Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Third Sunday in Lent - March 15, 2009

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 marketplace!" 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.


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It’s a rite of spring: the beginning of garage sale season, where we get rid of all the items we no longer want in our homes. We set up our tables outside, put out a sign and wait for people to come and buy our unwanted possessions.

In our gospel reading today, we see a similar process going on in God’s house. Jesus isn’t content for the merchants to finish selling their wares, though, before ridding God’s house of some unwanted accoutrements. He turns the tables of the moneychangers and animal vendors over, driving them from the courtyard with a whip; a very dramatic spring cleaning indeed.

Jesus took issue with the money-changers and animal merchants because they were gouging the people who had come from all over Israel to offer their sacrifice and pay their Temple tax for Passover. Each Jewish male aged 12 and over was expected to offer an unblemished male lamb for this sacrifice. It is thought that in Jesus’ day, it would have been impossible to bring an animal of your own, as the priests would not pass any animal that had not been purchased from the merchants in the outer court, who in turn gave a cut of the profits to the priests. The temple tax had to be paid by all worshippers, male and female, slave and free in Jewish coinage of half a shekel. In order to get the correct coinage, the money changers would change the foreign coins brought by the people and charge a fee for doing so, a cut of which would also go to the priests.

Those priests had a going concern, didn’t they? They had set up a false god, the money god, in the place of Jehovah. They were breaking the very first commandment of the God whose temple they were purporting to serve. It was time to turn the tables on these thieves, time to cleanse God’s temple.

How does this apply to us today? The answer to this question is to ask ourselves, “where is God’s temple today?” And the answer is, “Within us.”

We are all God’s temple, as his Holy Spirit lives inside of all of us. And in this season of Lent, the Lord invites us to turn over our tables and to cleanse our temples. We are meant to be examining our consciences for unconfessed sin and to examine our hearts for the hardness that may have crept in over the past year. We are to do our spiritual spring cleaning and find those idols we may have set up in our own hearts in the place where God should be.

And these idols aren’t necessarily the big ones we are all familiar with: the money god, the pride god, the anger god. Just this past Friday superstitious people all over the English-speaking world worried about having “bad luck” because the day of the week happened to coincide with the thirteenth day of the month. Superstition is a kind of idol, isn’t it? We were reminded about this last year before the election, when presidential candidates were invited to turn out their pockets for Time magazine, to see what sort of “good luck” charms they might carry. It seemed to me to be strange for men who professed the Christian faith to carry a lucky poker chip or a statue of a Hindu monkey god in their pockets and to rely on that to bring them “luck”. Here, indeed, we see the foolishness of men’s wisdom, as Paul said, in comparison with God’s wisdom. What need do we have of a piece of plastic or a carved bit of stone, when we are carrying around a piece of God right inside us? If he won’t save us from the “bad stuff”, what can?

Yet, even though we have professed faith in Christ, we still find ourselves avoiding walking under ladders, crossing our fingers and knocking on wood. Some of these superstitious habits have become so automatic, we scarcely realize we are doing them.

Will God condemn us because we happen to still have superstition or some other little idol in our lives, once we have become his? I don’t believe he will. Instead, what God is asking us to do is to get rid of anything that would get in the way of a deeper relationship with him. We are told in our Old Testament reading that God is a jealous God. He wants nothing and no one to come between him and ourselves. He intends for us to turn over those tables, to purify ourselves so that he may be closer to us. Consciously ridding ourselves of the bad habits of superstition is definitely a worthy Lenten project, as we acknowledge that the power over our lives is held by God alone.

Some scholars think that the cleansing of the temple in today’s gospel reading was one of two cleansings. John’s gospel, which we read today, places the cleansing of the temple at the start of Jesus’ ministry. Other gospels place the cleansing towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, soon before he was arrested and crucified. What would it mean if there were two cleansings, instead of just one? It would mean that the merchants in the temple courts went right back to doing what they were doing before and Jesus had to cleanse the temple again.

Sounds familiar doesn’t it? In cleansing our own temples of idols great and small, the real trick is not to turn around and cart everything back inside, once we have gotten rid of it. When we hold a garage sale, do we take everything back inside that we haven’t sold? No! We usually put it in our car and take it to the Salvation Army or call St. Vincent de Paul to come and get it. We already value the space we’ve provided in our homes by taking those things out much more than the money we might receive for selling them.

In our own temples, we need to value the space and light we create in the temple of our hearts during Lent. Let’s not let those idols and sins creep back to clutter up the beauty we’ve created, making it harder for us to draw nearer to God, so that he may draw near to us.

In the hymn “Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates”, sung during the season of Advent, we sing “fling wide the portals of your heart, make it a temple set apart, from earthly use, to heaven’s employ, adorned with prayer and love and joy.” During Advent, we flung those portals wide. During Lent, we clean our temples, making them a fit habitation for the most High God, adorning them with prayer and love and joy. So that when Easter comes, we can sing, “Redeemer come! I open wide my heart to thee, here Lord abide! Let me thine inner presence feel, Thy grace and love in me reveal.”