Sunday 11 March is the Third Sunday of Lent. Today we looked at the story of Jesus cleansing the temple. The temple had occupied an important place in the life of the Jews but Jesus could see that it was being used wrongly. Far from being filled with the glory of God, it was filled with cattle, sheep, doves and money-changers, a marketplace rather than a place of worship. Those who witnessed Jesus’ actions were shocked. What they didn’t realise is that he himself was the new temple.
The readings in the Sunday service were 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 and John 2:13-22. My sermon follows:
Those of you who have been part of our community here for a few months will remember that this Cathedral is a new building. Our original building was something of an icon, having pushed the boundaries of building techniques in its time and won an award for SL architecture. Monty Merlin did a truly superb job in creating it. Though it was becoming a little dated in looks, the Cathedral still drew many to visit it, Christians and non-Christians. It was therefore with some trepidation that the attempt was made to create a new design. For many months Cady laboured and others commented, both the Leadership Team and as many of the community as were prepared to take a look. We even had a RL architect look it over!
Gradually the design improved as a result of lots of patient listening and long hours of work by Cady. Even though there was improvement, we couldn’t avoid the fact that many people held the original Cathedral in great affection. It held memories for them; it spoke to them of meeting God in a pixelated world and finding him to be real. For some it spoke of connecting with community on a deep level; or of returning to a faith that had been damaged in the past; or of finding faith for the first time. In order to ease the changeover, we worshipped in the new Cathedral on the building platform way above the sim for a couple of weeks. Even with that preparation, I know I felt sad when I watched the original Cathedral being taken apart. I also felt excitement as I saw the new one being put in place. I’m sure others felt similarly.
There is no doubt that buildings, particularly religious buildings, can have quite a hold on us. That was equally true for the Jews. They had every reason to be attached to their temple because of its history. As God’s chosen people, they had the privilege of having God dwell with them. In the time of Moses the tabernacle was built to God’s specifications. On the first day of the first month in the second year of the Exodus the tabernacle was set up with the ark of the covenant within it and all its furnishings in place. Moses offered incense on the golden altar; he offered the burnt offering and grain offering; he and Aaron washed their hands and feet as God had commanded. When all was done according to God’s commandments, a cloud covered the tent of meeting and God’s glory filled the tabernacle.
When a permanent temple was built by Solomon, he knelt and prayed a prayer of dedication in it. He acknowledged that God is too great to be contained in heaven, never mind in a temple built by human hands. Nevertheless Solomon prayed that those who came to worship in the temple would be heard by God and those who had sinned would be forgiven there. He even prayed that foreigners who prayed in the temple might receive what they asked for so that all might know God’s name. When Solomon’s prayer was ended fire came down from heaven to consume the burnt offerings and God’s glory filled the temple. The glory was so amazing that the priests could not enter. Everyone bowed down with their faces to the ground, acknowledging God’s goodness.
Sadly the Jews found it difficult to live a religious life which was totally dedicated to Yahweh. Instead they worshipped other gods also. After many warnings they were exiled and their beautiful temple was looted and destroyed by the Babylonians. God’s glory left at that point, as he had warned through the prophets that it would, and never returned. A second temple was built when the Jews returned from exile. By the time we reach our Gospel passage for today the third temple – Herod’s temple – had been under construction for 46 years beginning in 19 BC. The work would continue until 64 AD. Neither the second temple nor Herod’s temple experienced God’s glory inhabiting it. Sacrifices continued, prayers were said, but the temple – the place the Jews considered the point at which heaven and earth overlapped – had no evidence of God’s presence in it.
When Jesus saw how the temple was being used he was naturally angry. Those who were coming faithfully to worship were finding themselves in a market, not a temple, where merchants and money changers were able to make a profit from their need to present perfect animals for sacrifice and to use the correct coinage. It’s understandable that those who benefited from the arrangement in the temple were also angry and wanted to know what right Jesus had to drive everyone out.
Jesus completely confused his hearers by stating that if the temple was destroyed he would rebuild it in three days. As John tells us, Jesus didn’t mean Herod’s temple, a beautiful place built to glorify man, not God. The true temple – the place where heaven and earth overlapped – was Jesus himself, the one standing there talking to the people. As Stephen, the first martyr was to say some time later, God no longer dwelt in temples made with hands. For those thirty-three years of Jesus’ earthly life he dwelt with people in the person of Jesus: “The Word was made flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
Once the temple that was Jesus was destroyed, it was rebuilt. First it was seen as Jesus’ resurrected body but after that a new temple was built; God’s glory dwelt throughout whole world through the Holy Spirit living in those who believed in Jesus. Jesus had promised on the night before he died that anyone who loved him would obey him and as a result God and Jesus would dwell in them. God’s temple is now the Church, the Church being the people not the building, however beautiful that building might be.
Paul in his letter to the Corinthians acknowledges just how foolish this strategy might appear. God chose to use weak and fallible human beings, preaching a message of death and apparent defeat, to overcome the wisdom of the wisest of the age. It was a foolish message for both Jews and Gentiles. The Jews were sure that the Messiah would be a mighty king and that anyone who died by crucifixion was cursed. There was no way that Jesus fulfilled their expectations. The Gentiles were used to powerful gods who could do as they pleased to people. A god who died at the hands of people was ridiculous.
That ridiculous message, that a crucified God is real, and that he chooses to dwell in weak and flawed human beings like all of us here, is still bringing hope all over the world. God’s foolish and weak way of working is capable of reaching the world through us, including this virtual world. The Holy Spirit lives in us and empowers us to spread the word wherever we go, just like those first apostles.
When the tabernacle and the temples were built, the best materials were used to make something of great beauty, formed by the best craftsmen. We are the best materials, God’s handiwork, his masterpiece. The temple not made with hands grows in beauty with each person who comes to faith. Peter, in his first letter, urges us: “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor