Sermons from St Faith's
Cleaning up the Temple
Smith, 11 March, 2012
Cleaning up the Temple must have been quite a job. It must have been
an awful place at the best of times, but at its worst at the great
festivals. Terrified animals bleating and howling; birds trapped in
cages fluttering and calling; smoke from the fires, blood from the
carcasses, and every where people pushing and shoving, arguing and
shouting, wheeling and dealing. The smell, the smoke and the noise
must have been more like a vision of hell than a glimpse of the
holy: not a bit like the home life of our own dear Church of
There was separation: women and men separately, Jews and Gentiles
kept apart. Even the coinage was separated – only Temple coins for
Temple offerings and Temple business. The outside world was
officially excluded, but there it was, wearing its ugliest
commercial clothing. And into it Jesus strides, turning it upside
down and throwing it all out. Out go the animals, up go the tables,
off go the money changers.
St. John puts the story right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry;
St. Mark puts it in the last week of his life, but beginning or end,
the chronology isn’t that important. What matters is what he did and
why, and how people reacted to what he did – and why.
Both Mark and John are quite clear about what it all means, even if
the disciples and the crowd weren’t.
Sometimes it takes a long time for the penny to drop, whatever the
coinage, and nowhere is it more true than in the affairs of the
Kingdom of God and the story of Jesus of Nazareth, its Good
It wasn’t just the cheating, the con-tricks and the cruelty which
offended Jesus: they were in every town and he never gave the
shopping malls the clean-up treatment. It was human nature whenever
commerce takes place, whether it’s barrow boys on the treet or
bankers in the City, and Jesus had other ways of dealing with that.
Nor was he making a stand about animal welfare (although quite
possibly the condition of the poor creatures may have distressed
him). He wasn’t standing for President of the RSPCA. He was cleaning
out his Father’s house, and he used the scriptures as his detergent:
“My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations”.
Not just for men, not just for Jews, not just for women, not just
for Gentiles. For every one. And everything that was happening in
front of his eyes was about exclusion. Only men here, only women
there, no Gentiles beyond this barrier, no coming to God without a
sacrifice, some poor terrified creature whose death was somehow
going to keep God happy. No thanks. Not for me, and certainly not
He turned their world upside down and told them that the God whom
they worshipped was the God of all people, all creation, inclusive
not exclusive. God was to be found in prayer and Spirit, not in
butchery and commerce. There was to be only one true and living
sacrifice, and that was something none of them understood – yet.
“Give us a sign, Jesus,” they said, “What/s your authority for all
this?” No doubt if Jesus had done some amazing trick, performed some
impossible feat, they would have been impressed, but not believing
nor understanding. It was only later, in his death and then his
resurrection that the penny dropped. “In three days” he had said and
in three days our Gospel was signed and sealed.
Jesus was angry; not for the first time and certainly not for the
last. We’re not good at appreciating or understanding an angry
Jesus, but we ignore his wrath at our peril. He was often angry; he
was angry about the abuse of Sabbath rules which were used to
disadvantage the weak and the frail. He was angry about the
religious posturing of the religious leaders, which ignored the poor
and vulnerable. He was angry about the way an alleged love of God
was used to make your neighbour’s life a misery. He was angry
because the law and religious observance were used to dishonour his
It’s all there in John’s story of the Cleansing of the Temple. And
before we sit back and not our heads in comfortable agreement, we
ourselves might take a look at the ways in which we overlay
religious faith with layers of custom and practice long past their
sell-by date and subvert the scriptures to serve our own interests.
Jesus wasn’t a hippy, animal-loving professional protestor. He was a
rigorous theologian, a brilliant and charismatic teacher and an
uncomfortable Good Shepherd. He had seen the religious faith of the
God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob turned into a tacky souvenir shop.
No wonder he was angry, small wonder he’s still angry at the way
we’ve diluted the faith and obscured the message. Jesus didn’t
reject the Law and the prophets.
Exodus Chapter 20 he would have learnt by heart, and Isaiah’s call
to hear the good news was his text when he preached at Nazareth. it
should also be ours, and we might do well to write the 10
Commandments in our hearts as we used to do on our church and chapel
If this is our calling, then we’re not very good at it; but this is
a timely moment to remember it, living in a world turned upside down
by events which seem beyond our control, and faced by problems which
defy easy solutions.
We live in a time which cries out for us to be faithful to our
reformed and radical truths. This is a time for rigorous theology
which doesn’t mistake sentiment for truth and is prepared to put
substance before woolly clichés and theological truths before
Sometimes, one fears our religious practice is as shabby and
unworthy as any thing which happened in the Temple courtyards, and
which so angered Jesus.
Jesus striding into the Temple is a reminder of our calling to be
inclusive, to be brave, and to find in the death and resurrection of
Jesus the key to the love of God and the love of our neighbour – the
two commandments by which our life together is judged. We remember
these things, in remembrance of him and what he did, for us.
That is what our ministry, our worship and our religious faith is
all about. Anything less is selling the gospel short and a form of
cheating every bit as indecent and grubby as the Temple
money-changers and their commercial companions. It is the Good
Shepherd who is our hope and love, not the Best Buy.
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