Terri and I purchased our first home back in the Chicago suburbs in 1998 (20 years ago). With our pending move to Naples, we will have bought, lived in, and sold seven homes, but we are done moving. With each move we had to do the difficult work of “spring cleaning.” It was not always easy to let go of the things that often weighed down the moving truck or required us to pack more boxes. It was critical though that we toss out a few things, in order to make room for the new things, experiences, and treasures God had in store for us.
Have you ever noticed that when we became a little too complacent as a follower of Jesus that we accumulate spiritual junk? Maybe we kind of get into a soul funk, because we no longer take time to listen for God in silence, or we fail to pray, or we just muddle through our discipleship like it is a secondary to job, family, of recreation. Maybe that is a sign that it is time to do some self-examination and allow God to enter into the hidden, broken, frightening places of our lives, and let God do a little spiritual “spring cleaning?”
Jesus’ “Spring Cleaning” in the Temple
The scene in today’s gospel reading is the well-known story of Jesus’ “Clearing the Temple” of Jerusalem. The temple was the place where the people of Israel believed God dwelt and where their communal identity was centered. Over time the temple changed from a place of prayer and worship, to become a mere marketplace of monetary exchange and social interaction. “Part of the festival worship (of the temple) involved the sacrifice of an unblemished animal, (and) the availability of animals for people travelling from a distance was important. (Likewise) one could only pay the annual “temple tax” in Tyrian coinage, so money-changers provided an essential service.” (1) So, the central icon of a people built as a place of prayer and worship, became a location of social and economic activities, for which it was never intended.
Jesus was appalled at the scene of animals being sold, and moneychangers doing their work in God’s Temple. Jesus said, with whip in hand, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Many of us have heard this story, and we are dismayed that Jesus, the meek and mild obedient Savior, would actually display public anger and frustration. This story has been used as an excuse for what some call “righteous anger,” but it has been used as an excuse for unimaginable human violence. Some have said, even Jesus got mad and beat the people and animals in the temple. Many scholars assert, and I agree, there was something more than mere Godly anger happening, when Jesus cleared out the Temple.
Violence in the Temple or Something Else?
I believe that the “Clearing of the Temple” was an act of love. “But Eric,” you may say, “He beat the people and the animals.” I disagree because that is not what scripture says. Additionally, I grew up on my Dad’s farm, and I know first hand that the only way to get cattle out of the barn, in order to clean it and make it a better shelter is to firmly prod the cattle with a stick and coax them out. My dad and I often moved stubborn Angus cows and bulls out of the barn, so by cleaning it up, their lives were better.
John’s gospel “narrative does not depict Jesus beating the animals; but instead he (actually) saves their lives from sacrificial slaughter in a monetary and religious system.” (2) Jesus’ “spring cleaning” in the temple was not an act of Godly violence or godly anger, it was an act of love, which required the firm hand of grace, in order to save the lives of the animals and in a spiritual sense, the lives of the people who were defiling the temple.
Jesus is always saving our lives by clearing out the spiritual junk in our souls, the temple of God that is, if we allow it. Jesus will upend the worldly idols, self-focused altars, and un-reconciled relationship tables of our lives, which blind us from the way of grace. In a strange way, we are like the precious animals that were readied for slaughter, and by grace Jesus’ firmly “saves our lives.”
We are the Body of Christ.
I know you heard that the church is the Body of Christ. Theologian Joel Wohlgemut says, “(the Temple of God is) the community, which draws its identity from the death and resurrection of Jesus.”(1) He says that the church today is like “the (early) community (that) . . . sees itself as the dwelling-place of God in the present context.” (1) The church is the Temple of God, the dwelling place of Christ, in us. At our baptism, we were marked with chrism oil, and “sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever,” but baptism is much more than a water bath and a rite of passage.
At baptism, and at occasions throughout the liturgical year appropriate for baptism, we make specific promises to God and each other. We promise “to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ,” “to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself,” and “o strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” Lent is a season for us to take pause, to reflect, and to take stock of how are we doing with those baptismal promises and in a way, that practice is a part of our spiritual spring cleaning.
Spring Cleaning for Mission
When Terri and I sold the home we lived in while in seminary, we spent weeks getting ready to move to our first parish in Englewood, Florida. We owned a huge storage building that was filled with boxes of “stuff” that we had carried with us from Chicago to Birmingham, AL, to Florida and back to Tennessee. In boxes long forgotten, hidden in darkness from the light of the sun, we found things we had not seen in years. There were items covered with muck and dust that no longer represented the value they had in the past. There were cards, letters, trinkets, and memories that we needed to toss out and never see again. As a result of this process of cleaning out the old stuff, our moving truck was lighter, our burdens were less, and we traveled to our new home with much less stuff, junk, and clutter.
Each one of us needs to allow Christ to clear out the temple of our lives, the old storage buildings of our souls, the place where we hide things we would rather not have light shine upon. We need to allow Christ to enter into those dark places, and sweep out those bad memories, regretful actions, and broken relationships, which need to be examined and sorted out. We need to constantly evaluate how we treat others, (yes, even in the church) and on the golf course, or in our homes, or in our workplaces. All of that must come under the light of the Christ that dwells in us. As the Temple of the Living and Resurrected Christ, Lent is a time to clean out the caverns of our souls, so grace may become visible and discernable again.
As we move through remaining weeks of Lent, I encourage us all to pray, meditate, read scripture, and practice a daily evaluation of asking this question, “how am I living up to the promises I made at baptism?” If you take on a discipline of daily examination, God will make a way to clear out the spiritual junk. When we come to God with an open, repentant, contrite heart, new life will emerge in our souls. Be advised though, this spiritual “spring cleaning” may be hard to bear, because it will include some overturned tables of worldly idols, and it may include a whip of God’s prodding and coaxing of some unruly animals of sin and broken relationships.
Ready your heart these next few weeks of Lent. Intentionally invite Our Lord to clear out the boxes of hurts and pains, to remove the containers of broken relationships, and to toss out the baskets of forgotten things done and left undone. It is a good time to clear out the junk that weighs us down and holds us back, from accepting the truth that we are joyful, abundantly grace-filled, forgiven, redeemed, and reconciled disciples, God assures us that we are already so named because of his grace, mercy, and love.
(1) Wohlgemut, Joel R. “Where Does God Dwell? A Commentary on John 2:13-22.” Direction, vol. 22, no. 2, Sept. 1993, pp. 87-93.
(2) Alexis-Baker, Andy. “Violence, Nonviolence and the Temple Incident in John 2:13-15.” Biblical Interpretation, vol. 20, no. 1-2, 2012, pp. 73-96.