Service of the Word: Third Sunday of Lent 2021

COLLECT

Father of mercy, alone we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. When we are discouraged by our weakness strengthen us to follow Christ, our pattern and our hope, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

GOSPEL

John 2: 13 – 22

The Passover of the Jews was near, 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 market-place!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ 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.

HOMILY

There’s a story about a seasoned old preacher, who, while he was having a wee rummage about his Rectory one day came across a drawer he’d never noticed before. Intrigued he opened the drawer and, to his surprise, he found five eggs and £1000 in it. Puzzled, he went to his wife and said, “I’ve made an unexpected discovery in the back scullery. A drawer with 5 eggs and £1000 in it. Do you know anything about it?” Rather sheepishly she admitted she did. She told him it was her wee secret drawer and that every time he preached a bad sermon she popped an egg in the drawer. “Wow!” said the preacher. “After 35 years in this parish, and only five eggs? That’s not bad going! Not bad going at all!!!!”  But what about the stash of cash? What about the £1000?  Where did that come from?”  Blushing to the roots of her hair his wife replied: “Well, dear, you see, every time I have a dozen eggs in the drawer, I sell them!”

Unlike the preacher in that wee opening joke Jesus preached some great sermons, sermons about the Kingdom of God, about morality, about loving one another, about looking after one another. Probably his best crafted one was The Sermon on the Mount!  He was a brilliant preacher. If the pulpit in Christ Church Lanark was his work-station there would be standing room only in the nave every Sunday!  As it is, well, the less said about that the better!

Being such a great preacher you’d have thought that for his first appearance in the Temple Jesus would have planned and prepared a cracker. After all the Temple was the very centre of religious life in Jesus’ time. It was THE place where God was believed to live.  And this was his chance to make his mark. Well, he certainly made his mark alright: “Making a whip of cords he drove all of them out of the place, poured out the coins of the money changers, and overturned the tables.”  Some mark indeed.  A lasting impression! 

Most of us, in our minds, have an image of Jesus as a preacher of Good News, as someone who spoke of peace and reconciliation, of forgiveness and mercy, of healing and wholeness, of gentleness and love. But that’s not what we see in this passage. What on earth has got into him?  This isn’t how we expect Jesus to behave!

Well, just shoot back a couple of thousand years and imagine you’ve travelled to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice of a ram and two turtle doves, as you’re required to do by religious law. When you arrive a priest inspects your live offering and claims the birds are too old and the ram’s got an unsightly mark on it – a blemish that makes it unfit for the purpose. “Never mind, though” says the priest, “we’ve got some hand-picked animals over there – just go and buy one of those and you’ll be fine!”  So you go over and pick your animals, you get your money out and you go to pay. But you’ve forgotten something. You’ve only got Roman money on you and they don’t accept coins with Caesar’s head on them. “Don’t worry,” says the priest again, “Change your coins at the money changing tables. We do an excellent exchange rate!”  And so you go, beginning to twig that this is one big swizz, that you’re trapped by the system and the system is ripping you off!  But there’s nothing you can do about it except fume!!!!

Is it any wonder that Jesus got angry?  Here in the holiest place in the known world were the worst practices of humanity: the rich profiting from the poor, the weakest being mercilessly exploited, a privileged and holy caste preventing the people from having direct access to God, putting barriers in their way and telling them what was acceptable to their heavenly Father and what wasn’t. It was so wrong! So unjust! So NOT what it was supposed to be all about! And so Jesus can’t stand it and, in a trice, you can hear the noise of coins crashing to the floor, tables being upended and animals being scattered in panic as Jesus sweeps through the Temple precincts!

It makes you wonder what Jesus would do if he were walking our streets today? What would he say? What would he do? If the example of his behaviour in today’s Gospel is anything to go by I’m sure Jesus would have done the very same. He would have been an agitator, a radical, a troublemaker, an embarrassing guest at dinner parties, a gift for the press as one who has a knack of making headlines, not for being kind and thoughtful, not for being meek and mild, but for being openly challenging of the status quo and of those with influence and power.

We tend to forget this side of Jesus – that he didn’t care about being liked. Almost everything he did got him into bother, the things he said, the company he kept, the lepers he touched, the tables he crashed to the floor. Jesus was a disturber of the peace, he saw and named the injustices of his day, he refused to be content with a peace that was a facade, a repressed respectability. 

Would he do the same today? You bet he would!  Modern day trafficking and slavery, child abuse, the exploitation of people paid a pittance to produce food and clothing for the rich west, poverty and the denial of welfare, war related atrocities, denial of human rights to ethnic and racial immigrants, you bet Jesus would have something to say about all of these, you bet he would storm into whatever government building or TV studio he needed to and turn over the tables again.

Jesus wouldn’t stand for a peace that was a denial of what was really going on. Neither should we. Jesus wouldn’t turn a blind eye on a systemic injustice that was causing suffering. Neither should we.  Jesus wouldn’t entertain religious people whose stances dehumanised or degraded people, or religious institutions whose practices had become tradition for tradition’s sake. Neither should we.  He would come and overturn their tables, he’d walk in, wake them all up and demand that they respond to life’s injustices. 

He’s hammering at the Temple door of our hearts and lives right now – to get into the space where we think we’ve got things under control – to cause a disturbance that shakes us up.

What would Jesus find there? What would he want to drive out? What tables would he want to overturn in your soul and mine?

If the number of eggs in that drawer at The Rectory increases today then I’ll know my wife has been listening and that my preaching has failed yet again! But if you go away with something to think about on this middle Sunday in Lent, then, maybe, just maybe, my preaching on Jesus’ preaching will not have been in vain!!