3 Lent – March 8, 2015
It had started innocently enough! People were coming from everywhere to worship God, and in those times, that required animal sacrifices. Most of them were not able to bring their own livestock on their long journey, so they had to purchase a suitable animal in Jerusalem. Merchants began to set up booths to accommodate the needs of the pilgrims. Then they began to realize that there was money to be made at Passover–lots of money. They began to build booths especially tailored to fit the available space–booths that they could quickly assemble and disassemble and store in their back room during the off season. Now Jesus was dumping the whole thing in their laps. What a mess!
Jesus had zeal for God’s house. He could not bear to see it profaned by those who no longer understood the purpose of sacrifice and who were only intent upon the business of profit. The idea of selling sheep, goats, cows and pigeons in the temple was not in and of itself wrong. The problem lay in the fact that the people who were selling those sacrificial victims had completely lost sight of the fact of what they were supposed to be doing. Rather than facilitate a practice (by making it possible for pilgrims to offer the appropriate sacrifice) they had begun to focus on what sort of profit would be theirs if they sold a sufficient number of doves or sheep in a certain day.
Purchasing an animal for a sacrifice was a substantial and meaningful purchase for a family. But the connection between their need and the fact of the sacrifice had been lost in the search for profit.
It was time for a clearing out, a Spring cleaning, if you will, a return to congruence between form and function, to the integrity of the purpose for which the temple was created: to serve as a place of meeting between God and God’s people.
To those who challenge his turning over of the temple, Jesus makes a remarkable claim: that he himself is the temple. “Destroy this temple,” he says to them, “and in three days I will raise it up.” His claim stuns his listeners.
This scene underscores a particular concern that John carries throughout his gospel: to present Jesus as one who takes into himself, into his own body and being, the purpose of the temple. Richard B. Hays writes that in making the link between Jesus’ body and the temple, this passage provides “a key for much that follows” in John’s gospel. “Jesus now takes over the Temple’s function,” Hays observes, “as a place of mediation between God and human beings.” Hays goes on to point out how Jesus’ sometimes enigmatic sayings about himself in John’s gospel—for instance, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink” and “I am the light of the world”—are references to religious festivals whose symbolism Jesus takes into himself.
Perhaps, then, it all comes down to architecture. The decades of work that have gone into the physical place of worship, the skill of the artisans, the labors of the workers; the role of the temple as a locus of sacrifice, of celebration, of identity as a community; the power and beauty of the holy place: Jesus says, I am this. Jesus carries the temple in his bones. Within the space of his own body that will die, that will rise, that he will offer to us, a living liturgy unfolds.
The wonder and the mystery of this scripture from John’s gospel, and of Jesus’ life, lie not only in how he gives his body as a sacred space but also in how he calls us to be his body in this world. Christ’s deep desire, so evident on that day in the temple, is that we pursue the congruence that he embodied in himself: that as his body, as his living temple in the world, we take on the forms that will most clearly welcome and mediate his presence. In our bodies, in our lives, in our communities; by our hospitality, by our witness, by our life of prayer: Christ calls us to be a place of meeting between God and God’s people, a living sanctuary for the healing of the world.
The season of Lent beckons us to consider, are there things we need to clear out in order to have the congruence to which Christ invites us? Who helps you recognize what you need to let go of in order to be more present to the God who seeks a sanctuary in you?
C.S. Lewis’ third book of his Narnia series, The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’, provides a wonderful illustration. If you remember, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the four Penvensie children travel from war-torn London to Narnia and there meet the great lion, Aslan (the Christ-figure), and with his help they defeat the White Witch who holds Narnia captive in a perpetual winter. In the second book, the children travel back to assist Prince Caspian in obtaining his rightful throne, and at the end of that book Aslan tells the two older children, Peter and Susan, that they will not return to Narnia.
Now, at the end of the third book, Aslan meets Lucy and Edmund at the edge of the Eastern Sea and tells them the same, that this will be their last trip to Narnia. Lucy is distraught at the prospect of not seeing the beloved lion again, but he reassures her that she will see him in her own world. When she is surprised that Aslan is present in her world, he tells her that the whole reason for bringing her to Narnia for a time, was so that, coming to know him well here, she would recognize him more easily there.
Mahatma Gandhi, the great spiritual leader of India in the twentieth century has said, “We become what we yearn after, hence the need for prayer.” Now if we look at that statement, look at the first part: “We become what we yearn after.” Gandhi doesn’t mean we just get whatever we want or we become whatever we want. It’s not an automatic thing. What he is saying is that we become what we yearn after. In other words, what we’re yearning after, what we’re desiring in life will shape who we are. And if wealth is what we desire more than anything – or success, or prestige, or social status, or fame, or popularity, what we desire most deeply – then those desires will shape the kind of person that we become.
And the second part of the quote is equally important. It says, “hence the need for prayer.” That’s why Gandhi says we need times of prayer where we can step back from our lives, where we can retreat as it were, where we can look at our lives, look at the desires and motivations that are shaping them and make conscious decisions about how we want to live and what we want to live for. And one of those decisions that we should make is: are we giving ourselves time to rest, time to step out of our lives and look at the bigger picture, to see what’s driving us, what’s motivating us, what’s really shaping us, and what’s really forming and influencing the way that we’re living in the world? Is this how we want to live, and what choices can we make that might help us to live in a different way?
These questions are all a part of the Spring Cleaning Jesus is carrying out right now. Questions like these may strike terror in our hearts, but when we make the move from terror to amazement, we come to accept as a necessity the gift of Jesus’ Spring Cleaning in our lives and in our church. We move from fear to joy when we re-direct our lives, when God in Christ again becomes our focus. Amen.