In the old Jerusalem, the heart of the city was the Temple, and the heart of the Temple was the Holy of Holies and the kapporeth, or mercy seat – the empty space above the Ark of the Covenant, between the two golden cherubim whose wings served as God’s throne. The Holy of Holies was the most sacred space on earth. It was the space which connected heaven to earth and also was where the Jews believed the Creator emerged whenever God wanted to renew creation.
It was important that the Jews left an empty space for God between the two golden cherubim. For this empty space was the most potent sign of Israel’s repudiation of idols, the great speaking absence between the images. You would think that at the center of the city and at the center of the temple, you would want some beautiful picture or symbol to remind God’s people of who God is and what God has done. But the Jews believed that God can only be faithfully presented through absence. So, to go and see God in Jerusalem was to look at the curtained holy place and know that behind it is the empty space from which mercy and promise come forth.
This silence speaks volumes doesn’t it? The Jews insisted that often in our world, the only possibility of knowing God is to face the silence, the absence between the cherubim. That God’s presence is a weak presence, often hidden, out of reach of our everyday lives. Sure they longed and prayed for God to be more visibly present in their lives, but the Jews understood that this silence was necessary. For only when one faces the silence can we learn to look to a God who is free to forgive and re-create because this God is not bound by our imaginings. God is not bound by our visions, hopes, and dreams. And this is what enables the mercy-seat to be the place of reconciliation. When one faces the silence, one learns that no one can make any claim on God, can place any restriction on God by one’s guilt-conditioned fancies, but can only stand in trust and expectancy. Thus it is here, and only here, that we can attempt to meet the God who is free from all our images of God, free from our past and our memories, and thus free to give us a future radically different than our present.
Our text from Revelation is one of my favorite texts in all of Scripture. I know of no Scripture more beautiful than John’s picture of the New Jerusalem. It is a generative image that captures your imagination and expands your wildest dreams about God’s mission in the world and God’s vision for the church. I bet I’ve read this scripture a hundred times, and yet, this week I noticed something that I hadn’t seen before. Verse 22. When John says: “I saw no temple in the city.”
Now if you have paid much attention to my sermons these past seven years, then you know that one of my favorite themes to preach on is the Temple. The more I have studied the Temple, the more I have come to realize that this is one of the most central, and yet, overlooked themes which runs all throughout the New Testament. And I’m also convinced that a better understanding of the Temple helps us develop a more holistic and non-violent understanding of Jesus’ atonement.
Let’s take a quick look at a few of the crucial places which the Temple of God is referenced throughout the birth, life and death of Jesus. In John 1, when we are told that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, John uses an interesting word to describe Jesus’ incarnation. The word dwelt is best translated as “pitched his tent” among us. The tent referring to tent of meeting, the mobile shrine of God that served as God’s house for hundreds of years. John opens by begging us to see Jesus as the holy place of God, for the Creator has emerged again among God’s creation.
Similarly, when Luke describes Mary’s miraculous pregnancy, the text is littered with echoes to God’s Temple. For here Mary is overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, much like the cherubim overshadowed the empty space of the mercy seat. Mary is supposed to be understood as the Immaculate Ark. For she is the portal which enables heaven and earth to merge, she is the one who enables God to erupt into our world.
At the crucifixion of Jesus, again we find numerous references to the Temple of God. For example, in Matthew’s Gospel, we are told that at the moment of Jesus’ death, an earthquake occurred which tore the curtain of the temple in two from top to bottom. This curtain, of course, is the veil which separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple, separated God’s space from human space. And the demolishing of this veil during Jesus’ death shows us that Christ’s atoning work has forever ended this separation between God and us. Now God is among us forever.
John paints a similar picture when he describes the resurrection. Do you recall the resurrection scene with Mary and the empty tomb? What does Mary see when she glances into the tomb? “Two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.” Two angels seated between empty space. Is this beginning to sound familiar? What Mary sees when she glances into the tomb is the kapporeth, the cherubim throne, the mercy seat of God. But here, the stone has been removed, the veil is no more. And the Creator is on the loose. God is no more confined to the space of the Holy of Holies. And this is why Jesus calls out to Mary from outside the tomb. For God has broken free.
One last important moment where we find echoes to the Temple of God – Pentecost. If you recall, the story of Pentecost is all about tongues of fire coming down and resting upon the people. This language is familiar all throughout the Old Testament and it is always used to describe events relating to God’s Holy Temple. On Pentecost, God’s temple descends upon us, for the people, the church has become God’s Temple for the world. We are to be agents who work with God to restore and repair God’s creation. So it is no surprise that after Pentecost the two marks of the early church were to redistribute food and to pray together. For these were the two central acts of God’s Temple. The church is now called to enact these principles.
I hope by now you can see how important the theme of God’s Temple is throughout the New Testament. It appears at all the moments central to our faith: Jesus’ birth, Jesus’ death, Jesus’ resurrection, and Pentecost, the birth of the church. And I’m sure as we continue to read the New Testament through this lens, we could find many other important moments structured around this theme. For this reason, I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that John returns to this focus when describing God’s vision for the church and the world – the heavenly city which is coming and continues to come down to earth.
