Sermon preached on the third Sunday of Lent (11 March 2012) by The Reverend Andrew Hammond

Today at the Cathedral View More
7:30am Morning Prayer
8:00am Eucharist
8:30am Doors open for sightseeing
12:30pm Eucharist
2:00pm Cathedral Art Tour
4:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
5:00pm Choral Evensong

Sermon preached on the third Sunday of Lent (11 March 2012) by The Reverend Andrew Hammond

The Reverend Andrew Hammond, Succentor, looks at a 'rampaging' Jesus and how his instruction to ‘destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up' was far from literal.

John 2.13-22

‘Zeal for your house will consume me’ [v17]

An angry Jesus! A rampaging Jesus! The same Jesus who could take a child on his lap and say ‘this is how you should be’ is cutting his way through the market of animals, birds and their hawkers and creating mayhem. Imagine the noise and chaos – cattle and sheep charging and bellowing and bleating, birds screeching, tables crashing to the ground, angry men shouting and falling over each other and their merchandise, money clattering across the stones.

Amidst the consternation, the question soon comes – ‘what sign can you show us for doing this?’ Or, to put it in modern colloquial English, ‘we don’t know who the hell you are, but you better justify yourself pretty darned quick’. This was the action either of a maniac, or of someone claiming to be a prophet. If the former, he would be hustled away and probably punished for blasphemous behaviour in a holy place. But a wannabe prophet needed to show a sign. Part of the degeneration in Jewish religious life which Jesus was repeatedly to attack was the demand for a bit of magic.

And so Jesus utterly foxes them. I like to think he suddenly switches from roaring rage to enigmatic calm, as he looks them in the eye and says, simply and quietly, ‘destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up’. The superficial demand for a magic trick is matched by their scorn and derision, their taking literally what he says. That temple has been in the making for decades. They probably decide that he is in fact mad.

Not till after the death and resurrection of Jesus do the disciples remember his mystifying words, and realise what he meant. John the gospel-writer, the beloved of Jesus, the greatest of the Spirit-led interpreters of Jesus’ earthly life, he probably unlocked the meaning. Jesus was the new Temple, the house of God, destroyed but raised on the third day.

All this is rich in meaning, and rich in significance for us now. At one level Jesus was straightforwardly scandalised by how Temple life had settled into routine and commerce. No doubt the rituals in and near the Holy of Holies were still treated with great reverence, but that seriousness was being compromised by the bustle and coarseness of what was going on elsewhere. In those outer courts you would be hard pressed to sense the presence of God, feel the awe. With cash registers at our thresholds here, of course, we do well not be too sanctimonious about that.

Jesus is scandalised. A scandal is literally a stumbling-block, and the Temple traders are tripping up the genuine pilgrim. For Jesus it’s a striking symptom of what has happened to the life of the Jewish people, the people favoured with God’s first covenant, and especially the leaders of the religion. Remember his great diatribes against the hypocrites of the religious establishment. The point has come where salvation is to be opened up, where God himself must take human form to rescue human-kind – in Jesus’ teaching and healing, in his death and resurrection and glorification.

In that humanity, in his Incarnation, God dwells among his people now in the person of Jesus. ‘Stop making my Father’s house a market place’, Jesus shouts [v16]; and here we see both his specific anger at the diminishment of the Temple’s sacred character, and the announcement of himself as God’s Son – ‘my Father’, not ‘our Father’. In him, as Paul puts it [Col 1.19], ‘all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’. Jesus does maintain the integrity of the Temple’s true role in his repeated attendance there, right up to his last days; but in an infinitely more important way God now has his dwelling place on earth, has pitched his tent on earth, in a person, Jesus, his Son, God-with-us.

Some have been tempted to think that this is where the story of God’s physical dwelling-place stops; so that now any devotion to the life of the Church in its buildings and gathering-places is a mistake. There is a spectrum of views here, from a simple refusal to allow buildings any intrinsic holy character, through to a wariness of being more in love with a building than its people. And we are certainly right to be on the look-out, careful not to forget that spaces are sacred because of the continual gathering there of people in prayer and praise and for the sacraments.

But sacred spaces there really are, whether cathedral or tin hut; and we enfeeble our Christian life, misunderstand it, if we undervalue such spaces. Reverent awe of a holy place, as well as in it, is not idolatry. It is part of taking seriously what it is to be Church. For the Church is where God now has his dwelling-place on earth, pre-eminently. The Church is the Body of Christ on earth; his hands, his feet, his eyes. God gives himself constantly to us in the Church in his Holy Spirit; as the guide into truth, the comforter, the bringer-close of God. This is stupendously encouraging, that a body of human beings should be the bearer of such overflowing grace and favour. It is also a monumental challenge to each of us, to respond and be serious about it all. And so part of our call to discipleship, to a life of love and prayer and holiness, is a call to zeal for our holy places, the places which physicalise our Father’s house. A zeal which does indeed consume us, alight as flames drawing their passion from the unquenchable flame that is the light of the world, Jesus Christ our Saviour.