"A Temple on the Move"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 3/4/2018


John 2:13-22
“A Temple on the Move”
March 4, 2018
            I can open up any modern book and read the copyright and printing dates.  We cannot do that with the gospels.  Scholars have to make some informed guesses about the place and time of their composition based on language, contents, where they are quoted outside the Bible, and so forth.  John, unlike the other three, seems to have been composed after the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, and that makes a difference.  The story of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple shows up in all four gospels.  John differs from the other three in that he puts it toward the beginning of Jesus’ active ministry, not at the end, which sort of surprises me because it makes sense to me that something like that would be the last straw for the authorities, as it is in the other three versions.  John, though, uses events from Jesus’ life to make a point more than the others do.  Instead of threatening the end of religious observance, he is promising an ongoing access to God that no catastrophe can change.
            We have our holy places.  There are buildings that matter deeply to Christians.  The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem occupies the probable site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, and people have been traveling to worship there for sixteen hundred years.  Various branches of the Church have been arguing for nearly that long about who has jurisdiction over the place and there are elaborate agreements that leave some parts of the building in the hands of the Roman Catholics and some parts in the care of the Greek Orthodox and relegate a section of the roof to the Ethiopian Coptics.  But last week, as part of a protest over confiscation of other church properties by the Israeli government, the building was closed for awhile.  I saw some pictures of pilgrims kneeling outside the locked doors. 
           Allowing worship to stop, even temporarily, in the Temple was unthinkable for the Jews of the first century.  Josephus, who wrote a history of the war in which the Romans sacked Jerusalem, says that the priests
“carried on their religious service uncurtailed, though enveloped in a hail of missiles.  Just as if the city had been wrapt in profound peace, the daily sacrifices, the expiations and all the ceremonies of worship were scrupulously performed to the honour of God.  At the very hour when the temple was taken, when they were being massacred about the altar, they never desisted from the religious rites of the day.”[1]
The scriptures we know as the Old Testament had anchored the worship of God on Jerusalem and on the Temple as the place where, out of the whole earth, God had directed his people to gather and where he had said he would meet them.  To destroy that would, they thought, destroy God’s promise.  Imagine – as an analogy – what would happen to Islam if Mecca were wiped off the map, and the Ka’aba that Muslims face to worship, wherever they are in the world, were turned into a hole in the ground?
           The Temple had been destroyed once before, and the people had felt themselves totally cut off, especially those who had been carried away as prisoners.
“By the waters of Babylon –
            there we sat down and there we wept
            when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
            we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
            asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
            ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
            in a foreign land?” [Psalm 137:1-4]
For two generations, their focus was on trying to get back, and Nehemiah led them in the effort, inspired by Isaiah and guided by Ezra.  Zeal for Jerusalem and for the Temple was the burning motivation of their lives.
            On the other hand, if the Vatican or Canterbury Cathedral or St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow or every church building on the globe were to disappear, we would be deeply upset and mourn their loss but it would not go to the heart of our faith.  It’s fair to say that we have John’s account of Jesus cleansing the Temple to thank for that. 
“The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’  Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”
Our access to God is through Jesus, who has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven, whose Holy Spirit is everywhere, not just in one designated spot, however beautiful or time-honored.
            In fact, the Bible calls the Church his Body, and reminds us of Jesus’ own words:
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” [Matthew 18:20]
Sometimes it’s catastrophes that reveal that.  I’ve seen it happen on a plane when it hits turbulence.  I have felt Jesus’ presence standing on a corner by a vacant lot during an anti-drug vigil in Philadelphia.  Mother Teresa knew that she could find Jesus sitting beside people dying in the streets of Calcutta and Dietrich Bonhoeffer shared communion with other believers in a Nazi prison.  Julia Ward Howe looked out from a rooming-house at the Union troops guarding Washington during the Civil War and said,
“I have seen him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded him an altar in the evening dews and damps.
 I can read his righteous sentence by their dim and flaring lamps. 
His truth is marching on.”
Even so, in the everyday and in the safe places, too, Jesus is right there in the ordinary unremarkable.  He’s there when a family bows its heads to give thanks at the dinner table, and when parents are saying prayers with their children at bedtime.  He’s certainly here with us as we gather at this table in his name.

[1] Josephus, War I. 148, cited in E.P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 BCE-66CE (London: SCM Press, 1992), 92.
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