In keeping with the theme of our readings from Hebrew scripture during Lent, our first reading for today describes yet another covenant God made with humankind, the gift of the law. Familiar to us as the ten commandments, the law allows us to live in community with one another. Although we often think of the law just as something to be obeyed, God intended the law to be a framework for humankind to live in safety and peace. If you watched the video about Abraham and Sarah last Sunday, it was obvious that their story predates the giving of the law through Moses to the people as they wandered in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. Some rather shocking customs were taken for granted by God’s people before the code of law existed. Loving parents, caring teachers, anyone in a position of responsibility know how important rules and boundaries are for life together.
It becomes confusing sometimes when we hear Jesus, and later on, Paul, say things that seem to contradict the law. However, neither Jesus nor Paul sought to abolish the commandments and laws that evolved to support them. The problem was that at times people had taken the law too far, that they were more concerned with a rigid adherence to details of the law than they were with obeying the command to love God and one another. For example, the command to honor the sabbath is one that we might wish was followed more closely today. Many people do not attend worship, stores are open, schools hold events, people in non-critical jobs are required to work. However, in Jesus’ day, he was criticized for healing on the Sabbath. Jesus taught that the offering of mercy and compassion should super cede the law not to work on the Sabbath.
In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus was faced with another case of the law being applied inappropriately. John depicts Jesus in a rare fit of anger, as he drives the animals away from the outer court of the temple and overturns the tables of the moneychangers. It is difficult for us to understand the culture and rituals of the temple at that time. The temple was the meeting place between the God of Israel and God’s people. Sacrifices were offered during religious festivals and at special times in people’s lives, such as in honor of a birth or in thanksgiving for a harvest. The temple was a holy place. It was a place where human life and divine blessing came together.
What Jesus did by upsetting the status quo, driving out the animals for sale for sacrifice and the money changers – because only money minted by the temple could be used to pay tithes and offerings – is akin to stopping a television broadcast. Commentator Mary Hinkle Shore explains it this way – imagine if you are walking outside an arena where a basketball game is going to be televised. There are huge generators, all kinds of lights, cords and tractor trailers connected to the arena so the game can be seen by thousands of people. Suddenly someone cuts all the power lines. Now there is no light, the scoreboards don’t work, and the game can’t be broadcast. Everything comes to a standstill.
That is what happened at the temple that day. Everything would have been interrupted, the normal activity of the temple could not be carried out. In the other gospels, the reason for Jesus’ anger and his attempt to stop the transactions at the temple were strictly out of concern for the law – the people were often being cheated by those conducting business. There is also some historical evidence that before the Romans conquered Israel, those activities took place outside the temple, down in the valley. Now they had been moved into the outer courtyard, which was still part of the temple so the Romans could keep watch. The writers of the synoptic gospels borrow from the prophet Jeremiah, saying the temple had been turned into a “den of robbers.”
In the gospel of John, this conflict in the temple takes on a different meaning. Jesus is not acting only against corruption, he is involved in what Shore calls “performance art.” As she explains, “Jesus brings all temple activity to a standstill in order to point to another holy place altogether. “Destroy this temple,” Jesus says, “and in three days, I will raise it up.” Like a lot of what Jesus says in John, this line from Jesus does not connect to from what precedes it. You hear it, and you think, “Huh? Who said anything about destroying the temple?” The people listening to Jesus are confused. They point out that the temple has been under renovation for decades. “Really, Jesus, you’re going to rebuild it in three days?”
The author tries to help us understand – “He was speaking of the temple of his body,” John writes. In John’s Gospel, the body of Jesus is the new “holy place.” Remember, John opens the gospel with these words – “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” In the incarnation, with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s dwelling place is with human beings, as a human being. In this story, John tells us that Jesus taunts the religious authorities: “I dare you: destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” John insists that a human body, the body of Jesus, a lot like any other human body, is also the holy place of God. Jesus was not just “wearing” a human body like a set of clothes. He was a human body, as inseparable from his body as we are from ours. And God was inseparable from him.
During the season of Lent, we follow the body of Jesus as his feet walk to Jerusalem, as his hands braid pieces of rope into a whip to herd animals out of the temple, as his knees bend to kneel so he can wash the feet of the disciples. We watch him eat and drink with his friends, and we follow him to the garden, where the bodies of his disciples nod off to sleep while Jesus sweats through a prayer that he might not have to endure the torture in his immediate future. We see his body beaten, crucified, taken down from the cross, and laid in a tomb. Even in the stories of his resurrection, he is still a body – scarred by his ordeal, but able to be hugged, touched, and to eat with his followers to prove he wasn’t a supernatural being. John insists the body of Jesus is the location of God, and the point of connection between divine and human life.
Even as Christians it is very difficult, perhaps impossible, for us to fully understand the concept that God raised Jesus from the dead just as God will one day raise us from the dead. Nevertheless, we will not let go of that hope, precisely because God was committed enough to human flesh and blood to become it in Jesus Christ and committed enough to the human body to raise Jesus up after his death, as a body that was able to eat fish, and point out scars to Thomas, and ask Peter to feed his sheep.
As Paul writes in our second lesson, the wisdom of God looks like foolishness to the world. People treat the covenant of the commandments as though it was made to be broken. They demand proof, signs, a test of human wisdom, but we persist in believing the message of the cross. The disciples did not understand all this as they accompanied Jesus on his journey, but they believed after he was raised from the dead, and they courageously passed that faith on to us. Amen.