Christ and the Temple

Preached on the 3rd Sunday in Lent, 3/7/2021

Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22; Psalm 19

Today’s Gospel passage is an interesting one, not the least because of where the various writers place it in the timeline of Jesus’ ministry. All four gospels include it, so we can safely say they all considered it pretty important. The synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke, put it at the end of Jesus’ ministry, right after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, that we celebrate on Palm Sunday. But John’s Gospel, which we read today, puts it at the beginning of Jesus’ career.

There’s a popular Facebook meme that shows today’s scene, with the words “Whenever I think ‘What would Jesus do?’ I remember that flipping over tables and whipping people is an option.” There’s a kernel of truth in this. Certainly we are to be ready to take direct action when it’s called for. But I really don’t think we are supposed to go around flipping over tables and whipping folks like Jesus is supposed to have done.

But why Jesus took this kind of drastic action is important, as is what he said afterward, because it speaks to exactly who Jesus said he was, and who we profess him to be. It has implications for what we are called to be. And in order to understand that, we have to take a look at exactly what the temple was in the world of Second Temple Judaism.

The first Temple was built by King Solomon. His father King David had wanted to build a temple for God to dwell in, but God had told him no, because David had blood on his hands from all the wars he fought. God told David that his son would build the temple. So when David died and Solomon became king, he began the building of a grand edifice to be the center of worship for the nation of Israel. According to the books of Kings, it took about 7 years to build, and stood for over 400 years.

And God did make his presence there known.

According to 1 Kings chapter 8: “And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.”

The Temple became the place where God lived, where his presence was directly felt on earth. This first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE after God removed his glory from the temple. The prophet Ezekiel provides a vivid description of God’s throne-chariot rising up out of the temple with the cherubim and leaving. And many of the people f Judah were taken as captives to Babylon.

This was devastating to the people of Judah, but in 516 BCE the Persian king Kūruš, who we know as Cyrus, allowed Jewish exiles to return and rebuild the Temple, even allowing them to bring back plundered holy vessels.

He temple continued to be central to the faith of the Jews. By the time of Jesus, Jews had even staged a revolution over a Greek ruler sacrificing a pig in their temple and, amazingly, they won. You can read about it in the books of Maccabees.

Fast forward a few hundred years. King Herod the Great, wanting to show himself a good Jew, spent a lot of time and money refurbishing this Second Temple into the grander structure that Jesus knew.

For most of the Jews in 1st-Century Palestine, the Temple was still the point at which Heaven and earth were supposed to intersect – literally the holiest place on earth. But the Shekinah, the glory of God, had never returned to dwell in the new temple. To some, this — and the fact that they were still under foreign rule — meant that they were still in exile, waiting for God to return.

And here comes Jesus, like the proverbial bull in the china shop, flipping over tables and lashing out with a homemade whip. The Church has tended to teach that he was angry at the merchants, but Dr. Amy-Jill Levine offers a different perspective: that he was angrier at the people at the people who sinned all week, then came in, bought and animal, sacrificed it, and went away feeling justified. John says that Jesus said to stop making the Temple a marketplace, but the other gospel writers have him put it differently, “You’ve made my Father’s house a place where thieves hang out!”

Sounds like many people today, doesn’t it? We do whatever we want during the week. We join in worship, say our confession, hear absolution, then go home convinced we’re OK. How do we think God feels about that?

Jesus had every right to be angry at people misusing the Temple. In essence, Jesus in this story was taking ownership of the Temple. John is very clear in his Gospel that he identifies Jesus with the Creator God. And if Jesus is indeed the living Word of the Creator God, then the Temple is HIS house. He certainly has the right to decide how it’s used!

At the same time, Jesus is predicting the temple’s destruction. We can understand perhaps understand how upset Jesus’ hearers might be by this statement. The destruction of the first temple was a disaster of monumental proportions and threatened a complete loss of national and religious identity.

The second temple was in fact destroyed by the Romans a little under 40 years later, the result of repeated Jewish uprisings. The only piece remaining s a section of the western wall that is now commonly called the Wailing Wall.

But John says Jesus is pointing at something else. He is pointing at his own crucifixion and resurrection. A destruction and restoration, with his own body being the temple.

But couldn’t he be pointing at both? In his Incarnation, Jesus himself became the new point at which heaven and earth intersected, the new focal point of Creation. The physical temple may be destroyed, but Jesus, as our new spiritual temple, is resurrected and still lives. In Jesus, the glory of God — the Shekinah — has come back. He has come to us.

And we are invited to join with Christ. We are invited to have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, allowing us to show the glory of God to the world. We also are invited to become temples of God. We are invited to take our place — the place that was intended from the beginning — as bearers of God’s image within Creation.

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