Sunday, 30 October 2016

The parable of the playhouse

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

30th October 2016 11.00am

Biblical Buildings Series: The first temple
1 Kings 6.1-10; 7.51; 8.1, 12-13
Revelation 21.1-4, 9-11, 22-27

The parable of the playhouse.

There once was a man who wrote plays,
          and not just any old plays,
                   but the most exciting, daring, and innovative plays
                   that had ever been written in his native language.

He re-told the stories of his national history in new ways,
          bringing the foundational myths of his people
                   to life in new and vibrant ways.

He took risks, and despite the fact
          that his audiences included Kings and Queens,
he raised questions about royal power,
          and the rights of the common man.

He made people laugh,
          he made people think,
                   he made people cry.
He even shaped the language and society of his people
          for centuries to come,
          such was the power of the stories he told.

Originally, he and his troop of actors performed in halls,
          and in the open air, and in rented theatres.

But so successful was he,
          that in time he acquired his own theatre,
                   as a permanent home
                   from which his stories could shine across the city.

And it worked – the theatre was a success.

People flocked to it,
          the poor standing in crowds near the stage,
          and the rich and noble sitting high up,
                   away from the stench of the commoners.

He told his stories, and performed his plays,
          and became rich and famous,
          and then he retired and died.

For a while, the theatre carried on much as before,
          performing his plays in rotation,
                   packing the house with people
                   eager to be inspired and entertained
                   by the daring vibrancy of the stories and the language.

But in time, the building started to show its age,
          as did the plays.
Those who wanted to see them, had seen them,
          some of them twice or more.

And so the crowds dropped away,
          apart from a few die-hard fans,
                   who would still come to anything
                   just so long as it reminded them of the glory days
                   when the playwright was still alive.

But eventually the theatre closed,
          and passed into the mists of memory and history.

But here’s the thing.
          The plays lived on.

The playwright’s words continued to inspire,
          to provoke, to entertain, and to challenge.

New generations discovered them,
          and they brought fresh light
          to contexts far removed from the city where they had been written.

The words just wouldn’t,
          perhaps they couldn’t, die.

In time, after many centuries,
          some of those who loved the words of the playwright
          said that whilst innovation and contextualisation
                   had got everyone this far,
                   and a jolly good thing that was too,
          we were now a very long way from where we had started.

And perhaps it might be interesting
          to try and strip away the centuries,
to hear the words as they had originally been heard.

So they built another theatre, a replica of the original playhouse.

And it was brilliant, it was exciting,
          the plays came to life again
          as they hadn’t done for many years.

People flocked to it,
          the poor standing in crowds near the stage,
          and the rich and noble sitting high up,
                   away from the stench of the commoners.

It was like nothing had changed, and everyone loved it.
          People became rich, and famous, and retired on their reputations.

But then, slowly, it started to feel a bit stale.
          All the plays had been performed, some of them twice or more.
And people started to worry that the crowds might drop away,
          leaving only a few die-hard fans
                   who would come to anything
                   just so long as it reminded them of the glory days.

So, because this is capitalist London,
          and the market was now king,
          they decided to innovate.

They brought change to the new playhouse.
          A new artistic director, a woman in a man’s world;
                   and she changed the staging, the lighting, and the sound,
                   and she asked for gender balance amongst the actors.

Some loved it, and many new people came.
          But some, who had been there for a while,
                   and loved it the way it used to be,
          hated the change and the innovation.
They wanted the playwright’s words
          to be heard as they had always been heard,
          at least since the new playhouse was built.

And so Emma Rice was asked to leave the Globe.

And the blogger on the theatre website said:

“Make no mistake:
          this isn't an argument about electric lighting and amplification,
                   whatever the Globe board says.
                   It's much deeper than that.
It's about who gets to make Shakespeare,
          for whom and how.
If we insist on doing things as they've always been done
          – and what's original practice if not that –
          nothing will change.
We'll get the same people
          making the same theatre
          for the same audiences forever.”[1]

To which I would only add,
          that is why Solomon’s temple didn’t last.

The greatest building in ancient history,
          constructed as a house for God himself,
to shine for all time as a beacon to the city of David,
          of the eternal words of the Lord of heaven,
was sacked and destroyed by the Babylonians
          a mere four centuries after it was constructed.

Except, paradoxically,
          in a strange kind of way it did last.

The building that Solomon built
          may have only endured 400 years,
but the idea of the temple
          far outlived its original embodiment.


Just as the idea of the playhouse endured
          as a permanent home for the playwright in the parable,
so the idea of the temple
          as a permanent home for God
has echoed down the millennia to the present day.

But it had all started with such good intentions,
          this plan by the wisest man who ever lived,
          to build a permanent house for the Lord,
                   the God of the whole earth.

It was a credible attempt,
          one might even say a wise attempt,
to answer that most difficult of theological conundrums:
          of where, on earth, is God to be found?

