‘Cleansing the Temple’ – 4th March, 3rd Sunday of Lent

Based around Exodus 20: 1-17, John 2.13-22

The content of tonight’s readings are pretty well known. The Ten Commandments, and the story of Jesus cleansing the temple.  Now – spot quiz – at first glance, what do they both have in common?

I could do with a ‘Countdown Timer’ here….

Well, they both appear more than once in the Bible.

The list of commandments we know as the Ten Commandments occurs 3 times; Exodus 34 is the only place where the label “The Ten Commandments” is used in the Bible. The other two listings (Exodus 20 – tonight’s reading –  and Deuteronomy 5) are normally referred to as the Ten Commandments, but the actual text doesn’t describe them as such.

And cleansing the Temple – that appears once in each Gospel.  The narrative occurs near the end of the Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospels,  and near the start in the Gospel of John – our OTHER reading tonight.

Now, remember how I said ‘At first glance’ in my question? Well,  some scholars believe that these refer to two separate incidents, tonight’s cleansing happening at the start of Jesus’s Ministry, and the other three Gospels describing a different event that took place at the end of Jesus’s ministry. I think that this is quite reasonable; John’s Gospel also features more than one Passover, so more than one visit to the Temple by Jesus would certainly happen.

So – why did Jesus behave like this? We know from his previous experiences that Jesus wasn’t a stranger to the Temple in Jerusalem; he once ended up there ‘on His Father’s business’, as he put it, when he was a boy, and we can understand his affection and respect for the Temple.  The Temple was the Third Temple – the Temple of Herod, initiated by Herod to try and gain favour with the Jewish people.  By the time today’s reading takes place, it’s still not complete – it would only be completed about 6 or 7 years before it’s destruction in 70 AD.

It’s worth taking a look at the context of why the animals were in the temple precincts anyway, and what the money changers actually were.

At Passover, people would come to Jerusalem from all over Israel – and from further afield as well.  All worshippers at the Temple except women and children – would be expected to pay a half-shekel Temple Tax – worth about £2.50 at the current value of silver – and would also be expected to provide a sacrificial animal; a lamb or calf.

Now, the money had to be sanctified – Temple money. You couldn’t just give over any old cash. Each year different coins would be produced, and as a visitor you would exchange your currency for the Temple coins with which to pay the Temple Tax. This is where the money changers came in.  Similarly, many people coming to Jerusalem would find it easier to buy a sacrificial animal on arrival, rather than bring one with them on a long journey.

There was also a risk associated with bringing your own sacrificial animal.  Anything presented for sacrifice had to be of highest quality and would need to be approved by the Temple authorities before it could be sacrificed.

And here we find things get a bit messy, and potentially corrupt; money changers would charge a fee for each transaction they carried out.  Sellers of sacrificial animals would sell at a much higher price than would be normally expected, and it was often suspected that the Temple authorities would be ‘encouraged’ by the sellers of sacrificial livestock to disapprove as many ‘out of town’ animals as possible. Quite a few opportunities for the world of commerce and human greed to come between a worshipper and God.

Initially, the animal dealers were based outside the Temple, in the valley of Kidron on the Mount of Olives, but eventually, by the time Jesus visits, they’ve moved in to an area of the Temple called the Court of the Gentiles – the part of the temple that is open to Gentiles as well as Jews. In other words, part of the worship space has become a combination of a bank and a cattle market.

In Mark’s Gospel, Chapter 11 Verse 17, we hear that the temple was designed to be a place of worship for all nations. Gentiles who wished to worship God could, in principle, do so in the Court of the Gentiles – however, this area was now not really fit for worship – and this is why Jesus is so angry. His Father’s house is not fit to be a place of worship for all nations, if the gentiles have to worship amidst animals and moneychangers.

There’s a general idea amongst people that here’s where we see ‘Rambo Jesus’ – wading in and whipping the people as well as the animals to get them out of the Temple Court.  This is how it’s portrayed in at least one painting; but it’s not the case; the whip was used to drive the animals out, and Jesus turned over the tables over the money changers and generally ruined business for the day.

His disciples remembered what was said in scripture about the coming Messiah – that they would be overcome with zeal for the house of the Lord.  Well, this meets the bill.  The Jewish authorities, unsurprisingly, were less impressed and asked him on whose authority Jesus was asking.  His answer – that he would be able to raise the Temple in 3 days – rather foxed them.  But this answer, combined with the scriptural reference – was remembered by Jesus’s disciples after his death and resurrection, and reminded them again of the truth of the Scripture and of His teachings.

Temples are not just buildings. As Jesus pointed out – the body is a temple; even our human bodies.

