Tearing Down the Temple

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My daughter takes after me. I know that statement isn’t shocking to you. Just spend three minutes with us. She takes after me in her wicked sense of fashion, but I keep my stripes and polk-a-dots limited to socks. She also takes after me with her love of Lego toys. She loves them, loves putting together little worlds of characters with barns and horses and flower pots, all made with the little plastic blocks. Back in my own Lego hay-day, I focused on robots and spaceships, but the same basic principle applies. There is something about being able to construct a world, a little microcosm whose pieces you can move around as you see fit. You get to set the rules. You are the master of the universe, the chief farmer of your plastic block barn world or the captain of your own plastic block interstellar spaceship. Your ego can just go crazy, and it does.

I didn’t like sharing my Legos with my cousins and friends. They would break up my little worlds, and only I knew how the pieces fit together to make the proper spaceship. Better they leave my toys alone.

I think playing with Legos is great for kids, and I also think they are incredible metaphors…

In today’s text, the Temple had been under construction for 46 years by the time Jesus went there for his visit. Forty-six years gives plenty of time for customs to set in, for traditions to fall into place.

One of these traditions that fell into place was the system of money-changing. You see, the Temple of course could have no dealings with graven images. So, folks who brought in coins of different denominations with whatever ruler’s image stamped on them, these coins had to be converted into a Temple-appropriate coinage that could then be used to purchase animals for sacrifice. A market was needed.

Of course, in any system like this, you know folks figured out how to skim a little off the top. It became a business within the established tradition, the custom, of Temple worship.

But, that custom of changing money, of converting denominations of currency, was very much a custom.

And, here comes Jesus, tricky Jesus, walking into that space, seeing what folks expected to see, yet something different happens. Jesus gets a little upset, you might say. Tables get overturned, people get shaken up a bit. But why?

Years back I gave a sermon on this text where I reflected on how meaningful it is to pray with icons. They are powerful tools for spiritual practice, images we have that help us imagine different ways God comes into our lives. The saints, the Trinity, Blessed Mary with the Infant Jesus, Jesus in various postures and circumstances, great scenes of aspects of our story as Christians. There are so many icons, so many ways to foster a deeper understanding of Jesus.

I shared in that sermon how I had never seen an icon that depicted today’s Gospel text. There are, indeed, icons of this text, ancient icons and mosaics that depict this powerful moment. But they are not common in churches… Something about this story, of course, can make us uncomfortable. Even as the image of “angry Jesus” may actually make us relieved (wow, he really is human and really does understand how I feel…), the fact that he got angry dismantling the common course of ritual worship and life makes our eyebrows furrow a bit. No one likes their tables overturned… You know the saying “Don’t mess with my Jesus,” but it makes it even more complex when Jesus is the one doing the messing-with!

Look closely at the exchange between Jesus and the folks when he drives all this out. He comes in making a whip of cords, and they ask him a fascinating question: “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

Interesting question. Signs were vitally important then—still are to some—and they were events that happened that gave meaning to new ways of doing things. If a comet appeared in the sky, it meant something. Something was going to change. Eclipses were very well known signs that something bad was going to happen. If something ate up the sun, you can bet that a fun time was not going to be had by all. Some poor nation was probably going to get conquered.

So, the authorities want a sign. They want a portent, a reason for this unusual occurrence—and it was unusual since the practice was so commonplace.

Can’t you just hear them, once the shock wore off of seeing all their animals run off and the mess Jesus had made of the place? After Jesus had his fit, they stood there and wanted to know why. Every mother and father in the room knows that feeling, “Young man, you better have a very good reason for doing this.”

But instead of just following along with their logic, Jesus gives them what is really a parable. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

Huh? Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up? As if making a mess of the place wasn’t enough… They don’t get it.

And the disciples didn’t get it for quite a while, in fact. The writer of John’s Gospel adds a bit of commentary here and tells us that the disciples only realized much later what Jesus meant. They realize later, of course, that Jesus was talking about himself.

Why, when the religious leaders ask for some explanation based on religious codes, does Jesus begin to speak about himself?

Why, when they raise an argument based on the religious customs of the day, does Jesus speak in language of embodiment, of tearing down and raising up…of what we know now is death and resurrection?

The “trick” here is that Jesus truly gives them a sign when they ask for one—it is only that he is the sign. He himself is the unusual occurrence that has triggered the reorientation within that space.

Jesus is a gamechanger. But what does it mean?

In late 1940, in the midst of the London blitz, a German plane dropped a bomb on Buckingham Palace. While I was reflecting on this text, my mind went to the image of King George and Queen Elizabeth, later to be the Queen Mother, standing in the rubble—dressed immaculately of course.

A portion of one section of the Palace had been destroyed, and you may, of course, remember the wonderful response of the Queen at that time: “At least now I can look the East End in the face.” With the East End, of course, being an area of London which had suffered enormously. It was an area of pain and grief, of hardship and honest humanity that could not be seen from inside the carefully constructed walls of the Palace. Only when the walls were torn down could the King and Queen face the reality around them. Incredible metaphor to sink in.

But we like our Lego worlds.

Jesus himself is the sign, the source of our reorientation. Jesus himself shows us the way, shows us that the way of discipleship not only entails tearing down the edifices we construct to protect our worlds, to arrange our lives…our customs…but also, when necessary, that we ourselves are torn town…and rebuilt. We ourselves share in this space, this reality of death and resurrection.

This is where the richness of contemplative Christianity honestly gets exciting: that Christ is the sign of reorientation, and that we ourselves are called to embody that sign in the world… to be willing to have our walls broken, our tables upturned, our lives reoriented, and all for Christ’s sake.

This truly is a most difficult text, and it is a most life-giving text as well. It’s just real. And it’s perfect for Lent, isn’t it? It speaks to us on a deep level and asks us what we mean by religious practice. What do we mean when we say we are Christians? As Canon Quartey asked so well last week, “What is the purpose of our being here?” Why are we here?

Following Christ asks everything of us, because Christ shows us that he is willing to give everything. Everything. And, we are called to be mindful of our vocation. We are called to embody Christ’s self-giving in our own lives. But, as Richard Rohr says, that’s a tough sell. Rohr names the tension out loud when he reminds us that the Church has for so long worshipped Jesus when Jesus himself asks us to follow him. Think about that…

How far are we willing to go?


Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Lent III, Year B
John 2:13-22
March 8, 2015


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