Homily for the Third Sunday in Lent
Rev. Richard Eslinger
The scene is the Passover in Jerusalem at the Temple on Zion. This is an especially hectic time to be on Temple Mount--the usual noises of people praying, buying and selling, and animal sounds, all amplified by the huge crowds. And here is Jesus, fresh from that wedding in Cana up in Galilee, come to the Festival. Except now things go from hectic to chaotic. It is like a film that opens with rapid shots of growing tension. Jesus, somewhat apart from the hustle at the in-Temple marketplace, weaving a whip out of cords. That task completed, he strides right into the crowd, moving through them to the place of exchange and commerce. Then comes the action, whip flying, tables upset with a bang, sheep and oxen bleating and braying, wild-eyed with panic. Doves fling off into the sky, their cages smashing against the stone pavement. Then a voice over it all: “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” What a way to begin the ministry of the Son of God. First, the joy and celebration of a wedding banquet in Cana of Galilee. Then, hard on its heels, a near riot in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. How in the world do these things go together? And what does Jesus mean by this direct action on Temple Mount?
Well, at its most obvious level, Jesus is ridding the House of God of the crass selling of all sorts of things for the benefit of the “merchants of religion.” The piety of God’s people is being used, manipulated, for profit. God is “for sale” and it is a seller’s market. Now we’re not talking a parish Lenten fish dinner open to the public here. No, the fish dinners are lovingly prepared and worth every penny. But here, in the most holy place in Jerusalem, pilgrims are being exploited by those with a Temple franchise to sell essentials needed for their worship. And the Passover is the best season for sales, much like our American Christmas season is today,…best season for profit. We look at the scene, listen to the snap of the whip, the shouts of the crowd, the noise of the animals, and wonder where all this is going to lead. Is a cross only days away, as Matthew, Mark, and John suggest? Or is this the inaugural act of the ministry of the One who is light of the world. Still, we do nod in agreement at one thing,...there are still a lot of merchants of religion around, hawking God for a price. All you have to do is scroll down through the cable networks to some religious programs. There is one of the TV evangelists, telling you how to gain health, wealth, and blessing by contributing to the “ministry.” The 800 number crawls across the screen for you to use to buy these blessings. And CDs of the evangelist’s messages are also available for sale (“all major credit cards are accepted for your convenience”). It is a system set up for profit and sometimes for the abuse of the faithful. But whenever the children of God are being exploited for the gain of some few merchants, Jesus’ words ring out over the noise: “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” The blessings of the Holy One of Israel are not up for sale. Not in the house of our God.
Now the disciples bring their memory of Scripture to bear on the scene. They recall having prayed Psalm 69 again and again. “Zeal for your house consumes me,” they sang in prayer. Now they remember those words of Scripture in the aftermath of this Temple uproar. The psalm is a prayer for deliverance from persecution by those who do not honor God or God’s people. The disciples bring their memory of Scripture to bear on their present, otherwise unexplainable situation. And there it was all along, that verse from the Sixty-ninth Psalm. Such zeal this Jesus has, zeal for God’s people and for God’s house. It consumes his life with purpose and passion. Then, the disciples shudder to think--it will consume him like the zeal of the prophets before him. Maybe they even think, “Will this Scripture be the words etched on his burial marker? “Jesus of Nazareth: Consumed by Zeal.” Of course, there are countless others whose burial markers could read that way. We call them “martyrs” and we remember them every time we celebrate the Eucharist as the saints are named. Their days of memorial are scattered across the liturgical year and we name our parish churches after them. (Here the homilist will want to call special attention to the parish’s patron saint if a martyr.) We remember their zeal and tell our children of their lives and their deaths. Some we remember especially because of our own calling. Church musicians name St. Cecilia as their patron, a woman of faith martyred in Rome and buried in the catacombs. Others are remembered in the name we were given: Theresa, Andrew, Martin, Oscar, the list goes on. Sometimes, the name given a child is even ironic. A pastor took up a conversation in a supermarket line and was immediately told by the couple that they didn’t go to any church and didn’t believe in all that stuff. Maybe feeling a bit sorry for the outburst, they turned and introduced their young son to the pastor. “This is our son, Christopher,” they shared. The name means “Christ-bearer.” How ironic. But even more ironic would be that grave marker for Jesus with its sad words, “Consumed by Zeal.” The disciples remembered the words of Scripture and shuddered.
The scene does not end with a shudder, but with a demand for a sign. “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Those in authority in the religious leadership ask for a sign of Jesus. What can he give them that will justify any of his actions? The response is immediate; Jesus refers to the destruction of the temple and then he will raise it up in three days. The reaction of the Temple leaders is one of disbelief. It has been under construction for forty-six years. And this man claims he will raise it up in three days! Besides, what kind of sign is it to be debating construction schedules in the first place? But then, in one of his patented remarks directed to those who hear his gospel, St. John cracks open the curtain on the scene and winks, and tells us, “He was speaking about the temple of his body.” Thankfully, St. John had enough confidence in us that he didn’t add, “Do you get it now, church?” Yes, St. John, we do get it. Thank you. The sign is the dying, the Sabbath rest in the tomb, the rising,…the Paschal Mystery is the sign! So no grave marker for Jesus, even though his zeal for God’s house and God’s children brought his passion and death. His temple was raised on the third day. We call it Resurrection Day! In the Orthodox icons of the resurrection, Jesus comes striding out of the grave, walking across the abyss of death. He walks upon his cross while the broken chains of our bondage to sin and death fall into the Pit. So even in this midst of this Lenten season, with its solemn remembrance of our sin and our at times desperate need for deliverance from our enemies, we do not have to ask for a sign. It is given in the Body and Blood of our Lord, his temple destroyed and raised up for us and for our salvation. Though without the “Alleluias” for a season, this is the feast of the victory of our God. Raised up after three days. Immortal God and Lord of all creation.
Still it does take the events of Resurrection Day to awaken the disciples to the meaning of Jesus’ words. (St. John always smiles in a caring way when he needs to remind any of Christ’s disciples of those words. The words about being raised on the third day.) And once they remembered, they came to believe and they bore witness to the Light of the World, the Good Shepherd, the Resurrection and the Life. But we are still left with young Christopher and his parents there in the (name a local supermarket). Of course, we could just pray in silence that young “Christ-bearer” would in time come to be what he is named. That is one biblical meaning of becoming righteous. Then, too, we may continue to intercede for Christopher and his parents, that they may all come to faith in Christ and find their place within the Body of Christ. Or, if the Spirit puts the words in our mouth, we could invite Chris’ parents to join with us in one of our ministries to the poor and hungry. They might like that. But there are other words the Spirit whispers to us. Listen for your own. They will not be words of judgment slung with whips of plaited cord. Not at this time there in line at aisle seven. But in the fullness of time, it just may be that Christopher is there at the Easter Vigil, confessing his faith, being anointed with the oil of thanksgiving, and going down into the waters of his own dying and rising in Christ. And could you imagine, that his parents are there as well, rejoicing in the new birth of their Christ-bearing son? Yes, we can imagine even that.