Vicar's Sermon - 4th March 2018

John 2.13ff

When did it begin? Some say it was in 1971, just over 46 years ago, that Michael Eavis and a bunch of friends organised the first Glastonbury Festival. It wasn’t called that then: it originally went under the name ‘the Glastonbury Fair’. Tickets cost £1 and 1500 people turned up to hear T Rex, the headline band. Last year the Festival attracted 175,000 people and the ticket price was £238. Accommodating that number of people in an out of the way place takes a huge amount of co-ordination. It is ‘Big Business’.

At the time of Jesus a similar number of people would descend on Jerusalem for the main event of the Year: Passover. Imagine the logistics. Imagine the crush. Imagine the sky-rocketing prices that met the visitors to the city. The whole thing took some organisation but the temple and city authorities were up to the challenge. They always had been. They had hundreds of years of experience to draw upon. There were particular families that provided all that the temple needed…at a cost: incense for burning each day, bread from bakeries to be laid before the Lord. There was a well established route for animals to be brought up to Jerusalem ready for slaughter, livestock markets to greet the pilgrims so that they could select their lamb for slaughter and consumption at the Feast.

I’m no expert but I believe that Jerusalem is not best placed for either the North/South or the East/West routes that cross Israel. The economy of the whole city in first century AD was built on the temple and its cult. Perhaps we might, for comparison, imagine Lincoln or Durham without their Cathedrals. Our Cathedral Deans and Chapters know only too well just how crucial our Cathedrals are to the local economy: how much more so the nation’s Temple in Jerusalem. And how much more so since Herod had started to build, or rather ‘rebuild’ all those years ago. Contemporary records tell us that when the temple was finally completed 18,000 people lost their jobs – for half a century and more the monumental construction site that was Herod’s Temple had provided employment to thousands. Did it matter that the effect was to enrich Herod and his cronies? He had captured the outward expression of the people’s faith – it now relied on him – and by so doing he had made his questionable claim to the throne ‘legitimate’, for ever since the first temple was built by King Solomon (under David’s instruction) civil and religious power in Israel had been bound together. If you controlled the Temple, you controlled the country.

So was he naive, Jesus, to challenge the system? He came, he caused a stir, people tables and chairs were upset but the machine just ‘rolled on’ after he’d left. Surely there had to be some system, some organisation, to enable people to fulfil their religious duty as laid down in the Law of Moses. Again, as our own Cathedral’s know too well, you can’t have 100s of thousands of people coming through the doors with no organisation to greet them – do you turn people away in search of a less complicated spiritual life? And once the building’s up you have to manage it…and all the staff…and ‘managing’ means you have to make decisions. You can perhaps hear the deliberations that took place:  ‘In view of the huge numbers why ever not allow the temple courts to be used for the selling of sacrificial animals? After all we’re running out of space in the rest of the city. And by the way there’s another problem but I think we can solve it. Most people want to pay with Roman coins which have the image of the Emperor stamped on them and we Jews aren’t allowed to make images of anyone…so they’ll have to change their money before they can buy their beasts…but we can make that happen can’t we? …and if the exchange rate works in our favour all well and good and we can take our cut and put something into the Treasury to help cover costs. Sorted!’

The Temple was a victim of its own success but it was certainly not helped by being in the hands of someone as corrupt as Herod. But for a simple, faithful, Jewish person seeking to obey the command to observe Passover?... well the Temple had got you over a barrel: there was no other place to go.

On the surface Jesus seems to want to return the Temple to some pure idyllic past, unsullied by the buying and selling that now fills its courts. ‘Take these things out of here’ he says, ‘Stop making my Father’s house a market place.’ He is quoting from the Old Testament. Micah had words to say about the temple, Hosea too but these are almost verbatim Jeremiah’s words and Jeremiah (chapter 7) even envisaged a time when the Temple would be no more if God’s people failed to clean up their act. But Jesus’ actions and his justification of them that is also reported in our Gospel seem to suggest that he didn’t just want to sort out the temple so that it could carry on under new management. No, he too, like Jeremiah saw its demise – no wonder he made enemies.

For what does he do other than stop the whole of the process of sacrifice...albeit just for a few hours at most? And then he reapplies ‘temple language’ to Himself: His body he says is a temple that will be destroyed…and raised up after three days. None of this makes any sense to those who hear him at the time but, ‘after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word Jesus had spoken’.

After Easter the Temple in Jerusalem becomes redundant for Christians. ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’: said Jesus, the quote being from Psalm 69, one of the most quoted psalms in the New Testament. Whenever the Old Testament is quoted in the New we’re meant to hear not just the headline sentence or two but the cluster of thought around it and Psalm 69 speaks of the rejection and humiliation of the faithful servant of God and their trust in God’s deliverance. That deliverance came, for Jesus, on Easter Day. The resurrection is God’s sign that the Old Temple is a busted flush. Now, we meet with God in and through Jesus. It’s as we place ourselves ‘in Him’ that we truly enter that place where heaven and earth meet. For us, entrance occurs at baptism: our baptism incorporates us into the body of Christ, that body being the church of God.

It’s tempting to slide straight across from Jesus’ condemnation of the temple money changers and the buying and selling that took place in the temple courts to  question how we manage our great church buildings (let alone this one). How we manage them is important but John Calvin (one of the key figures of the Reformation) comments on this passage and argues that it doesn’t apply at all to our Christian buildings. In his mind what does apply is that we have a concern for right relationships between the people that make up the household of God.

Money, you see, changes everything. Introduce money to a relationship and something shifts at its heart. Money introduces calculations and comparisons. As a means of exchange it places us firmly in the realm of asking whether we have got ‘value for money’, it moves us into the field of ‘contract’ as opposed to ‘covenant’. ‘I give you this…if you give me that. What I give purchases what you and I will assess the value of what you have offered and sue if you fall short of your undertakings.’

Apply this way of thinking to the life of the spirit and you are in real trouble. Maybe that’s the real problem Jesus railed against in the temple? Having got yourself to Jerusalem, paid top dollar for accommodation and an animal to sacrifice, your heart mind and spirit were set along the road of approaching God in bargaining mode and that doesn’t work. Where’s the grace? How can you celebrate the overwhelming goodness and generosity of God when doing so has seen you being ripped off!

There’s no room for this in the new community of the church.  Yes, we employ people. Yes, we deal with cash but it’s not about money, it’s not about cash. In Christ we are brothers and sisters. In Christ we have a care for one another. In Christ we are called to bear with one another, to forgive one another, to show the fruits of the Spirit in how we live with one another, not just how we conduct our relationships within this congregation but how we relate to the wider church and wider society. This is light years away from stacking up coins on a money changer’s table, adding another ½ a percentage point to the exchange rate as your punters came through the temple gates looking to pick up a bargain that they could then ‘sacrifice’.

The new temple, which is Christ, is a place of grace. That grace does not come cheaply: but the cost is paid by Him, not by us: remember G R A C E,  ‘God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense’. As living stones in this temple of grace we are bound together by the generosity of God, not by what we have paid to enter His presence. All the treasures of Herod’s temple then are as nothing compared to the riches that are ours as Christ’s spirit moves amongst us in His resurrection power. Herod’s temple is no more but Christ lives in us and in Him the worship of God never comes to an end.