Psalm 19, Exodus 20: 1-17, 1 Corinthians 1: 18-24, John 2: 13-22
May I speak in the name of God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning’s Gospel reading offers us a powerful image of Jesus – an image so striking that it has inspired some of the most dynamic and distinctive artistic representations of the Lord, who tends otherwise to appear in artistic works as someone who is still and calm – passive, even – as he moves through the turbulence and uncertainty of the world around. The Gospel reading is striking, too, because it is one of the very few instances in which we see Jesus display anger. One of the distinctive things about Jesus is that anger seems to be something foreign to him: when challenged, he reproves, employs sarcasm and humour, seeks to instruct and illuminate those who stand against him, and he becomes frustrated; when faced with suffering and spiritual evil, he shows considerable compassion to those so afflicted and is determined in his work to alleviate their burden; when faced with the death of one dear to him (Lazarus), he is overcome with grief; when facing his own suffering, rejection, humiliation, and death on the Cross, his soul is troubled and he is nearly overwhelmed with apprehension and the enormity of what is about to unfold; but he is so rarely angry.
What is it, then, about the situation in which he finds himself in today’s Gospel reading that makes him angry? Are there not so many other situations, so many other people, that might be more obvious places for him to respond in anger? Pondering this, it seems to me that the Temple is at the heart of the answer: the Temple that had been built as the ultimate sacred space – the sole place on earth dedicated exclusively and totally to God – constructed to house the Ark of the Covenant that contained the words of the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses at Sinai. The Holy of Holies, the inmost part of the Temple and a perfect cube in its dimensions (according to instructions given in Exodus 25-27), had been constructed with order and symmetry in mind and to reflect God’s heavenly throne-room. The Temple’s purpose was to be the meeting-place of Heaven and Earth – the place of encounter between God and humankind, with the glory of God’s presence seated upon the Ark and the Ark itself serving as the mercy-seat of God’s judgement.
By Jesus’ time, several hundred years after Israel’s Exile in Babylon, the Ark of the Covenant had been lost, God had departed the Temple (as witnessed by the prophet Ezekiel, who recorded this in Ezekiel chapter 10) and the Temple itself destroyed and re-built, with magnificent additions and augmentations being constructed in Jesus’ lifetime (as St John remarks); but although it was in some significant ways a diminished place, it remained for the Jewish people their central and chief place of worship. The Ark of the Covenant might have been lost, and the manifest glory of God might no longer have been seen there, but it was the focal point of Israel’s religion and the place in which atoning sacrifices were offered, daily, on behalf of the Jewish people in order that they might be reconciled with God. It was really important.
And in the Temple, this place laden with so much meaning and significance for the Hebrew people, this place so intimately associated with the God of Israel – God, who is the God of gods, King of kings, and Lord of lords – Jesus, the Son of God, found…quite a large range of money-making enterprises that verged on a swindle. As well as the corporate, daily sacrifices offered at the Temple, people came to offer private sacrifices as required in the Law of Moses; and according to the Law of Moses, they had to offer the best of their sort, and not the lame, the sickly, and the worthless. The animals offered in sacrifice had to be approved of by the Temple authorities, and the Temple authorities found they could benefit from their position as gate-keepers by offering animals they had raised themselves which they would, of course, declare acceptable for use in the Temple. Not only this, but there had grown up a system of money used only in the Temple – a Temple currency, really – and the Temple authorities had found that they could also do quite well out of controlling the exchange rate. If you are in charge of the currency used in a place of worship, you can set the exchange rate squarely in your favour!
The place that God had intended as his dwelling-place on earth, the place where humankind could come to draw near to him, sure of his presence and sure that they were standing in sacred space on the very edge of Heaven itself, had become dominated by the pursuit of profit of a decidedly questionable sort. Those who came to the Temple seeking God and wishing to worship him and offer their prayers to him were being taken advantage of. Those who worshipped other gods and who came to the Temple in Jerusalem saw, first, not a place abounding with the glorious holiness of the one true God, but people profiting by a swindle. Those who came to the Temple did not see that God wanted above all things their hearts, offered to him in loving, thankful, praise – but saw that God seemed to require offerings that cost only money. It was, I think, this dishonourable representation of God and of his holiness, the way in which those honestly seeking God were taken advantage of, and the idea that sacrifice meant something material instead of the sacrifice of our very selves, that led to Jesus’ anger. If you ever find yourself wondering what sort of things God really cannot stand, these three might well be among them.
