(I preached this sermon after the sudden death of a much loved member of our congregation – hence the reference to “this time of mourning)
We’ve heard a reading from the Book of Exodus setting out the Ten Commandments. In a way they’re a bit like a list of activities which we should or shouldn’t do in order to live life in obedience to God:
- We must put God first.
- We mustn’t have idols.
- We must keep the Sabbath.
- We mustn’t kill each other or steal from each other.
and so on.
We might well keep all these commandments, and it’s certainly a long time since I coveted my neighbour’s donkey, but I think we all know that there would still be something missing, something not quite right.
What the commandments cannot do is touch or change our hearts or our very beings; they cannot touch us deep inside where we hold love, hurt and longing.
And we cannot form a relationship with commandments so they alone cannot make us fully human in the way God wants us to be.
And so in Jesus God gives us a sort of self-portrait. He pours into Jesus everything of himself that can be put in human form and then comes to live with us. In Jesus we see the commandments brought to life and we see the love, compassion and mercy of God bringing forgiveness and healing to the bruised places of our hearts.
And because Jesus is fully human he understands our feelings.
I’d like us now to imagine how we might feel if we learnt that the Chapter House in Wells Cathedral and our own Lady Chapel were to be used in the evenings as casinos because that would solve all our financial concerns. Wouldn’t we be justifiably furious and do everything in our power to make sure it didn’t happen?
Jesus would understand that.
In our Gospel reading we see Jesus, God’s self-portrait, filled with anger; outraged at the unfair trading, extortion and exploitation going on in the Temple – a place which for Jews was a sign of the presence of God, God’s dwelling place among them.
And we cheer Jesus on as he drives out the commercial traders and profit-seeking money changers.
But the Temple priests and religious leaders are in turn equally outraged and demand an explanation for Jesus’ behaviour. How dare he?
What gives him the right to overturn all the tables causing chaos among both people and animals?
The reply Jesus gives is unexpected and bewildering:
“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up”
It doesn’t make sense. First he’s protesting about the defilement of the Temple and then he’s talking about its destruction and about rebuilding it himself in three days.
It would be impossible. It’s 46 years since building work started on this Temple, how could it possibly be re-built in 3 days?
As so often happens, Jesus’ words are completely misunderstood and later will be twisted to be used in evidence against him after his arrest.
Jesus is actually talking about a more fundamental and transforming event than the physical demolition and re-construction of the Temple, the place where God and human beings meet to do business through rituals, offerings and sacrifices.
Jesus is talking about moving the meeting place of God and human beings away from a building.
His own body, his own being will be the new Temple, the place where the holiness of God dwells. All the things that Jews were meant to find in the Temple: life, love, healing and forgiveness, from now on will flow through Jesus, through his broken and risen body and they will flow for all people, not just the people of Israel.
In Jesus we are to find a new sanctuary which is a place of meeting with God, a place where God is present to us and we are present to and for him and each other, a place of relationship and community.
And that’s what’s important about a church and the reason for its existence. Yes, our building is important and we have a group of people working to look after its structure and keep the roof over our heads, preferably without any leaks!
But our building, any church building, would lose all meaning without a loving, praying, growing and outward looking community meeting within its walls.
Each one of us and all of us together as a fellowship are called to be the home, the dwelling place of God. Jesus says that if we keep and love his words he and the Father will come and dwell in us.
There is a sacred space within each of us where love can dwell and flow from us, a place of peace and light, the place where God is. We are called to live our lives from that sacred space of God and to love and respect the sacred space of God in others.
Lent is perhaps a good time to visit our inner sanctuary more often and spend more time there listening for God’s voice.
A time of grief and mourning often causes us to think deeply about our lives. It can be a time when we think about what’s really important and what’s just cluttering our lives up with distractions and stuff we don’t need or want any more.
And during this Lent and this time of mourning we can also see, hear and smell the promises of spring around us: new life, new hope and resurrection. Easter Day will dawn once again and it always will. Thanks be to God.