So, the story of the cleansing of the Temple. Maybe one of the most perennially misunderstood stories of the Gospel. Or at least a story that assumes a whole lot of knowledge about another story, a story that stretches back through the mist of time almost 600 years. When you hear this reading being read, if you had to pick out one theme that represented the story, what would it be? Would it be the righteous anger of Jesus? That white hot rage that boiled up inside him and led him to make a whip of cords and drive everyone out of the temple, purifying the space? Or would it be the justice of God, intent on setting free those who were being exploited in the temple courts? Well, today I want play around with another theme. I want to suggest that one of the main focal points of this story is actually the fulfillment of the promise of God, a promise that was made far back at the very dawn of Creation. A promise made by God that God would come down to earth to walk with his people.
THE STORY OF THE TEMPLE
Before we get there though let’s go back in time to the year 597 BC. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had laid siege to the city of Jerusalem and from there he’d taken most of the leadership of the kingdom of Judah into exile in what came to be known as the Babylonian Captivity, or the Babylonian Exile. From that point on, the once tiny, local community of Jews that was based in Jerusalem began to spread all around the known world. Different groups settled in different areas, in Africa, in Europe, in Persia. They grew in numbers and they became embedded in their new communities, but the one thing they never forgot was the centre of their religious identity, the throne of God, which was located back in Judah, in the capital city of Jerusalem, inside the Temple.
At the time of the Captivity the temple had been destroyed, but later on with the fall of the kingdom of Babylon to the Persian empire, the Jews were allowed to return home, which some but not all of them did. Over time the ones who did return rebuilt the temple and from that point on, every year Jews from across the world would come back to Jerusalem to make their offering in the temple. The problem was that many of the sacrifices made in the temple were animal sacrifices. Now I don’t know this from personal experience but I assume that it isn’t very easy, nor very practical, to lug an unblemished goat across the desert or over the sea, and so people would bring money back to Jerusalem with them and they’d buy the animals there; it’s sensible. Except that you couldn’t just use any money. By the time Jesus came around most of the people coming to the temple would come with Roman coins in their pocket. And you couldn’t buy a sacrificial animal for God with a Roman coin, not when the Roman coins had an image emblazoned on them of Caesar, and proclaimed that Caesar was God. And so before you offered your sacrifice to God, you had to buy the animal with a temple coin, and before you got a temple coin you had to trade in your Roman coins and this is why in the very forecourts of the temple you ended up with moneychangers and a marketplace for sacrificial animals.
This wasn’t some shady deal going on in the corner of the courtyard, this was people coming to worship God in exactly the ways that the laws of God told them to do it. And so when Jesus stormed into the temple courts and he fashioned this whip out of cords and he drove the money changers and the people selling livestock out of the temple, he wasn’t just challenging abuses in the Temple system, he was challenging the very Temple system itself.
Now, after Jesus’ ascension a few decades passed and then in the year 70, all of a sudden, there was a major revolt in Jerusalem and in response the Roman army came in and they tore down the temple for a second time. And it’s shortly after that, we think, that John’s gospel was written.
JESUS AND THE TEMPLE
So what’s going on here in this story? What is it that John’s trying to say to his readers, and what are we supposed to get out of it today? I think John and the Christian community of his day are really concerned with how you’re supposed to worship God now that the temple doesn’t exist anymore. This is part of what forms John’s theology, the conviction that at the heart of all theology, at the heart of all worship, at the heart of all encounter with God—isn’t the temple, nor the law, nor the prophets; at the heart of humanity’s encounter with God lies the person of Jesus. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of that commitment God made at the beginning of Creation to walk in this world, to walk alongside humanity: Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus is the one who reveals God to us and who holds us in the light of God.
Note that when Jesus drives the money changers out of the temple in John’s gospel he doesn’t use the same argument he uses in the other gospels. Again, it isn’t because the money changers are cheating the people or making “[his] father’s house a den of thieves”. It’s because they’ve made it into a marketplace, because they’ve lost the experience of approaching God with reverence—they’ve allowed all the surrounding trappings to take over and to become more important than the act of worship itself. In John’s gospel it isn’t a matter of justice, it’s a matter of worship. John wants to show us that true worship is carried out by living a life in step with Jesus, and so he adds in that paragraph at the end where Jesus talks about how the true temple is actually himself.
The question that remains is where do we fit into the story today? As we journey through Lent, searching for a deeper knowledge of God, we ought to keep this in mind, that God is constantly calling us into new depths and new experiences of God’s love. I think part of the message of this story, both for John’s community and for us, is that we don’t actually need the rituals of the temple, or of the church for that matter, to mediate our encounter with God. Our rituals don’t make us worthy of going before the throne of God, Jesus himself takes care of that. Instead our rituals are themselves an experience of what it’s like to go before God. They open our eyes to the new things that God is already doing in our lives.
We don’t confess our sins in order to be made worthy of God’s love, we confess our sins as an act of thanks for the love of God we’ve already received. We don’t approach the altar in order to be made pure before God, we approach the altar in order to be fed and nourished by God.
Our prayers aren’t the events that allow us to meet God in Jesus, they’re the very place where we meet God in Jesus. The story of the cleansing of the temple in John’s gospel account is a reminder that no power on earth can stop the promise of God to come down and to journey with his people.
As you travel through Lent, may this be a reminder to you that no matter where you are in life, and no matter where you are on your journey, through the person of Jesus, God walks with you, God cherishes you, and God calls you into something new.