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Third Sunday of Lent

Third Sunday of Lent
John 2 13-22
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 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.
‘Spring cleaning!’
May these written words lead us to the living word – Jesus Christ. Amen.

The account in today’s gospel reading happens at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, in the other three gospels the account happens the week of or before the crucifixion. In all accounts it was at the time of the Passover, when the Jews celebrated God delivering them from slavery and the beginning of the journey to the Promised Land. Every Jew would aim to spend at least one Passover in Jerusalem; thousands of Jews would attend the temple over the eight days of Passover. Every Jew over the age of 19 would have to pay Temple Tax, to pay for the services and the sacrifices. Each one had to pay half a shekel, which was about 2 days’ pay. This had to be paid in Temple shekels as all other currency was declared unclean. The money-changers were charging extortionate rates to change the money, and the doves and lambs for sacrifice were being sold at 20 times their worth. Nobody spoke out against the injustice as they were fearful of the Priests and the Scribes. This made Jesus very angry.
A popular interpretation has been to see this as an example of Jesus’ humanity – ‘he got angry just like the rest of us!’ But in our eagerness to claim similarity between Jesus and ourselves there is a danger of missing a far deeper truth. Have you ever gone to get something out of your airing cupboard, spare room, or shed and found that that place has become so full with the ‘stuff’ of life that the only thing to do is have a massive clear out? Or have you ever had to pack up to move to a new house? I am sure we can all identify with some or all of the above.
There’s a reason why clearing out doesn’t often happen until circumstances force us to take action. Not only is it time-consuming and messy; it can be an emotional minefield. Clearing out represents a moving on, a change, a different phase. That might be just about having a tidy airing cupboard, but often there is at least a hint of a deeper importance. Whether it is full of sadness, or full of joy – moving on almost always involves emotional turmoil and physical mess.

This account in John’s gospel of Jesus cleansing the temple is amazing! It is of course much more than clearing out the airing cupboard – but the principle is the same. It is also in stark contrast to many of the popular held beliefs about the character of Jesus. This is not a picture of a gentle, soft-spoken Jesus calmly confronting the religious establishment with authoritative teaching and divine wisdom. Rather, here is Jesus with His sleeves rolled up ready for confrontation. This was not a moment of madness, a flaring of the temper, John specifically tells us that Jesus made a whip of cords. It was a conscious act on his part. After making His very own whip, He goes through the heart of the religious establishment striking forcefully and aggressively at a religious system that has become distorted. Just try to imagine the scene. Jesus is opening the pens of the oxen, sheep, and doves with one hand, while, with a whip in the other hand, He is overturning tables, - money, animals and money changers are tumbling in all directions. There would have been shouting and chaos. I wonder what the disciples were doing at this point. (What might we have done, hidden behind a pillar, or joined in the affray?)

It certainly raises issues for us to ponder. Is this really our Lord Jesus? What about His commandments to turn the other cheek or to love our enemies? Mercy and love do not seem evident in this account, yet all four gospels agree that Jesus charged through the temple like a bull in a china shop.

This account doesn't fit too well with our cherished views of Jesus as a gentle shepherd, so we may be tempted to tone it down a bit. Perhaps Jesus didn't swing the whip too hard, surely he didn't hit anyone with it. Jesus would never do anything that disruptive, would he?

The truth is, this is a clearing-out with radical implications. Jesus knew what he would find in the temple that morning. He had seen it many times: traders trading, money-changers cheating the visitors, animals tied and unsettled waiting for slaughter, but this day it was all too much; He finds something to make a whip of cords, and drives into all that activity making a huge scene and a monumental mess.
This story has disturbed people over the centuries because it doesn’t fit with the “meek and mild” version of Jesus that we love. There is something quite disturbing about his reaction. He didn’t just grab the nearest thing to hand, he made his whip. This is radical behaviour. This is righteous indignation. But if we think about it as a symbolic clearing out of the old order, it begins to make a bit of sense. If we stop and think, there is nothing meek or mild about Jesus’ death and resurrection – the Christian story is always one of power, transformation and, lasting change. We do have a clue that this is how we are supposed to read the story, as John’s Gospel is always layered with meaning, and he tells us that Jesus does this now because it is part of setting the scene for his own death – which will be the ultimate clearing out of the old order. No wonder the church has struggled with this; the disciples didn’t make the connection until they looked back after Jesus’ death.

One of life’s strange truths means that sometimes, in order to move on, spiritually and practically, we have to disrupt the present. Sometimes the disruption or change is made for us, and we need to accept it, sort it out and move on. The temptation is to put things back just the way they were, but if we do we will die spiritually. The church universal as well as this Benefice is facing disruption and change. The pandemic brought a sudden halt to the way things were and now we must be careful and not fall into the temptation to put things back just the way they were and risk spiritual death. Now is our opportunity to clear out, to get rid of any ‘sacred cows’ and be open to the Holy Spirit to rebuild us into a new temple. This is our opportunity for a fresh vision, to look outward, to take some risks. The question Steven posed to some of us this past week – ‘How can we best build the Kingdom of God where we live?’
It is also Lent, which is often a quiet and meditative time, but we still need to embrace something of the spirit of Jesus and a willingness to embrace change because we are continually in the process of becoming - the people of God in this time and place.
It is a long time since many of us have participated in the In Holy Communion service. But the words of Jesus at the Last Supper will be familiar to us. “Do this in remembrance of me.” Do what in remembrance of him? Participate in a religious ritual because that is what we have always done at the same time each Sunday? Surely not! If that is what we were doing, I think Jesus would be justified in walking in and overturning the table spilling the bread and the wine. When we return once more to our services, and receive the sacraments of bread and wine, and by faith receive the life of Jesus, let us pray that there will be a deeper significance for us all. Until that time we continue show compassion to one another. Forgive one another, share the Good News of salvation. Pursue justice and mercy this coming week as we protect the rights of the vulnerable. There are times when it is right and necessary to be angry. Evil often triumphs when good people are afraid to speak out. Of course it is hard as we are isolated from each other but we can still telephone, write, and be in contact via social media. Above all we can pray – there is no excuse about lack of time. We can still Do that in remembrance of him. Jesus was radical in the temple. His death and resurrection was radical and the gospel we are called to live and share means we need to check our spiritual airing cupboard, be willing to have a clear out and move on to be the people of God where He has called us to be.

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