I really enjoyed writing this one – it’s going to form the basis of the sermon I am going to submit for my course – but as the visiting lecturer told us in our preaching weekend the best time to fix a sermon is after you have given it… so here you are, here’s my Cleansing Of The Temple sermon at its midpoint- it’s first presentation and before it has been re-written and re-presented. So please, take a moment and give me your feedback.
We’ve heard from the gospel this morning the story of the cleansing of the temple. We know this event is important because it’s one of the few that are in all four gospels. It’s quite a sedate title really – ‘the cleansing of the temple’ – as if Jesus came in with his disciples and spotted that someone had missed their turn on the cleaning rota and got the Henry out to lend a hand.
In fact when you’re reading the majority of John you’re presented with such a divine vision of Jesus – more God, more Divine than human it’s incredibly jarring to see an angry Jesus.
If this were Luke I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. But this is John – Jesus is always calm, collected, and thoughtful – everything he does reflects previous prophecy or is incredibly well thought through with an eye to his immediate future. But here – just two chapters in we get this angry Jesus – and not just angry actually – but thoughtfully angry – a sustained anger.
He walked into the temple – this was Passover so it would have been HEAVING, he saw people selling animals for sacrifice, saw people changing money so they could buy the temple coins to gain entry, saw the priests making big profits from this market place, saw the Temple selling for money those things that can not be bought with money.
He saw people BUYING their way into Grace (or so they thought), into Heaven, and worse… the Temple was enabling it – actually not just enabling it but becoming rich by it. The Temple authorities were not worried about worship or becoming closer to God they were worried about money in the here and now, they were worried about the rules and the letter of the Law. They had lost sight of what they were there for. They were buying and selling an imitation of God’s Grace.
So Jesus doesn’t just fly into a rage – he sits and makes a whip of cords – can you imagine the scene? Can you see how angry Jesus must have been to see all of this and then to sit and to take the time to make a whip of cords before letting lose that anger? Can you see Jesus pacing meaningfully around the Temple flailing his whip and driving out the people and the animals? He treated both in the same way – as far as he was concerned there was no difference between the moneychanger and the sheep destined for sacrifice.
And then we get to the nub of why John has this incident at the stark of Jesus ministry rather than at the end as the other gospels do… “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”. This is textbook John, a wonderful picture and story that helps us start to understand the change that is occurring here.
This is the end of the old world of sacrifice and of only being a good Jew if you worship at THE Temple, what John is showing us here is that Jesus is destroying the old Temple, the old way of doing things and he is showing us that HE will become the Temple. When Jesus is resurrected three days after he is crucified his body becomes the sacrifice, later Jesus body is bread and Jesus body, not the lamb, is sacrifice. This allows John to point to these words from Jesus afterwards and demonstrate that He knew exactly what was coming – but of course the disciples don’t understand that until after the resurrection.
But so what? I’ve just given you a textbook explanation of what John is doing here story wise, why it was important and I hope I’ve given you a picture in your mind of an angry Jesus because for me, one of the biggest things we sometimes forget about Jesus is that he got angry.
It’s easy for us to picture Christians as people who should take Jesus example and always be nice, head tilted 45 degrees to the right and listening as you demonstrate how understanding and Jesus-like you are – but actually you’re raging inside. This story shows that Jesus wasn’t always nice – it shows that when things were wrong he got angry and that actually, if we want to be more like Jesus then we should get angry when things are wrong.
For me right now this lesson is one of authenticity. This is why I love the Bible. Two years ago I could have read this lesson and taken from it a story of prophesy, or I could have taken another more practical lesson but this week I’ve taken authenticity as a church as what the Holy Spirit is trying to show me.
The Bible isn’t something you read through once, these stories are not just something that you read through once and tick off and say ‘okay, I’ve read the Bible’ they are something that we should live with daily. Previous generations understood this better than us – perhaps it was the lack of TV but they read the Bible together every day… Now, once something is done it’s time to move onto the next thing – but the Bible gives us a framework within which the Holy Spirit can work in us to help us discern those things that we would otherwise not see – or worse would actively avoid – and for that to work, for us to have a door open to the Holy Spirit we need to sit with the Bible as much as we can – reading the same stories, the same examples, the same lessons over and over again and each time getting what we need right then, or rather what God needs us to get right then.
So right now, this week, I’ve been reflecting on why it is that I keep coming to this passage every time I walk into a Cathedral and I’m charged for entry, or every time I see the exit through the gift shop sign on the way out of a Cathedral. I see Jesus walking in and turning over the coffee shop tables, pulling the books and olive wood statues from the shelves and smashing the glass donation boxes asking why it is we have turned the Fathers house into a market place. It’s an easy picture to paint isn’t it – especially when our nose is out of joint at having to part with £15 to walk through the door so we can pray.
The conclusion I’ve come to is that this story is not about those petty things, those things that wind us up because we feel that these buildings our OURS and we should be able to wander in and out as and when we want with no barrier to entry – actually the reason I feel uncomfortable about these things is because it puts into start contrast for me the difference between the building and worship. The Cathedral, our church buildings in general, are just places we come to worship when we are called. We expect God to turn up here and to hear our prayers, but what this story shows us is that God doesn’t inhabit a building – no matter how grand – God inhabits us and our worship can happen anywhere. The point of our church buildings is that they can offer two things:
1 – A place to come and worship as a community
2 – A hook upon which we can engage others in the mission of the church
And that’s where I come back to authenticity. Our church buildings have practical things that need to be paid for. Beyond that we have things that we need to buy to make our worship more comfortable – there’s nothing wrong with that – there is nothing wrong with spending money on a new roof, or a new tower in a Cathedral so a lift can be put in – because that is being done to authentically enable our churches to be either a place of community worship – a beacon in our communities – or to enable broader mission work.
Our Cathedrals and churches have become places of hope and support for a vast number of people who rely on the services – both spiritual and practical – that they offer – our churches have become places where food banks operate and credit unions are formed – we are starting to relish in the church being a force for good in the world – we are starting to relish the fact that that means DOING things not just raising money to do things. We are starting to realise that selling things in our foyer is not an invitation for Jesus to be angry with us but an opportunity to fund a homeless shelter, a food bank, a credit advisor, a way to keep the building open, warm and well lit so that it can be a sanctuary, a place of divine peace and worship.
We are being authentic in our call to build the Kingdom here on earth.
So next time we cringe at paying for something in church or when we see a new coffee shop in the cloisters of a Cathedral – just ask yourself if it’s being authentic – and if it’s not, then be like Jesus and get angry!