Our Temple is our body, heart, mind and soul.  The place where we meet with God.

What do we do in our temple to interfere with worship? Who are the sellers of sacrificial animals and temple money-changers in our hearts and minds?  Maybe:

  • The noise and bustle of the market place of ideas
  • The sense that what we bring – our thoughts, feelings, our very body itself – isn’t clean enough, good enough or pure enough?
  • The sense that we need to change what we are for something else to become acceptable?

What can we do to cleanse our heart and mind to make accepting Jesus easier, to make worship and prayer easier?

  • We can bring Quiet in to our hearts.
  • We can accept and embrace the we’re broken; we’re fallen; we will never be perfect. That’s fine. We just try not to sin; be repentant. It’s an ongoing process; try again, fail again, try again. Keep at it.  That’s how we are – that’s how God expects to find us. Be yourself and present yourself to Jesus humbly, throwing yourself on his grace and mercy.
  • We are unique; we are made in the image of God. There is nothing in what we are to change, just how we behave.

Driving out these distractions and impediments to worship from OUR temple is not easy.  I feel I’d have more luck with shifting sheep and cows and overturning a few tables than I would in controlling and disciplining my occasionally unruly heart and head.

But, we need to make our temple suitable for worship of the Lord.

May our equivalent of whips and table turning be effective.


Reader Joe Pritchard

‘The Ten Commandments’ – 4th March, 3rd Sunday of Lent

Based around Exodus 20: 1-17, John 2.13-22.

I don’t think I have ever preached on the Ten Commandments before. I must admit my first thought was somewhat dismissive – “we all know the Ten Commandments so nothing much there of interest”. But then I looked into it a bit more and found there were more points of interest that I’d thought. For one thing I learned that the way the verses in this passage have been divided up into Ten Commandments have in fact not always been the same. Some are obvious – e.g. You shall not steal, but some of the other verses are less clear.

Today I would like to look at just two of the Commandments. First, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy”. The people were told to have a rest day every seventh day – and it was a rest day for everyone, including children, slaves, foreigners and even animals. This is quite a radical idea – and we could regard it as some of the earliest animal rights law in the world! Even today there are places where campaigners are trying to get proper rest and refreshment for working animals.

The Sabbath commandment is not just for those who want a day of religious observance – it is about rest and compassion for all members of the community and for animals. The interpretation of rest on the Sabbath has varied down the years throughout history and some Orthodox Jews still keep very strict rules on what can and cannot be done on the Sabbath.  Jesus did not take this strict approach to the Sabbath but rather a more pragmatic approach. He did not condemn his disciples when they rubbed grains of corn to eat on the Sabbath even though some people thought he should. And Jesus even healed on the Sabbath, arguing that people would rescue a trapped animal or take a beast to water on the Sabbath and so it would be just as appropriate to set someone free from sickness. Jesus’ attitude to the Sabbath is summed up in Mark’s Gospel where he says, “The Sabbath is made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”  In other words it is not about forcing yourself into conforming to a set of rules but about observing a rest day for the welfare of all people – and even their animals.

The second commandment I want to look at is the last one, “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife or male or female slave, or ox or donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbour.”  An interesting point about this commandment is that it relates to a thought, an attitude of heart rather than an action. That is quite a sophisticated idea in social and legal terms. To covet is, in the dictionary,to “desire eagerly” – but with the rider that it is usually to desire eagerly something that belongs to someone else.  And therein is the problem, because desiring eagerly what belongs to someone else can lead to envy, jealousy and even to theft or adultery or even murder.

A good example from the Old Testament is King David who saw Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, and coveted her. He committed adultery with her and when she became pregnant he tried to cover it up by summoning Uriah back from the army. But Uriah refused to spend time at home while his colleagues were away at war, so David commanded that Uriah be sent to the thickest of the fighting to ensure that he would be killed – in effect murdered by David. David’s  coveting of Bathsheba led to adultery and then murder. Nathan the prophet took David to task for his behaviour and expressed God’s displeasure at his actions. David repented – but the damage had been done.

The story of David has a contemporary feel in that our newspapers are full every day of stories of people behaving in terrible ways because they covet things or people. Victims are robbed, defrauded, attacked and even murdered because someone covets their belongings, their money, their lifestyle, their looks … and the pain and heartache of broken relationships caused by people coveting other people’s spouses or partners and acting on their desires, is incalculable.

Youngsters are mugged for high end phones or trainers or other items, because the thieves covet these goods. Elderly people have their savings stolen by people who covet  money and the good life they feel it will bring. Fraudsters target people with pension funds because they covet wealth they have not earned. The other year a man died when thieves stealing his car from his drive ran him over – and all because they coveted his vehicle. People covet the lifestyle, the looks, the clothes of celebrities and see them everyday on social media. And even if they do not get into crime because of their coveting, they may get into debt trying to satisfy their desires.  Apparently in China, people will spend thousands of pounds on plastic surgery so that their selfies will be “perfect” – they covet a perfect self portrait. And there is the acronym FOMO – fear of missing out, as people are desperate not to miss out on experiences or events or belongings that they believe everyone else is enjoying.

But coveting can be, and often is, based on a lie – that somehow everyone else’s life is better, more exciting. If only I can have these goods, that look, a big enough bank balance, my life will be what I think other people’s lives are. I will find the satisfaction I lack.  But always thinking the grass is greener on the other side of the fence is a way of avoiding tending the lawn on this side. Coveting what others have can be a way of avoiding discovering your own talents, strengths and uniqueness or cultivating the garden of your heart.

So much of our society is driven by encouraging us to want things. The advertising industry is based on encouraging us to want things. The credit card industry invented the slogan, “Take the waiting out of wanting”. And as people are encouraged to want and to expect instant gratification, the pleasures of anticipation and saving up for something are lost. Craving instant gratification makes coveting so dangerous – how can I get what I covet now? The desire, the thought, can drive the action that can lead to crime, or destructive behaviour, and people can lose sight of their true selves.

In Lent we reflect on what can bring us closer to God. We can look again at some of these texts, like the Ten Commandments, that we think we know so well and see what they can say anew to us in this day and age.

In a world where people seem to be constantly driven we can model and promote the ideal of regular rest. Perhaps we need to heed that ourselves as we can find our rest time taken up with work for the church. We all need to rest to live well and have time to know God and so we need to find a good balance between activity and rest.

In a world where social media and advertising seem to be driving more and more wanting, more and more coveting, we can perhaps show that things and looks and appearances are not what life is about. Life is about who we are as people on the inside and especially as people who know we are loved by God just as we are – imperfections and all. Who we are in ourselves is more important than what we have and tending the garden of our hearts gives us the base to reach out to others.

This week’s bad weather has brought much difficulty to many but it has also brought out many good things in people and communities. Villagers have provided food and drink and safe space to people who have been stranded. Strangers have reached out to others in need. We have seen much good as people have pulled together in difficult circumstances. May we nurture this concern for our neighbours and seek to  find ways to carry it on as we return to ordinary times.


Reader Anne Grant

‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’ – 19th March, 3rd Sunday of Lent

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Ivan Martynushkin, Harry Oakes, Laurence Ward, Roger Dixey.

These are names that you may never have heard before, but these four men found themselves looking in to the closest thing to Hell on Earth that humanity had experienced in 1945.

These men were amongst the first Allied forces to enter the Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps.  Pope Benedict said of these places:

“In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can only be a dread silence – a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this? In silence, then, we bow our heads before the endless line of those who suffered and were put to death here; yet our silence becomes in turn a plea for forgiveness and reconciliation, a plea to the living God never to let this happen again.”

I wonder, when these men found themselves in these dark places, whether they ever thought “Is the Lord among us, or not?” Not just ‘Does God exist?’ – but is He with us in this place of suffering? Is He guiding us, comforting us, loving us, protecting us? Does our faith journey have meaning?

Tonight’s reading from Exodus is particularly suitable for this Lent period when we review our relationship with God and we reflect on Christ’s time in the wilderness and his preparation for His Passion.

The people of Israel, freed from Egypt, have been wandering in the desert prior to tonight’s reading, fed by the grace of God with Manna and quails. They don’t need to do anything for it; just go out and collect the manna they need each morning, and wait for the quails to come each evening and twilight. God provided the people with what they needed, day in , day out.  The people occasionally lacked faith, though; even when told not to gather too much manna and try and store it, they would do and sure enough the surplus rotted. They didn’t always have the faith that God would deliver the manna the following day.

In our reading the people are concerned that they are now going to die of thirst in the desert.  There is no water to be had at their camp-site, and despite the fact that they’ve been adequately provided for so far, they seem to go off the deep-end, demanding that Moses finds them water.

Moses rightly points out to them, in verse 2, that they are questioning and testing the Lord.  And I can almost hear him adding the word ‘again’ under his breath…

To be honest, the people DO seem to be singularly lacking in faith in God’s continued help.  They’ve seen miraculous experiences– the plagues of Egypt, the first Passover, the parting of the sea and the destruction of Pharoah’s army, Manna from heaven, the very fact that after wandering a desert they’re still in a fit state to whinge about things at all – would certainly suggest to me that God has this covered.

