The Reverend Mark Birch, Minor Canon and Chaplain
For those of you who find your Lenten disciplines are beginning to pinch – the lack of chocolate, or alcohol, or other simple pleasure – the bad news is we're not even half way through yet. Living and working here makes these disciplines a bit easier for the likes of me, because I'm surrounded by people who understand what it is all about. In other workplaces I've had people who thought Lent was part of a religious conspiracy to stop people enjoying their lives, and other people, especially Muslim colleagues and clients who suggested that my so-called 'fasting' was a bit of a joke. Well - Make a vow to your God and keep it, seems the best advice – no matter what the world may say. After all, fasting and the other disciplines of Lent are meant to be a private, hidden matter between us and God – public approval or disapproval should be neither here nor there.
But, in truth, we do care what other people think. We are social creatures, and having the approval of others makes us feel safe. Saying we don't care what other people think may be a brave position to take, but I wonder how tenable it really is for any of us.
When Jesus weighed-in against the money-changers, and those who supplied the animals and birds needed for sacrifice, he wasn't likely to win much approval. The other three gospels record this event immediately after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and there is an implication that this dramatic, public outburst is what sets the ball rolling ever faster towards his trial and execution. St John, whom we heard this morning, puts this event very early, two years before his passion.
The other three gospels quote the scripture about making the Temple a den of robbers, implying that Jesus was condemning the unscrupulous practice of those doing business in the outer Temple court. But for St John, Jesus is being even more radical. He appears to be questioning and upsetting the whole way the Temple operates; the whole business of changing Roman money into Temple money, and the whole buying and selling of animals for sacrifice – 'Stop making my Father's house a market place' he cries. It's not so much thievery that Jesus is criticising and overthrowing, but rather the whole way the Temple operates.
Then Jesus appears to lay down a challenge – destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up. Of course the Temple was destroyed, by the Romans in AD 70, but the Temple was not raised up again – to this day only the platform remains, surmounted by the Islamic Dome of the Rock. However, the gospel-writer doesn't think that the prophecy was thereby only half fulfilled. St John tells us 'he was speaking of the temple of his body'. This prophetic action, clearing out the market-place underpinning the whole sacrificial system of Temple worship, points not just to the eventual razing (with a z) of the Temple in AD 70, but to that whole Temple sacrificial system being rendered null by the sacrifice of Christ himself – who was then raised (with an s).
St John, then, uniquely records this event, the cleansing of the Temple, as part of the scene-setting for his gospel – telling us who this Jesus is, and what he is about – with this early hint at the crucifixion and resurrection, and of what that might mean in relation to the Temple and its worship.
One thing is for sure, causing an upset in the Temple wasn't going to win Jesus any friends – it was not going to secure him approval or safety.
In the midst of this furore, St John has the disciples reflecting on a verse from psalm 69. As they watch Jesus effectively dismantling the economic basis of the Temple's life, they remember the verse that says 'zeal for your house has eaten me up.' The verse comes in the middle of a long and rather miserable psalm about how dejected you feel when you do the right thing and it just gets you into trouble. The inference is that Jesus is in the Temple, doing the Father's will, but that he will be eaten up in the process. Doing the right thing, in this world, can very well come back and bite you.
And bite him it did. St Paul, in the first letter to the Corinthians acknowledges that the Cross appears, at first glance, to be utter foolishness. It wouldn't take much for a first century Rabbi to temper his language and behaviour just enough to avoid getting himself crucified. Yet in this foolishness, St Paul discerns a greater wisdom at work. 'God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom' he tells us, with a smile and a shrug, as someone who knows precisely what it is like to look foolish and be made vulnerable whilst obeying Love's command.
It is a long way from the psalm that the choir sang this morning. Psalm 19 rhapsodises on the joy and delight that flows from doing the will of God.
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes;
It sounds so easy and wonderful. The ten commandments, our first reading today, also sound like a straightforward manifesto for a peaceful existence – none of it rocket science, as they say.
And Jesus himself summarised the entire law with beguiling simplicity – love God; love your neighbour as yourself. What could be simpler or more delightful? Love is all you need – I can almost hear the song playing…
And yet, with a moment's reflection upon our own experience; and upon the experience of good women and men across the world and down the ages (including those memorialised over the west porch here); and upon the career of Jesus of Nazareth we recognise a double-bind, so clearly stated by Herbert McCabe
"if you don't love, you are dead; if you do love, they will kill you."
We are not even half way through Lent, but our readings are already bringing the Cross into sharper focus. We are led to reflect, with proper regret, that our world is no more ready now to embrace those who obey Love's command. Our eyes are opened once more to the painful truth that, in loving, we may appear terribly foolish, and be made horribly vulnerable.
And yet if we do not obey, if we do not try, even in the small disciplines of this season, to orientate our lives and our desires towards God and towards our neighbour, if we do not strive constantly to love better, we know we will be diminished. May God give us all grace and courage to set aside our desire for approval and safety, and to follow courageously wherever Love will lead.