Cleansing the Temple


Cleansing the Temple

Published: 17th March, 2024

The Third Sunday of Lent
Exodus 20:1-17
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

I suppose that there really isn’t anything quite as satisfying as a really good clear-out.  I’m rarely happier than when I’m on my way to the tip.  One way of thinking about Lent is as a sort of spiritual spring cleaning or decluttering, a time to have a good look at our lives and see what we can do without, what unnecessary clutter is getting in the way, what distractions are keeping us from what we ought to be doing, and what bad habits need to be broken.

The Jerusalem Temple was and perhaps in a way still is the focus of the Jewish religion.  It was the successor to the tabernacle, the inspired idea of King David, built by his son Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians and later rebuild under the Persians.  It was then substantially rebuilt and enlarged by Herod, before being destroyed by the Romans and never rebuilt.  The Temple was the place where God was believed to be mysteriously present to His people.  It was a place of Divine Presence, and it was also a place of sacrifice, Judaism at that time being a sacrificing religion.

It’s easy to see that there is a complex set of biblical resonances at work whenever Jesus enters the Temple.  Jesus the anointed Messiah, the Son of David, enters the Temple that was David’s inspired conception.  Jesus, the Wisdom of God incarnate, enters the Temple first built by Solomon, famous for his great wisdom.  Jesus, the place of God’s mysterious presence in and with humanity enters the Temple, the ancient sign of God’s abiding presence with His people, and so fulfils the Temple’s promise.  Jesus, the Lamb of God, enters this holy place of sacrifice, pointing to His fulfilment of the ancient sacrificial rites.

It’s worth noting too how much Jesus cares for the Temple.  “Zeal for your house will consume me”, is the bible verse that comes to the disciples’ minds.  Jesus’ presence does not negate the human need for sacred space, places set aside for sacrifice and praise and prayer; nor does Jesus’ presence negate God’s courtesy to this human need.

St Paul writes later on in his First Epistle to the Corinthians that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.  We too become places of God’s presence, just like the Jerusalem Temple.  It’s a fascinating image.  If we think about it alongside today’s gospel, we might perhaps wonder if our bodies are not perhaps a little too much like the Jerusalem Temple in Jesus’ day, full of the braying beasts of our various desires, and the coins of the money-changers all too often having pride of place in our hearts.

If Lent is a time of spiritual decluttering or spiritual spring cleaning, we must remember that this is not merely a matter of self-improvement.  The point is that we let Jesus in.  He is very capable of cleansing the Temple of our hearts if we will only let Him in, if we will only let Him in even to those dark corners that we would prefer Him not to see.  And then we can look at ourselves with Him, we can look at ourselves with love just as He looks at us, and we can begin to identify those things that take up space within us but which do not do us any good at all.  And then the Temple of our heart can begin to be cleansed.

Sometimes we are tempted to hold back because of fear.  We do not know what treasured clutter Jesus will want us to clear out.  We do not know where it will all end.  Sometimes the things that clutter up our hearts become a part of our identity that we struggle to let go of.  The same thing can happen with our material possessions.  And here we need to remind ourselves that human life is always ultimately a matter of letting go.  I have the wonderful privilege of spending a lot of time with older people, and I have seen so many times that we all must face the prospect of losing those things that we love, and losing the ability to do those things that we enjoy doing.  Age does a lot of stripping away, and perhaps this too can be a kind of cleansing.

And of course at the end we will have to let go of everything anyway, as the Temple of our bodies is torn down in death.

John’s telling of this story is distinctive in giving us what we recognize as a prediction of His Passion and Death, and also of His Resurrection, but which seems to have been heard at the time almost as a sort of threat, or even blasphemy, or just the strange boast of an apparently crazy man.  “Destroy this Temple”, Jesus says, “and in three days I will raise it up”.  John helpfully explains that Jesus was speaking of the Temple of His Body.

As we are gathered here this morning to celebrate the Sacrament of Jesus’ Body and Blood, let us take the opportunity to welcome Jesus afresh into our hearts.  Let us seek to look at ourselves with Him and through Him, examining ourselves not in harshness but in love, allowing Him to clear out of our lives that which is harmful and hurtful to us.  He does this not because He wants to punish us but because He loves us and knows what is for our good.  Let us remember in humility that just as the Temple of His Body was destroyed, so too will ours.  That clearing out and stripping away and letting go that is a part of Christian life if we do it with Jesus is in fact an intrinsic and inescapable part of human life and death; in the end we will have to let go of everything.  But let us also remember the hope that we have in Christ, that we who will be united with Him in a death like His will also be united with Him in His Resurrection, and although we will one way or another have to let go of everything, we will ultimately find that we have Christ who is everything, to whom, with the +Father and the Holy Spirit, be all praise and glory, now and for ever.