This sermon features a guest preacher, and one time St. Matthew’s clergy, the Rev. Jason Ingalls. Jason is Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit in Waco, TX and President of the Board of Directors and Director pro tem of the Scholar-Priest Initiative. He studied theology at John Brown University, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Wycliffe College, Toronto, and has served in campus ministry at Vanderbilt University and Tennessee Technical University.
Third Sunday in Lent, Year B, 2015 – Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
Lent is a time of year for prayer, self-denial, and fasting. Some of us use this opportunity like a new New Year. Maybe we’ll finally start the diet that we wanted to start in January, we might think. The natural spiritual rhythms of fasting for the sake of our souls gets turned around. I remember several years ago hearing of people going on a “cleanse” for Lent. You know about this? You have to drink something like water mixed with honey, citrus, and cayenne pepper or some such thing. It naturally … um … cleans you out. Some people do it for their weight. Some people do it to clean out embedded toxins in the gut. Whatever the case, it doesn’t sound pleasant to me at all.
As St. John tells it, towards the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he takes a trip to Jerusalem for the Passover meal. It will be three more years before he makes his final trip up the sacred mount, but now he goes with his disciples to the holiest site in Israel: the Temple. As he walks up the great stairs into the Temple itself, he first of all hears a noise – the great braying of cows. Mixed in as a sub-theme is the baahing of sheep. The harmony is completed by the sound of hundreds of people bartering, of coins clinking, of doves cooing. The music grates on Jesus’ nerves.
He tops the stairs and surveys the scene in this Temple he loves so much. There are cows and sheep and doves – all in the Temple courts – all making a general … um … mess of things. A young couple buys a dove as a thank offering for their young son. Others exchange coins and collect a cow for sacrifice. And the money changers. The money changers are changing foreign currency at exorbitant rates for Temple approved money so that foreigners can pay the Temple Tax. It’s all too much for Jesus. God’s house, his Father’s house, is full of sludge and dirt and robbery. The disciples look at Jesus’ face and begin to worry. They will later quote Scripture about Jesus’ response that day, “Zeal for your house will consume me” (2.17). The disciples are frightened. Hot zeal flashes all over Jesus’ face.
I seem to remember that proponents of the Cleanse say the reason we need to periodically drink that nasty concoction and, well, um, work everything out with fear and trembling, is that over the years, things build up in our guts. “Sludge,” I think I heard them call it on the radio. It’s the left-over grime, the not-quite-processed refuse, the greasy yuck that would rather stay put inside of us than face the light of day. Proponents talk about semi-regular cleanses, because no matter how healthily we eat, well, sludge happens. It’s unavoidable, and periodically, they say, we should probably do something about it.
And the same is true in our spiritual lives, and, I think, that’s one of the reasons for a season like Lent. Over time, no matter how well we live, our souls start to hold back the grime, the refuse, and the grease in our lives. Our hearts grow dark with the built up sin, guilt, and resentment. The braying and baahing and cooing and coin clinking of that which doesn’t belong in the Temple of our bodies starts to be heard a long way off. And Jesus stands at the top of our stairs, surveying the damage in this Temple he loves so much. And it’s no wonder that we sometimes fear this Jesus. For if we were to let him loose in our Temple courts, what would he do with the zeal that is so obviously consuming him?
Before the disciples have the chance to answer the question, Jesus is bent over a knot of ropes on the ground. He rises with a jumble of them in his hands, and the zeal on his face breaks out in action. He lashes at the sheep and cattle. They pour out of the court, hurtling down the stairs, their cries turning fearful as they run. Next, he walks over to the startled money changers, grabs their table by the edge, and flips it over in their faces, a cacophony of coins striking the stone floor. Next he walks to the dove-keepers, and he commands them, “Take these things out of here” (2.16)! They grab their wicker cages and run out, birds cooing in alarm. And after a few minutes … silence. All stare at the figure in the center of the court, his chest heaving, whip of cords hanging ready at his side.
Commanding footsteps shatter the stillness. The religious authorities walk straight to Jesus. “What sign can you show us for doing this” (2.18)? In other words, by what authority are you disrupting our work? Jesus drops the corded whip on the ground and looks at them. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (2.19). They scoff at him, but St. John, in retrospect, writes, “But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this” (2.21-22). In three years’ time, Jesus will return to this Temple and cleanse it again, which will set in motion the perfection of his obedience, the cleansing of his body in blood on the cross.
Destroy this temple, and on the third day I will raise it up, Jesus said. This temple is my body. It will bear the stripes of the whip of nine tails on its back. It will bear a cross on its shoulders and carry it to Golgotha. This Temple which is my Body will bleed and breathe its last. You are my body. I have perfected my Temple in obedience so that I may perfect yours. Destroy this temple, and on the third day I will raise it up.
In Lent, we set aside time for Jesus to stand at the top of the stairs of our souls, and we invite him in with his whip of cords. We provide space for the Holy One to ransack our lives, to drive the sludge and the sin that so easily entangles and our pervasive greed and selfishness out and away from us. Jesus loves us so much that he drives far away from us all that is not who he is making us. Jesus loves us so much that he drives out from us all that slimy build up. He prepares us in this Holy Lent for the remembrance of his passion and those three holiest of days in which he died, lay fallow in the grave, and rose again. The pain of this cleanse is nothing compared to the joy set before us. Why do we let Jesus destroy the Temple? Because in three days he will raise it again.
As we continue our journey towards Easter, let us take the time necessary to allow that deep cleanse in our souls. Let us make use of opportunities for general and sacramental confession. Let us treat our fasting as part of Christ’s cleansing of the Temple of our bodies for his purposes in the world. When we do so, we will find ourselves standing next to the figure in the middle of the Temple, whip of cords hanging down at his side, the silence of deep peace descending upon us both. In cleansing the Temple, in cleansing himself, in washing us in water in Baptism, Jesus has cleansed us and continues to set us aside for his purposes. He has claimed us and lifted us up, and in that cleansing he has marked us as his own forever.