Different cultures, and different religions,
          have supplied an almost infinite variety of answers
          to this question of where one might go to find God.

The early animist religions
          held that God was everywhere and in all things.
More a divinity arising from the natural world
          than a transcendent deity
          in some way separate from creation.

So, in those early days, the divine could be found
          at the top of the mountain,
or in the spring arising from the ground,
          or in the sea, or in the crops,
          or in the sun, or the thunder,
or, in fact, anywhere that people chose to see the divine.

By this understanding,
          all one had to do to find God was to go outside.

And it was only one small step
          from there to the question
          of how one might recognise God when one finds him,
and so people started to manufacture physical representations
          of the various expressions of the divine
          that they had sensed in the world around them.

They made clay figures, or carved wooden statues,
          to represent the gods of this place or that,
and they came to the practice
          of worshipping these representations of the divine spirit of creation.

So if you lived in the ancient near east,
          you might have a collection of household gods,
                   which you would take with you if you went travelling,
                   and which you could leave to your children when you died.
          And every day you would make a small offering to them,
                   praying for the safety of your children,
                   or for the success of your crops.

And here, I think,
          we can trace the first attempts to build a home for God.

The wild divine spirit of creation,
          the God of the whole earth,
                   the God of the mountain and the valley,
                   and the spring and the sea,
                   and the thunder and the earthquake,
          became housed within idols to be worshipped.

It’s not that those worshipping the idols
          were necessarily even worshipping the wrong God,
          it’s just that it’s a view of God that is too small.

It’s the process of containing the infinite other
          and reducing God down to the size of something controllable
          that ends up being condemned as idolatrous.

And so we come to the great insight of Abraham,
          the father of the Jewish people,
                   and the spiritual ancestor of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.

His revelation was that there were not many gods,
          but just one God.

He saw through the idols,
          and beyond the fragmentation of the divine,
          to a greater vision of one God of the whole earth.

Not just the god of a particular place, of a specific household,
                   or even of a chosen nation,
          but one God of the whole earth.

And he heard a promise
          that if his descendants gave faithful witness
                   to this one God of all creation,
          then all nations and all the earth would be blessed.

But then, in time, the God of all peoples
          became the God of the Jews.
And the God of the whole earth
          became the God of the promised land.

And the process of shrinking God down
          to a size that could be understood, managed, and controlled,
          began all over again.

And so we come to Solomon’s temple,
          the first great Jewish attempt to contain God in a building.

I don’t know whether Solomon thought to put a plaque
          on the wall of his new temple when he’d finished it,
          but I like to think he did.

In my head, it might have read,
          ‘The Temple: Built to the glory of God, and in memory of Solomon’,
                   like the many plaques that so often adorn
                   the churches and cathedrals of our own age.

Because here’s the thing: a building of this magnitude,
          a building of such status and beauty,
          is never just built to the glory of God.

After all, the story of the Tabernacle tell us that
          God used to live in a tent, and seemed quite happy with that.

No, these grand buildings that we put up
          are always, either implicitly or explicitly,
                   dedicated not only to the glory of God,
                   but to the memory of the builder.

If I were really cynical, which I am, let’s face it,
          I’d turn the wording of the plaque round the other way,
                   and have it read:
          ‘The Temple, Built to the glory of Solomon, and in memory of God’.

Because the attempt to contain God in a grand building,
          to force God to live at an address of our choosing,
          is always the work of those
                   who are, at some level, seeking to control God.

In the case of Solomon,
          the construction of the temple
                   was the culmination of the project begun by his father
                   to unify the disparate tribes of Israel
                             into a single nation with secure defined borders.

What Solomon discovered
          was that trying to draw people together in this way
                   was somewhat harder than it might at first appear,
          and so he built the temple, in the city of his father David,
                   as the grandest of all possible statements
                   that the sons of David rule at the behest of God,
          who is now pleased to dwell, exclusively, in their city.

It was the perfect fusion of religion and state,
          and it’s a winning formula that has been replicated
          down the centuries from Jerusalem, to Rome, to London.

It’s a view of God where God belongs to the king,
          lives in a house that is owned by the king,
          and becomes, in effect, the King’s slave.

And as the state takes control of God,
          and as God is domesticated to the service of the powerful elite,
the move away from the wild, free,
          uncontrollable God of the animist religions, is complete.

The God of organised religion is both controlled and controlling
          And the big vision of God that Abraham glimpsed
                   becomes, by degrees,
                   a desire for a far more parochial deity.

It’s almost an inverse correlation:
          the grander the building built to house God,
          the smaller the view of God that lies behind it.

And this is because, theologically speaking,
          the building of a temple, or a cathedral, or a church,
is very revealing, both of the view of God held by the builder,
          and of the view of the people of God that will worship there.

I’ll put that another way:
          you can tell a lot about what people believe
          by looking at the buildings they put up.

And this is because buildings don’t come cheap,
          and they represent a substantial investment
          of time, effort, and money.
So people will only build
          what they believe to be important.

