Third Sunday of Lent, March 7 2021

Today, and for the next three Sundays, we leave Mark’s gospel and instead read from the fourth gospel, the gospel according to John. A common theme seems to emerge in these passages, the theme of raising or lifting up; a theme that can help us understand how this season of Lent can inform our thoughts, prayers, and actions to prepare for Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension.

The setting of today’s reading from John is Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, and his visit to the Temple. The other three gospels have a similar story, but both timing and intent appear to be different. Matthew, Mark, and Luke place the so-called cleansing of the Temple near the end of Jesus’ public ministry, in what seems to be his first or only trip to the Holy City. And when he releases animals, turns over tables, and pours out tax coins, his stated intent is to rebuke the corruption that has become an integral part of Temple life and culture. “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” (Mt. 21:13)

In today’s reading, Jesus’ actions may be similar, but his words portray another intent. Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 

Occurring as it does near the beginning of his public ministry, this action calls attention to the fact that the life of the Temple is built on this marketplace or emporium ceconomy. God is present in, God lives in the Temple at Jerusalem. God’s people come to Jerusalem and the Temple to worship, largely through sacrifice. But not just any sacrifice. The animals to be offered must be pure, and unblemished, and in order to fulfill this requirement, they are required to be purchased at the Temple. Furthermore, the Temple had its own monetary system, so in as cosmopolitan a center as Jerusalem, currency had to be exchanged for temple currency in order to purchase unblemished sacrifices for offering. The commercialism of such a venture becomes quickly obvious. It is an inherent commercialism, difficult, if not impossible to separate from the worship life of that place – the familiar vicious circle we so often encounter in life even today.

Jesus’ actions, as well as his sharply-critical words, must have been seen as affrontive at best, if not scandalous. He is faced by those in the Temple precincts who challenge him to stand good for his actions: they demand an explanation. Show us a sign, help us understand why you think you have the right to act this way. But the sign that Jesus gives is as incredulous to them as his first action: “destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it – I will raise it up.” And while the Judaeans assume he is speaking of the Temple in which they are standing, it would seem, rather, that Jesus is speaking of himself, at his anticipated resurrection. Rather than maligning the Temple as a place where God dwells, Jesus invites his hearers to expand their understanding of God. In the incarnation, God has come into the world, living in the world, living in the person of the Christ, the anointed one.

We, like the people in Jesus’ day, still struggle with this, with our understanding of church, and, perhaps, with our understanding of incarnation.

First, the church: Is church a building? Does God reside in the church? Are churches holy or sacred places? It’s been one year since the first COVID19 case was diagnosed in our region; almost one year since many of us have entered this building. And we miss it! But our absence from this building does not mean that we have been absent from church; indeed we have learned a tremendous amount about what church is, how we do church, and what church really means. We miss the companionship of other worshipers, the opportunity for hugs, handshakes, words of welcome, the satisfaction of being with others. But these things we take for granted do not lessen the sacredness of our worship by their absence. If the church is a sacred place, surely our home is as well. So, when we worship at home using a smart-phone, tablet, computer, or telephone, we have the same opportunity to humble ourselves in confession, learn by listening to the readings and sermon, join with others in prayerful intercession, sing hymns, and take our experience of worship with us into our daily lives throughout the coming week – all the elements of worship are still present. The sound and video output may not always be perfect, the organ may not sound the very same as it does in the church building, but we are still blessed with the opportunity to gather Sunday by Sunday to worship God, knowing that others we know and love, and some we don’t know, are worshiping with us.

And now, incarnation: No doubt, we associate the word ‘incarnation’ with Christmas, when Jesus is born. His birth, and his conception, celebrates a core belief of the Christian faith – that God became human and lived among us in the person of Jesus, the chosen, or anointed one. But incarnation is not limited to Jesus’ birth; it is a continuity, found in his life, his suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension. And even then, incarnation is experienced in our relationship with God, through the teaching and example of Jesus, and through the presence of the Holy Spirit. So, we see God’s creativeness in the world around us. We understand God’s love in the love of family and friends. We see God’s mercy and justice and grace in our daily lives. Jesus, in pointing to himself as the one where God dwelt, was speaking in an incarnational way, encouraging those for whom the Temple was God’s dwelling place, to broaden their vision and their understanding of God.

18The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:18f)

This season of Lent provides us a time to prepare for Jesus’ raising up – his raising up on a cross, his raising up from the grave, his raising up in his ascension to return to God. But our preparation is made in the knowledge of his presence with us, in our lives, our actions, our deepest desires. May we walk in faith in this season of Lent, with him as a companion, always pointing us to God’s love for us, and for all things.

In the name of God, Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.