The Cleansing of the Temple

Sermon at St James Colwall, Last after Trinity 2016

John 2:13-25

When I was young, and we had a scripture lesson, I was always puzzled by the idea of animal sacrifice. How was it supposed to work? How did God know it had happened? How did it benefit Him? It’s hard to make sense of these actions today, but they were widespread in the ancient world and not confined to the Jews, so perhaps it was accepted as simply what one did to communicate with God. But whatever the reason, the effect was to concentrate power in the hands of the priests who could lay down rules as to what was an acceptable sacrifice, appropriate to the occasion being celebrated. As the word sacrifice implies, some form of giving up was essential, but the question was, how big? It’s a bit like buying a wedding present! Do you make a big splash to impress the person you are giving it to? Or do you economise to suit your means? For the poor, who had no option but to spend as little as possible, birds fitted the bill for many occasions, resulting in shortages occurring for the big celebrations. Suitable animals could actually be bought, so the priesthood became deeply involved in trade, resulting eventually in the situation described in the gospel, necessitating the violent action of Jesus we call the Cleansing of the Temple.

Now it is easy for us to be critical. The question is, how did it happen? How did the central act of the Jewish religion become over shadowed by the desire to make money? And I would guess it was a case of little by little. Of course priests would like to help people with their religious observances, but they came to expect some sort of recompense in return, thus missing the point. Changes in society and in our own behaviour happen gradually without our being aware of them and they can gradually accumulate with unexpected consequences. My brother is always saying to me that as you grow older, you become wiser, but I am not at all sure of that. I have a great idea that as we grow older we grow more and more self centred and less able to be self critical.

So we need to constantly question what we are doing. And this particularly applies to what we do regularly. So what are we doing in worship? Is God pleased with our services? I am reminded of the very literal nature of some of the Old Testament which talks of God in heaven smelling and enjoying the sacrificial offerings of the people. By analogy does God like our hymns? I had a little break in Glastonbury a week or two ago and on the Sunday when I was there, I attended choral evensong at Wells cathedral. And it was really a beautiful service, uplifting and with a sermon I could agree with, so I enjoyed it. But did God? What effect did it have on Him? Which raises the question, what are we doing with our worship?

Well, we can’t know the effect on God, can we? But it does no harm to imagine. And I think it is not unreasonable to think in human terms and think in terms of the effect on ourselves. If we like it, and if it is meaningful to ourselves, then I would guess it will be acceptable to God too. But if it is to be meaningful to God it has got to be worthy. Just like the sacrifices of old it has got to cost us some effort. Ask your selves as we leave this service, is that the best we can do? Do you know the web site Ship of fools? If you don’t, you can find a link to it on our church web site. Anyway, they have a feature called ‘The mystery worshipper’ in which someone attends a service incognito and produces a commentary on the service and the impression it made them. Some reports are appalling, but some are quite encouraging. Little things like coffee after the service and the warmth of the welcome matter, but as always, it is not a question of exactly what you do, but how you do it. Let me give you pause for thought. In our own services, does passing the peace help to draw us together, or keep us apart? It always seems to me that it can lead to a sense of exclusion.  It all depends on how we do it.

Well, what can we take away from today’s service? First of all I hope, an experience of the presence of God. If we have gone through the service without feeling that this is important stuff, which matters to all the world, then God is not going to be interested either and that means we can’t change it. And surely if we see the world with God’s eyes we cannot help but want to change it?

Were you comfortable with the teaching in this service? Or bored? Or inspired? Or confused? During the 30 or so years I have been preaching here, the number of people who have talked seriously about what I have said is probably about half a dozen and it ought to be greater. Surely over those years I have said something more than platitudes? Well, I suppose I know the reason—being critical is hard!  But being critical is part of taking our worship seriously and making it an acceptable sacrifice to God.

And talking of doing hard things, how about improving our singing? I remember going to a funeral once, where there were many who obviously knew the hymns well and it was joy to sing along with them. Anybody who can sing in tune and with enthusiasm can add to our worship. It is worth having a try.

In 70AD the Temple was destroyed, the Jewish religion was totally changed and the world entered into a new era. You can think of the cleansing of the Temple as the start of that process, a new dawn in history. But what we must do in this process of change is to discard the old and corrupt and remake our patterns of worship following the teaching of Jesus.