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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
According to sources, the late Rev. Billy Graham, while visiting the Pope in the Vatican, noticed a red telephone on his desk. Graham said, “That phone is unique. What do you use it for?” The Pope answered, “It’s a direct line to God. Only for special occasions.” This piqued Graham’s interest, “Really? How much does a call cost?” The Pope sighed, “About a hundred thousand dollars a minute, but it’s worth it.” A year later, Graham made a visit to the Israeli prime minister in Jerusalem. And there, too, was a red phone, and the prime minister was chatting on it. After a while the conversation ended and the prime minister told Graham, “God says hi.” Graham was amazed, “That was some conversation. It must have cost you close to a million dollars.” The prime minister laughter, “Nah. Seventy-five cents.” Graham insisted, “But in the Vatican, the Pope said…” Then the prime minister interrupted, “But here… it’s a local call.”
For the ancient Jewish people, Jerusalem was the holiest place on earth, and the Temple was where human life and divine blessing met At Passover each spring, thousands of pilgrims poured into the city from the distance places. They came to celebrate God’s liberation over the Egyptians and to present their animal sacrifices for the forgiveness of their sins, both sins known and unknown. The sacrifices during Passover were so great in number that black smoke billowed over the city all day long. The inhabitants thought that it would last forever.
The Temple itself was not a single building, but rather a complex set of buildings atop a massive plateau in the midst of the city. The Temple Mount, built by King Herod the Great, was the size of 29 football fields. Surrounding to the perimeter of the Temple Mount were the administrative and civic buildings, as well as a great open court yard, where today’s gospel takes place. The sacred Temple itself, elaborately decorated in shining gold filigree and blazing white marble would have been seen in the background. The crowds thought it would stand forever.
Since Jerusalem was a pilgrimage destination each Passover for the Jewish people who lived around the Mediterranean Sea, two services were needed. Money changers were required to exchange the Roman coins with the Emperor’s head imprinted on them for local coins to be received in Temple Treasury, and sellers of animals were needed so that the sacrifices stipulated by the ancient Scripture for the forgiveness of sins and thanksgiving for blessings received could be offered. For generations, this system worked hand in glove, like a well-oiled machine. The priests and leaders if the Temple thought that it would last forever.
Now, unlike the other evangelists who portray Jesus’ overturning the tables in the Temple, and driving out the animals as the final straw that broke the camel’s back for the Jewish leaders, St. John tells us that this was Jesus’ first public appearance. We are told that the leaders in Jerusalem were actually curious about his motives. In fact, they were so curious that the wisest of the Pharisees named Nicodemus would come to visit Jesus. No, in St. John’s gospel, there is no mention of corruption, greed, or dishonesty. Jesus does not criticize the authorities – except for their misrepresenting the nature of faith. Instead, he protests with zealous indignity that they have allowed the selling of animals and the exchange of money to become a marketplace. And so, like the ancient prophets of Israel who had gone before him, Jesus offered a warning of what would come to pass, as well as a symbolic act that would demonstrate the essence of his message. Driving out the animals, he proclaimed sacrifices for the forgiveness of sin would end. It was dramatic and troubling. It was no wonder that the observers on the Temple Mount asked, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”
Not so surprising, however, was that Jesus’ response to their questioning was an answer they could not understand. “Destroy this temple, and in three days, I will raise it up.” They must have thought Jesus was crazy. How could he rebuild the Temple in three days when the building still wasn’t complete after 46 years? The crowd that day couldn’t have imagined that the within 40 years, the massive Temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed by the Roman army, leaving not one stone left standing on another. And over the over the centuries, similar buildings would crumble and fall, even places of worship.
Two years ago, the world watched helplessly as a fire tor through the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. We thought it was unprecedented, but it actually followed in the shadow of countless churches and cathedrals destroyed by war and storms and human folly. There were the Cathedrals in Rheims and Cologne, and the Orthodox Cathedral of the Savior in Moscow, but none of these acts broke the will of God’s people. Why? Because God’s faithful people trust that Jesus has the power to raise them up again.
