The events of today’s Gospel are set on a building site. The original Temple of Solomon was destroyed by the Babylonians; the rebuilt Second Temple had been destroyed by the Greeks; now Herod was building a new one. But there were insecurities. In Scripture there were hints that the Temple would not last forever. Jeremiah for example predicted the destruction of the temple. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that around A.D. 62 one Jesus bar Ananias warned of a coming destruction, and there was tension in the air, a sense of fragility and impending failure.
The Future of the Church
I spent quite a lot of time last week in the same kind of atmosphere of concern, tension and worry about the future of the church. You are 80 times more likely to find an 80-year-old in church then you are an 18-year-old. Even in the diocese of London where we have been growing and opening new churches we reach a smaller and smaller proportion of the population around us. There is a certain amount of flailing about. If only we were more inclusive; more equal; younger; more active; better managed; more in tune with society, then we would all do better. The temple feels, even as we attempt to build it, to be insecure in its foundations. What should our response be? Around A.D. 30 Rabbi Zadok began fasting in order to forestall the destruction of Jerusalem. Here in the Lent, in our fast, we are reminded what Jesus does when he comes into the building site.
|S Martin of Tours gives half his cloak to a beggar - who later tanspires to be Christ. |
Stained glass window by Kempe in S Martin's Church Ruislip.
The Whip of Cords
He took a whip of cords and he drove out those who sold the animals for the sacrifice, and he up turned the tables of the money changers. With no evidence from the Gospel we often think of Jesus as attackign them for robbing the poor by their exchange rates; but the money with the idolatrous insignia of the Emperor and the Roman gods was not allowed in the temple precincts. They were trying to prevent blasphemy. He even told those who sold the pigeons for the sacrifices of the poor to get out.
It's not about trading
I remember once somebody coming and having a go at me and my parish about why we had a bookstall at the back of church and quoting this passage. I am pleased to say that he did not take a whip of cords to me. But actually that was to miss the point. This was not simply about trading, but about a radical reorientation of all of the acts of worship back towards God in Christ. “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” After his resurrection they understood what he meant. Jesus substitutes the temple which is being built all around him for the temple of His body. This is the foolishness of God which exceeds the wisdom of men.
Destroy this Temple and I will raise it up. This is temple language. The temple is the heart and centre of the worship of God on earth. For the ancient Israelites there was no other place where he could properly be worshipped. But they always understood that he was more than a localised deity living in a house built by human hands. That universal understanding is perhaps best expressed by the great prophecy of Isaiah who speaks of how all nations will flow to the mountain of Zion which will be raised above all mountains. Ezekiel looks forward to the heavenly temple where all will worship. Quite simply the temple is the place where we find God and dwell with Him. And that is the ultimate end of our existence, the purpose of our being and the thing for which we have been created. It is no accident that in the Epistle to Hebrews the life of heaven is described as temple worship.
And we all know that our churches reflect the heavenly temple, with the altar which is the throne of God, the lamps which stand in front of it, and the prayers of the people rise as incense before the throne of God.
Destroy this Temple and I will raise it up. This is crucifixion language, the language of humiliation, passion and death; of sacrifice in atonement for sin. It is the language of Christ’s entire recapitulation of our humanity, entering into every aspect of what it is to be a human being from conception in His mother’s womb through birth and growth and death so that we who are conceived in our mother’s wombs and grow and come to birth and live and die, may in every aspect of our lives know Him with us, and even in death find that He is there to raise us up by the power of His life. In three days we are raised again.
Destroy this Temple and I will raise it up. This is messianic language, the language that looks forward to the future, to the glory of heaven. The prophetic action of taking up the whip of cords and cleansing the Temple shows that like the prophets Jesus calls for action in this world, for there is no radical distinction between earth and heaven. Fasting and feasting, make a difference. And so our life together is sacramental: spiritual grace ministered to earthly things, oil and water; the touch of a fellow human being ministering blessing; bread and wine, the vehicles by which the very presence of God is given to us.
The revival of the church is found only in radical commitment to Jesus ChristThis is not about religiosity. This is not about having a clean temple so that we can come aside from the world and pray well. That was what the money changing tried to do. To that He took a whip of cords. This is a call to serious living which focuses only on the Lord, for he will tear down the temple and rebuild it in his own body. You probably know the story of the person who said that he would give up Easter eggs for lent. But too often our own commitment is on that kind of level. The revival of the church which I spent last week being told is so necessary will come only from a revival of personal commitment to Christ, desire for holiness and humble prayer for grace.
Tearing down the institutions
The temple was an ancient institution building itself afresh. Jesus called for that to be torn down. In itself it was of no import. The important thing was to focus entirely on him. And do not get me wrong, I love old churches and it is part of my work and duty to sustain our heritage and to make them work for us today. I love the institution of the Church of England and work each day to strengthen it, and it is far from dead yet. But in the end buildings and institutions and managerial methods and fundraising activities and musical excellence and social activities and all the rest of what we do are only tools, and Jesus comes with his whip of cords to drive away our attachments to them and to force our attention back to Himself.
He will raise it up
In Lent we are called to let go of all this stuff and turn to Him with real fasting and severe penance more than our comfortable life usually sustains. For when all is torn down in three days He will raise it up.