If you’ve been here in your seats for the past half hour or so and not just now settling in, wondering what happened to the beginning of the service, you know that Daylight Savings Time began this morning…as if we could “save” daylight. The sun shines as it will for as many hours as the earth’s rotation allows it in our spot in the northern hemisphere. Unless, of course, you’re talking about passive solar collectors that “save up” the sun’s energy, but that’s a discussion topic for another time.
Not only have our clocks shifted, but you may have noticed that the angle and location of the sun have shifted, so that sunlight comes through our windows at a slightly different angle than just a few weeks ago. I know this because all the dust and cobwebs in my house that have been lounging in relative obscurity for months now have spotlights on them. I know that the time for spring cleaning–and let’s be honest: winter cleaning–was weeks ago, but knowing that we still have weeks of grubbiness and mud season ahead of us, I just can’t bring myself to launch a full-scale cleaning. When it’s warm enough to open the windows, though, and feel the fresh air blow in, then, you never know–I just may have to haul out the white vinegar and lemon juice and Mrs. Meyers’ Clean Day and go to it.
Spring cleaning… “The Passover of the Judeans was near,” John tells us, “and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Spring cleaning.
John’s Jesus doesn’t accuse the money-changers or animal sellers of being corrupt. He doesn’t call them “robbers” like he does in the other 3 gospels. He just says they’ve turned his “Father’s house into a marketplace.” That was how the system worked. You came to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer sacrifice for your sins, but the animals for sacrifice had to be unblemished, and you couldn’t guarantee that even if they started off the journey to Jerusalem unblemished they would arrive that way. And you couldn’t use Roman coin in the Temple, you had to exchange it for Temple coins, so the money-changers and the animal sellers were providing a service. It wasn’t the sellers themselves who outraged Jesus–it was the system that blocked the way to God that “consumed” Jesus.
As always, there were folks deeply embedded in the system who were not at all pleased with Jesus’ actions. Not only did the money-changers’ and animal sellers’ livelihood depend upon this system, but of course the priests and the Temple authorities obviously had a vested interest in it. The same is true today, isn’t it? in systems and industries that employ millions of people and benefit all sorts of companies and communities, but which are either destructive and/or offer false security. The coal industry is one example. The economies of whole states like West Virginia and Kentucky depend upon coal-mining for employment and revenue, and yet at an unsustainable cost to our environment and to the health of their workers. The same might be said of the whole fossil fuel industry.
The cleansing of the Temple, writes Dan Clendenin, was a “stark warning against any and every false sense of security. Misplaced allegiances, religious presumptions, pathetic excuses, smug self-satisfaction, spiritual complacency, nationalist zeal, political idolatry, and economic greed in the name of God are only some of the tables that Jesus would overturn in his own day and ours.” (JourneywithJesus.net, 3/13/06)
John puts this story of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple at the very beginning of his gospel, not at the end, at the beginning of Holy Week, as the other 3 gospels do. In the other 3, it is the final straw that motivates the authorities to get Jesus arrested. In John, at the very beginning, it “announces the inauguration of a new era,” as one commentator describes it, “one in which the grace of God is no longer mediated or accessed through cultic sacrifice, but instead is available to all who receive Jesus as God’s” anointed one. [David Lose, inthemeantime, 3/2/15]
By the time John’s gospel is written, probably sometime in the 90’s, the Temple had been destroyed by the Romans for over 20 years. The Holy of Holies–where the Ark of the Covenant sat, containing the tablets of the 10 commandments, and the place where Israel’s God was thought to be present–was in ruins. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” Jesus says, but John tells us, “he was speaking of the temple of his body.” The word used here for “destroy” has many meanings, but the most common one is “to loose,” “to liberate.” Jesus was “liberating” the temple, just as he would be liberated in death. “Spring cleaning,” indeed! Maybe I should think of “liberating” my house!
Before there can be room for the new, the old must make way. “No one puts new wine in old wineskins,” Jesus said, “lest the new wine burst the old skins.” Right at the beginning of his gospel, John lets us know that Jesus is ushering in the new, turning over the old. So, there is a letting go, a disruption, an upheaval, a grieving even. All those money-changers and animal sellers had to find new jobs, just as coal-miners and oil well drillers and refiners must be re-deployed. The old structures and systems of the church must be overturned, lest we simply become fossilized angels in our walls, so it’s just as likely that we pastors will be in the unemployment lines along with the coal miners.
Jesus said he was referring to the temple of his body, and so we too can look to the temple of our bodies and our personal lives to see what needs to be overturned there. Is it the food we put into our bodies, or what we do with our bodies? Is it our assumptions or our self-centeredness? Have we turned the temple of our bodies into a marketplace, thinking that buying and consuming more will make it somehow more holy or acceptable? “Create in me a clean heart,” the psalmist prays, “and renew a right spirit within me.” Spring cleaning.
“Another world is not only possible,” writes the great prize-winning author and political activist Arundhati Roy, “she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” To make way for that new world, that new church, that new life, there are tables that need to be over-turned, things that need to be thrown out, people that need to be upset. But in the great economy of God, nothing is lost, only transformed and gathered in. Perhaps Jesus’ anger and violence as he cleanses the temple frighten you. His dream–and God’s dream–for God’s people–the ushering in of the kingdom of God–was that sweeping, that comprehensive, that overwhelming. “If your dreams do not scare you,” says Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, “they are not big enough.” Dare we dream those kinds of big dreams?
God has big dreams for us and for our world…a world where everyone has enough, a world where each person and creature is treated with respect and dignity, a world where the diversity is vast and mind-blowing but the unity is no less dense and profound…a world where the power of love rules, rather than the love of power. This season of Lent gives us opportunities to take stock, to see what we can do without–which, I have a feeling is far more than we think–, opportunities to get real and honest, to go to places in ourselves, at least, that may scare us. But even though the song says Jesus had to walk that lonesome valley by himself and we must walk it by ourselves, I don’t really believe that. We do not walk into those hard and scary places by ourselves. God has been– and is in– all those places and, more often than not, provides us with companions to go with us. New life is possible. A new world is possible and is on her way. Can you hear her breathing?
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark