Revelation 21:10; 21:22-22:5

Holy Places

By Dr. Philip W. McLarty

Today’s text falls on the heels of the epistle reading from last week. Last week we heard how, as a symbol of the completion of God’s kingdom on earth, John saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down from heaven from God as a bride adorned for her husband. (Revelation 21:2)

In our lesson today, he describes the holy city in great detail giving us the dimensions and the materials with which it will be made. He says it will be perfectly symmetrical, well fortified and ornate beyond all comparison. Moreover, it will be where God reigns in the light of truth and grace, and the darkness of sin and death will be no more.

What’s unusual about the New Jerusalem John envisions is that there’s no temple, and that’s odd, considering how central the temple in Jerusalem was to the Jewish faith. Yet, John’s clear. He says,

“I saw no temple in it,
for the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb,
are its temple.” (Revelation 21:22)

This gives rise to what I’d like for us to think about this morning, and that is our need for holy places. More specifically, I’d like for to consider how these holy places have potential both to anchor us in faith and to stand in the way of our devotion to God.

Let’s begin with a question: Where are your holy places?

• If you were Catholic, you might answer, “The Vatican.” Catholics hold the Holy See and St. Peter’s Basilica with great reverence.

• If you were Mormon, you’d likely say, “The Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City.” For Mormons, this is holy ground.

• Of course, if you were Muslim, you’d be quick to say, “Mecca.” Muslims face Mecca every time they pray, and one of their five principle tenets is to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime.

• A holy place for Hindus is the Ganges River. Those who can afford it arrange to have their bodies taken to the banks of the Ganges River and cremated and their ashes placed in the river to be washed away.

• And, of course, for Jews it’s Jerusalem, the holy city. Jews are quick to recite the words of Psalm 122, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Those who love you will prosper,” (Psalm 122:6) and to part with the hope and dream, “Next year in Jerusalem!”

As a rule, Protestants have a harder time identifying with holy places. For many, it’s the church of their childhood. For others, it’s the place where they met the Lord in a special way – where they felt the transcendence of God and came to know the joy of their salvation. For some, it may be a lakeside or mountaintop or quiet retreat center.

A woman in my church in Odessa used to make a yearly trip to the Four Corners area of the Southwest to sit in the shadow of Shiprock, a massive outcropping of stone in northwest New Mexico. She’d sit there for hours feeling the presence of God and being renewed in the Spirit.

Where are your holy places? And why are they so important?

Holy places are important because they give us something tangible and concrete in which to anchor our faith and express our devotion to God. Oh, you could offer a prayer and sing a hymn all by yourself out in the middle of a field, but it wouldn’t be the same as gathering with a congregation in a lovely sanctuary like this and offering your prayers and singing together.

I served a congregation in the early 80s that started out with every intention of avoiding the pitfalls of materialism. Among other things, they vowed not to spend their money on bricks and mortar or waste their time and energy cleaning and repairing a building or mowing the lawn and trimming the hedges. Instead, they were going to concentrate on being the church – the Body of Christ – in Word, witness, fellowship and service to others.

Well, they almost died on the vine before giving in to social pressure. They found out the hard way that, without a building of some kind, most people don’t know you exist. They found it hard to attract new members and grow: How can you expect others to visit your church when they don’t know when you meet or where? Plus, people find it hard to take a congregation seriously when there’s no tangible evidence of its faithfulness and devotion to God.

Christianity flourished and maintained a strong influence over Europe for several centuries partly because of all the large, impressive cathedrals you find in just about every city and village. Strong buttresses and towering cathedrals dominated the landscape.

The same is true in the United States. One of the first things our forebears did was to build impressive churches and cathedrals. Many, like St. Patrick’s, are still standing today. Even in smaller cities and towns like Hope, church buildings were among the more prominent structures. They commanded respect and served to anchor communities in faith.

Even though they’re expensive to build and maintain, formidable church buildings speak of a congregation’s faithfulness and devotion to God. Most people are not willing to put their faith in a church operating out of a mobile home. Holy places are important. They help us ground our faith in something solid and substantial.

Well, here’s the catch: Once we shape our buildings, our buildings shape us. We not only adapt to the size and structure and seating arrangement, we come to think of the church building as the church, rather than the congregation and its mission. Worst of all, the place where we worship defines our image of God and our expectations as to where and when and how God might appear to us: The holiness of God becomes secondary to the holy places of our own design.

Consider this: Classical church architecture is based on a cruciform design. The long center aisle leading to the chancel with transepts to each side forms the shape of a cross. The congregation is seated on the floor of the nave in back-to-back pews facing a raised chancel, from which God’s Word is proclaimed in scripture, song and sermon; and enacted in the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. The chancel is raised to connote power and authority. When the Word is proclaimed, the congregation looks up to God and listens for God’s Word. In the old European cathedrals, the pulpit might tower six feet or more above the congregation.

