A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent (07/03/21): The Sign of Cleansing the Temple

The Sign of Cleansing the Temple 
John 2:13-22 

John’s Gospel is a book of signs.  In it there is a series of miraculous occurrences which disclose just who Jesus is.  The first of these signs is the  Changing of Water into Wine. The series leads through the Raising of Lazarus and of course culminates in the Resurrection.  The Cleansing of the Temple is not part of that series. It is not a sign in that formal miraculous sense. But it is a sign nonetheless. It does disclose who and what Jesus is claiming to be. 
Jesus enters the temple.  Its outer court is much more crowded than it should be. Throngs of worshippers are one thing. But the space is constricted by the animal pens holding the cattle and sheep on sale for  the sacrifice  and by the cages holding the doves for those who couldn’t afford the cost of those larger animals. And there were the booths of the money changers who change the idolatrous denarii with their graven image of the emperor into the acceptable half shekel piece necessary to pay the temple  tax. The money generated by all this activity is what keeps this great edifice of religious commitment afloat! We can almost picture Jesus, in quiet fury, watching all this going on. He is becoming enraged by how little space or opportunity there is left for prayerfulness or the real content  of faith in God.  Standing aside, he reaches down for a few strands of straw that had become strewn  everywhere from the animal pens, and calmly he plaits them into a cord, a whip.  And then suddenly there is chaos.  Everything is in uproar.  Everyone and everything is moving, people and animals and coins scatter. Jesus sweeps around the courtyard and drives the traders and their wares out. And afterwards, just as suddenly, there is quiet among the debris of upturned tables and broken  down animal pens. 
Jesus is staking a claim to authority in the location where God is said to be really present in the world.  He declares that he has the right to decide what can and can’t happen here.  He knows what is best for this place.  And therefore he is staking a claim that it is he who knows and can bring into effect God’s will. Jesus makes a direct challenge to the religious elite. He claims that from now on it is he who stands between the people and God. It is he who will mediate God’s will to them and their wishes to God. And it is not any longer the  priests and their scribes and their magnificent religious institution that will do this. 

Jesus has looked at what they have done and found it wanting. The priests had clearly decided that it was appropriate even necessary to bring the trade in animals and money inside the temple itself. They turned the temple into a market place. And no doubt they were making a healthy  profit as a result. This for Jesus is the clearest indication that the priests and their allies have ceased to be reliable go-betweens for God to his people. They no longer have any moral claim to speak for God to the people, or to speak for the  people to God! 

Not unnaturally the “Jews” take exception to this. The “Jews” from John’s northern Galilean perspective could just means “Judeans,”  southerners! The ones who are offended by Jesus are the urban religious elite. It is the ones who are in charge  here who take exception. They are the ones who like such people always and everywhere have a vested interest in everything staying calm and nothing changing. The “Jews” demand a sign – I told you John’s Gospel was a book of signs The leaders demand a sign of Jesus’ authority.  What can he show them that will indicate that he does indeed have the authority, the right, to  overrule the existing authorities and to overturn the established religious order. For that is what he is doing, his actions, if they were allowed to stand, would effectively abolish  the religion that they had known up to this point. And this would render the religious elite redundant  and powerless. 

Jesus offers them a sign. He does propose a test of his authority:
“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” 
To Jesus’ opponents his offer sounds like a bluff.  His claim is ludicrously overblown.  They look at Jesus and see a man, a carpenter.  They see someone who presumably must know how long building work takes. He claims that he, one worker in three days can do what they with goodness knows how  many workers, a hundred, two hundred, hadn’t succeeded in doing in almost 17000 days! 
They are sure it is a bluff. But it is a bluff they can’t call. They have too much invested in the temple. Their power and prestige depend on the temple. They cannot pull it down.  That would be like sawing off the branch they were actually sitting on. If they destroy the temple their power and their ability to speak for God would be gone, regardless of what Jesus did afterwards. They can’t risk destroying the temple. Jesus’ claim now goes far beyond claiming to have authority in this place. What he is saying now is that he can even replace the temple. He is saying that the location of God’s presence has shifted. It has moved out of this magnificent building on its mount in Jerusalem  and into something he, Jesus, can personally provide. And the temple leaders cannot do anything to prove Jesus wrong. 
And there must also have been that grain of nagging doubt in their minds That awkward suspicion. That the claim that Jesus is making is so absurd, so overblown, that no one would dare to make it unless  it were true. In their minds if Jesus has actually wanted to prove he was the Messiah he would have offered them something  more reasonable, something more plausible. He would have suggested something that they would have been embarrassed to refuse but would have risked him pulling off. A stunt from a false messiah. But this! The anxiety ate away at the back of their minds, this might actually be true! 
But they cannot do it. The only way the destruction of the temple could have taken place on that day is if the  Priests and their supporters had actually believed and accepted Jesus. The could only have done what Jesu asked if they had accepted that Jesus is indeed anointed by God and empowered to do the impossible. But if that had been the case. They wouldn’t have questioned Jesus’ authority in the first place. 

Have we come full circle?  Does Jesus present the same challenge to us as he did to the temple authorities,  the one John refers to as Jews/Judeans? The temple has been replaced by Jesus as the location of God’s presence in the world. And it is us, we Christians, the Church who are to convey the reality of that presence to a  waiting world, just as the priestly class was supposed to have done in the days of the  temple. Except are we proving any more reliable mediators of God’s presence and faithful  witnesses to God’s will than they were? 
They turned the temple into a market place, somewhere unrecognisable as the place to  encounter God. Have we turned ourselves into something we should not be? Have we created a situation where no one thinks to come to us when they are looking for God? A phrase I find I keep using is: “The chief obstacle to belief in God, is other believers in God.” That was certainly something that was true of the Priests and their Temple. The chief obstacle to belief in God is other believers in God. And if that is so. are we being challenged, in the name of Christ, to tear down all that we have made,  everything that is now getting in the way, and allow Jesus to rebuild it? 

But the sign of course was given. There is a sign that Jesus does have the authority.  There is a demonstration that he does have the authority to overrule the religious establishment. He does hold authority to unmake and remake the way God’s presence is made real and made  known in the world. Those who came to know Jesus, and to love and trust him, his disciples, looking back  recognise that there was more Jesus’ words than anyone on that day had realised. Looking back, and their perspective is the same as ours, hindsight, looking back they  and we realise there is something else in Jesus’ challenge. John puts it plainly, just in case, even with hindsight we don’t spot it: 
But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 
The realisation, and the ongoing central claim of Christianity that Jesus in person really  does replace the temple as the location for God’s presence and action it the world. 
A question might be. Did Jesus intend “this temple” to mean himself at the time he spoke? We can’t say because his hearers, whatever Jesus meant, didn’t tear the temple down.  The bricks and mortar temple was left standing for the time being. They turned against Jesus and tore him down instead. So inadvertently they do take up Jesus’ challenge. Their destruction of Jesus is an ironic acknowledgement on their part that he has become  what the temple previously had been.  And Jesus’ proves true to his word. That “temple” is indeed reconstructed in three days. It is a that is sign hardly less improbable than rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem in so short a time. But it is the sign which is given. Jesus proves to be who he appears to be. His words and his claims are fully vindicated. He does indeed have the authority to act the way he acts and to demand what he  demands. Believing that requires that we do what he tells us to: Love one another. And by loving tear down everything that gets between us and our neighbours and God.

The Sign of Cleansing the Temple by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 

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