Easter 6 ~ The Old and New Jerusalem

The Western or 'Wailing' Wall, Jerusalem

The Old and New Jerusalem – Easter 6 2019

Welcome to the New Jerusalem! We are not in the Middle East, 14 miles north-west of the Dead Sea and 33 miles east of the Mediterranean, 2500 feet above sea level on the five hills that define the mile and a half wide city. But rather we are in the heavenly city - the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.

Jerusalem has many names: Salem, Ariel (Isaiah 29), Moriah (where Abraham was called to sacrifice Isaac), the Holy City, the City of David and Zion. The two Greek names for the city (both of which are used in the New Testament) are interesting, Ierousalemi is simply a transliteration of the Hebrew, but Hierosolumai while similar, means something completely different: ‘hieros’ means ‘holy’, so in Greek, Jerusalem is literally the ‘Holy City’.

The old, or current Jerusalem is the spiritual home of Judaism. In the nineteenth century BC the Egyptians called it Urusalimum. The Assyrian King Sennerachib called it Ursalimmu in the seventh century BC, and although he tried to invade and capture it, he never succeeded (see 2 Kings 19:15-34). These original names are made up of two roots, ‘Uru’ meaning ‘city’ and ‘Salim’, a name for a God. Thus Jerusalem has always been known as a City of a God. But it was not the God of the Hebrews, the God of Abraham and Isaac and of Jesus Christ, after which it is named: Salim was an Amorite God, whose name lives on in the Jerusalem of today.

Although it was Abraham (Abram) the father of the three religions who hold Jerusalem dear: Christianity, Judaism and Islam, with whom Jerusalem is first associated in Genesis. This sense of place - of ‘sacred space’ - is very important to Jews, whose history is to some extent a history involving places, with Jerusalem being central. When the Israelites settled there after the wilderness period (forty years after the exodus from Egypt), the local people were the Jebusites, one of various tribes known as Canaanites. The city of Jebus lay on the boundary between the land of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin (see Joshua 18:15-17) and a land ridge, running south of where the Temple was later built, was known locally as Zion. When King David captured the city of Jebus, it soon became known as the ‘City of David’ and the name ‘Zion’ took on a spiritual and nationalistic significance that retains its potency, especially for those who feel particularly connected to the city of Jerusalem as the central location of their faith.

While it was King David who purchased and prepared the ground for building the First Temple, it was his successor Solomon who actually oversaw the construction between 959-952 BC. It was evidently a priority, as he began it early in his reign and it took seven years. Thus Salem, or Zion, the City of David, became the central location of the Jewish faith, with the resting place of the tabernacle located in the Temple there.

This First Temple was ransacked and destroyed by the Babylonians between 597-586 BC. A second Temple was begun around 538 BC and completed in 515 BC (see Ezra 5:1-6). It survived the Roman invasion led by Pompey in 63 BC but when King Herod became a Roman puppet King in 37 BC he devised a bigger and better temple, and he began to dismantle and rebuild in 21 BC. Completed in 64 AD, the Romans destroyed Herod’s edifice during their suppression of rebellion in 70 AD. Now all that remains is the ‘wailing wall’ at which Jews and others pray and lament not only the lack of a complete temple, but the strife of the world. For while the holy city of Jerusalem is held dear by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, its history makes it a sacred place of both sorrow and hope.

So Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities on the planet, with a chequered history encompassing ancient culture, wars, destruction, rejuvenation and, as in our reading from Revelation, a visionary hope for future security and heavenly peace. While John, in Revelation, extended this vision to include the risen Christ, Isaiah had also foreseen a revived, new Jerusalem, unhindered by war and tribute tax to other powers. And Jerusalem was not simply a city for the ancient Hebrews, it was a cultural phenomenon. When the Babylonians exiled many of its inhabitants, and the city was destroyed in 587 BC, they were not only humiliated, they became like orphans. In 536 BC King Cyrus, having defeated the Babylonians in 539 BC, allowed Prince Sheshbazzar to return and the rebuilding of the city and temple began. The governor, Zerrubabel, and the High Priest Joshua prepared to start work on the Temple, but it was only after Darius had become King of Babylon and with the encouragement of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah that work began in earnest. After four years, in 516 BC the temple was ready for use (but not completely rebuilt by any means!) and worship in the Holy City resumed. It had been seventy years since the destruction of the First Temple. But it was not until Nehemiah arrived in 444 BC that things really got going in the city as a whole. And there was Ezra, a scribe and a priest, a man well-versed in scripture, law and theology, and unlike the ‘scribes’ of Jesus’ time he was a religious leader in his own right who could trace his priestly lineage back to King David. His reforms of the Temple and Jewish life and worship are often forgotten now, but it was his piety and vision that renewed Jerusalem’s status as Holy City.

