Sunday, March 08, 2015

Third Sunday of Lent

John 2
13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!’ 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’[a]
18 The Jews then responded to him, ‘What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?’
19 Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’
20 They replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’ 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.

Long ago, in what now seems like a field trip attached to some child-ordination program, I went to Israel.

Do you ever have that sense that you’re on the wrong bus? Did you ever have it for ten days? Well, it turns out that the mainline clergy familiarization tour was too small, and so they attached our small mainline rump to the charismatic tour instead. I may still be in recovery.

Maybe it was the overbearing tour leaders—a former priest and a former nun—who would do things like praise the Jewish guide to his face and them pray that he find Jesus the moment he stepped off the bus. Or maybe it was the constant loop of praise music that would make Jesus blush and say “no, I’m not your boyfriend.”

Or maybe it was their habit of bypassing world-class religious sites, then saying “we won’t be visiting there—it’s too Catholic.” Or maybe it was the day we tried to visit the Temple Mount, and we had a lesson in how not to approach other religions.

It seems remarkable now, but Christian groups would visit the Dome of the Rock, which along with the Al-Aqsa Mosque is considered the third holiest site in Islam. And so our bus arrived at the bottom of a very long ramp and our leader went off to prepare for our visit. Time passed. Eventually we learned that there would be no visit that day, and our other leader gave the final word on the episode by saying “it’s okay, we didn’t want to visit anyway, that place is an abomination.”

Maybe you can imagine the boy ordinand running to the front of the bus as fast as his little legs would carry him, and finally sharing his righteous anger at the intolerance of the tour leaders. The rest of the episode is an embarrassed blur.

Now, there is an ironclad rule that the preacher should never make himself the hero of the sermon, so I must say that there were countless things that the “angry young man” abroad should also have challenged, but did not. Mostly I learned that the presence of North American Christians in Israel should make the situation better, but I fear it only makes it worse.

Of course, tension in and around the Temple Mount isn’t new or even unexpected. Even before it became an obsession for three of the world’s great religions, it was a place of conflict and tension. Built by Solomon, the Temple was destroyed in the chaos of 586 BC. Rebuilt under Cyrus, it becomes the point of contention for every new ruler who wants equal time for their gods alongside YHWH.

Expanded and renovated by Herod (and thereby earning the title ‘the Great’) the tension only continues. Herod adds a new feature (commonly called Robinson’s arch) that allows speedy access to the Temple for Jerusalem’s ‘better citizens,’ while aliening others. The arch also seems to enhance the mercantile side of Temple activity, which will lead us to the tension found in the Gospel story this morning.

And today, of course, there is tension between the various religious groups and even within the groups. Jewish women continue to be barred from praying alongside men at the Western Wall, and are encouraged instead to pray in newly renovated section under Robinson’s arch, to the south. A brave group called Women at the Wall insist this makes them “second-class” and continue to press for equality, taking the case as far as the Supreme Court.


And his disciples remembered his words and remembered that it is written “Zeal for your house will consume me.” It seems like such an obvious connection to make, this connection between the ‘cleansing of the Temple’ and Psalm 69.

“Zeal for your house will consume me” seems to perfectly describe what is happening here: the holy days approach, and Jesus makes his way to the Temple Mount, only to find a menagerie and a market, part farmyard and part Money Mart. In his zeal, he scatters the coins and turns the tables, all the while shouting to defend the sanctity of the house of the Lord.

More tension follows, and an argument about the future of this structure, and the metaphorical three days that it will take to rebuild it. The critics are silenced, the disciples are lost in thought, knowing full well that everything they have seen and heard this day has some deeper meaning. So what is it?

“Zeal for your house will consume me” is the clue we need to understand the deeper meaning, more than just an obvious proof-text, but an opening to the future of this story, and the conclusion of our Lenten journey to Jerusalem.

Psalm 69, where we read “zeal for your house,” is the second most quoted psalm in the New Testament after Psalm 22. As we hear the psalm it speaks in a voice that is unmistakeable:

16 Answer me, Lord, out of the goodness of your love;
in your great mercy turn to me.
17 Do not hide your face from your servant;
answer me quickly, for I am in trouble.
18 Come near and rescue me;
deliver me because of my foes.
19 You know how I am scorned, disgraced and shamed;
all my enemies are before you.
20 Scorn has broken my heart
and has left me helpless;
I looked for sympathy, but there was none,
for comforters, but I found none.
21 They put gall in my food
and gave me vinegar for my thirst.

Remarkably, vinegar appears in all four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death, with some confusion as to the meaning of this gesture. Matthew, Mark and John seem to describe an act of compassion, pressing sour wine to his lips in those last moments of his life, while Luke ties it to the abuse he suffers at the hand of the soldiers. It’s the latter approach that seems closer to what the psalmist is describing, part of the scorn that the Lord’s servant must endure.

All of this makes the Cleansing of the Temple as turning point more obvious, a line of demarkation between the ministry before this event and the passion that will soon follow. Zeal for your house becomes the turning point, where enemies have observed all they need to observe to drive the story forward, and the disciples see what they need to see to reconstruct all of this in memory.

Overall, we are learning about the fate of the reformer. Jesus doesn’t set out to create a religion, or make anything new. He only seeks to reform his own faith, to challenge the so-called holy ones to follow their common faith in a way that honours the God they serve. So back to Psalm 69:

32 The poor will see and be glad—
you who seek God, may your hearts live!
33 The Lord hears the needy
and does not despise his captive people.
34 Let heaven and earth praise him,
the seas and all that move in them,
35 for God will save Zion
and rebuild the cities of Judah.

And this is the Lenten challenge for all who seek to be faithful: to rediscover the heart of religion, to lift the poor and hear the needy, to love those that God cannot despise, and trust in God—that cities will be rebuilt and the earth will be glad. Amen.


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