The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      16th July 2017
Cleansing the Temple
Jeremy Fletcher

In a religion two thousand years old, with roots from thousands of years before that, heritage and our relationship with the past is not just inevitable, but formative. We use words shaped by generations, and offered in different contexts, by successive groups of worshippers and in buildings which both stand for the foundations of our believing and which bring to birth new ways of worship and discipleship. It has always been so, and not just with words and buildings. The city of Jerusalem is emblematic of the presence of God and the love of God for the people God. From place, buildings and community our faith is handed on, given to us as a deposit, and we tasked to be transformed and hand it on in our turn. 

But it does not follow that if we have the place, the building, the scriptures and the worship, we will inevitably know the presence and blessing of God. Tonight’s readings reveal that, though the traditions and the geography may be in place, it is the action and right living of the people of God in each generation which will be the true expression of God’s work in the world. The externals may be there, but if the heart is wrong God is not tied down, and can rise up to challenge. 

In the history of the people of God the Temple, with its surroundings, occupies a central and defining role. The building, and its place, was a focus of the hopes and aspirations and religion and practice of God’s people. It’s not that it was simply a place of worship: the way everything happened - in what was more like a campus than a cathedral – was shaped by and defined by worship and faithfulness to the commandments. Even the kind of money you carried into the temple had to be kosher, not idolatrous. You wouldn’t want to bring anything which depicted a foreign God in – so nothing with Caesar’s head. Outside the Temple Courts were people who could help you be a faithful Jew by exchanging the idolatrous money for coinage you could use to buy the animals to sacrifice – as commanded. Every detail covered. All the externals are covered, and it doesn’t sound so bad. 

But there are clues to the problem. The Temple Jesus challenges is the Second Temple. The first had been destroyed after the invasion of and destruction of Jerusalem centuries before. The Jerusalem David established, and the royal house God promised to bless, had proved to be unfaithful, and ultimately God showed himself faithful to the covenant by being the instrument of destruction and exile. It was in eth seventy year Babylonian captivity that they learned to be God’s people once again. In the history of God’s people was the knowledge that not even the Temple, the city and the kingly line were enough.  

The Second Temple was completed, and remained the symbol of the presence of God and the new found faithfulness of the people. Three centuries later, after further attacks, worship in the temple is restored under Judas Maccabeus, and the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, with eth seven branched candle stand, commemorates a new phase, with the enlarging of the temple under Herod the Great (who liked a good building – the Holy Land is littered with them). A century and a half later it is to that Temple which Jesus comes – probably each year (and certainly when he was twelve, and then as an adult), to worship, to pray and to teach. He knows it well, and he knows what it means.

What Jesus finds is a system of worship and action which has become separated from the commandments and purposes of God. Time and again through the Hebrew Scriptures God calls his people to renew and restore their worship and action. Though they might sacrifice, though they might outwardly obey the demands of the law, it has become clear that outward form and inward motivation have become disconnected. The actions of the Pharisees and the faithful might be very rigorous – no one could say it was not demanding – but the purpose had become unclear, and it could even have been that they were getting so much adulation from others that they had already received their reward. 

It wasn’t that the money changers (not lenders!) were doing anything against the law. It was that what they were helping had become a business transaction with God, not an act of devout worship. Religion had become something just to do, not something which spoke of a whole life devoted to God. It’s not about shops in churches, or even entrance charges, actually, but about whether our living and praying and worshipping connects to our thinking and speaking and doing. God is not to be bought off. 

The question asked of us, in a church which is itself an historic sign of God’s presence and challenge, is whether we practice religion one hour a week, or express our whole life commitment to God in this time where we gather together. What we build and do, outwardly, should be the expression of all that we are as faithful disciples, not religious theatre we enjoy every now and again. When God’s people were faithful the Temple flourished. It is our faithful following which we should build – and then our church buildings will buzz with life. And we long for the day when all is wrapped up in praise, and in the new Jerusalem all is one in God. 

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