John 2: 13-22
3rd Sunday of Lent
St Barbara’s 08.03.15
I wonder if you can think of buildings that dominate the skyline, that dwarf all those around it.
For many years, St Paul’s cathedral in London dominated the skyline, though less so now. The Shard towers above the skyline now, and can be seen from miles around. Here in Coventry, maybe its the three church spires in the city centre.
In first century Jerusalem, it was the temple that dominated the skyline. High up on top of a hill it could be seen from most other parts of the city. It was enormous, its outbuildings covering 30 acres. Under King Herod’s lavish renovation programme, a programme that had already been going on 46 years, much of the temple was plated with silver, or even gold, and the rest was dazzling white marble. As pilgrims journeyed to Jerusalem for Passover, they would have seen it gleaming in the distance, and known that their destination was now within sight.
But if the architecture and beauty of the temple was something to behold, this paled into insignificance in comparison to its religious and symbolic importance. For whilst there were synagogues scattered throughout Judea, there was only one temple. It was where the God of Israel was most truly present, and therefore the holiest, most sacred place on earth. |t was the focus for national pride and national identity. Anyone who dared to show it any disrespect could expect fierce opposition, even death.
It is within this temple, and at its most sacred and most important time of the whole year – Passover – with the city filled to bursting with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, that Jesus chooses to undertake one of the most remarkable and courageous acts of his ministry.
He arrives in the temple, and starts driving out the merchants and their sheep and cattle. He overturns the tables of the money-changers, scattering coins everywhere. The scene must have been total chaos. There would have been hundreds, probably thousands of people, in the Court of Gentiles at the time. Suddenly, here is Jesus, this rabbi from Galilee known for preaching love and peace, in a towering rage, hurling money to the ground, sending doves flying into the air and causing shock and outrage.
Why does he do it? Why does Jesus choose to do an act so guaranteed to bring the entire weight of the religious establishment down upon his head, an act that is tantamount to signing his own death warrant?
The other gospel writers – Matthew, Mark and Luke – give us two insights, and today’s gospel – John – gives us a further one.
Well, lets start with Matthew, Mark and Luke. They quote Jesus as saying: “Is it not written my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you have made it a den of robbers.”
For Jesus, part of his outrage was fuelled by the injustice, the exploitation, that was being practised in the name of God, in God’s holy place.
Every year, at around Passover, all Jews had to pay a temple tax. This was approximately two days wages for the average working man. But it had to be paid in temple shekels, a currency only used in the temple. Hence the money changers. Who then proceeded to charge a further half day’s wage for the cost of converting the currency. Daylight robbery.
But this was only the beginning. All pilgrims were expected to offer a sacrifice. As sacrifices had to be offered unblemished, and the temple authorities seemed always to find fault with those animals and birds bought outside of their own stalls, worshippers were left with little choice but to buy inside the temple at massively inflated prices. A pair of doves, one of the cheapest of sacrifices, could cost as much as twenty times the non-temple price. This was big business, and the temple authorities were raking it in. They were becoming rich at everyone else’s expense, and it was the poor who were hit hardest.
Jesus’ actions were an attack on this injustice. I wonder when was the last time we felt and expressed outrage at those practices in our world that manipulate people’s weaknesses, that exploit people’s vulnerability.
The Church of England has been in the news in recent weeks encouraging people to think about how they will vote in the upcoming elections. Though communicating in the media can often be a fairly blunt and unreliable way of getting ones message across, the important point is that as Christians issues of injustice and exploitation should concern us. How we vote, as how we live, should be influenced by our faith.
But Jesus’ actions are not just because of the exploitation of the poor. God’s house is to be a house of prayer.
The Court of Gentiles was meant to be a place of prayer and preparation, a place where people could still their hearts and minds. But amidst the cacophony of market stalls, animals and money changers, any prayer and devotion had become quite impossible. Imagine if our church foyer and church hall and car park were crammed full of fish sellers, meat sellers, credit-card promoters, all sanctioned by the bishop with him taking a significant cut – all trying to grab our attention as we struggled through the throng to get into the main church. And then imagine, if you’re told: “Well, as you don’t live in the parish, or you live the other end of the parish, you are not allowed in through the church doors anyway, and you’ll have to worship here in the foyer, alongside all these stalls.” Thats how the gentiles were being treated.
Hence Jesus’ pointed words: “My house will be a house of prayer for all nations.” He was angry that the people had lost sight of what was important – worship and prayer – and that they had made it almost impossible for those on the margins, those who didn’t quite fit, to be able to find a place of worship.
I wonder whether we ever lose sight of the importance of worship and prayer? and I wonder whether through our actions and attitudes we ever make it difficult for those around us to feel included and able to worship too?
Anger at injustice; a concern for prayer. But John’s gospel also brings out a third element of Jesus’ extraordinary act. Jesus is pointing to what is to come.
The religious authorities are demanding from him a miraculous sign in order to prove that he has the authority to do what he has done. Instead, Jesus replies:
“Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.”
Jesus is talking about himself. His body is the true temple, the place where God dwells in all his fulness. The temple building in Jerusalem is only a pale reflection, a minute glimpse, into the real temple, the real dwelling place of God on earth, and that is Jesus. It is an extraordinary claim. He is the true place of worship.
Not only that. He is the true cause of worship too. If the temple building is just a pale imitation of the reality of God’s dwelling in him, so the Passover sacrifice remembering God’s deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, is just a pale imitation of the even greater reality of God’s liberation of the whole world through his son. Jesus is the true passover lamb, the lamb of God.
Jesus is saying to them, at the heart of your faith, at the very heart of your worship, stands not a building, or a particular service or religious event, but me. I am the true temple; I am the true passover; I am the resurrection and the life.
To us too he is saying, our faith is not contained within a particular building, no matter how much we may love it and care for it; our worship is not solely expressed through one type of service, no matter how much we delight in it or it resonates with us.
Our faith and worship is centred above all else in Christ, the presence of God, the resurrection and the life.
So, do we allow Christ’s anger at injustice to shape our actions on behalf of others; do we allow his concern for prayer to shape our own readiness to pray; and do we allow him, the resurrection and the life, to be the centre of our lives.