A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent [Year B]
John 2:13-22 and I Corinthians 1:18-25
It was our first Christmas here in Richmond, with two pre-school age daughters, when we decided they needed one of those little play kitchens. It was ordered from somewhere on-line and delivered in a large, heavy cardboard box. We hid it until Christmas Eve when, late after worship was over, my dear father and I proceeded to put it together.
It was not an IKEA product, and so is was not an intuitive project, and it took a while for us to lay all of the parts and pieces out on the floor and figure out what drawing they corresponded to on the instructions. Things were going along fairly well and it was really starting to look like something when we realized we had installed one board of the oven facing the wrong way. It was a simple mistake, really, but one that we soon figured out couldn’t be ignored, since it had holes and grooves that would be integral later in the assembly.
It was in the wee hours of the morning of Christmas Day by this point. We knew the girls would be up at dawn. Even though I was exhausted from multiple worship services that day, saving it for another time was not an option. There was no escaping our fate: we had to tear down what we had in order to build it back up in just a couple of hours. And I have to tell you that the moment it actually dawned on me that we were going to have to do that was not my finest moment. I may have displayed some behavior at that point that was not very Christmas-like. We did manage to get it rebuilt, but until the day it was outgrown and left our house for the second-hand store, it had a little bolt sticking out from the side that wouldn’t go all the way in to remind us of that episode.
Tearing down in order to rebuild. Dismantling something that is—a structure, a program, a mindset—in order to put it back together again even better. This is part of the life of Jesus, the life we hold fast. We hold it fast—we hold it tightly, as if our life depends on it—because we repeatedly hear Jesus talking in these terms about his own life. He himself speaks of losing life in order to truly gain it, of being killed before he can be raised, and since in baptism we are united to him and become a part of his body, it stands to reason that this particular kind of life will be what we experience, too, in our relationship with him. The experience of saving faith is one where God is systematically dismantling us and our perceptions of God so that he can build something new which will reflect his love to the world even better.
That’s precisely what Jesus is talking about and doing when he goes to the Temple in Jerusalem just before Passover one year. It’s his first trip there, and for a guy who was raised out in what was kind of like the boondocks of Galilee, the metropolis of Jerusalem was a big deal. The Temple in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus was the center of Jewish life and religion. Enormous and occupying the highest point of the city, it was always humming with activity, and here at the Passover it would have been especially busy.
For Jesus’ people, having a relationship with God meant having some sort of relationship to that Temple. Most people would have made pilgrimages there on occasion, and some came every year. In John’s gospel, Jesus makes three trips to Jerusalem and the Temple that we know about. Even if you never had the chance to visit it, you sang psalms about it in worship and referred to it in your private prayers. It symbolized God’s presence on earth, and Jesus’ people believed that God actually resided inside of it. Rulers and kingdoms could come and go, but ideally that Temple would remain, a sign of God’s eternal presence. The Temple that stood at Jesus’s time had been constructed over a series of centuries. The most recent expansions had been under Herod the Great, the Herod who was on the throne at the time Jesus was born.
Therefore, when Jesus walks into the Temple and declares that he will tear it down and build it up, he sounds like he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And if that’s not bad enough, he also displays some very un-Christmas-like behavior while he’s there. It doesn’t seem like his finest moment. He walks in and the first thing he sees are the animals for sale and the tables used to exchange Roman and Greek coins into approved Jewish currency, and he basically loses his temper. It looks like a place of commerce rather than a place to connect with God.
All of those merchants would have meant well by what they were doing. There is no evidence here that they are corrupt or engaged in any kind of extortion. That is just the kind of thing that the Temple needed to support at the time so that people could approach worship and make the appropriate sacrifices. Sometimes I think churches can fall into the same system, even though we mean well. Sometimes you walk into our church and the first thing you see is a donation basket or a Christmas tree with gift tags on it, or the last thing you encounter as you leave is someone holding a bag. To one person those things may communicate that our congregation is generous and aware of the needs of its communities. To others those things may evoke guilt or resentment, like they’re being asked for money—that there is an expectation right up front that they give or participate in some drive, even before they’ve said a prayer.
So for Jesus, what he sees in the Temple is a problem. He drives out the merchants and then says they can tear it all down because he will build it back up. Of course, we know that he is talking about himself. The point is the temple in Jerusalem—that particular place—will no longer be the site where God dwells with his people. And neither will God require any longer our sacrifice of animals or offerings. All of that now is Jesus. Both things—and more—bundled into one person. Jesus’ presence is where people experience the nature of God. Jesus’ actions are how people will come to know what God is like. Jesus’ words are the way people will understand the knowledge of God. And Jesus’ sacrifice of himself is our connection to God is going to be sustained.
On the cross, Jesus himself will be torn down by human sin and pride and yet God will still be able to build it back up. On the cross, God continues to tears down our beliefs of what God is like and builds up something more righteous in its place. God dismantles our understandings of wisdom and power and replaces them with foolishness and weakness. Jesus conquers by losing and wins everything for God by handing himself over.
This kind of tearing down and rebuilding according to Jesus’ blueprint is happening all of the time with us in the life of faith. I remember that when I began seminary one of our professors informed us that our faith would likely be challenged and reformed by what we were learning.
The way he worded it was he said that our “mental furniture would be rearranged.” How is God rearranging your mental furniture these days? What can God tear down and then rebuild in your life so that you can more fully live into the covenant that God made with you at baptism to live among God’s faithful people, to hear his Word and share in his supper, and to serve all people in the manner of Jesus Christ, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?
We can see this tearing down and rebuilding in a congregation’s life together. As we prepare for major renovations and expansions, we are realizing that many of our current spaces will be, in essence, unscrewed, broken down, and then put back together in new ways. This is nothing new. I know it can feel new and uncomfortable at times, but this is a natural process of doing faith together with a God who meets us on the cross. This building itself does not constitute our faith, but it does allow our ministries to house the ministry of Jesus, and throughout a congregation’s history dismantling must occur if it is to better embody Christ for our community and for each other.
In fact, I was surprised to learn just how much this physical dismantling and rebuilding has already occurred in the history of our congregation. For example, the Upper Room, the large room at the end of the 2nd floor of our Education Wing where our confirmation classes meet, used to be the fellowship hall. What is currently the faith formation director’s office used to be the parish library, and where the library is now—in the parlor—used to be the choir room. The utility closets along the hallway here used to be bathrooms. And in a repurposing that can only be described as ironic, the current nursery used to be the pastor’s offices. All this information was given to me by the archives ministry team, which is housed in a room adjacent to the narthex that used to be a coat closet. In the architect’s proposed plans, which will soon be made visible to the congregation, they are proposing that be a new family bathroom (where people can change diapers!) and the archives will go down to where Cheryl’s office is.
And tearing down and building up is not just a physical reality. At our Council retreat last weekend, we spent some time discussing ministries in the life of Epiphany that have either died or are suffering and then also areas that are feeling like a resurrection, where new ministries are being built. It was a fantastic and enlightening conversation for me to be a part of, and I heard good things I didn’t expect to hear, but what it revealed to me again is that the life of faith, even for congregations, always involves this turning over, this standing back and looking at the toy kitchen we’re building on Christmas Eve and realizing to make it even better God will tear some things down. And because Jesus is always with us, this is much easier.
Though it can be uncomfortable at times, the dawn is still coming. We need to remember the morning will soon break, the feet will pitter-pat down the stairs, and all the world will be made new. And after all the screws and grooves are lined up by his grace we’re going to look fantastic.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.