Lent 3, 2021 – Sermon

Time to clear out the Temple: Sermon on John 2:13-22.
Third Sunday in Lent. St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, Regina.
Rev. Nathaniel Athian Deng Mayen. 

Sermon Audio

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer (Psalms 19: 14).

Brothers and sisters, the gospel reading calls us to attune our desires and needs to the Lord, where our salvation comes. It is time to clear out the Temple to set a room in our hearts for the teachings of our crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ. 

When the rector emailed me the readings for this Third Sunday in Lent, he commented, “Time to clear out the Temple!” This is a great gospel declaration that I would like to keep as the title for the sermon. It is appropriate for the Gospel of John that proclaims the death and resurrection of Jesus in the beginning of the ministry relative to the Synoptic Gospels that narrate the story closer to the end of Jesus’ ministry (Mk. 11:11-19; Matt. 21:12-13; and Luke 19:45-48). 

When you clear out something, you are aware of the value of what you wish to acquire in place of what you want to get rid of. You create a room for something more valuable and unique to meet the needs that the old thing has not met. You create a new identity that may increase the quality and value of living. 

What then are we talking about when we delight in the announcement for the time to clear out the Temple? For Jesus Christ, his body is the Temple, and his mission is the gospel proclamation in and across different cultures. 

The Gospel reads, “The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” (John 2:13). This is a great introduction to the entire gospel reading.

Christ’s mind is set on Jerusalem, where the promise is set for fulfilment during the Passover. Identification of the celebrants of Passover is significant. It shows Jesus has made concrete plans for this occasion to disrupt the Jewish system that has misused the Body of Christ, the Temple, for centuries and centuries.

Note the story about clearing out the Temple comes after the first miracle in the Gospel of John, where Jesus has changed water into wine (John 2:1-12), therefore opening up the secret of the kingdom of God to those who have eyes and can see and understand the mystery of the reign of God among men and women in their ordinary lives and daily activities, such as wedding and fishing adventures. 

The miracle at Cana is a soft power, a secret manifestation of the divine power of Christ; Soft, because the miracle was preformed among few familiar people (Mary the mother is the main actor and the workers and disciples are witnesses to the miracle) and because Jesus has warned his mother (the prototype of the Eve, hence calling her, ‘Woman’) that his time has not yet come to reveal his authority. 

In contrast, the incident regarding the clearing out the Temple is a public display of authority. It reveals real divine manifestation of authority over what Christ considers a misuse of the house of God. Because his action is public, there is a question on authority, to show the sign of his authority that is different from theirs. They asked him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” (John 2:18). 

The Jewish authorities want a sign to reason with Christ. They have forgotten that they cannot understand divine things with the same minds that they have spoiled with pride, entitlement, and sin. 

Jesus knew he would die because of the disbelief of the Jewish authorities and, therefore, he did not bother to give them another sign to prove them since he will prove them wrong short through on the cross. He responded by pointing them to his resurrection: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

This prophecy about the death and resurrection of Christ is definitive of his journey to Jerusalem and to the cross. This is the place where his mind is set to reconcile all things in heaven and on earth to God through his humility to accept the task for the atonement of humanity, his self-emptying love to reconcile humanity to God, and his obedience to the Father. 

This is what results in his exaltation to privileged position of the Son to rule over all things in heaven and on earth: “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2: 9-11).  Paul also predicts their thinking when he writes, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ (is) the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:22-24). 

This story about clearing out the Temple creates a new identity in Christ. It establishes the authority of Christ over all things that Christ will give over to the Father: “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Cor. 15: 28).

The temple in Jerusalem had been partitioned into different courts, with different groups that worshipped at different sections in the temple. Jewish historian Josephus has explained that the court that was turned into the marketplace was none rather than the court of the Gentiles near the main public entrance. 

By entering the temple and clearing out the court of the Gentiles, Christ condemned the contamination of Gentile worship and other acts against the Gentiles, and declared the entire temple equal dwelling for the people of God, both the Jews and the Gentiles. While the court of the Gentiles was despised, it was the most significant court that sustained the business of the temple in Jerusalem: the travelers came to the temple with money and exchanged the money at the Gentile court, and purchased animals for sacrifices in the Temple.  

As you might have realized, there is some sense of retroactive understanding, where the disciples understand what Jesus had said or done earlier after the incident has already happened. This is no accident. Believing comes before understanding. Secondly, our experience with the Spirit in partnership with Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, demonstrates that the Spirit keeps reminding us about all things that Jesus has taught, done and instructed us when we do not remember his teachings because our paths need to be cleared out before we can understand divine things through the power of the Spirit that lives in us.  

I recently read an article by Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden, which described something that I think most of us have been struggling to understand about why the kingdom of God ushered on earth could continue to experience the prevalence of sinfulness amidst the reign of God within us.[1] Referencing Andrew Lincoln, Samuel and Sugden elaborated that the sinfulness on earth is also prevalent in heaven because both heaven and earth are one aspect of the same created structure by God and that both heaven and earth require redemption by and from Christ. This perspective is new to me because the idea that heaven is only perfect and holy is so prevalent in my belief that my mind automatically creates two realities about the relationship between heaven and earth. I admire this explanation of the inseparable relationship between heaven and the earth because it makes the point that Christ will redeem both heaven and earth valid.