But the people continue to protest the situation, to the degree that they’re ready to physically attack Moses, and Moses speaks with God, requesting some assistance. God advises him what to do, and the immediate problem is resolved.

Moses rather pointedly names the place where God’s gift was given as ‘Massah and Meribah’, which means ‘Proof and Contention’. Once again, the people have put the Lord to the test, and have asked the question ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’

Faith is never easy; even for the people of Israel, who experienced a much more ‘hands on’ relationship with God than we do, they still found it easy to start doubting when things started getting a little tough.  If you think about how long we manage without water, no more than a few days or a week, then you can see that all this took place in a very short time-frame. Despite miraculous bread from heaven in their bellies, the people STILL end up questioning whether God is still on their side when they feel at risk or experience suffering – even when it’s for a short time, and even when they have had direct experience of the power of God.

I imagine that the inmates of Belsen, and the people who liberated and helped them back to health, must have also asked that question – ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’. After all, our relationship with God today is not so intimate and ‘hands on’ as was the relationship between God and the people of Israel. Very few of us have experienced directly physical miracles such as Manna from heaven and the parting of the Red Sea. We rely on faith; and I can imagine that faith was tested within the camps.

In our own day to day lives, I’m sure there are moments when we ask ourselves ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’  We see friends and family suffer from illness; we hear of cruel murder and rape on the news; we witness the inhumanity of men towards each other in war, and the see millions of people in risk of starvation due to drought and conflict.

I have asked that question many times over my life.  ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’ More specifically, ‘Is the Lord with ME, or not?’

The Lord IS among us; it’s just that unlike our reading tonight, we don’t get the ‘behind the scenes’ stuff. In the reading we hear how God tells Moses what to do. God works through Moses.  The God that put Himself in a Burning Bush to speak with Moses could just as easily made water cascade from the rock at Horeb without Moses being there. But God works with His people, with His servants, with US.

Was God amongst the people in the death camps?

Yes, he was. He was there in the presence of the German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who saved 6000 Jews from execution. God was there in the form of Maximillian Kolbe, a priest who ministered to camp inmates and finally took the place of another prisoner condemned to death. He came in the form of Ivan Martynushkin, Harry Oakes, Laurence Wand and Roger Dixey to liberate and help those inmates.

It may seem odd to us – almost cruel – that God works in this way; as an omniscient and omnipotent God it’s well within his capabilities to simply ‘deal with this’ directly. But He delegates; he responds to our unspoken questions and heartfelt prayers by letting the Holy Spirit work through humans. God isn’t just among us; God is within people around us at these dark times.

In our lives, God is among us in the form of what the American children’s entertainer Fred Rogers called ‘the helpers’: ““When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”  I’m sure that we’ve all experienced these helpers – anonymous well-wishers, good samaritans, good friends, caring family. Folks who make things easier for us when times are desperate.

In a world that is increasingly hard and cruel for so many people, we should be ready to let the Holy Spirit work through us when God wants us to help out.  It’s doubtful that we’ll be asked to make the sacrifice made by Maximillian Kolbe, run risks like Schindler or witness the horrors seen by Ivan, Harry, Laurence and Roger.

But we can be ready and willing to let the spirit work through us, so that when people ask ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’ we can ask that at this time, in this place, the Lord is indeed amongst us working through us.


Reader Joe Pritchard


Readings for the sermon and links:

Exodus 17:1-17 Romans 5:1-11

Another Perspective – Exodus 32:7-14 (16th Sunday after Trinity)

Last week we were reminded that some of the passages in the Bible are very hard to listen to and challenging to say the least. They can seem harsh or cruel or unforgiving, lacking in compassion or understanding for mere human beings who from time to time get things wrong. It can be tempting to gloss over such passages or leave them out altogether but as was said we shouldn’t neglect them because they make us uncomfortable. I used to find it very difficult to listen to many of the Old Testament stories for all the reasons I’ve just mentioned. I couldn’t equate the loving God I believed in with the angry, judgemental one I was hearing about who always seemed to be punishing people for doing what humans do, i.e. getting things wrong. I mentioned this to our then vicar and he said that he found the Old Testament stories very honest because they didn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life as it was for many of the people at the time it records. Over the years I too have gained a greater appreciation of this and find that there is a great deal to learn from its pages.

