In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; Amen.
We hit the middle point of Lent this morning – there have been two Sundays before this, there are two Sundays more and then Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday on March 29. The Old Testament readings thus far have been the accounts of three very important covenants that God has struck up with creation: The covenant promises to Noah to love all creation and never destroy it again with a flood, no matter how evil things get and to Abraham and Sarah to bless them with land and children so that they might leave their old selves behind and walk in God. In our Old Testament reading this morning we heard the words God spoke to the Israelites on Mt. Sinai, the words that we usually call, “The Ten Commandments.” These words were spoken to a people who already had a history with God, and now God is giving them a gift: It is as if God is saying, “As my people, this is how you are to live in relationship with me and with one another. I have promised my love to you and have brought you out of slavery in Egypt. This is how you will live in peace and abundance.”
For our Gospel reading, we fast forward almost 1300 years to the days of Jesus Christ's earthly life. So many things have happened in the relationship between God and God's people. At times they walked with God closely and experienced goodness and joy; at other times they forgot the covenants that God initiated with their ancestors and experienced defeat, poverty and exile. Even in Jesus' day, the Romans were ruling them with an occupying military force. The Jews of Jesus' day would continue to struggle with their relationship with God and with their occupiers until one day, in the year 70, the Romans will get fed up with their insurrections and will destroy much of the city of Jerusalem, including the Temple. Yes, the same temple that the Jews looked upon with reverence and awe. Yes this same temple that Jesus enters as the day of Passover nears in the second chapter of John's gospel. Yes, the same temple where Jesus turns over tables of moneychangers and drives merchants out of. Yes the same temple that Jesus stood in when he spoke those cryptic words, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” What does this have to do with covenants, promises and our relationship with God? More than you might at first think!
First of all, I remind you that the four Gospels are more like theological treatises, confessions of faith than they are historic accounts of Jesus' life. So when I tell you that this story, while it is recorded by all four gospel writers, is only found at the very beginning of Jesus' ministry in John's gospel (whereas in the other three Jesus cleanses the temple between the time he rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and when he is arrested, tried and crucified), then you can follow me on the significance of Jesus' mission, according to John.
Matthew, Mark and Luke (sometimes called the Synoptic Gospels because of their similarities) cast this disruption in the Temple as the final provocative act of Jesus that precipitates his arrest, trial and crucifixion – the last straw to the religious leaders of the day. John, however, uses this same scene to announce the inauguration of a new era, one in which the grace of God is no longer mediated or accessed through the cultic sacrifices that went on in the temple, but instead is available to all who receive Jesus as God's messiah.
In the Synoptics' accounts, Jesus accuses them of turning the Temple into a “den of robbers”, accusing them of defrauding the poor. In John's version, Jesus says that they have turned his father's house into a marketplace. But according to those old covenants, this marketplace was necessary in order to make the sacrifices that God asked. People travelling to Jerusalem for Passover could not easily bring with them the animals required to sacrifice. And Roman currency was not accepted at the Temple. So animals had to be sold and money had to be changed, according to the old ways of doing things.
But in John's gospel, this story has to do with Jesus renouncing the old way of relating to God. God is no longer available primarily, let alone exclusively, at the Temple. Instead, Jesus invites us to experience God's grace upon grace through our faith in him. Yes, on this third Sunday of Lent we not only remember the third of the covenants that God made with his people so long ago, but we also proclaim the new covenant that is ours today, embodied in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord – our new Temple!
The implications for us are that we no longer think of “church” as a destination. To be sure, this is a place where we come to receive “spiritual things” but today I want you to consider that rather than imagining this as a place we go to for some experience with God, we imagine this as a place we're sent from in order to meet, and partner with, God in everyday life.
Many of you are familiar with CS Lewis' books in his Narnia series. In The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the four Penvensie children travel from war-torn London to Narnia and there meet the great lion (and Christ figure) Aslan; with his help they defeat the White Witch, who holds Narnia captive in a perpetual winter. In the second book the children travel back to assist Prince Caspian in obtaining his rightful throne. At the end of the third and final book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan meets two of the children at the edge of the Eastern Sea and tells them that this was their last trip to Narnia. They protest at the prospect of not seeing the beloved lion again. He reassures them that they will see him in their own world. When they are surprised that Aslan is present in their world, he tells them that the whole reason for bringing them to Narnia for a time was that, coming to know him well there, they would recognize him more easily there.
Isn't that a great image for church? Much more than making sacrifices and obligatory prayers, we come to church because in the proclamation of the gospel and the sharing of Christ's presence in the sacraments, we perceive God's grace most clearly. And then…we are sent out to look for God –and even more, to partner with God in our various roles and venues as we love and bless the people and word that God loves so much.
John's account of Jesus cleansing the temple transforms two of the commandments for me, and I hope that it does for you. As we consider the commandment not to make anything an idol that we worship, we can ask ourselves how we do that with church itself – creating an image of this time and this place as the end of our worship life and not the vehicle by which we give thanks and praise to God and our lives are changed. And the commandment to honor the Sabbath day to keep it holy, which can turn into an idol itself, has been transformed by Jesus not so much as a day to rest at the end of an exhausting week, but rather a day to step back, get our rest and experience God in worship at the beginning of our week, so that we are ready to encounter God and God's creation the next six days wherever we go and whatever we do.
As I have prayerfully considered the importance of sabbatical for my ministry – one way that we observe a time of Sabbath – someone shared with me that I should not think of it as a time to rest after 25 years of ministry – that makes it into an idol, something that is worshiped itself without any value to my future ministry here. We should see this coming sabbatical time as a stepping away to experience God in new ways so that I can return with you renewed, rebuilt and revived for our next chapter together, strengthening our relationship with God in the years to come, and for sharing the love of God with so many more people through our congregational life.
Today our journey through Lent turns a corner – we are not only considering our relationships with God according to old covenants, but what it means to worship the God who meets us here in order that we might recognize him more fully the next six days. May God send us from this placed blessed so that we might be a blessing to others. Amen.