Jesus First

January 29, 2017

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Preached by Canon Mark Collinson, using 1 Corinthians 3:10-17 at Evensong on Sunday 29th January, the Forth Sunday of Epiphany.

Haggai 2 In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendour, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.

1 Corinthians 3:10-17

10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. 14 If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If the work is burned, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.

16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?[b] 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

 

Haggai was a prophet of the sixth century BC, at a time when Jerusalem was down at heel. Jerusalem has been lying in ruins for decades; it’s a burnt out shell of a war zone; most of the educated mobile people with means left the city and have settled first as refugees in Babylon. The economy is also in ruins and the Temple, the focal point of the whole city is devastated. (Think of what this cathedral might have looked like after Cromwell’s troops occupied it, destroying the statues and bringing the mortuary chests crashing to the floor.)

Out of these ruins God calls Haggai to enter the political arena and speak God’s message to the governor of Judah, the high priest and the remnant of people that remain. His message is this: do you remember the good old days? Are there any of you old enough to remember when sacrifices were offered in this temple in all its glory? Do you remember when people came in their thousands? Do you remember the singing? Do you remember what made this city great?

Now I’m surprised to hear myself saying this, but Haggai starts to sound a bit like Donald Trump. He says, ‘We’re gonna make Jerusalem great again. It’s gonna be fantastic.’ Haggai says, ‘We’re gonna turn the economy around, we’re gonna have prosperity. Jerusalm First. In fact Temple First.’ He says, ‘The latter splendour of this house is going to be greater than the former’, in other words, this city is going to be returned to its former glory. Haggai rallies the despondent spirits of the people and calls them to ‘work’ like they’ve never worked before – everyone’s going to have jobs! ‘Take courage, all you people of the land,’ says the Lord; ‘work, for I am with you.’

And here we see a few points on which Haggai differs significantly from Donald Trump. Haggai doesn’t say, ‘Vote for me, I’m going to make Jerusalem great again’. He says, ‘The Lord is going to make Jerusalem great again.’ Take courage, the Lord is with you. God says, ‘I will deliver on my promises made centuries ago. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.’

Haggai doesn’t say the Mexicans are gonna pay for it. He says, ‘all nations are going to come to this place, and bring their wealth’. This isn’t about putting up barriers to immigration. The vision Haggai has is that Jerusalem is not just for Jews but for people of all nations, every ethnicity. The revelation of himself that God has given to the people of Israel is to be shared with Gentiles, with people of every race, tribe and tongue. When God shakes the nations, as Haggai describes, God is initiating a flow of people around the world, that is akin to the kind of globalisation we have become accustomed to in the twenty-first century. God’s aim is for all peoples to experience the revelation of Himself. The kingdom of God, pictured by Haggai, is a multi-ethnic kingdom.

And this is exactly the theme Paul uses in his letter to the Corinthians written in the middle of the first century AD. Paul started the church in Corinth during the 18 months he spent there (see Acts 18). He uses the metaphor of rebuilding the temple, as a way of talking about the church – not the church in sense of the building, but the church in the sense of God’s people. He says to the Christians in Corinth: YOU are God’s temple.

Now, who’s the ‘YOU’? Corinth was a particularly multi-cultural city, a prosperous trading city, and the new church there was a mixture of Jews and people from different nations that were all part of Greco-Roman culture.  Paul laid the foundations, and other teachers, such as Apollos, and the husband and wife team of Priscilla and Aquila built on that foundation. Paul is at pains to point out that the foundation of the church is Jesus Christ. Paul is saying, Jesus Christ First. Jesus First. Not Jerusalem First. Not Temple First. Not Nation First. Jesus First.

All the baptised are called to build on the foundation of Jesus First, not with material things, but with things that will endure the fires of judgement.

Now there’s a challenge. What work do you do that will endure the fire of God’s judgement?

I’ve got a terrace burner and one summer evening as it turned cooler we burnt some old wooden pallets. The burner was sizzlingly hot and gobbled up the dry wood. There wasn’t even an ounce of ash left in the morning, except a pile of charred nails. They had endured through the fire. What’s the spiritual equivalence of those nails that endure the fire of God’s judgement? What is lasting that endures into heaven?

Paul returns to the theme of building the church in chapters 12-14 of his letter. There he talks about the spiritual gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to everyone who is baptised. Recognising and using these spiritual gifts is what builds up the church, and the purpose of building up the church is to serve the common good of all people, in all of society. Building the church and serving others in love, based on putting Jesus first, is the only thing that endures the fires of judgement.

Now we may sit here, and look at the Halifax report of best places to live in the UK, and say, Winchester is the bees knees. Winchester First. It’s a land flowing with milk and honey, not just the River Itchen. House prices continue to rise; the economy continues to grow; we’re gonna make it in post-Brexit Britain.  But you know, every day I look at the ruins of Wolvesey castle and think, this place isn’t a patch on what it used to be. This city used to be the financial, academic, legal and governance hub of the nation. More than that, at the time of King Cnut it really did lead in Europe as his lands covered Saxony and Scandanavia and not just Wessex. This city founded what we understand of a modern economy and was the focal point of King and Church: ministers of state and ministers of the gospel.

So I wonder what’s going to make this city great again? What’s stopping us from leading the nation?  Who is the prophet who’s going to speak to the politicians of our nation? What’s going to put Winchester on the map more than it is already? It’s not the economy and more prosperity that’s going to do this. It’s not good governance, good business or an excellent university. All these good things are dependent on a better thing:  something that must come First. What comes first is that we build the church on the foundation of Jesus Christ, in order to serve the city, the county and the nation and beyond.

Let us turn again to the Lord our God and ask Him to make us great again as we seek to put Jesus first. May we be a community of the church that is built up by one another as we discover and exercise our spiritual gifts. May we look to the Lord to deliver on his promises from centuries ago, that we become a holy temple of God, a diverse community, bound together in love, sharing the life of Christ.
Amen.