Taken together with all the other incidences mentioned earlier, it makes sense that the heavenly city needs no temple. Because all these texts mentioned above point to the same reality – the veil of the sanctuary has been torn down. And the creator is again on the loose. The throne is the Lord God and the Lamb. The place of atonement and promise is no longer the hopeful silence between our words. There is no more need for a mercy seat. God has been freed from this holy place and now creation can be made alive again.
And because the creator is on the loose, instead of finding a Temple in the middle of the city, we find Eden. Our text this morning tells us that in the middle of the city, we find “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb…. On either side of the river is the tree of life. … the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more.”
John paints this amazing picture, this image for the kingdom of God, to inspire us to embody tangible acts of disciples as followers of the Lamb. The Holy city is here. And the Holy city is us. And in the center of this city there is no longer any need for a Temple. Instead the center of the city is a garden, a new Eden, where resurrection blooms and spaces of life flourish. This city reminds us of our mission as God’s people – to be the healing of the nations. To bring reconciliation to our broken world so that spaces of Eden can find a home among us.
However, there is another reason that the new Jerusalem is lacking a Temple at the center of the city. And that is because we are supposed to understand the entire city as the Holy of Holies itself. If you know anything about the size of the Holy City, then you know that it is huge (to use an overused word during this political season). I always knew that this holy city was laid out in a square, because that is how the Romans always laid out their new cities. We are told in Revelation 21:16 that “the city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide. He measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia in length.” Now a stadia probably means nothing to you. But 12,000 stadia is about one thousand five hundred miles. This is a massive city, about the same footprint as the entire land mass of the Roman Empire.
But what I failed to realize until this week, is that the city isn’t just a square. It is also a cube. For John goes on to insist that the city was as wide and as high as it was long. What an odd detail. Why mention that the city is as high as it is wide and long? Because the Holy of Holies, the place where God dwelt, was also cube- shaped. 1 Kings 6:19-20 states “Then Solomon prepared an inner sanctuary within the house in order to place there the ark of the covenant of the LORD. The inner sanctuary was twenty cubits in length, twenty cubits in width, and twenty cubits in height.”
Why can there be no Temple in the city? Because the holy city is a Temple, or more precisely, the entire city is the Holy of Holies, the space of God which used to be accessible to only a privileged few is now available to everyone. And that means that all who belong to this city, that we are to be spaces where heaven and earth overlap. We are to see ourselves as God’s tabernacling presence in the world. We make God accessible to all who seek God throughout the world. We are now the space where God is. No longer is there need for veils nor for silence between the cherubim, because now the world has us.
We are to see ourselves as “Holy of Holies.” We are sacred spaces which link heaven to earth. And our only temple is the Lord God and the Lamb. The light of our presence is not a sanctuary lamp but the light in which the people of God see each other’s faces. Revelation 22:4 states: “They will see his face and his name shall be on their foreheads.” In other words, our language and our bodies are not to be understood as mechanisms for isolating ourselves but for the sharing of God with each other, the showing to one another of the divine freedom and creative mercy. Instead of silence, we are to be signs of God’s transfiguration of the world. We are called to be to each other not idols, but icons. And we speak and display God even when it appears that God remains silent. We speak God’s name in the very fact of our being. For God is as close to us as the clasp of our brother’s or our sister’s hand. For God’s name is on our foreheads.
This is why Jesus is our Temple. For here is a life in which the detail, even the triviality, of a human story becomes the word and name of God to us. Here is a human life that shows us that the contours of a human story can be the presence of God. That being human and being God are called to overlap. And if we are drawn into the word and acts and passion of Jesus that his life and death are at work in us, we become sanctuaries to each other, holy places, mercy-seats. Our lives are to speak God’s name to each other in the very fact of our being. This is why there is no more need for temples. Because the presence of God is located all around us. If you want to see God, all you have to do is turn to your neighbor. That’s how close God is.
Do you often feel like God is silent? Do you find yourselves questioning if the Jews had it right, and that God’s presence in the world is a weak-presence, discernible only in absence, in the empty space behind the veil? What John reminds us this morning, is that if we want to find God’s presence, then all we have to do is turn to our neighbor. That is how close God is. The whole mystery of God can be known in the clasp of your brother’s or sister’s hand. For we are Holy of Holies. Each of us bears the name of God on our foreheads. Our bodies display God to the world and to one another.
And how do we bring Eden to earth? How does it become a reality that blossoms out of our life together? It begins by learning the lessons of John’s vision. Learning to read the name of God on the foreheads of our neighbors. To be present, truly present to the people around you so that you can see them as signs of God’s mercy and liberty. So that their lives make visible the grace and truth of Christ. When we learn to see each other face to face, when we come to see each other as God’s beautiful presence among us, then we see God face to face, as well. And when we learn to look to each other for signs of God’s promise, then indeed, for the whole human world, “there shall be no more night.”