Reflection Sunday 7th March, by Revd Sue McCoan
Picture the scene. You’ve come up, with a small group of people from your village, to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. This is a big deal – you’ve saved up to get here, you’ve been looking forward to it for ages, you’ve travelled maybe a couple of days, and now you’ve arrived. Your group has found somewhere to stay, and a place where you can all eat the Passover meal together, and here you are in the Temple courtyard, ready to play your part in the proper observances. You’re ready to change your money into the special coins for paying the Temple tax; and then you will go, with your friends, and buy an animal to sacrifice. It feels really important, and really special.
And then – something terrible happens. Let’s hear the story from the gospel of John.
Bible reading: John 2:13-22
This is the Temple, the holy place; the Passover, the holy time. And Jesus is wrecking it. Animals everywhere, tables kicked over, money thrown around – what on earth is going on?
This incident, of Jesus cleansing the Temple, appears in all 4 gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke all place it in Holy Week, shortly after Jesus has made his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. If the procession was provocative enough to the authorities, this desecration of the Temple courts is the last straw. This, surely, is what makes them decide, we have to get rid of Jesus.
In John’s gospel, however, which we read from today, the incident comes right near the beginning, just after the story of the wedding at Cana in Galilee. It may be that Jesus went to Jerusalem for the Passover more than once, and even that he cleared the Temple twice, though I find that hard to imagine. It seems to me more likely that John puts these two events together – the wedding at Cana and the Temple clearing – at the start of his gospel, to give a foretaste of things to come. This is John saying, ‘And now for something completely different’.
In the wedding at Cana, Jesus takes the water of purification and turns it into the wine of celebration. John shows us Jesus bringing in a kingdom of God that is full of possibilities for new life, for flourishing, for unexpected delight and joy.
It’s just as well that the wedding comes first, because then we can read this shocking account of the Temple clearing in the light of this abundance and joy. So we can see that this is not wanton destruction for its own sake; and it’s more than anger about commercial exploitation; this is Jesus taking on the trappings of religion – the customs and practices, the hierarchy, the inclusion and exclusion – and overturning them. John shows us Jesus bringing in a kingdom of God that cannot be contained within human constructs. Without the wedding story first, this could be scary; but within that context, it becomes exciting. God is doing new things!
And sure enough, after all this drama, John gives us Nicodemus the Pharisee, coming to Jesus quietly, on his own, in secret, and asking, ‘what’s all this about, then?’
We have had plenty of being shocked and shaken over the last year. The pandemic has affected people in all sorts of ways and places and there has been much suffering. Churches have not necessarily suffered more than anyone else but we have perhaps been more shocked – the lockdown was the first time, certainly in my lifetime, that places of worship have had to close. We have had to adapt to new ways of worshipping, new kinds of pastoral care, new ways of serving. It has been a steep learning curve – grappling with new technology, adapting to worship without singing. Many churches will have lost people dear to them; many have lost income from lettings. Some congregations may find, when the pandemic recedes, that they have lost too much and are not able to continue. I don’t think this applies to any churches represented here, and thanks to God for that.
So yes, we are shaken. But we see our shaking in the context of a loving God who brings abundance and flourishing. We see that adapting to new circumstances has brought out all sorts of creativity and new possibilities. Young people and others who have not felt at home in conventional church have found a welcome in online worship. In the URC, young people are often quite isolated and they have found fellowship with each other across the country in ways that are really helpful to them. Older people, who even before the pandemic were not able to attend church in person, have been able, often with the help of family and neighbours, to join in remotely.
And now we can see, now that an end to the immediate crisis is coming into view, that we won’t go back to exactly the way things were. We can take the best of what we had, and the new things we’ve learned, and we can see where God is leading us next. We are shaken, but we are not broken; we are shaken so that we can be stirred to new life. We are shaken awake, and we move forward with our ever-loving God.