Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
You can perhaps judge my desire to reach the end of the building works here by the fact that my attention was immediately caught in the Gospel reading not by the cleansing of the temple, nor by Jesus’ foretelling of his death and resurrection, but by the objection of the Jewish leaders: ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’
The temple had, in fact, undergone massive amounts of construction, destruction, and reconstruction over the centuries. After the people had fled from Egypt, and gathered at Mount Sinai to receive the Law, God commanded them to build an Ark: a wooden chest, covered with gold, which contained the stone tablets of the Law. This was kept in a tabernacle, or tent, and was the place God’s presence was believed to dwell: as God says in Exodus, ‘Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst’ (25.8).
But as the people became settled rather than nomadic, King David began to feel rather awkward about the fact that he lived in a house of fine cedar while God still dwelt in a tent. But it was to David’s son, Solomon, that God entrusted the building of the temple, though David, as we heard in the Old Testament reading, began the process of gathering the materials for its construction.
Solomon’s temple stood for a few decades before being sacked by Egypt. Various attempts at reconstruction followed, though the temple’s treasures always proved tempting to the watchful eyes and plundering hands of neighbouring powers. In 586 BC the temple was destroyed completely by the Babylonians, who laid siege to Jerusalem and carted many of the people off into exile.
50 years later, the Babylonian empire fell, and the king of Persia allowed the exiles to return, and to rebuild the temple and the city. These are the events recounted by Ezra and Nehemiah in the bible. The second temple, as it came to be known, took around 23 years to be built, and was a relatively small and modest affair, reflecting the reduced circumstances of the people at that time.
By the turn of the first century BC, though, this temple had become one of the wonders of the ancient world. King Herod, with one eye on posterity, undertook a massive building programme which included the temple. It’s his renovated and expanded temple that Jesus enters and cleanses in today’s Gospel reading: a renovation that lasted from about 20 BC to about 20 AD. But it stood for only 50 years: the temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70.
Through all the years of construction, sacking, repair, destruction, and reconstruction the temple continued to occupy a central place in Israel’s geographical, symbolic and theological imagination. It stood as a sign of the covenant: the promised presence of God dwelling with his people. It was a place of holiness: holy because God dwelt there, and holy because through the cultic life that happened within it, God’s people were made holy.
But it is an unholy scene that Jesus encounters as he enters the temple precincts. The business of the temple – the offering of sacrifices – spawned various ancillary businesses. If you needed to offer a sacrifice – a sheep, an ox, a pair of doves – then you needed first to buy the sacrifice then have someone prepare it for you. And because in the temple you weren’t allowed to use Roman coins, which bore idolatrous images of the emperor, you needed to exchange your money for Jewish coins. And so the stage is set for various entrepreneurial citizens, and temple authorities keen to raise funds, to establish some lucrative sidelines.
But these businesses cheat the poor with their extortionate charges. They profit from the worship of the God who chooses the sacrifices of mercy and justice over the blood of bulls and goats. Their presence and practices are a mockery, even a blasphemy, against the Holy One of Israel.
It’s this that Jesus seeks to upend as he turns over tables, sending the money changers scrabbling after their coins. Animals break free in a chorus of bleating and stamping, while the birds’ flapping adds to the confusion and cacophony. Jesus, of course, is challenged for his actions: ‘what sign can you show us for doing this?’ the Jews present ask. And John tells us, ‘The disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’ – a quotation from Psalm 69.
It’s no accident that this is set alongside a prediction of Jesus’ death and resurrection: ‘destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up’. For zeal for God’s house will literally consume Jesus: it will take him to the cross. What we see consuming Jesus in the cleansing of the temple – the injustice and corruption that exploits the poor and commodifies God – we see extended through his life and death as he takes on all that separates us from God. His death will be the sacrifice that takes away all sins, that brings reconciliation with God and with each other, and that makes holy the people of God.
For what was believed of the temple we now believe of Jesus. In him, God comes to earth and lives as one of us. The tabernacle and temple had been the places where God’s presence dwelt, signs of his presence in the midst of his people. With the coming of Jesus, he is the place of God’s holiness, God present in our midst.
And through the gift of the Spirit, that presence continues in the world as Christ makes his home among those he calls. That means that the church and individual Christians are called to be places of encounter with God: places of peace, of reconciliation, of justice and mercy and holiness.
Which means that this place is also a house of God. And, astonishingly, this place has been standing for longer than both first and second temples combined. In this bit of central Cambridge, this parish church has stood as a sign of God’s presence among his people for almost 1000 years.
But history alone does not make a church the dwelling place of God. For that we need a people gathered around the scriptures and sacraments, learning to recognise Christ in them and in each other, and growing in his likeness. Worship is fundamental to the church because it’s what draws us into the life of God, and forms us in his image. It’s from this encounter that we learn what true love and justice and goodness are like – and are sent to live them out in the world.
I hope, as we draw close to our millennium, that the centrality of worship and prayer is something that others see in us. But that worship and prayer which draws us into the life of God also has to send us out into the world, to share God’s love with others and to draw them in. If we come to church and go home again and nothing is any different, then we have missed the disruptive, consuming zeal of God.
Jesus overturned tables in the temple, chased out the money-changers and let loose the animals, causing a holy chaos that scandalised the temple leaders. I am fairly sure I would give Jesus short shrift if he tried anything similar here. But an encounter with the consuming zeal of God should cleanse us and change us. So often it’s easier to see where that should happen in other places: we can applaud the overturning of the tables in the temple, and Jesus’ siding with the poor. We can see how zeal for his Father’s house would cause Jesus to summon the church to repentance and reform for its cover ups of abuse, and for the harm it has caused God’s LGBT+ children.
But what about here? What might Jesus’ consuming zeal have to say to us? I’d like to hear what you think about that – and I warn you that it’s not a particularly comfortable thing to think and pray about. I think Jesus has something to say about how we’re engaged in caring for creation. I think he has something to say about how we are a people of reconciliation and friendship across the divisions of this unequal city. I think he has something to say about us being bolder in sharing the gifts we’ve been given with those who don’t know God, don’t care, or have dismissed God. These are all things I want us to look at and work on together in the coming months.
We rightly give thanks today for this house of prayer, and for the faithfulness of God in this place and to its people down the centuries. Any dedication festival recalls us to the fact that this is God’s house, not ours. It is God we serve; God’s life we are called to make visible. So to celebrate this festival is also to rededicate ourselves to God’s service, to being the living stones of his temple on earth, tangible signs of his love and justice and goodness, and signposts of his glory. To celebrate this festival is to make ourselves open to the consuming zeal of Jesus, and servants of it, until that time when the whole world is united in recognising the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty of God, and Christ is all in all.