The righteous anger against the contamination of the temple in Jerusalem is an act of justice to the Gentiles, as well as those who have been held hostage by cultural taboos and other rules of men that destroy rather build life in the society. Surprisingly, the Jewish authorities saw everything that had happened and continued to ask for sign (miracle) that will show Jesus has the authority to clear out the temple and to prove his claim about the relationship to the Temple.

We should note that the Temple in Jerusalem that we are talking about was a new temple build by Herod after the one built by King Solomon was destroyed about 587 B.C. This new temple was the one destroyed by Babylonians in 70 A.D, thereby fulfilling the prophecy of the destruction of physical temple in Jerusalem. 

However, Jesus is talking about his body, which, as the gospel writer acknowledges, reveals the highest authority against the powers of evil and which (authority) is manifested in both signs (miracles) and teaching about heavenly mysteries. As we read about the miracle in Cana, we will also read again about meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus at night and the promise of regeneration in order to fit the criteria in the new kingdom of the crucified and risen Lord.

As you might have realized, we are revolving around the death and resurrection of Jesus, like people pulling the rope that has no beginning and no end. Lutheran theologian David Yeago writes, “The resurrection of Jesus is to Christian theology what the sun is to the natural world: it is extremely difficult to look directly at it, yet we see everything else in its light. The resurrection is the mystery par excellence, new reality encountered out beyond the end of all created possibilities by virtue of the sheer freedom and love of the Triune God alone.”[2]

Apostle Paul picks up from this story to explain the purpose of clearing up the temple: “When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). 

Jesus is the embodied pardon of God to save us from sin and reveal the life-giving Reign of God. Therefore, the events that devolve around Jesus in the last days of his life are a result of secret guilt beneath the surface of human history. The special role of the rulers of Israel represents the whole organized disorder of sin and death and the whole fallen human race. 

As a result, Christ’s free acceptance of suffering and death, his declaration, “destroy this temple and I will raise it in three days,” is the act by which God has destroyed sin, death, and the dominion of the devil. Jesus’ death is both the continuation and the culmination of his life-giving endurance of the power of sin and death and the divine action which saves us through voluntary agreement with the will of the Father in authenticating human obedience, faithfulness and perseverance to accomplish the Father’s will on earth as in heaven.

Jesus’ acceptance of death is also an act of sacrifice. As the blood of the sacrifices at the foot of Mount Sinai joined Israel in covenant-fellowship with YHWH, the blood of Jesus shall seal the new covenant that has been inaugurated by the love of the crucified and risen Jesus. The mission of Jesus is the eternal procession of the Son having a freely-willed outcome in time, to enact his identity as Son in mortal flesh, in such a way that fulfills the Father’s purpose and plan to restore his lost creatures to communion with God himself. This demonstrates that the Son’s entry into abandonment was not a separation from the Father. The resurrection glorifies the crucified Jesus, and affirms that the human figure on the cross was, is and will remain the unsurpassably perfect realization of the Father’s will.

How do we respond to this reality? First, we should discourage the prevailing cultural misinterpretation of death, where people misuse the funeral avenues for other motives, talking politics about the dead person rather than mourning through eschatological reminder that we will all die. Our responsibility in funeral is to comfort the living family, relatives and friends through their loss and grief. “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7: 2).  

You may agree with me that the phrase ‘celebration of life’ is unbiblical. It is about the living trying hard to project limited understanding of death on the deceased’s individual achievements. Death is a communal effort to live in the present reality for the purpose of eschatological hope and its significance. 

Second, the time of our physical death (permanent disappearance from the face of the earth) is the final day of our judgement in the sense that after the physical death, we no longer have the opportunity to repent, believe in Christ, love God, and participate in the gift of grace that we have been entrusted to receive. While alive, we have the opportunity to respond to the divine election and its purpose for the preservation of creation, where God chooses, calls and sends particular individuals or groups as his vessels for the universal purpose for the blessing of the entire world.[3] Lesslie Newbigin explains that in Christianity, the doctrine of divine election is about collective responsibility to proclaim the reign of God. It is not about personal privilege to boast about how much God has chosen us before time for our individual salvation and that we are more righteous than others.

Doesn’t the Bible tell us that those who have been delivered from their respective sinful lives and called to serve God at different times in human history were destroyed if they no longer lived to that expectation for their responsibility? In fact, the Book of Jude in the New Testament is all about the fall of those who were once considered the elect of God and, therefore, suffered the consequences of their disbelief because they thought their election was a permanent ticket to live immortal lives void of Christ, the love of God manifested in human presence. 

The Bible is clear in its teaching that Christ will return to judge both the living and the dead. This is our hope in clearing out the Temple to create room for repentance and personal transformation. This incident about clearing out the Temple is an eschatological foreshadowing for the significance of resurrection of Christ. We are accompanying the Saviour on a unique journey that him alone is the driver to help us reach the final destination safely.

This requires the highest level of faith, trust and hope in the Lord. This requires clearing out the old habits that put barriers in the way we worship of God in truth and spirit. May the Lord give us the power to live to this expectation. Amen. 

[1] Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden, ‘God’s intention for the World’ in Mission as Transformation (Regnum 1999), pp.166–207. 

[2] David Yeago, “Chapter 8: Jesus Crucified and Risen – Part Three: The Resurrection of Jesus Christ” in The Apostolic Faith: A Catholic and Evangelical Introduction to Christian Theology: Volume I: The Gift of the Life of the Triune God in Jesus Christ, 336.  

[3] Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, ed. (Grand Rapids: Michigan, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 1995, 68.