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Lent 3B 8th March 2015
There are a lot of puzzles raised for us in this gospel passage from John. In fact John’s gospel is more complicated and quite different in emphasis in every way. Do you remember how it starts? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” and then in verse 14 we get, “ and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory”. We cannot understand this passage we read today without referring back to that early passage where John sets out his full agenda for us. The Prologue, as it is called, sets us up to interpret the whole Gospel narrative. This passage about Jesus in the temple comes very early in John’s story. After the prologue, we have a bit about John the baptizer, and a strange take on Jesus’ baptism where the actual baptism is not mentioned. Then we have a very different version of the calling of the disciples. The first event recorded is the wedding at Cana where Jesus turns water into wine and John tells us this is the first sign. But sign of what? John says it is the first sign of his glory!
Now this is very, very important for today’s reading and for understanding the whole gospel of John. So we have two important things to grasp, the first is that Jesus is the Word, present at creation, made flesh, or given a body, and that Jesus is revealing God’s glory. If we can hold onto those two ideas the story of Jesus in the temple becomes much easier to grasp.
Before we go any further it might be good to talk a little about the temple and what it meant to the Jews of Jesus’ day. This particular temple had been built by Herod the great and it was the third temple. The first built by Solomon was destroyed at the time of the Assyrian conquest. After the return of the Babylonian exiles it was rebuilt and then Herod the great decided to rebuild the temple and make it really spectacular, to add to his prestige. At the time of Jesus going to Jerusalem the rebuilding process was incomplete, in fact it wasn’t finished until AD63 and then destroyed in AD70- which is a bit sad, really. The temple was the centre for ritual worship. It was only at the temple that the required sacrifices could be made and every Jewish man was required to attend one of the great festivals each year, the most important of which was the feast of Passover. And it is for this feast that Jesus has gone to Jerusalem. The temple had not always been the important place that it was at this stage in Jewish history. The Shekinah, or Glory of the Lord, had existed quite separate from the temple, from the beginning of the history of the people, the Jews. The Glory of God is first visible in creation recorded for us in those early chapters of Genesis. After the Exodus the glory of God is present to the wandering Israelites as fire and smoke, it is in the fire and in the cloud that Moses beholds God’s glory. Then the people build the Ark of the Covenant and God’s glory dwells in the tabernacle, which of course they take on the move with them. Then it goes to Shiloh, then to Jerusalem and then at the end of the sojourn in Babylon God’s glory reaches all the way to Babylon and brings the people home. Then the temple is rebuilt and the locus becomes fixed.
My point is that when Jesus calls the temple function into question it is really a question about where God’s glory dwells. If we just think back to those verses I quoted earlier, in the prologue, the place where God’s glory dwells is in the embodied God, the word made flesh, Jesus of Nazareth. And when he turns the water into wine that is a sign, not of his power but of God’s glory.
So Jesus of Nazareth goes into the temple and drives out the money changers and those selling cattle etc. The thing you have to understand is that these people were there quite legitimately- it is not about them making money, at least not here in John’s gospel. The people had to buy beasts in order to sacrifice and the temple tax had to be paid in the right kind of money, even poor people needed something to sacrifice, hence the doves. It is not the individuals that Jesus is objecting to but the whole order and business of temple worship and the sacrifice that went with it. Jesus himself is the dwelling place of the Glory of God, so the temple is no longer necessary. Jesus himself will become the sacrifice to end all sacrifice so the slaughter of beasts is unnecessary. In fact if you read the prophetic literature it becomes clear that the slaughter of beasts was never the sacrifice that God desired. There’s a beautiful bit in Psalm 50 where God demands of his listeners, “If I were hungry would I not tell you?…. Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and pay your vows to the Most High. Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” Now when I read this, I see that God’s glory is not about sacrifice but about relationship. What will glorify God- why when we call upon God in the day of trouble and when we give God thanks. Isn’t that amazing? It has nothing to do with the blood of goats or the flesh of bulls. And just incidentally, it is one of the glories of the Hebrew Bible that there are preserved all kinds of contradictory texts. Texts that tell us to sacrifice and texts that tell us it is a waste of life and a waste of time.
So we have Jesus, in the temple, making a symbolic guesture that speaks of the futility of their actions. And even the disciples still read it wrongly- they think it is zeal for the “house” of God whereas it is really zeal for the locus of God’s glory, zeal for the thing that ‘houses’ the glory of God- that is Jesus himself, in the first instance, and you and I in the second. After Jesus death, resurrection and ascension, after the promised Holy Spirit comes- we become the body of Christ. We become God’s glory incarnate. Does that idea terrify you? It terrifies me!
What this means is that we are where God dwells on earth and it is in relationship that God’s glory can be seen. In the relationship between us as individuals and God, in the relationship between us as a corporate, or incorporated congregation and God, in relationships between us, God’s gathered glory. Also, of course, in our relationships with others. God’s love and grace is revealed in us, by us, and the way others see God’s glory is through us. When Jesus says that the temple will be raised up in three days he is speaking as the narrator tells us, of his body. And we are his body! So we are the temple of God.
Paul tells us that, doesn’t he, just a little further into 1 Corinthians 3:16. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy and you are that temple”. I don’t know about you but whenever I heard that business about being the temple of God it was attached to some prohibition- like “don’t smoke because your body is the temple of God”. I never heard anyone say to me, you are the locus of God’s glory!!! And here we are, such fragile and imperfect beings. Our bodies are not perfect as befits somewhere that God is to dwell. Our minds are not perfect, our emotional stability is not perfect and yet, we are the dwelling place of God’s glory. A fortnight ago we had the passage about having our treasure in earthen vessels and this week we are told that God’s foolishness is better than all our wisdom- here I stand proof positive of those two facts!!!!
So what does it mean, for each of us as we live our lives day by day?
Well, I could say a lot of things about what we must not do to and for each other, but instead let me say two things phrased in the positive. The first is to encourage you to let your light shine, let the Glory of God be visible in everything you do. Don’t quench the Holy Spirit, but glow with God’s love and light for all around. And the second, as Jesus says, is like it. Bask in the Glory of God that we see in each other. If we look at our brothers and sisters and see God’s glory, surely that changes the way we relate to each other and to the world. As we go out of here today, as we meet each other over a cup of tea or coffee, we are seeing the glory of God. And as we go out together we can pray with the psalmist, “Let the words of my lips and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord my rock and my redeemer.” Because that is what we need isn’t it? To have good words to say to each other, and good hearts that reflect God’s love. And then, when we look at each other we will sing, “Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord”!