Destroying Our Own Temples

Yesterday’s sermon – enjoy!

Psalm 19
John 2:13-22

Destroying Our Own Temples

Suffice is to say, the lectionary stumped me this week.  I put out a plea on Facebook on Tuesday morning to see if anyone was having more luck than me and quickly realized that I was not the only one drowning in a sea of unhelpful commentaries and notes.  Later that morning my mom sent me a text message saying that she, too, was having a hard time finding a focus.  At one point I received a text message that said, “John … Exodus … John … Exodus … John … Exodus … John … Exodus,” and I actually found myself suggesting that we flip a coin to decide what to preach on.  By Wednesday morning I had Aaron weighing in with his thoughts on the four lectionary texts, seriously contemplated having him preach while I played chopsticks from the organ and by Wednesday afternoon I gave up and started reading a book on congregational leadership.

There is a lot going on in the four lectionary texts this week.  I was drawn to the Psalm and the Gospel, but throughout the week I was also looking at the passage in Exodus where Moses receives the Ten Commandments and a selection in 1 Corinthians where Paul talks about the mystery of the Christian faith.

Let’s start with Psalm 19.  “The Heavens are telling the glory of God,” the Psalmist says.  “And the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”  It is still up the in air as to whether I was drawn to this text because of the Psalm itself or because as soon as I first read it I could not get the song from Haydn’s “The Creation” out of my head.

{Play Excerpt}

Classical music aside, what is going on in this Psalm?  The natural order – the natural law – is laid out.

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.

These commandments – these laws – are good, the Psalmist wants us to know.  “More to be desired are they than gold, even much find gold,” he gushes.  “Sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.”  We should not be afraid of these laws, the Psalmist implies.  We should marvel at them, we should open ourselves to the magnificent possibilities they give to us in life.  The law of God is not a detriment to humanity, holding us back from the things that we want to do; God gives us this law so that we might live.  It is a gift that allows us to soar; to achieve new heights; to feel the power of the Holy Spirit working in, around and through us.

But what happens when this law is broken?  The Psalm says, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”  What happens when we stray?

Let us move to the Gospel.  Here we find a temple – a house of God, a place where we are supposed to respect God’s law more than anywhere else – infiltrated by merchants.  Jesus was not happy.  He walked into the temple and tore it apart.  He turned over tables and threw the merchants’ money everywhere.  “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Jesus screamed.

I have always loved this particular story.  For starters, it is the first time in the Gospel where we see Jesus – a passive, tender and healing man – get mad.  He has endured so much throughout his lifetime – hatred, anger and authoritative scorn – and yet he always continued to preach a message of peace, called us to turn the other cheek.  How many times have you read the call of the Gospel and wanted to cry out in return, “But Jesus, this is hard!  People are mean, evil is real and we have to fight back.”

Jesus finally snapped.  In a way I am almost proud of him.  Let’s be honest, there have been times when I have been pushed to my limits and have wanted to snap.  (Okay, let’s be really honest, there have been times when I have been pushed to my limits and have actually snapped.)  Jesus is human; Jesus is showing us his humanity.

But in the same moment in time, Jesus is also showing us his divinity.  “Destroy this temple,” Jesus told the disciples, “and in three days I will raise it up.”  Jesus wasn’t talking about the temple.  He was talking about the resurrection – his resurrection.  Jesus went from speaking literally about merchants in a physical temple to speaking in metaphor about what was coming; what humanity does when we destroy God’s law.  Jesus was someone who spent much of his life talking about and living a life of discipleship and service – that most of us can get on board with.  But now he, himself, is alluding to the resurrection, to the great mystery of the faith.  As much as sometimes I wish it were this easy, Christianity is about more than just following the Golden Rule; it is about having faith in something greater than we will ever understand.  Yes, Jesus physically destroyed the temple.  But something was already happening long before he got there.  And I think Jesus goes back and forth between describing the literal and the metaphorical in order to make a point about what was happening in the world – and about the fact that life and faith is sometimes complicated.

I think throughout the years something similar has happened over and over again.  We destroy our own temples.  Jesus tore apart the physical temple, but we had already destroyed the metaphorical one.  We fall short; we do not follow the law; we do not live up to the example that Christ set before us.

So where do we go from there?  We are destroying our own temples – what’s next?

We follow the Revised Common Lectionary when we plan worship.  There are three years to the lectionary – every year brings us through one of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark or Luke).  We are currently in Year B and moving through the Gospel of Mark.  Interestingly enough, however, the lectionary strays from Mark this week and brings us into John.  This story of Jesus coming into the temple and cleansing it does appear in the Gospel of Mark – it appears in chapter 11 – and yet we are still brought into the Gospel of John.

It is important to note that when we read the story of the temple cleansing in John, we are at the beginning of the Gospel, chapter two.  In the three Synoptic Gospels, however, the story is found much later, towards the end (in Matthew it is found in chapter 21, in Mark it is found in chapter 11 and in Luke it is found in chapter 20).

One of my New Testament professors wrote a book called “The Writings of the New Testament” and in it he said the following about the fact that we find this story early on the in the Gospel of John.

[Jesus] makes a brief trip to Jerusalem for a Passover (2:13). While there, he purifies the temple (2:13-22), an event the Synoptics make the climax of his ministry rather than the hallmark of its initiation. {The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, by Luke Timothy Johnson}

So maybe that is where we are supposed to start.  Maybe turning over tables and destroying the temples that we have built up is where our story is supposed to start, not where it all ends.  Maybe in order to make a real difference in the world, to truly be part of the Christian story we have to first admit that we fall short.  We have to admit that sometimes we are the merchant sin the temple, the Priest or the Levite that walk past the beaten traveler or the disciple that betrayed Jesus and put him on the cross.  I think admitting that we will fall short, that we will break the natural law that God has put forth, is where our journeys as Christians should start.

Because it is only then that we will truly be able to humbly follow in Christ’s footsteps.

We are human beings, imperfect in nature.  It does not make much sense to try to get it right all the time.  We will build ourselves up and eventually just have to tear each other – and ourselves – down.

It is the Third Sunday in Lent, our 40-day journey to the cross, a time to reflect, to restore, to renew.  During the next couple of weeks I encourage us all to consider what our Easter mornings would look like if we experienced the resurrection from a place of absolute humility, if we tore down our temples and built our faith on the premise of our own imperfection.

William Gurnall, English author and clergyman, once said, “Humility is a necessary veil to all other graces.”  Let us tear down what makes us weak – and grow our faith stronger – together.

“The Heavens are telling the glory of God.  And the firmament proclaims his handiwork.  The law of the Lord is perfect,” the Psalmist says.  But we don’t have to be.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

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