This morning I am preaching in person at a local church. Usually when I do that I take the sermon and make it into my Sunday article. I decided to try something new this time. Instead of using a revised version of the sermon by itself, I thought I would try giving you the whole service, including our prayers and hymns. If you want to read the prayers and sing the hymns then you can and if you want to skip to the sermon in the middle then feel free to do so. The scripture readings are clickable and will take you directly to Bible Gateway. The call to worship and candle lighting are meant to be call and response.
I would love to hear back from you about whether you prefer this format or the usual one. This would only be an occasional practice, not something I would do every week. If you are getting this in your email then simply hit reply to let me know and if you are reading this from Facebook then please leave a comment there.
Call to worship
Blessed are the poor in spirit For theirs is the kingdom of heaven Blessed are those who mourn For they will be comforted Blessed are the meek For they will inherit the earth Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness For they will be filled Blessed are the merciful For they will receive mercy Blessed are the pure in heart For they will see God Blessed are the peacemakers For they will be called children of God Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake For theirs is the kingdom of heaven
Gracious and loving God, who fills the world with beauty and life, let us approach your temple this morning with all humility and joy. As we gather here together in your name, may we bless this building as a temple to you. May we also bless our hearts and minds and consecrate them as tabernacles to the living God. May we, together as one, become a house of the Lord, dedicated to your word. May we sing songs of praise and lament as we lift up our hearts to you who is our God.
Jesus is the light of the world The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it
Hymn – This Is the Day
Invitation to Confession
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practise the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin. So let us confess our sins to God, knowing that he is faithful and just, to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Please join me in saying the prayer of confession.
Prayer of Confession
God of mercy and forgiveness, who sends the Holy Spirit to dwell within us, be patient with us as we stumble. Too often we have not honoured your presence within us. We have approached the temple with pride and arrogance. May our religious devotions become free from this spiritual illness. May humility be the medicine which cures our pride so that we may be able to sing songs of joy in your house. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. Amen
Words of Assurance
The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbour his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
Hymn – Amazing Grace
Sermon – The Temple of God
The two scripture readings we had this morning were both about approaching the temple of God. Between the two texts we are shown three ways in which one might approach the temple. One can approach with pride of mind, with humility of heart, or with shouts of joy. Of these, the first, that is pride, is to be avoided and the other two, that is humility and joy, are to be acquired.
Before I explore these three ways of approaching the temple in more detail, I would like to invite you to expand your understanding of what is meant by the temple. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul asks them a piercing question. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” The temple is often understood in Christianity as a symbol for the human being. At times, as in the passage I just read, it is seen as our physical bodies, inside of which the Holy dwells.
At other times, the temple is used as a metaphor for our spiritual nature. As Peter says in the first of his letters, “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
And yet at other times the temple is a symbol for the whole church. In his letter to the Ephesians Paul said that we are “members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone; in him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
And so, as we talk about how to approach the temple, keep these three spiritual meanings of it in your mind. The temple is our physical presence in this world, the way in which we treat our bodies and the ways in which we use our bodies to interact with the world around us.
The temple is also our own inner condition, our heart and mind and soul. This level of the metaphor is about our thoughts and feelings and the mental habits which we all have. It is our state of mind and the meditations of our hearts.
The temple is also the whole of the Christian community around the world. This level of the metaphor is about how we act together, the presence of the church in the world and the way in which Christianity as a whole sees itself and treats others.
With that in mind, let’s jump into the two scripture readings from the lectionary this morning. The passage from Luke described two very different people, one a religious leader and the other a tax collector. While tax collectors are often disliked still today, it does not at all have the same connotations as it did in Jesus’ time. In those days a tax collector was a traitor to their people, a collaborator who worked for the occupying Roman army.
A Pharisee, on the other hand, was equivalent to a minister or priest for Christians. They are someone who has been through seminary. Someone whose job it is to ensure the policies of the church are being followed and that God’s people are being cared for. You are clearly supposed to love the Pharisee and despise the tax collector.
So, as Jesus often does, he has made the moral of the story an inversion of social norms. The first shall be last, the valleys are lifted up, and the hills are made low. In this case the Pharisee is supposed to be first and he is actually last. The tax collector is supposed to be last and he has been made first.
By lifting up the tax collector as the hero and calling the Pharisee a hypocrite, Jesus is not telling us that we should aspire to be traitors or that being clergy is bad. He is trying to lift us up beyond the externals and into what is the most real. He wants us to look at the condition of people’s hearts instead of their station in life.
The Pharisee in this story is a hypocrite not because all Pharisees are hypocrites, but rather because this particular Pharisee was full of pride and thought himself to be better than others. This same phenomenon happens from time to time with Christian clergy as well. Sometimes a minister of a church thinks they cannot make any mistakes, and people will often believe them.
