Mother Katherine’s sermon preached March 7, 2021

Posted by on Sun, Mar 7, 2021 in Lent, Sermons

The Third Sunday in Lent

March 7, 2021

O Lord, you turn worldly assumptions and values all upside down. We give thanks that there is nowhere you will not go and do so, including especially coming into each of our lives. Amen.

Seldom do we even see paintings of ‘Jesus Cleansing the Temple’ in churches, or anywhere. When I looked I found them disturbing. Sure, we can imagine the intense outrage he feels, that physical anger he lets loose as his voice rises. Though to see a grim-faced Jesus knocking things over, his whole arm drawn back above his head swinging a whip (he made!) at people and animals cowering or running—it’s almost too hard to see. This event shows up much later in the other three gospels, which place it just before his crucifixion. In John’s gospel—it’s practically at the beginning. So far in John, Jesus has been baptized, called four disciples, and turned water to wine at a wedding. Now, after taking a few days off in with his mother, brothers, and disciples, Jesus heads for Jerusalem because it is nearly Passover. That is what observant Jews do. Instead of being a preface to his crucifixion, John’s gospel is preparing his audience to hear all the rest of Jesus’ life, beginning with him as a man of passion, action and emotion. We too are in preparation—the prayer and disciplines we undertake in Lent prepares us for Easter, much as faithful Jews would travel to Jerusalem beforehand so they had time to observe the rituals of purification for Passover.

Jesus and his disciples go to the Temple like so many others, amid all of the bustle and busyness, birds, animals, sellers and buyers, inspectors and moneychangers there. He sees shopping and dickering, bartering and arranging with priests to conduct your sacrificial ritual. It does sound like a busy marketplace. For us, our usual (non-pandemic) preparations for Easter are full of cleaning and shopping, cooking, egg dyeing, dresses, and gathering—to ultimately be present together at our place of worship for that holiest of days. Our preparations this year are less of this, and yet no less important. We’ll manage a palm procession and singing together, and you’ll wash each other’s feet and pray the stations of the cross as a community. Believe me, it will all take preparation, and I wonder, in what ways is the Jewish Passover will be pandemic-different? But lets not get ahead of ourselves, it’s only the third Sunday of Lent.

The worship of God in the Jewish tradition was by sacrifice, giving something of great value in thanksgiving for God’s gifts to you. You’d bring or buy an animal to sacrifice as representative of your thanks each year. You’d pay your Temple tax, pass through inspection tables they’d assure that the sacrifice you brought or bought was acceptable, and then arrange for a priest to take it to the altar and be burned. When the smoke rises to the heavens God is pleased to receive it. At our Wednesday Evening Prayers we offer such thanks to God and burn incense to represent our prayers rising to heaven, saying, “Let our prayers be set forth in God’s sight as incense, and the lifting up of our hands as an evening sacrifice.” While we won’t be burning our offerings today — our pledges and offerings (electronic ones represented by a phone!) are brought to the altar, blessed, dedicated for ministry in service of God.

At the Temple, and instead of joining in, exchanging his money, and beginning his own preparations, Jesus flies into a violent rage. He overturns tables and money coffers, birds and beasts break for freedom, merchants tumble and run, and wielding a whip, Jesus yells, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” What’s wrong with this guy, they wonder. How will the people be purified, pay temple taxes, and honor Passover? Jesus, a Jew coming to prepare for Passover himself, sees the whole of it and its effects; the exploitive selling, trading, making money, and not about prayer or serving God or even spiritual preparation. John’s telling brings the stories of Amos, Micah and Hosea to mind, all emphatic that sacrifice be about devotion to God. Psalm 69 is quoted here too; “It is zeal for your house that has consumed me” (69:9). When a psalm or passage is cited in the the gospels, it is intended to recall the whole psalm or passage, since most were quite familiar with scripture. So, they would have known what the psalm goes on to say; “I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving. This will please the Lord more than an ox or a bull with horns and hoofs” (30-31). As we know, Jesus’ zeal becomes the focus of Temple authorities who now undertake to be his enemies. When later, after returning to Jerusalem, they succeed in crucifying him Jesus will again speak from Psalm 69 (v 21), this time from the cross. For John’s audience those final words will call to mind this first scene at the temple.

Jesus is not attacking the Temple or his religion (remember they are all Jews including Jesus and his disciples), what he’s attacking is the corrupted part. The purpose of the Temple was being eclipsed, so he’s clearing stumbling blocks away as best he can, and becomes a threat. Dorothy Sayers wrote, “Officialdom felt that the established order of things would be more secure without him. So they did away with God in the name of peace and quietness (The Greatest Drama Ever Staged, quoted in a Fourth Church 2009 article by John M. Buchanan). 

Unsettling as seeing this side of Jesus’ is, it makes him more human — perhaps a more dynamic leader. Doesn’t it make us share in his outrage, be brave about injustice and exploitation, take action? Is this warning us to be watchful that our prayer and ritual remains focused on Jesus’ Way and not merely a convenience or social nicety?

All of this helps John’s audience and us make sense of his words about destroying the sanctuary (the place of God’s presence) and then raising it again “in three days.” We all hear the three days as predictive of his resurrection, though no one that day would have. John ’s gospel is always multi-layered in his writing, and so this is not simply his saying Jesus’ body is the sanctuary, he is also saying that in him is ‘the place of God’s presence’ — then referring to the Temple as the place for the Ark of the Covenant, and now to know Jesus as the place God’s presence dwells.

How marvelously relevant this is for us today! To hear our gospel point out that “when people focus too much on a physical location, they miss out on God’s glory standing right in front of them.” (My thanks for Alicia D. Myers online writing and her book, Reading John and 1, 2, 3 John, Smyth & Helwys, 2019) Not for a minute do I think we focus too much on our physical location! Our longing to gather in person is to praise God in this sacred place. It is right and good. At the same time, by faithfulness and creativity, by pitching in and making do, by tenacity and loving care, our virtual worship gives us the best ‘house seats’ so we may see that we do still gather and share God’s glory before us.

Today we are reminded that Jesus’ Way has never been an easy casual stroll. Scenes of pandemonium, heartfelt zeal and conflict this past year have left people with new awareness of the way disruption calls us to attention, to think beyond accepting the way things are, and to not be resigned to their apparent power and unchangeability.  Reading this passage makes clearer the risk Jesus took and the embodied passion he showed that day —and all the way to the cross. We follow One unafraid to call out wrongdoing, to stop those who turn the sacred into a commodity, and, for this magnitude of importance, to use upheaval —dissent even— in the face of the authorities of his own faith. As Christians, our faith journey is not all about coming to church, or even logging on to worship, it is about coming to Christ.  

As we continue our Lenten path of spiritual preparation this year, it is especially rich to consider how very much we walk in the steps of the faithful of each generation sought the salvation of God. Like the disciples he called, we follow Christ Jesus; the way, the truth, and the life.


© 2021 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

View lectionary readings: