Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!
Do you think I eat the meat of bulls and drink the blood of goats?.
I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.
I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
It may seem to some that Jesus was a little bit unhinged in this morning’s gospel reading. Some read anger into the passage, which is not there; others read violence, and that’s not in there either. Jesus actions in the temple which we read about this morning were a prophetic act, deliberately provocative, and not some unhinged rage against people over-charging for a pair of doves. This passage is not about doves, money changers, or even the poor. This is a prophecy about a new world order. Old things are finally passing away and Jesus is planning to make them new in a way that most people won’t understand. If they do understand, they won’t like it. And, if they manage to try to live into the new world order, the old world systems will kill them along with Jesus. Just like they do today.
There is another story which we have to read along with this one if either is to make any sense. It’s in John 4, and we won’t read it together until Year A rolls around again, but it is the story of a woman whom Jesus met at a well. She was a Samaritan, of all things! But, she recognized that Jesus was a prophet, and she did what most of us would do if we met a prophet, she began to ask some questions, the things that were important to her. One thing she was interested in was whether people should worship on Mt. Gerizim as her own ancestors had done, or if they should worship in the temple like most other Judeans were doing. Beginning in verse 21, Jesus and the woman had a conversation about it.
Woman: Sir, I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.
Jesus: Woman, believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.
Woman: I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.
Jesus: I, the one speaking to you—I am he.
As long as there had been a temple, there had been sacrifices. The thinking behind the sacrifices was that God was angry and only blood could appease him, the smell of the burning animals and their blood was somehow pleasing to God. It was in keeping with what the other Gods of the time wanted from their followers. The Lord God, the God of the Jews, was somewhat more modern in not demanding human sacrifice, but it was the same line of thinking — The Gods must be appeased. Sacrifice atoned for sin, it placated an angry God, and it was the means of contact between the divine and the merely human. It was important because it was all they had.
In driving out the animals and turning over the money changer’s tables Jesus upset a system which was believed to be working just fine. It was working for the rich and the clergy, anyway. In fact, things in the temple were going on just fine the day Jesus walked in and made a whip with which to drive out the animals. Money was being changed, sacrificial animals were being sold, the machine was rolling on just fine. But, just as Jesus cast out the demon of the status quo a few weeks ago, he now casts out the means of operating the temple… business-as-usual is over.
The new location of worship, atonement, and connection with God is anyplace where the spirit of God is.
The Spirit of the Lord is on me… Luke 4:18
People will tell you that this means that Jesus is the “New Temple,” or they will say that Jesus is actually God and that because of him God can be worshipped without the mediating tools of sacrifice or priests. Maybe they even worship Jesus. Both these views are too small. What Jesus is saying is that wherever the spirit of God is, that is the locus of worship. The spirit of God just happened to be on Jesus, but it could be anywhere!
Jesus never said to worship him, nor did he claim to be merely a Christianized replacement for the old temple system. (There was no temple when this was written, remember. People might have responded to a new temple, not made with human hands. They might have responded to any kind of new temple. But, Jesus was doing something much bigger than that!) What Jesus proclaimed is a system so completely new that no temple would be necessary, and in which every mountain, not just Mt. Gerizim, would become a place of worship.
Part of Jesus’s message that we should follow him is to allow the spirit of God to rest on us too. That is why whenever two or more of us get together the spirit of God is there with us. No sacrifice needed, no priest or bishop, and no temple either. Really, all that can go away. Yes, even the church which we are all so desperate to save can just fade away and the Kingdom of God will go on just fine. But, more than just getting rid of old systems which don’t work, the whole world has become a cathedral housing a new world order based on love, and not violence; of mercy, and not appeasement; of spirit, and not a mere systems, institutions.
In a few weeks we will read that while Jesus hung on the cross the veil of the temple was torn in two. The spirit of God can no longer be contained, managed, or owned by the clerical classes. It is out in the world, free-range, it is on you, and on me, it is in the dry desert air, and the rainforests heavy with morning dew. There is nowhere that the Spirit of God is not, never has been.
Jesus went to Jerusalem to observe Pesach, the remembrance of deliverance from oppression and slavery. Instead, he announced that we are all delivered from the oppression of religious systems which abuse and roll right on to the next victim. You don’t have to participate in the machinery of religion, it’s sacrifice of the weak, and adulation of personality. Its product is the good feelings of righteousness generated by dollars, secrecy, and the so-called greater good. I’ll tell you, if it’s not good for the poorest, the weakest, and the most abused and unlovable it is not righteous at all. The modern Christian church is no better than the ancient sacrificial system. Both try to keep real people from the real God who throughout history, and even now, reaches out to them, past the religious infrastructure and right into the heart and life of every person God has ever made. But, time and time again, religion rises. Like the demon of the status quo, it just keeps coming. But it has been cast out. And it is, truly, finished.
How can you allow the spirit of God to live in your life? This is what it means to be the light of the world, to allow God’s own light to shine forth in a way that invites reconciliation and communion. But it doesn’t shine forth from bulls, from pulpits, or from systems… only from you and me. From the quiet place in you, allow the spirit of God to grow and dwell. Become a new kind of church, one with no buildings or staff, but in which the spirit of the Lord is at home, and all God’s people too.
Alleluia, alleluia… Don’t tell me what your institution says about that. Alleluia.
Linda McMillan lives in Sakaka in the Northern Province of Saudi Arabia.
Image: Nunnery on isle of Iona by Ann Fontaine