And, of course, this is not reserved for clergy. It happens just as much with politicians, police officers, school principles, and all kinds of people. It seems most common in people who occupy positions of respect and responsibility within society, but it can happen to anyone at any time. It is easier to think that we are better than everyone else and to point out the faults of others than it is to admit our own shortcomings and forgive other people’s faults.
The tax collector, on the other hand, the man who had no social standing among his own people, who was ostracised and scorned, was not a hypocrite at all. He was not blinded by his own pride into thinking that he is better than everyone else. Both the Pharisee and the tax collector were imperfect. They both did things they shouldn’t. But it was the tax collector who was able to see his own faults and so he is the one who is most able to follow Christ.
There is a beautiful tradition called the Jesus prayer which is based on this story from the Gospels. It is most common in Eastern Orthodox circles but is also found in Western traditions. As a way to keep themselves from falling into the same trap as the Pharisee in this story, people recite the words of the tax collector. When the tax collector approached the temple he said “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
The Jesus prayer takes these words and expands them a little in a phrase you may have seen floating around and which we used today in our prayer of confession. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer is often aligned with the breath. You say the words silently in your mind while you breathe in the words “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” and out the words “have mercy on me a sinner.” Let’s try it together. We’ll close our eyes and do the prayer three times. I will say the words out loud so you can follow along in your mind. Everybody please breathe out together and then we will breathe in together as I start to recite the prayer.
The intended goal of this prayer is undoubtedly to build humility and to guard against the kind of self importance and pride which the Pharisee demonstrated. This is a good purpose and all of us, at some points in our lives, need to make a prayer similar to this one. We all need to have the capacity to see our own faults and ask for help.
There is, however, a potential unintended side effect which this prayer may have if it is used without wisdom. If our only prayer is one in which we feel remorse and grief, then we can fall into that opposite but equally dangerous vice of shame. Pride is thinking we are more than we really are and shame is thinking we are less than we really are. In all things we should strive for the truth because it is the truth which will set us free.
And so what do we do if the truth of our circumstances does not match those of the Pharisee or the tax collector? While these two characters in Jesus’ parable are good examples of ways in which one might approach the temple, they are not meant to be the only ways.
If our life circumstances require repentance and remorse, then we should not turn away from them. It is good to come to God in tears and to pray for help. At times this is the single wisest course of action a person can take. The tax collector was a traitor to his people and a tool of the empire and he needed to repent. But how would a Pharisee who is not proud pray? Most of us live lives which have more in common with the Pharisee than with the tax collector. We aren’t typically collaborators or criminals.
This is why I think it was so wise for them to place these two readings together in the lectionary. In some moments we will need to repent and at others it is better to sing songs of praise. The prayer of David which we heard this morning, and which Jesus would have known by heart and sang in the temple, goes like this.
How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.
It is always good to praise God in the temple. In fact, that is the main reason the temple exists. We only need to repent when we have done something wrong, and then it is of the utmost importance, but the more often we invoke the spirit of joy within the temples of our hearts, the more honour we do to God.
And so, I would like to do another short prayer, much like the one we just did, but using the words from the Hebrew scriptures instead. I want you to breathe in the words “My heart and my flesh sing” and out the words “for joy to the living God.” I will say them out loud again like we did last time.
When we invite the joy of the Lord into our hearts and bodies we become instruments of God’s peace. I invite you to keep that in mind while we sing our next hymn. There is no better way to approach the holy temple than to sing songs of praise to our God.
Hymn – Make Me a Channel of Your Peace
Prayers of the People and Lord’s Prayer
Say some prayers for the world and end it with the Lord’s prayer.
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen
Hymn – The Servant Song
Commissioning and Benediction
We sang our praises to God today in this temple of ours. We have consecrated a holy place for God’s people to pray. Do not forget, however, that the temple of God is many things. As I said at the beginning of my sermon, the bible tells us that the temple is also our bodies, our hearts, and our communities. And so, dear sisters and brothers, I encourage you to say prayers of repentance and of joy in all of these temples.
If you approach your body with pride or shame then repent so that you may approach it with joy and thanksgiving instead. Treat it well and respect it as a temple of God, because in your body the Holy Spirit has chosen to dwell.
Also approach the temple of your heart with joy and thanksgiving. If there is anger or jealousy or pride tucked away in the hidden recesses of your heart, then repent for them so that you may have a heart of joy instead of a heart of stone.
If your community, be it this congregation, this town, or this nation, is in need of repentance then repent and beat your breast and beg God to help you and have mercy. But also seek to make your community a temple of the living God, where joy is commonplace.
May we approach all of these temples with the humility of the tax collector and the joy of David. May we consecrate all of them as truly holy.
In your name, Jesus Christ, Son of God, we consecrate this temple in which we are gathered to the joy of the Lord.
In your name, Jesus Christ, Son of God, we consecrate our bodies to the joy of the Lord.
In your name, Jesus Christ, Son of God, we consecrate our hearts to the joy of the Lord.
In your name, Jesus Christ, Son of God, we consecrate our communities to the joy of the Lord.
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