Sunday 7 March 2021, Lent III, the Vicar

Our OT lesson is the gift of the Law to Moses. The Ten Commandments give shape to human interaction and the proper sense of the holiness of God. The Gospel reading, not from Mark this week, is from the start of John’s Gospel. Jesus comes from Galilee and as his first public act, makes straight for the Temple, and drives out the money changers.

I want to think about three things this morning which arise from these two lessons. Sabbath, The Temple, the symbolism of the turning over the tables. Each of them points in the direction in which we are going in this Lenten journey towards Easter.

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: …For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

Many of us will have Jewish friends, and will know that the keeping of the Sabbath in the Jewish household is age-old. It has no exact equivalent in Christianity. Sunday is not the New Saturday. Sunday is the First Day of the Week. Saturday is the day of God’s resting at the culmination of creation, and that resting is not an afternoon nap, it is the representation of divinely ordered peaceable harmony. It is about completion, that which is finished.

If you have ever been to the Synagogue for the evening service, soon after the start the assembly faces the door and greets the Sabbath, like a bride. The Sabbath is personified and hailed like a lover. There is a sense in which this time is time out of time. It’s hard to get our heads around. But the Sabbath is a hint of a time still to come, and yet it is here. It is a moment in ordinary time, when God’s new age would arrive in advance. You would not be wrong to think this sounds a bit familiar. Jesus prays in the Lord’s prayer “Thy Kingdom come… give us this day our daily bread.” The kingdom and day of bread-giving are very connected in the Lord’ Prayer. Give us today tomorrow’s bread is one possible translation. The Sabbath is tomorrow today. Early in Mark’s Gospel Jesus says “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” The healing miracles on the Sabbath make this plain. What John does is to place Jesus in the Temple to “cleanse” it at the start of the narrative of his ministry. Let’s talk about the Temple and then see how these two things are connected, Sabbath and Temple. And then let’s not forget the table-turning.

The Temple in Jerusalem was first built by King Solomon in the middle of the 10th c BC. His father David had been impeded from doing so. Before then, the Ark containing the tablets of the law and other ancient and holy objects had been peripatetic. When Solomon dedicated the Temple he prayed “The highest heaven cannot contain God, how much less this house.” (I Kings 8: 27) When Isaiah had a vision of God in the Temple itself, only the hem of God’s garment filled the Temple. The glory of the vision filled the whole earth. God’s glory dwelt in the inner sanctum but was not contained by it.

To summarise Israelite History…

For Jeremiah, when the Temple was destroyed in 586 BC by the Babylonians, something terrible happened beyond the wanton destruction, desecration and deportation of the inhabitants. God’s glory departed from the most sacred place.

From the moment of Solomon’s consecration of the Temple, not only was there a sense of God’s glory being present in that holy place, but what the Sabbath was for time, so the Temple became for space. The Temple spoke of the life of heaven in the midst of the earth. Sabbath and Temple in their own ways were propositions, not just symbols of God’s presence in the midst of his people. The Sabbath represented the end and completion of God’s creation. The Temple was the microcosmos of the whole cosmos. Humanity, which according to Genesis 1 bears the image of God, takes its place in the created order as the image-bearer. Something about who and what we are is to take forward God’s creative purpose. The roles of priest and king embody that image-bearing, creating-stewardship.

The message the Temple gives is the same as that of the Sabbath, heaven and earth are designed to belong together. They intersect. Creation was very good, stewarded by the image-bearer – us. The Temple is the physical focus of this. It is presided over by the High Priest. Adam in the Garden, perfect. Just as the Sabbath is lived experience of God’s age touching this world, week by week in the lives of the Jewish faithful, so the Temple was the sign of a perfect past and a perfect future towards which God is drawing his people. That was what the Temple was for.

Deeply bound in with this is the renewal of the Temple, both with its daily, weekly and annual sacrifices and cleansing rituals. The Day of Atonement in the Autumn each year, saw the High Priest, as image bearer making reconciliation for his own sins, and then transformed he lays the sins of the people upon a goat cast into the wilderness and expiates the sins of the nation.

Today’s account of Jesus in the Temple portrays him full of zeal for the Lord’s house. Psalm 69 is quoted, and he drives out the money changers and stall-holders. Is he just railing against trade in the Temple, or is there a deeper symbolism here? It is not quoted, but it is implied. Zechariah 14: 20-21, the last words of the penultimate book of the Bible:

On that day ….the cooking-pots in the house of the Lord shall be as holy as the bowls in front of the altar. And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.

“That Day” is the day in the coming age when “The Lord will be King over the whole earth” (Zech 14:9). Injustice will be overturned, and the reign of God made manifest. Crucially, on that day they won’t need money changers and people to sell unblemished offerings. None of this will be necessary, just as every saucepan will be as holy as the vessels of the Temple, so every coin and animal will be pure and ready for sacrifice.

Jesus starts his ministry turning over tables, not to implicate the traders or even to do away with the sacrifices, but to declare that that day is now here. What Zechariah saw and Ezekiel had seen, “The Lord your God will come and all the holy ones with him.” (Zech 14: 6). God’s glory has revivified the Temple. Indeed, as John foresaw, the glory of the Lord now dwells with his people. The place which symbolised the Sabbath, the connection between heaven and earth is being relocated. It is visible now in the Son of Man (who is Lord of the Sabbath). John will tell us as Jesus is crucified, so are the Paschal lambs sacrificed for the Feast. The Image bearer, humanity, thanks to what that day will show, truly will reflect the divine image, and those who follow will be admitted to the new sanctuary.

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