A second striking thing about today’s Gospel reading is Jesus’ declaration that should the Temple be destroyed, he would raise it up again in three days. St John’s commentary on this reveals that the disciples, at first glance, found this as hard to understand as we might: after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. The key to unlocking this puzzle is to realise that in sending his Son into the world for us, one of God’s (many!) purposes was that Jesus should be a new Temple. Now, this does not quite mean that Jesus should be a building in which we worship – or that we can only encounter God wherever it is that Jesus is physically present; the way to understand this, rather, is to look at God’s intentions and purposes:
Where the Temple had been the place on earth where the glory of God’s presence had dwelled among his people, in Jesus there was something better – the very presence of God with us, one who is truly human and truly God at the same time.
Where the Temple had been the place in which Heaven and earth met, this came to be true in a fuller and more profound sense in Jesus.
Where the Temple had been the place in which the faithful could be certain that prayer was offered to God in God’s presence, God instead gave Jesus who, being the presence of God-with-us, hears the prayers of those who reach out to him in faith, trusting him, and offers them directly to God in Heaven (Romans 8:34). Instead of going to a place to pray, we are to go to a person – Jesus – who offers our prayers to God.
Where the Temple had been the place in which unblemished sacrificial offerings (meaning they were physically whole and perfect) were made, daily, on behalf of those who trusted in the God of Israel to reconcile them to him, Jesus offered himself as an unblemished sacrifice of a different sort (meaning he was perfectly righteous and holy in God’s eyes, untarnished by the sin that afflicts us all), through whom all who trust in him are reconciled to God.
Where the Temple had been sacred space, a place dedicated to God whose home is in Heaven, Jesus instead became that sacred space, that place dedicated to God – but going even further than that, by receiving Jesus in faith through the Holy Spirit, each individual human being who trusts in him becomes sacred space too. We ourselves become places dedicated to God, sacred to God, belonging to God and – as Jesus grants us the Holy Spirit – places on this earth in which God makes his home.
I am not sure which of these parallels (there are others one might add besides) between Jesus and the Temple you find most compelling, or most intriguing. Speaking for myself, I think it is probably the final one – that in Jesus, God has extended the function and purpose of the Temple at Jerusalem to those who receive his Son in faith, and that through Jesus we become living temples (living dwelling-places) to be God’s dwelling-places on this earth. We are to understand that God wishes to dwell in places he has made by his own hand, not in any Temple (no matter how glorious) built by human hands (1 Corinthians 3, 1 Corinthians 6, 1 Peter 2, among many references); God wishes to dwell on this earth in the most beautiful territory he can imagine – a territory whose beauty is not defined by any type of landscape or quality of aesthetic, but the territory he sees most beautiful of all which is each and every human being who is redeemed in his Son, reconciled to him, reclothed in righteousness, made fit for his presence, now and in eternity. This is how God sees those who trust in him and receive Jesus whom he sent into the world to reconcile it to him. This is how God sees you and me – not just as interesting semi-autonomous characters in a play he has written, but as places in which his greatest desire is to dwell, to occupy every last part of us and of our lives so that we are transformed and restored in him, and so that we become lamps burning with God’s light and love in this, his world.
What does this mean for us? What does this mean for us, particularly, as we journey through Lent on the way to the Cross and the empty tomb, to Good Friday and Easter Day? I think the first reading set for today, a reading giving us the Ten Commandments, might offer an answer. We might remember these commandments (or some of them!) relatively well – but I suspect we probably skim over the first part of the first one: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. This is an important statement, because it gives context and meaning to all the commandments that follow; it declares the purposes for which God acts, and to amend it, slightly, in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection for us I offer you the following: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery in which you were slaves to sin. In offering Jesus as a new Temple, and in making us (through faith in Jesus) his dwelling-places on earth, God wishes to deliver us from the house of slavery to sin, instead giving us a place in his Kingdom where his children live in freedom in his presence – not a freedom to do every last thing that crosses our minds, but a freedom to love and know God as our Father, and to be known and loved, fully and totally, by him. It is a wonderful gift, and it is a gift that God gives totally, fully, unreservedly, and freely to us – but with the world as it is, and ourselves as we are, it is also a gift to which we must keep returning, in gratitude, so that in the course of this life we grow into it more and more completely. This is why the Church keeps Lent – so that we have a season in which we put at the forefront of our minds the purpose of growing closer to God who made us, who loves us, who has re-clothed and redeemed us in Jesus, and who makes us his earthly dwelling-places. Lent is given so that we might look intensely and purposefully at our lives and our lives of faith, seeing where we glorify God and where we do not, seeing where God’s light shines within us and where it does not – and so that, trusting in God, in his love and mercy, and in his sincere desire for our good, we might seek his transformative grace that builds us up into edifices that are fitting for his presence and that glorify him. May God bless you in this, this Lent.
In the name of God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Rev Alex Barrow, Area Dean, Richmond and Barnes Deanery
Cover image by LumoProject