Think, for a moment, of the churches known to you,
          and how they speak of the theology of those who worship there.

Take, for example, London’s own great house for God,
          Westminster Abbey.

Here’s a photo from my family album,
          of the coronation of Elizabeth in 1963.
The arrow points to my great-grandfather,
          William Gwynne Woodman,
who was Messenger Sgt Major of the Yeoman of the Guard
          and so took the lead place in the personal bodyguard of the monarch.

You can clearly see in the architecture of this building,
          how it was constructed to keep people apart from each other:
with the priests at the far end beyond the screen
          having exclusive access to the holy altar,
whilst the laity are confined to the area near the door.

This is a view of God where God is the preserve of the privileged and holy few,
          it is the God of the king, the God of the Archbishop,
          the God of the priests and the professional worshippers.

The God of the architecture of Westminster Abbey
          is the God of the state,
          and the building reflects that fusion,
something seen most clearly, of course,
          in the photograph of my great-grandfather,
where we have just had the new monarch
          crowned by none other than the archbishop of Canterbury.

Whereas a different sanctuary, this one for example,
          here at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
          takes a very different approach.

Here, the most important thing in 1848 when it was built,
          was that a very large number of people
          could sit and listen to one man speaking.
And so we ended up with the shape and design
          that we find ourselves siting in today.

At Bloomsbury, as in other Baptist churches,
          God is encountered through the preaching of the word,
          as the scriptures are opened and God is revealed.

The God of Bloomsbury is the God of the people
          not the God of the state,
and is accessible to all,
          not just to the elite few.

You see how the building reflects the theology
          of the people who build it?

And so, as we consider Solomon’s temple,
          built to the glory of God and in memory of Solomon,
we have to realise that what he was constructing
          wasn’t just a house of prayer, or a house for God.

He was constructing an idea,
          and the idea was that God can be contained,
                   constrained, and even confined,
          by the efforts and activities of the people who bear God’s name.

And this is an idea that has life far beyond
          the temporal historical buildings
          that the idea caused people to build.

Temples may be destroyed, cathedrals crumble to dust,
          but we still build houses for God,
ostensibly to worship him,
          and to proclaim his glory among the nations;
but all too easily the desire for worship and glorification
          becomes a desire for control and constraint
                   as we make the God of all nations into our God,
          and as the God who made us in his own image
                   becomes an image fashioned after our own likeness.

So here we are, in our wonderful building,
          and the builders still haven’t finished our latest renovation,
          although we’re getting there.

And the question before us as a church
          is what do we have this building for?

Is it so that God can dwell with us,
          and so that we can be his people in this place?
Does God live at 235 Shaftesbury Avenue?

I really hope not.

The book of Revelation offers us an alternative picture
          of God dwelling not in an earthly temple or building at all.

The new Jerusalem, which is the people of God, the bride of Christ,
          is described as a city with no temple.

God dwells not in any building or in any place,
          but rather is known and encountered
          through the Spirit of Christ who is sent out into all the earth.

The heart of the new Jerusalem is not a temple,
          but a river and a tree bearing fruit.

God is known not through a building or an idol,
          but through nature and direct revelation.

In many ways, this is a return to the animist religions
          where it all started.

There is no such thing, it emerges, as a holy place,
          there is no such thing as a sanctuary,
because all of life is holy,
          and all of creation reveals the nature of God.

As with the words of the playwright in our parable,
          the words of the story of God revealed in Christ
          cannot be contained forever within one structure.

This story is bigger than any building,
          bigger than any theology,
          bigger than any attempt to own or control it.

It can flourish in a temple, or a cathedral,
          or a church, or a chapel.
But the story of God will not remain there.
          We have no monopoly on the presence of God.

As C.S. Lewis said of Aslan,
          ‘he’s not a tame lion, you know.’

My friend Noel Moules puts it rather well:

He says that Jesus did not come to start a new religion.
          But that rather, he came to offer a universal spirituality
                   so integrated into daily life, and so connected with creation,
          that the very idea of religion becomes virtually meaningless.

The vision of the city with no temple
          is a rediscovery of the vision of the story of the garden of Eden,
where God is walking with people
          and the walls that keep people from God have ceased to exist.

As Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans (1.20):
‘Ever since the creation of the world
          God’s eternal power and divine nature,
Invisible though they are,
          have been understood and seen
          through everything God has made’

Or to quote again from the Book of Revelation (5.13):
‘And everything created in the skies, and on the earth,
          and under the earth and on the oceans,
and all things that are within them,
          I heard singing …’

The words of life are far bigger than our buildings,
          far wider than any structures, physical or symbolic,
          that we seek to put around them.

Because the God of Abraham is the God of the whole earth.

Our task is, perhaps, simply to learn to recognise God for who he is,
          to seek him wherever he may be found,
          and to resist the temptation to seek to own him and make him ours.


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