In more contemporary church architecture, starting in the 60s and 70s, congregations opted for a more relaxed setting. Instead of a formal sanctuary, they preferred a worship center that was more open and less structured. The congregation was seated in comfortable chairs partly facing each other to encourage fellowship and a feeling of intimacy. The lectern, pulpit, font and table were placed on the same plain as the congregation to suggest that God meets us where we are, on our level. Can you see how this might influence your image of God?

Now, fast-forward to the 21st Century. The design for large mega-churches nowadays is the theater. The congregation is seated in theater seats on a slope and arranged in such a way as to give everyone a good view of what’s going on down front. To make sure everyone can see and hear clearly, the lighting and sound system are second to none. The preacher and musicians move about freely on what would commonly be called a stage, with cordless microphones and little furniture or religious symbols to get in the way. Again, do you see the implications?

Let me stress: All three forms constitute holy places for the people who worship there. The point is it’s easy to see how the shape of the building can influence your image of God: We shape our buildings, then our buildings shape us.

It’s a Catch-22: We need holy places in which to ground our faith; yet, if we’re not careful, these holy places can stand in the way of our devotion to God.

So, what’s the answer? The answer is found in this passage of Revelation. John writes,

“He carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain,
and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem,
coming down out of heaven from God…
I saw no temple in it,
for the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb,
are its temple.” (Revelation 21:10, 22)

In the fulfillment of God’s kingdom, there will be no holy places, only the holiness of God. That’s what Jesus told the Samaritan woman, whom he met at Jacob’s well. He said,

“Woman, believe me, the hour comes,
when neither in this mountain (Mount Gerazim),
nor in Jerusalem (on Mount Zion),
will you (Samaritans) worship the Father…

But the hour comes, and now is,
when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth,
for the Father seeks such to be his worshippers.
God is spirit,
and those who worship him
must worship in spirit and truth.”
(John 4:21-24)

No holy places; only the holiness of God. That’s a goal to strive for, if you want to grow in faith and experience the fullness of God’s kingdom in this time and place.

In Eastern religions such as Buddhism, it’s common to create a little shrine in the home as a sacred place of worship – something simple like a little niche in one corner of a room with a small Buddha, a few candles and some fresh flowers. You get the picture.

The practice is born out of good intentions, but it has a downside: It tends to put God in a compartment. In this way, it exposes the tendency we all have of carving out a sacred space for God in our lives, but holding on to the lion’s share for ourselves.

In contrast, I had a couple in my church a few years ago who wanted to dedicate their entire home to God. They were in their early 40s, newly married and devoted to Jesus Christ. They’d met at a singles group in church, fallen in love, gotten married and bought their first house. They asked if I’d conduct a dedication service for them.

We met in the living room and talked about their intentions. They said they weren’t planning on having children – that, as far as they were concerned, the church was their family. They said they wanted their marriage to be a sign of God’s love and their home to be a center of hospitality in which everyone who came to visit would feel the peace of God’s presence.

So, we read scripture and prayed, and then we took a walk around the house. We stopped at each room and talked about the particular function that room would serve in their home.

• They said the living room, for example, was to be a place for Bible study and discussion and prayer. It would also be where they would enjoy fellowship with each other.

• The kitchen would be where they would prepare nourishing food, giving thanks to God for every provision of health and strength and vitality.

• The dining room, of course, would be where they would serve their guests and share in the joy of table fellowship.

• They’d use the spare bedrooms to provide overnight lodging for out-of-town guests.

• The master bedroom would give them personal space in which they could share intimate moments together and be renewed, day-by-day, with the gift of sleep.

• The wife worked by computer out of the home, and so we dedicated both the study and her work to God, as it allowed her to be productive, and as it provided an added source of income for the couple.

And so our little tour went, as we walked from room to room dedicating every square inch to the glory of God.

I’ve often thought back to that evening and wondered: What if were to devote our whole selves to God – not only our homes, but our work and play – our every thought, action and motive? My sense is we’d not only experience God in a new and more powerful way, but we’d become living symbols of God’s holiness, and God’s love would be evident in everyday we said and did. This is what Paul told the Corinthians. He said,

“Don’t you know that you are a temple of God,
and that God’s Spirit lives in you?
…for God’s temple is holy,
which you are.” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)

Here’s the thought I’d like for us to hold on to:

• First, the more we dedicate ourselves to God – who we are, what we do, where we live and work, the company we keep – the less we depend on holy places to confirm our faith and the more we come to realize that it’s not the places that are holy at all, it’s God: The Lord is the temple and that temple is Jesus Christ.

• And second, the more we turn to Jesus Christ and allow his Spirit to fill our lives, the more we become living temples of his grace and love.

I can’t think of a better first step toward becoming a temple of God’s holiness than to offer the prayer of Edwin Hatch, who prayed,

“Breathe on me, breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what thou dost love
and do what thou wouldst do.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Till I am wholly thine;
Till all this earthly part of me
Glows with a fire divine.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Copyright 2010 Philip McLarty. Used by permission.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.