On 4th March 2018, the third Sunday of Lent, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 19, Exodus 20:1-17, and John 2:13-22.
Nearly thirty years ago some friends of ours from church found themselves homeless. The buyers of their house wanted to move in and our friends couldn’t take possession of their new house immediately. Fortunately, my family and I were just about to go away for a three-week holiday, so we offered our home to our friends.
When we returned our friends were still not able to move into their new home. We spent the next three weeks with two families, ten people in all, sharing our house. It was much busier than normal and meal times were quite a challenge, but we managed and quite missed our friends when they moved out.
I know some people were quite surprised at our offering our home to someone else. We took a risk and chose to believe that it would be well looked after. When we returned, we found our friends had cared for it well. Just imagine how we would have felt if we had returned to find our sitting room full of animals, a motorbike in the kitchen and the bedroom walls covered in graffiti! Something similar to that scenario faced Jesus.
Jesus left Cana after changing the water into wine at the wedding feast. He stayed for a few days in Capernaum before going to Jerusalem with his newly formed group of disciples as the Passover approached.
The Gospel reading for today is centred on the Temple in Jerusalem. For the people of Israel, the Temple was God’s permanent dwelling place. Looking at it as it shone in the sunshine reminded them of God’s presence and that they had a special relationship with him.
At the time of the Passover, Jerusalem would have been full of pilgrims coming from far and wide, swelling a normal population of about 80,000 people by hundreds of thousands. All the pilgrims needed to pay their Temple tax and to offer sacrifices in the Temple. They changed their money into approved coinage and bought unblemished animals when they arrived in Jerusalem. Originally the market for this activity had been across the Kidron Valley on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. By the time of this Gospel story the market was within the Temple. It was in the outer part of the Temple, the Court of the Gentiles, which was an area about 750 feet square.
To serve the needs of so many thousands of pilgrims, there must have been many hundreds of sheep, cattle and doves available for them to buy each day. The noise must have been deafening with cattle bellowing, sheep bleating and the haggling of traders and customers. That and the crush of human and animal bodies would have made the Court a very stressful place to be, not to mention what would have been underfoot! That area was the only part of the Temple that the non-Jews could go in to worship God, but it’s hard to imagine how they could possibly worship in that situation. The noise would also have carried to the inner parts of the Temple, the most holy parts. Nothing would have been able to escape the clamour.
That was the scene that greeted Jesus when he entered the Temple with his disciples. Without hesitation, he set about clearing all the traders and their stock out of the Court. He told those selling doves: ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ Jesus was acting in his Father’s name to make the Temple closer to what it was intended to be, which was certainly not a retail park or cattle market.
It’s interesting that the Jews who questioned Jesus after he had caused this disruption didn’t complain about what he had done. Perhaps they recognised the need for it to be done. What they wanted to know was where his authority for clearing the Temple court came from. Prophets proved their authority was from God by performing signs. For Jesus to act as he did in the Temple, he would surely have needed God’s authority. The Jews expected him to be able to prove it by doing something special, perhaps like Moses throwing his stick down for it to become a snake. Jesus’ response to being questioned was not a magic trick but a change of focus away from the Temple building to himself.
We know from earlier in John’s Gospel that ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us’. When Jesus arrived at the Temple it was God who came home to his Temple and found that all was not well. His house was being used in a very wrong way, not at all as intended. Although he was not recognised by his chosen people, God in Christ had the ultimate authority to challenge the abuse of the Temple because it belonged to him and no one else.
The Temple had been designed to help people come close to God but had become something that was adored for its own sake, breaking the second commandment. As God said in the reading from Exodus, he is a jealous God. He does not share his position with anyone or anything else. In response to the situation, Jesus spoke of himself as the new Temple, though he was not understood at the time either by the Jews who questioned him or by his disciples. When Jesus rose again three days after the authorities thought they had destroyed him, it became clearer what he meant when he said, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ He had been talking about his own body, not the Temple building.
The Temple was a beautiful building in a Jerusalem which people travelled to, to be as close as possible to God. Jesus Christ has replaced it; he himself is the place where God is most present and accessible to his people. God is not just found when someone makes perhaps a once in a lifetime pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Now God can be found anywhere and everywhere. Jesus brings God’s presence into every aspect of our lives. Every dimension of even the most ordinary life can be a place where we meet God. That is very good news for us all.
Helene Milena (Lay Pastor)