Sermon: Jesus in the Temple
After a few requests, the sermon I preached at St Lawrence’s two morning services on Sunday is now here for you to enjoy. Its about 50% longer than a regular blog post, but I don’t really want to start hacking great pieces out of it. Also, sorry for the second paragraph joke. I realise putting that on the web, where it can be read by people who aren’t actually in Yorkshire may cause issues. It was a joke. Enjoy!
Its hard to imagine what the Temple would have looked like all those years ago. I suppose for us in York, easier to think of the Minster. Standing at the Heart of God’s favourite county, Yorkshire, its probably the closest equivalent we have for comparison. In Jesus day, everyone’s image of the city of Jerusalem would have been of the Temple, just as most postcards of York have the Minster on them somewhere.
Unlike York Minster, it was not just a single building entered directly from the street. In fact, there were parts where anyone who could not prove themselves to be fully Jewish could not enter on pain of death. So imagine for a moment, that we made everyone prove their Yorkshireness allowing them into the choir area of the Minster. It seems an odd idea doesn’t it?
When Jesus entered the Temple gates, he would have found himself, not in a building, but in the first of several courtyards. This was meant to be the place set aside for Gentiles to worship – non-Jewish people’s who had heard of Israel’s God and travelled to worship him on the “Holy Mountain”. It was the bit before the “line”. It should still have been a peaceful place of prayer and worship, but it wasn’t.
Jesus, in his actions, is about to reclaim a place for the excluded.
The second thing we must understand is the economics being practised in this space.
I realise economics sounds boring, and you’re probably all now thinking of what you’ll have for lunch.
But to Jesus, money matters. And in this story, its the very real hardship being caused through profiteering which lies at the heart of Jesus anger.
There would be six different currencies in common circulation in Jerusalem, but none of them were acceptable for paying the Temple Tax expected of all Jews. To get the special temple currency, people visited a Money Changer in the Courtyard, who made a fat profit by demanding half as much again in commission. For the many Jews living in grinding poverty at the bottom of society, the tax already took weeks to save up for, and this commission rate meant real hardship.
Jewish law stated that animals brought to the temple to be sacrificed were first to be inspected to ensure a high standard. This isn’t a bad idea – God demands the best we can offer. If people brought an animal from outside the temple, it might fail the inspection. Instead, a sacrifice bought on the Temple grounds was meant to be pre-certified as up to the job. But that assurance came at a huge price – another case of extortion.
Although none of the Gospel writers tell us for certain, perhaps those setting up stalls in the courtyards were making a sizeable donation to the Temple Treasury to assure themselves of a blind eye from those in charge?
Jesus is clearly very angry. He is compelled to act. And act in the most direct way possible.
There is no letter of complaint. There is no attempt to lobby a few members of the temple council over dinner. Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem, and the first thing he does is pick a fight with the biggest political authority other than the Romans.
He goes about expressing his anger in a way that can seem to us as being rude, undignified and highly confrontational. He creates an impromptu whip and drives the livestock out into the streets. As hundreds of sheep and cows scattered through the streets a whole section of the city would have ground to a standstill. And as it was Passover, town was already busy.
Those John describes as “The Jews” come to Jesus, stunned and confused, to ask what on Earth he is doing. But Jesus answers by telling them what he is doing on Earth.
They simply don’t understand – the Temple has taken 46 years to build and yet Jesus is saying he will demolish it and rebuild it in 3 days?
They are too tied up with their narrow understanding of God’s mission, shaped around their hierarchy of control, in which they cling to a physical temple. They cling to the idea that they hold the keys to the worship of the one true God.
They expect a messiah who will validate their power, throw out the Romans and restore Israel to its rightful Earthly power.
What they have just encountered is The Messiah, who will tear down their power structure and render their privileged position worthless. This is Jesus, the servant King, coming to turn not just market stalls, but the whole world upside down. Our access to God is no longer in being the right kind of person.
Nor is it through “paying our way” as the market in the Temple represents. It is through Jesus own sacrifice and his resurrection – no longer is any other sacrifice needed.
So where does that leave us?
I’ve tried to pick out 3 things I think we can take from this passage:
First, Jesus’ concerns are practical as well as spiritual: following him is not an excuse to switch off from the realities of the world around us. In him, we are called to greater concern for issues of money and human well-being. Our focus on his teaching should make us more, not less, determined to engage with the world around us. In this time of Lent, perhaps its worth listening to Isaiah:
“Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?”
Isaiah is not telling us to stop seeking him in prayer and in practices like keeping Lent. Instead, he tells us to show we have listened to God by attending to the things that concern God about our world.
Second, if we are to follow Jesus example, it will bring us into conflict with those who feel they have something to lose. Announcing a Kingdom of freedom from oppression and exploitation will make us very unpopular with the oppressors and exploiters of this world. Jesus never promised that everything would be easy, but he did promise never to leave us alone in those situations.
Third, Jesus calls us to worship as equals with those from other cultures and economic backgrounds. Rich and Poor, Black and White, whether English is our first language or our most recent, whether our families have lived locally for a century or a few weeks, God calls us to be a worshipping community together. My question would be “can we listen to them and allow ourselves to be challenged by the fresh ideas and understanding they bring?”
Jesus calls us to announce his Kingdom in both spiritual and practical ways – to be bringers of change to the lives of all around us. May I encourage you to pray for renewed insight into the part you can play in his work of Kingdom Building.