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SERMON FOR LENT 3 — SUNDAY 3 MARCH 2024

Readings: 1 Corinthians 1: 18-25 and John 2: 13-22.

It would be difficult to imagine two more contrasting texts from the New Testament than we have this morning. The reading from Corinthians; tough, intense writing from Paul trying to explain the meaning of Christ crucified, with references to Jewish thought and Greek wisdom philosophy.

Then the gospel passage: all action and drama. Jesus displays real anger outside the temple; drives out the money-changers and overturns their tables, and drives out the sheep and the cattle, too. In the Oberammergau Passion Play, acted out on a large stage in Germany two years ago, this really was an incident not to be forgotten. Jesus was shouting in a rage. Some people feel really uncomfortable about this incident in Jesus’ life, not least because he was using a whip of cords, which would certainly sting or hurt. As a commentator says about this behaviour, “If Jesus came to raise fallen humanity, his stooping to this level of human passion makes no sense.” But I wonder?

When were you last angry in public? When were you really last angry? If somebody arrived at an outdoor village fete, say, and did what Jesus did, we would probably think this an over-reaction to whatever they were complaining about. Somebody might say ‘he was bang out of order!’ The organisers of the fete might want to bring charges.

There is such a thing as righteous anger, and Jesus shows that it is perfectly acceptable to demonstrate this. Indeed, if we don’t get angry about anything; if nobody got angry about anything, then none of the abuses and injustices of the world would ever be challenged.

The clue to Jesus’ anger perhaps comes in the quote from the Old Testament that the disciples recalled: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ ‘Zeal’ is not a word you hear very often, but we do talk about people being consumed with rage or anger.

Now the action we read about did not take place exactly inside the temple building, but in what was called the Court of the Gentiles, a sort of plaza outside the worship bit. Only certain people were allowed to go further — that is, the priests, so the Court of the Gentiles became real the meeting place. Somebody says this was a hubbub of mixed community. Perhaps imagine the Cathedral Plaza in Worcester, opposite the Cathedral, where Elgar’s statue is, where youths career about on skateboards, where people sit outside restaurants, where the homeless might beg, where protests might take place, where exhibitions might be staged like the ‘Knife Angel’ a year or two back.

That is not quite like the Court of the Gentiles, but it might suggest the atmosphere. There you would pay your temple taxes; there you would buy your sheep for sacrifice, or the doves, if you couldn’t afford a lamb. If you had come afar, you might need to exchange currency, so there was where the tables of the money-changers could be found. Some commentators will tell you that the exchange rate was exorbitant, others will say not. Perhaps we have concentrated too much on this aspect of the story. It’s easy to go into cathedrals and large churches and quote Jesus’ words about making God’s house a market-place, but Jesus was angry about far more than that.

Strange to say, his real protest was against ‘religion.’ If anyone thought they could pop up to the temple for a quiet prayer, they would be greatly disappointed. The noise, the hubbub, the stench, the sight of the blood from the animals slaughtered in the Court of the Gentiles can only be imagined; as someone has said — it would have had all the devotional atmosphere of an abbatoir.

The whole scene spoke of what was wrong with the Jewish religion at the time. The necessity for sacrifice had become more important than the worship. The holiest part of the temple was closely guarded and few could enter, and ‘the sacrament of God’s presence with his people’ had become a commercial enterprise. Jesus expelled the merchants and money-changers because they were inextricably part of a system whose day was done.

In John’s gospel, this incident comes right at the start of Jesus’ ministry, following on immediately from the wedding at Cana. The message from both incidents is the same — Jesus and his reign will supersede the existing order. In the next chapter of John, Jesus is saying to the Jewish leader Nicodemus, “You must be born again” or “You must be born anew.”

Jesus’ action in cleansing the temple is a sign that the temple is done for, but maybe also that he is done for. Because when he said ‘Destroy this temple and I will raise it in three days’, and the Jews question this, John tells us that Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body. The ‘three days’, of course, causes us to think of his resurrection on ‘the third day.’ The raising of his body was going to be of much more significance than the raising of the temple, which had already taken forty-six years to build and wasn’t finished, and which wasn’t destined to last beyond AD 70.

The Jews had asked Jesus “What sign can you show us for doing this?” In the reading from Corinthians, Paul asserts that ‘Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom’- but the person of Jesus and his crucifixion is neither a matter for miracle-seekers nor for philosophical debate. Crucifixion was an affront to Jewish thought, whose law said “Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree.” So they would rule out that anything good could result from an execution of that sort. The idea would be a stumbling-block to them, and sheer foolishness to Greeks, who were more interested in novel ethics or the latest theory on life.

Jesus’ body would be raised in three days, but he was to undergo the degrading, shameful and excruciatingly painful death by crucifixion first. No wonder Paul describes the ‘foolishness of our proclamation’. To purely human eyes, how could God’s power and majesty been seen in that! The cross became part of God’s rescue plan for the world, so St. Paul assures us that ‘God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

One writer notes that we have made the cross too beautiful and too bland. He says you wouldn’t wear a hangman’s noose around your neck, and you wouldn’t put an electric chair in a church. But we do sometimes wear a cross and we often display very expensive crosses in church. That’s alright, so long as we remember the true implication of it all. I’m sure you’ve all heard of the person who went into a jeweller’s shop and asked for a cross on a chain. The assistant replied, “Do you just want a plain one or one with that little man on it?” Fortunately, the cross and the little man on it mean a lot more to most people, even non-believers, than to that shop assistant.

The implications of the cross to us are, I hope, as they would be to the people in Corinth to whom Paul preached. The discerning Jew could see that the cross inspires a powerful revolution of love and transformation, and the reflective Greek could discover in the cross the wise grace of forgiveness and reconciliation.

May we dwell more on the depth of love that brought Jesus to the cross, the love that lives on in those who have been born anew, and show the same humility of Jesus, and, as John Keble wrote in that last hymn “Give us a pure and lowly heart; a temple meet for thee.”

 

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