By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
When I was growing up in southwest Arkansas, 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 commode, lavatory and bathtub (thankfully, we only had one bathroom for the five of us); wiping down the Venetian blinds, top and bottom, one blade at a time; hanging the throw rugs over the clothes line and pounding them with a broom to dislodge the dirt; 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 my mother’s subconscious mind. Life would be flowing along rather smoothly when, all of a sudden, usually at the breakfast table, she 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 conscripted and put to work. Like it or not, we were expected to pitch in and do our part until the job was complete.
Spring cleaning always came on a Saturday – Dad was at work, and we were in school the other days of the week – there was no such thing as “Spring Break” back then – and to work on Sunday – well, that was out of the question. On the Saturday morning of spring cleaning,
Mom would get us up early, cook us a big breakfast, and assign us our various tasks, and we’d go to work, doing our best to please her and make our house presentable. And, when it was all over, no matter how much we may have carped and 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 this morning, 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; 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 the sermon this morning, 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, was 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 to 180,000 at Passover. Pilgrims would come from as far away as Persia, Syria, Egypt, Greece and Rome. For comparison, think about College Station on the Saturday afternoon of an A&M football game, then double that number and hold on to the crowd for a week, instead of a day. 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 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; i.e., Matthew, Mark and Luke, 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).”
Trusting, for the moment, John’s view of the situation, I think this is a pretty good example of how good intentions often get out of hand – a merchant innocently sets up a table in a corner of the temple where worshipers might stop by and exchange a few coins. Another merchant follows suit, then another and another, until, before you know it, the temple has turned into an exchange house.
A year or so ago, I put a little note in the bulletin asking you not to clap for the children when they sing in worship. The next week I got a letter from an angry parent asking why, and so, I answered the letter, and then I wrote an article for the Chimes in which I said we don’t applaud the various choirs when they sing because music in worship is not intended as a performance for our benefit, but as an offering to God. This is not to say we should never applaud in church – sometimes we just can’t help ourselves – but it is to say those times should be few and far between. Otherwise, worship becomes ordinary and mundane – like a PTA program, or a lecture or concert – and we fail to experience the transcendence of God, which is, after all, what we hope will happen when we come to worship.
The same could be said of carrying on conversations in the pews when you enter the sanctuary – seeing each other and using that time as an opportunity to catch up on the latest news, or even talk business. I’m not saying we shouldn’t greet each other and be friendly when we come to worship – in fact, I hope we’re known for our friendliness and the way we welcome visitors – but there’s a difference between a gracious smile and a quiet word of affirmation and a good, old-fashioned, raucous fellowship time.
You may not be aware of this, but various individuals and groups in the community often ask us to put information in the bulletin and make announcements in church, in effect, advertising and promoting community events, many of which are worthy and deserving of your support. From time to time we do, but, as a rule, we’re careful to screen what’s said and done in the worship service, simply because it’s easy to let things get out of hand and lose our focus upon the sovereignty of God and the central purpose for which we gather, and that is to worship God and be renewed in our faith.
The temple in Jesus’ day had become a marketplace, a bazaar. 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. As one of my beloved elders used to say, “He went from preaching to meddlin’!”
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. He 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 the person of Jesus Christ.
And what this means for us this morning 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 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 become lax in our spiritual disciplines and soft in our resistance to evil thoughts and destructive behaviors and accommodating to the secular and, often, selfish values of the world in which we live.
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 his kingdom, until our relationship to Jesus Christ 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 – 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 we’ve strayed from the righteousness of God. It’s a time for cleansing the temple and making our lives – mind, body and soul – worthy places for the Spirit of God to dwell.
A couple of weeks ago, we sang this little song in the context of our opening hymn. It’s a fitting prayer on which I’d like to end the sermon today:
“Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true;
With thanksgiving I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Copyright 2003 Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.