Having slowly worked my way through the Bible and I’ve now started on the Apocrypha, I’ve noticed patterns of human behaviour which repeat throughout history again and again and again. Particularly when it comes to the bad stuff, it seems we never learn so no wonder God sometimes loses patience with us and there is punishment or the threat of it. Even when we are trying our best we often get things wrong, we misunderstand or don’t listen, we go flying off in some misguided direction because we think we know best or we want our own way. I don’t mean to make us sound like petulant children because we are adults capable of thought and reason and self discipline but I can’t help but see a comparison between how God responds to us and how we respond to our own children, especially when they are being difficult. Sometimes we get frustrated by their behaviour and lose our patience; perhaps we even lose our temper and occasionally we might punish more harshly than we intended. If only we weren’t so angry we might be a bit more understanding and forgiving. When the anger abates we probably hope that eventually our children will understand our actions and see that we had their best interests at heart because we love them. We want them to see things from our point of view and to know that we are not just being mean when we deny them what they want.

I love and adore my children, I always have and thankfully I’ve had very little trouble from either of them but I have to confess that when they were younger there were times when I lost my temper with them. The other day my beautiful little granddaughter, who looks so angelic it’s untrue, had screaming abdabs because she wanted her own way and my daughter was equally determined that she wasn’t going to get it. I kept out of the ensuing battle of wills as I didn’t want to make matters worse but I was impressed by my daughter’s calm efforts to explain why she was saying no; not that it made much difference! As we all know, you can’t reason with someone when they won’t hear you which is quite often the case with small children but I can’t help wondering, how often are we like that with God when we don’t like what we get in life?

I suppose part of the problem is that God’s perspective and ours are very different and we can’t always see or comprehend his plans for us. We are told that vast periods of time are like the blink of an eye to him whereas we can’t really grasp such a timescale in relation to ourselves. We are human beings and most of us only last between 60 to 100 years and we have needs to be taken care of regularly within that span. Just as waiting 5 minutes is like an eternity to a child, so waiting years or decades can seem to us.

The passage we heard from Exodus is from a part of the story of the Golden Calf and I think it demonstrates the difference between how God and people see time and how this leads to trouble. The people have been travelling through the wilderness for a very long time and the promises they were given about a wonderful land of their own seem very far off. Moses, who is supposed to be leading them, has disappeared onto Mount Sinai and has been gone a long time and they don’t know when or even if he is coming back. They are getting impatient and want some direction, some plans, some certainty, some results for all their struggles and sacrifices. I have to say I have some sympathy for them on that score although not for how they chose to behave by demanding that Aaron make a Golden Calf for them to worship instead of God. I can even see why Aaron chose to placate them by going along with this even though it was a huge mistake. Because we are human beings we see things from a human perspective but when we try to view this situation from God’s perspective perhaps we can see why he finally loses patience and gets so angry that he wants to destroy his chosen people. Time and again they have turned away from him and then said they were sorry and he has forgiven them but they go on to do the same thing again and again and again. He describes them as “stiff necked”. It is easy, especially in the Old Testament, to see God as an angry, judgemental punisher but how often is he blamed for what we bring on ourselves. In this instance, Moses intercedes with him not to destroy his people and disaster is averted. We get to see another side of God, that he does listen and is open to persuasion that we are not a hopeless case. He is persuaded not to give up on us.

Going back to our perspective, we need to understand that living our faith is a lifetime’s work and commitment and that the timescale is long, longer than our earthly span. We need to learn from our mistakes and those of others if we are to avoid just repeating history with its patterns of disaster. Above all we need to understand that we are loved and nurtured by God and to trust him, especially when the going is tough and, like the children of Israel, we are not getting the results for our efforts that we’d expected. Hopefully, next time we are feeling frustrated or disappointed or even angry about this, we will look beyond our own perspective and try to see things from God’s. Perhaps then we will realise just how much we are loved.
This was where my sermon was going to end, and it having passed muster with my sermon vetting committee (aka my sister Jan & my mum), I thought my job was done, apart for the preaching bit of course. But then as I was watching television last night I saw a documentary called “The Falling Man”. Everything has been so busy lately that I hadn’t connected with the significance of the date, September 11th, the anniversary of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York. The documentary wasn’t easy to watch as it was about the people who had jumped from these colossal buildings before they collapsed and about how their part in the story had been “airbrushed out of history” because it was too uncomfortable and painful to look at. Understandably people were horrified. Sadly since then we as a world have continued to produce stories and images that are equally hard to look at. But pretending to ourselves that they will go away if we don’t acknowledge them is not only denying recognition of the suffering of the people involved but also enabling us to go on failing to learn from the mistakes which pattern our history.
Again let us try to look beyond our flawed human perspective and attempt to see things from God’s and to rise to the challenge this sets by building a peaceful and compassionate world for all his people.

May those who have died rest in his peace.

Kath Boyd – Reader