As a pastor, I have learned to expect life’s interruptions, for I know the temples are going to fall. I often joke that I know it’s going to be a bad day when at a wedding I call the groom by the bride’s former boyfriend’s name. It’s going to be a long night. I know it’s going to be a bad day when I am informed that the Sunday School children were using steel wool sponges at their car wash, or when the telephone rings and the couple I married a year ago asks for a warranty. When my wife Janna questions me on a Monday morning, what I have scheduled for the week ahead, I can truthfully answer, “I don’t know yet.” I simply wait for life’s temples to come tumbling down.
The Temples where we gather and worship, you see, aren’t always the house of the Lord. Many times they are merely market places. Yes, far more often the Temples we build are those of our own hopes and dreams. And they do fall. But the good news my friends in this, “Destroy this temple, and in three days, I will raise it up.” That promise has sustained and encouraged every generation that has gone before us. Indeed, it is that confidence that Jesus will raise up the fallen temples that has been our hope and trust throughout this pandemic.
Of course, at the same time, Jesus’ cleansing the Temple left faithful believers wondering, “Where should we expect to meet God now?” Perhaps that is what has made this past year your difficult for you. You too wondered how you would be fed. Church doors around the world may have been shuttered, but people still gathered in spirit to praise God. Worshipers may not have been able to unite in person, but the pandemic could not deter their access to God’s love. The Temple in Jerusalem, as holy as it may have been, could not define or limit the movement of God. The good news that St. John proclaimed that no temple made with hands can truly confine and limit God, unfortunately, has left people searching. One thing I am certain, God did not leave you alone. God has a way of surprising us.
God may have touched you when you were participating in an “on-line” worship service. Last year, I wouldn’t have thought it possible that I could preach to a camera, and that parishioners would find it meaningful. I was afraid that I would be critiqued in the same way my grandchildren spoke of their “on-line classes.” They had learned virtually nothing. But God used that technology to share the gospel and to touch listeners hearts and souls. “Destroy this temple, and in three days, I will raise it up.”
Maybe, you were touched by God in a conversation over the phone with a distant friend. After all, there aren’t any long-distance calls anymore. This year you have found yourself reaching out to friends and relatives whom you previously had little contact. You never thought that phone calls were very personal and instead insisted that important matters had to be discussed face to face. And yet, this year when you couldn’t meet in person, you decided to try something new. And so, through the mystery and wonder of the human voice over the phone, you could sense that God was comforting and consoling you. “Destroy this temple, and in three days, I will raise it up.”
Or perhaps, you saw God’s presence with neighbors over a socially distanced firepit. Jesus promised his disciples that where ever two or three are gathered in his name, there he would be present in their midst. We all had to be creative in this past year in nurturing our faith. For we know that we cannot be called into a personal relationship with God when we remain estranged from the needs of our neighbors. In the meeting of believers, where joys and sorrows are shared on the level of a common faith, there we have every right to expect that God t will make his presence known. “Destroy this temple, and in three days, I will raise it up.”
My friends, Jesus words to you this day, however, may also be a warning. Your temple may nothing more than a well-oiled marketplace, and there are some temples that need to be destroyed. In a previous parish, I would visit a man who would take down an old photo album of his children. His eyes would well up with tears, as he paged through the pictures of their youth. His children lived near to him, but they were too busy with their lives to visit him. They had learned well their lessons and patterns from him. In his old age, he regretted that the walls of the temple where he had once worshiped had not fallen down. It would have allowed him the possibility of overhauling his priorities.
And of course, there may be s a temple that you have discovered that needs to be steadied and rebuilt. There may be walls that have to be reset- your family, your faith, your trust, and your love for God. When life returns to normal, you don’t have to return to your old patterns worship in the old temples. That may be your new work for the year ahead. Jesus is the living temple that no force can destroy. It is there that you will find love and hope, forgiveness and reconciliation and God’s abiding peace. Jesus’ promise is our ultimate hope. “Destroy this temple, and in three days, I will raise it up.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.