From Nehemiah’s description of the ruins of Jerusalem, we gain a sense of the mammoth task that lay ahead of those who sought to rebuild. While Ezra was particularly concerned with the rebuilding of the temple and the restoration of divine worship, Nehemiah had the wider task of reconstructing a ruined post-war urban environment. It’s all in the Old Testament if you want to read about it!

By the time we reach the New Testament period, we find that Jesus, like other Jews of his time, was in the habit of going to Jerusalem for the Passover festival (See John 11:55). There is still a traditional directive among Jews that they should celebrate Passover in Jerusalem at least once in their lives. For Jerusalem became the ‘spiritual home’ of the Passover and of the seven day Festival of Unleavened Bread which follows it. After his death and resurrection Jesus’ disciples remained in Jerusalem, where they were visited by Paul (Acts 15). They endured famine, for which they received help from Macedonian Christians (1 Corinthians 16:1-6). Within two years of the completion of Herod’s temple in 64AD, there came that uprising, and the Christians fled to Pella, east of the Jordan in the Decapolis region. The Romans failed to quell the revolt, and in 70AD, under Titus, attacked and razed the temple to the ground, with the exception of three towers and part of the Western Wall, which still stands today.

The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans would be interpreted as a judgment, as had been the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians. This is very much part of the background to the book of Revelation. Rome and Babylon had much in common from a Jewish perspective. National pride would be crushed, indeed the very completion of the Temple may have sparked fervour in the first place: once Jerusalem had a new Temple, it inspired the rebels to launch a disastrous uprising. It seems Jesus saw it all coming when he predicted the destruction of the Temple before it was even finished. And of course, one of the big geo-political middle-eastern hot potatoes today is whether a third temple should ever be constructed, as many Zionists would wish.

But in Revelation - at the end of the Bible - we read of the New Jerusalem - the holy city coming down from God, with its wonderfully paved streets and lavish decoration – and no Temple. Jerusalem has become like a virtual place of beauty, healing and truth. This is our ultimate destination on our Jerusalem time tour. We now stand in the future: the world has ended, tribulation is over and whatever ecological or cosmological catastrophe has ended life on earth, is passed. Now the old City of God is transformed and a ‘new’ Jerusalem is inaugurated, as an embodiment of human hope for an eternal dwelling place in the presence of God. It is a truly glorious place, with jaspar walls, pearly gates and streets of gold. The tree of life grows there, and through it flows the river of life, yet it lacks sun, moon, day or night and, significantly, there is no temple in its midst. We may be able to picture these wonders, but there is a deeper meaning too.

In the Old Testament, the temple represented the aspirations of the nation and the presence of God. The prophets saw Jerusalem decline as people sinned, but Isaiah and Ezekiel had visions of reconstruction. John’s vision is the culmination of a tradition of divinely assisted rise and fall and rebirth that gained ground in the inter-testamental period and to which Jesus himself referred when predicting the fall of Jerusalem.

In Greek there are two words which we translate as ‘new’: when a city is rebuilt, it is new. But John sees a ‘new’ Jerusalem that is clean and pure, cleansed and different, heralding a new order. The same sense is found in the ‘new’ of testament, covenant and creation. In fact, it is Christ himself, son of God and redeemer of the world who is the new Jerusalem, in whom all things are made new (v.5), and the history of Jerusalem is in a sense, the story of salvation. We do not need a Temple because Jesus himself is the new Temple - the dwelling - and indeed being of God, who dwells with and in each of us here and now, in bread and wine, and in our very selves by the grace of the Holy Spirit. So the new Jerusalem is here and now, and through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are citizens of that ancient, present and future Holy City. Amen.

The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 26/05/19