When I was growing up our family observed a time-honored ritual every year which was affectionately known as “spring cleaning.” Unlike the normal cleaning from week to week, which amounted to dusting and vacuuming and generally straightening up, spring cleaning was an all-out assault on a year’s worth of filth and clutter. It was commonly referred to as “deep cleaning,” and it consisted, among other things, of mopping the hardwood floors and applying a fresh coat of Johnson’s Wax; removing the screens and cleaning the windows, inside and out; scrubbing the bathrooms; wiping down the Venetian blinds, top and bottom, one blade at a time; cleaning the oven, polishing the furniture and hanging out the blankets and quilts and comforters to be refreshed by the warm sunlight and gentle spring breeze.
The precise date for spring cleaning was a mystery to us kids. It coincided with an alarm that went off somewhere in the deep recesses of our mother’s subconscious mind. Life would be flowing along rather smoothly when, all of a sudden, usually at dinner the night before, Mom would announce to the family that it was time for spring cleaning. There was no debate, of course – the alarm had sounded, and that was that. Oh, we could protest and say we had other things to do, but we knew it would be futile – come Saturday morning we would be pressed into service. Like it or not, we were expected to pitch in and do our part until the job was complete.
On the Saturday morning of spring cleaning, Mom would get us up early, we’d eat breakfast, and then Mom would assign us our various tasks, and we’d go to work. When it was all over, no matter how much we may have complained over the imposition of it all, we swelled with pride as we breathed in the sweet scent of fresh wax and furniture polish and Pine-Sol disinfectant that filled our home with a spring-like freshness.
As we turn to the gospel lesson today, I’d like for us to think of Jesus’ cleansing the temple as a form of spring cleaning; for, in cleansing the temple, Jesus:
- purged the house of God of its corruption and disorder;
- and He stood against the secular trappings which had crept into the worship practices of the people of His day in order to make the temple pure and holy once more.
In this sermon, I’d like to take a moment to look at the story more closely, paying particular attention to how it speaks to us today. The story begins, “The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem …” (Jn. 2:13)
Passover, you’ll remember, is one of the holiest feast days of the Jewish faith. It celebrated the night on which God liberated the slaves in Egypt, sending the angel of death through the streets of Rameses, taking the life of every first-born male, but passing over the homes of the Israelites, on which the blood of the lamb was smeared on the door. Passover came on the fourteenth day of the month of Nisan, in the spring of the year, when travel conditions were at their best. And so, tens of thousands of faithful pilgrims would flock to the temple from all over the Mediterranean to celebrate Passover, making their sacrifices to God and paying their half shekel temple tax.
Now, think about the logistics. It’s estimated that the population of Jerusalem would swell from 50,000 people to over 180,000 people at Passover. Pilgrims would come from as far away as Persia, Syria, Egypt, Greece and Rome. That’s a lot of hungry mouths to feed; a lot of weary travelers to put up for the night. Plus, they’re coming to the temple to make a sacrifice. They’re going to need an unblemished animal for that. They’re also going to pay their temple tax. Somebody’s going to have to help them exchange their currency. Get the picture? The commercial implications of Passover were enormous, perhaps comparable to the Christmas season here in the United States today.
So, I think it’s safe to say the merchants were making a killing off the week of Passover; but were they really doing anything wrong? You could say that, by exchanging money and selling birds and animals for sacrifice, they were providing a service. Now, it’s true, in the synoptic gospels, Jesus accuses the merchants of cheating the people. He says,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer,
but you are making it a den of robbers.” (Matthew 21:13)
Perhaps there was some price gouging going on, but this is not the focus of Jesus’ anger, according to John. As far as John is concerned, Jesus is upset because all this buying and selling has intruded upon the sacred space for worship. In John’s gospel, Jesus says,
“Take these things out of here!
Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace (a house of commerce).” (John 2:16)
It’s fair to say that the temple in Jesus’ day had become a marketplace. It had lost its sacred character. It was well attended, and it was a beehive of activity, but there wasn’t a lot of reverence and spirituality. And it wasn’t necessarily because the priests and the merchants were bad people; but because, perhaps unintentionally, they’d lost sight of the fact that it was, after all, holy ground on which they were standing.
So, Jesus took a whip and drove out the merchants and the sheep and the cattle and brought the activities of the temple to a screeching halt.
The temple leaders rightly asked, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” (2:18) In other words, “By what authority have you come in here and disrupted the temple?” Jesus’ answer was hardly what they expected to hear. Jesus said,
“Destroy this temple,
and in three days I will raise it up.” (2:19)
This is John’s way of letting us know that the focus has now shifted from the temple to Jesus and to the prophecy of His death and resurrection. The point is, if the temple is truly the dwelling place of God, then the temple of God is no longer to be thought of as that physical structure in Jerusalem – or any other structure, for that matter – but, rather, the temple should be thought of as the person of Jesus Christ.
And what this means for us today is that the temple of God today is to be found in the hearts and minds of those who honor Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, wherever they may happen to be. This is what Paul told the Corinthians when he said, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you …? (1 Cor. 6:19)
We, then, are the temple of the living God in the world today. And this is where Jesus’ cleansing the temple hits home for us, as we consider the many ways we’ve all become lax in our spiritual disciplines and so often find ourselves battling the same sins [seemingly] all the time.
Sure, we’re all prone to a little “backsliding” from time to time! It’s not as if we go off the deep end and forsake our Christian calling altogether. It’s just that we let little things slip into our everyday lives and take precedent over our commitment to Christ and God’s kingdom, until our relationship to Jesus becomes secondary and nominal, at best.
It’s a subtle process, this turning the temple into a marketplace. Like the houses we live in – a little dust and dirt build up on the baseboards and in the hard-to-reach nooks and crannies of each room, lint balls accumulate under the beds, mildew forms in the shower stall and around the tub, coffee stains appear on the carpet, cobwebs hang from the ceiling; – in my case, tumbleweeds of Max’s hair float across my kitchen floor – it all happens so slowly that we hardly notice, until, one day, like my Mom years ago, an alarm goes off, and we come to our senses, and we realize it’s time to do some spring cleaning and put our houses back in order.
And this is what I hope you’ll take home with you today: Lent is a time of introspection, of looking within and taking note of the various ways sin has crept into our lives and we find we’ve strayed from the righteousness of God. Lent is a time for cleansing the temple and making our lives – mind, body and soul – worthy places for the Spirit of God to dwell.
By way of application – let me go first: ex: loving-kindness.
Today is a great day for us to pause, and to give some thought about the things we want to root out of our lives, so that we make more space for God in our mind, body and soul.
Please pray for me and know that I am praying for all of you as well.
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