Sunday 29th January 2017
Year A, The Forth Sunday of Epiphany
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Haggai 2.1-9
John 2.18-22

There is no word in Yorkshire for schadenfreude but if you greet a Yorkshire man with the observation that it's a lovely day the chances are that he will respond: "It won't last!"

And, indeed, the phenomenon of schadenfreude is so universal that it is astounding that there isn't a good word for it in English. There is scarcely a novel and certainly no great piece of Western music where joy is not shot through with regret or foreboding such that to be Yorkshire is only an exaggerated form of being Western.

Considering how this temperament became paradigmatic we should remember that until the middle of the 18th Century our culture was dominated by Greek and Roman mythology and the Bible. The writing of brand new stories rather than re-telling old ones, is a relatively modern phenomenon. Before the birth of modern drama and literature people knew what was going to happen; and what was going to happen in almost every case was the opposite of happily ever after. As for the Bible, it is a catalogue of woe, symbolised for me at the pivot of The First Book of Kings when, after the first half build-up of King Solomon, climaxing in the visit of The Queen of Sheba we then read the ominous sentence: "But King Solomon loved many strange women" and we know it's all downhill from there. And I suppose it is partly because of our cultural paradigm that we are disposed to see the flaw in things and to be deeply suspicious of the pleasure unalloyed.

Perhaps this is why today's reading from the Old Testament is rarely read in church, along with the wonderful accounts of the return from exile to Jerusalem recounted in the Books of Nehemiah and Ezra. With hindsight we know that the joy was short lived but it was, in the moment, unalloyed, fully integrating the love of The Law, The Temple and the good things of life. We have to remember that at that point the idea of Scripture was relatively new: there had been stories handed down but the writing only began in earnest with the reform of King Josiah not long before the exile during which our Old Testament began to take the form which would later be consolidated around the same time that John's Gospel was written at the Council of Jamnia after the destruction of The Temple in 70 AD. And so it is not surprising that it was the heritage of the Temple which gripped the imagination of those who returned from Babylon such that their first concern was to build an even more magnificent Temple than that built by the aforementioned Solomon. in a sense, the Temple was their Bible. And this is something that we must guard against in two ways: first, we spend far too much time and energy arguing about sacred buildings, failing to make the proper distinction between the proper mission of the church and the accidental collateral of cultural baggage. We are not a heritage organisation but the Church of Christ. Secondly, in following Christ our reverence for The Bible is not why we are here; it is a necessary precondition for mission; but we must not worship The Bible, no matter how beautiful the language or comforting the sentiment, any more than we should worship bricks and mortar, no matter how venerable and familiar.

At the time of our Second Reading, from the Gospel of John, the third Temple, initiated by King Herod, was still under construction after forty-six years - so when Jesus was presented there some 30 years before it must have been a building site - and was to be more magnificent than either of its predecessors. It is difficult to say, then, which would have been thought the more preposterous, the promise of Jesus to knock the whole thing down or to put it back together again but, it seems to me, that this promise is one of John's Gospel's many heavy handed jokes; we are so apt to be so serious with our texts that we too easily overlook the humour, even if it is, as on this occasion, somewhat laboured. But the rhetoric has the fundamental purpose of pointing us, right at the beginning of Jesus' mission, to its end point, to the Resurrection, another Biblical instance of joy unalloyed which we do not so much, as with the Haggai, overlook as under-value on the basis, as already mentioned, that we are culturally conditioned to look for the catch which is not in the event but in our reaction to it; we are the catch, the thing that goes wrong, so well described in Acts.

There is a time for everything and it is all too easy for us to lapse into the easy pessimism which too easily deteriorates into cynicism. Yes, we were created imperfect which is why we are imperfect; yes, we make wrong choices because that is in the nature of  making choices; and yes, we have failed to love God as we should but that is in the nature of love freely given. But what the Resurrection proclaims is that our created imperfection has been righted such that its consequence of our death at the end of human life has been eliminated which, in turn, surely means that happiness, far from being the aberration of the skittish, is actually a natural state; we are all too apt to dwell upon the thorns and thistles which were are lot when we were, so to speak, expelled from the Garden of Eden and not dwell enough on what happened in the garden near to Calvary within three days of the death of Jesus.

so where did we, the Easter People, go wrong? Some historians say that the real catastrophe for the innocent Christianity was when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Constantine but the ills of which I am speaking began with the confusion between "Sin", with a capital S, that imperfection with which we were created and which the Resurrection has righted, with sins, with a small s, those acts of omission and commission which tarnish our individual lives and God's creation; The Lamb of God did not take away the "sins" of the world, with a small s, but "the sin" of the world with a capital S. The Resurrection is a cosmic act which applies to the whole of creation, it is not a bilateral pact between Jesus and me that wipes my slate clean for as long as I live it never will be clean and, in any case, our gravest sins are collective, not individual. But I will still rejoice because, as I said earlier, happiness is a natural state; even for Yorkshire men!