Sunday, March 8, 2015

Lent 3 B - Mar 8, 2015

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Peter Rostron, OHC
Lent 3 B – Sunday, March 8, 2015

Exodus 20:1-17
1 Corinthians 1:18-25 
John 2:13-22
The Cleansing of the Temple
In John’s gospel, the story of the cleansing of the Temple occurs at the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry, whereas in the three synoptic gospels it occurs near the end, just days before his crucifixion. Placing it there, just after the miracle at Cana - the first of Jesus’s signs of his glory - and just before his encounter with Nicodemus - in which Jesus spoke at length of being born from above, of eternal life, and of his own being as Savior - reflects John’s emphasis on Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, on the divinity of Jesus. John alone also puts Jesus in Jerusalem early and often in his gospel, in the Holy City that Jews considered to be the very center of the world and of God’s power on earth. In his gospel, John invites us to focus especially on the fully divine Jesus, Jesus as the eternal word of God.

So as we listen to John tell us about Jesus cleansing the Temple, angrily overturning the tables of the money changers and driving out the sacrificial animals and their vendors, we know that the message being delivered to us is central to Jesus’s ministry and that it is from God. God is not pleased with how the people are treating his Temple, the dwelling place that they had made for him on earth. The Temple had become a place for the rich and powerful, for those with status and influence, not a place for the poor and disenfranchised, nor for the pilgrim who might be making a long journey to celebrate a Feast in Jerusalem. The succession of courts surrounding the Holy of Holies in the center of the Temple grew increasingly restrictive as one moved from the outermost Court of the Gentiles to the innermost Court of the Priests. It was that outermost court that held the animals and the money-changers, so that most visitors would have found quiet prayer to be near impossible because of the commotion. 

Not only was the Temple symbolic of the stratification of society at the time, but it actually functioned as a sort of national bank, with money and material goods being stored there. Those who wished to pay their obligatory Temple tax had to change their money from one of the many national currencies in use to the local currency accepted by the Temple, and they had to pay a commission to do so. And those who wished to offer sacrifice had to purchase the animal at the Temple, at inflated prices. Jesus’s shocking action in the Temple reflects his desire to shatter all these profane and greedy practices that were desecrating the sanctuary of God. He was also making a statement that the act of animal sacrifice was not what God wished from his people. In this story that John gives a prominent place in his gospel, Jesus - God-made-human -  was boldly declaring an end to the Temple as people knew it and the beginning of something totally new.

This is only the first part of John’s story, however. The second part is the reaction of those who witnessed this event. This part is unique to John’s version, and it is yet another indication of his particular focus on the divinity of Jesus. The authorities demanded a sign, that is, an indication of what gave Jesus the authority to do what he had just done. The boldness of his act could mean that he was the expected Messiah, for it was understood that the Messiah would make himself known through the performance of signs and wonders. Jesus responded to them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” But, as often was the case, the authorities did not understand what Jesus was saying, that he was referring to his own body and not to a building. In that short sentence, Jesus was revealing his divine nature to the world, that he would be crucified and resurrected, and that he is to become the new Temple of God. And, by extension, that the whole world is to become God’s Temple, as members of the body of Christ.

The disciples’ reaction, on the other hand, was quite different from that of the authorities. They immediately sensed the presence of the Messiah before them in remembering a phrase from Psalm 69: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” This psalm was understood by the Jews of the day to be a reference to the Messiah, and to them the dramatic act they had just witnessed was certainly the act of one who was consumed with zeal for his father’s house. It is this phrase that really captured my attention as I prayed with this reading over the past few weeks. And, in particular, those two words - zeal and consume - struck me. I consulted Webster’s dictionary, which informed me that zeal is “eagerness and ardent interest in pursuit of something,” and that a synonym for zeal is passion. And for the word ardent Webster lists fiery, hot, shining, and glowing. 

So, indeed, this phrase from Psalm 69 seems an apt description for Jesus; he most certainly was consumed with zeal for his father’s - for his - house. But what about me, and you? Do I live my life as a Christian, and as a monk - and you, whatever your vocation - with zeal? Do we let our love of God, of Christ, consume us? Do we fully turn ourselves over to God’s love as the driving force in all that we do? These aren’t easy questions, and they are perhaps even a bit scary to imagine saying an unequivocal yes to, but they did strike me as good questions for Lent, this season when we are prompted to self-examination, to an extra measure of prayer, to repentance, and to re-establishing a right relationship with God.

That one, intriguing phrase from Psalm 69 inspired me to go and read the entire psalm, which only intensified my thoughts about how the disciples saw this man Jesus in the Temple and about how I am spending these days of Lent with him. I will read just a few verses from that psalm, and, as you listen, hear the voice of the Messiah speaking to God:
It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those
who insult you have fallen on me.
When I humbled my soul with fasting, they insulted me for doing so.
When I made sackcloth my clothing, I became a byword to them.
I am the subject of gossip for those who sit in the gate, and the
drunkards make songs about me.
But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord. At an acceptable time, O
God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me.
I imagined Jesus uttering those last words in his prayer at Gethsemane. And an image came to my mind of Jesus humbling his soul with fasting during his forty days in the wilderness just after his baptism and as the enormity of his mission unfolded before him. All these images - of Jesus in his zeal in the Temple, consumed by passion for his father; being driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit; sitting in profound humility and prayer in the garden - sprang from John’s rich telling of Jesus cleansing the Temple and from his tiny reference to a psalm. John’s words and images have enlivened my experience of Lent, helping me draw closer to Jesus in his journey to the cross. May you also find John’s words inspiring for your own Lenten journey, and, ultimately, may we all be led to share in the zeal of Christ as inhabitants and caretakers and worshipers in his new Temple.

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