other church but us. Yes, there is the Bible, and there are the writings of our church, and there are constitutions and bylaws for our congregation and our denomination. There are thousands of Swedenborgian books and periodicals that we can read. But all of these were produced by people, for people. And all of them were in some measure inspired by the Lord to show us the way to truly be the church for one another, and for God.

So it's really no different whether we talk about the church as a body or about you or I as individuals. We are all here for the same reason, whether we realize it or not. We are all here to learn how to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and how to love our neighbor as ourselves. The church exists to help us learn and practice this, and we as individuals exist to help one another learn and practice this. The real church is not a building or a constitution or even a set of beliefs. It is the living body of humans who gather together to support one another in learning and practicing our faith.

Jesus knew what the church, or the "temple," really was. He told his fellow Jews that if they destroyed the temple, he would rebuild it in three days. They didn't understand. They thought the temple was a building--just as we sometimes think the church is a building. But he knew what the church really was. The temple he had spoken of was his body; it was the living presence of God with us as a human being.

Our church is not a building either. It is the living presence of each one of us, and of all of us together as a body. And especially it is the living presence of the Lord Jesus among us, forming us into the body of Christ. That is the church. The building and the constitution and even the teachings of our church are simply tools that we use to do the work of the church. They are tools that we use in doing the work God has put us here on earth to do.

Sometimes we lose sight of this. Sometimes we get crazy ideas about what we're here for. We think we're here to have the best looking body, or the nicest house, or the most money, or the smartest brain, or the most physical pleasure, or the most toys. Or we think we're here to tell everyone else what to do. And when we start acting on these crazy ideas, our lives start falling apart. We spend so much time making money that we forget about our families and friends, and our relationships start to fall apart. We start thinking we're so smart and that everyone else should do what we say, and pretty soon no one can stand being around us anymore. We may build up a beautiful body, but we're so vain about it that the only one who gets any pleasure out of it is ourselves--and we're never quite satisfied, either.

When we start going after any of these other things, our temple starts to fall into disrepair. Our priorities are all wrong. The stones of truth and mortar of love that are meant to form a solid structure of character start getting loose. Our mental and emotional character begins to get dilapidated, with one ethical principle falling down here, and another piece of our moral code falling down there, until the temple of our spiritual character begins to look more like a ruin than a magnificent structure built for the glory of God.

This is exactly what had happened with the children of Israel when King Josiah took the throne at the tender age of eight years. Most of the kings who had come before him were corrupt and evil in God's sight, having substituted idol worship for the worship of God, while committing all kinds of immoral, unethical, and illegal acts. They had lost sight of God's good and righteous laws. They had become a lawless people who ran after every idol that came their way from the polytheistic, idol-worshipping people among whom they lived. They had even placed idols in the very temple of the Lord, while allowing its structure to gradually crumble into disrepair.

This was the situation when King Josiah, now a young man, ordered the repair of the temple. He had seen enough of the disrepair and neglect of the things of God. He decided that it was time to repair and renovate the temple, and to rededicate the people to their spiritual roots. So he arranged for honest workers to be paid from the regular offerings that the people made at the temple. The workers were to use that money to repair the temple and restore it to its original order and beauty. And as they did this, they found a lost treasure: the Book of the Law--their most sacred scriptures, given to them by God in generations past.

Of course, our congregation has had some fairly recent painful experience with church renovations. It was during renovations to the church in the summer of 1994 that the fire broke out that destroyed the roof of our sanctuary and the steeple along with it. And those of you who were here at that time lived through that terrible destruction, as well as the process of rebuilding and repairing our "temple." It wasn't until the fall 1998, when the steeple was rebuilt and fitted with a communications antenna, that the exterior of the church was fully restored. And even today, the interior is not completely whole. We are still missing our pipe organ, and most of the beautiful ceiling beams in our sanctuary.

During the renovations, this congregation also discovered a treasure. It is something that we had known; but perhaps, like the Book of the Law, it had gotten lost under the clutter in the struggle to survive as a congregation, and had faded from our memory. When we saw the church building half destroyed, but the church itself--the people of the church--only grow stronger, we knew and experienced that the church is not the building, but the people.

And there is something more that we are gradually discovering as we metaphorically "read the Book of the Law"--as we follow out the meaning of the discovery that the church is really the people, and that we exist as a congregation for the people. This church, like most others in our denomination (not to mention most other Christian churches), had been in a long, slow decline for many decades leading up to the 1990s and that dramatic low point in 1994 when fire almost took our sanctuary away from us.

Of course, part of this decline was due to our society's move away from church attendance and toward more and more secular activity. The Christian Church as a whole was in major decline through much of the twentieth century--especially between the fifties and the nineties. And our church declined along with it.

However, I believe there was a greater issue involved in the church's decline. As a denomination, and in most of our local churches, we had lost sight of the reason for our existence. We had lost our "Book of the Law," which is summed up in the two Great Commandments: love the Lord above all, and love our neighbor as ourselves. We had more and more focused our energy on our own survival--which is an inward-looking focus--and had become more and more disengaged from the wider neighbor of our community, which we are commanded to love and serve. We had strayed from the path that our Lord showed us in the Bible. As a result, we continued our decline, to the point where the very existence of the church that we were trying to preserve was in serious question.

Only gradually are we realizing that it is as we look outside ourselves that our church--the real church that is the people--gets repaired and rebuilt. It is as we look out into our community and search out needs that we can fill, spiritual wants that we can supply, that we begin to draw people into our congregation, and to build up and grow once again. It is as we reach out to our community with services such as our wedding ministry and our public workshops that we rebuild our temple--the temple that is the body of Christ.

And the more we focus ourselves on the task of serving the Lord by serving our neighbor; the more we follow this Law of the Lord that we have rediscovered in the process of rebuilding our church, the more we will find that the real church will be rebuilt and restored not only to its former glory, but to something even greater than it has been before. The more we seek out ways to serve the people of our community, the more we will become the church that we are truly meant to be in God's plan.

What works for us as a church works for us as individuals, too. Each one of us is a church on the smallest scale. And if we have lost and forgotten what the Lord created us for, then our own temple has fallen into disrepair, and the living Book of the Law has gotten buried under the clutter of our busy secular lives.

As we work to rebuild ourselves into the glory for which the Lord has created us, we, like King Josiah, must rededicate ourselves to that living Law that we discover once again, buried in the clutter. Both as individuals and as a church body, we must remember and live out every day those two great commandments: to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Amen.

Music: Love So True
2002 Bruce DeBoer

Used with permission