Third Sunday in Lent

The Rev. Christine Gilson, Priest-in-Charge

The Gospel of John lends itself to stories, and I’m going to tell you one. See me as a young girl – oh around 14.

I want to tell you something that happened a few years ago. I’ve told it again and again so others would come to believe and know what being a follower of Jesus means.

How could I forget that day? It was near Passover – the holiest time of the year for us Jews. In the spring thousands of pilgrims would come to Jerusalem to the temple to worship God and give thanks. We remembered how God gave Moses the ten commandments so they could remember that God was their savior and their only God, and not worship anyone but him. Their story was our story, and we remembered it and lived it out every year.

We also knew that God lived in the holiest part of the temple – Gentiles could come into the outer court – and they did – to pray. Only Jews were allowed through the temple doors; but only priests were allowed in the sanctuary, because they were closest to God.

My family lived in the country just outside the city, and my father raised sheep to be sold for sacrifices. The sheep and the oxen and the doves (for people who couldn’t afford the other animals) were sold in the courtyard, not the temple itself. People couldn’t bring their own animals because the animals had to be perfectly clean and tidy. The sheep had to be absolutely spotless – no dirt on their hooves, of course, no manure anywhere, and their wool had to be perfect – no thorns or bugs or briers or any speck of dirt – otherwise, they wouldn’t be acceptable to God. People coming to Jerusalem from far away could no way bring their own animals for sacrifice – they’d get dirty on the way and there’d be no way to clean them up. So it was just easier and safer to buy them on the way into the temple. I had a lamb (I’d secretly given him a name, even though I wasn’t supposed to) – he was so sweet, and I dreaded the time when he would be sold for a sacrifice. I couldn’t bear even to think of his dying.

And then there were the money-changers. Some people thought they were greedy – but my best friend’s father was one, and he was really nice. They had to exchange money because the money the Roman government made us use had pictures on it – of Roman emperors who called themselves gods; and our commandments told us we were not to make images of anything alive – so we had to pay the tax for the temple in our own coins – ones without any pictures carved on them.

Well – on this particular day – when people were coming into Jerusalem from everywhere and they and the animals and birds in cages were in the courtyard, suddenly, there was a kind of hush. People were looking over at the gate, and in walked a man that even we children had heard about. His name was Jesus. We’d heard about some of the things he’d done and wondered what he was going to do this time. We found out quickly. First he went over and got some clean rushes of bedding straw for the animals that he braided together into a kind of whip. Then he began to hit the animals with them so they went out of the courtyard and then he told the people with the doves to take their cages away. And he turned over the tables of the money-changers so all the coins were messed up with each other – the Jewish and Roman coins all over the ground – even my friend’s father’s table. And Jesus shouted, “Take those things away – stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” I remembered two other things that I thought about later. We’d heard that a dove had lit on Jesus’ head –a sign of the Holy Spirit, we came to realize. And – John the Baptist had twice called him “the Lamb of God.” Later, I wondered – is keeping those doves in cages, and tying up our sheep and lambs like trying to keep God under control? A free dove had lit on Jesus, and here they were caged up. And the lambs shouldn’t be tied up either. Jesus the lamb was free.

Well – my friend was crying, and I was scared too, so I picked up my lamb and my friend and I hid in a corner so we could see what was going to happen next.

We were close enough to hear one of his disciples say, “Remember that Psalm – in the verse where it says, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’”? I got a shiver then, a cold chill up my spine – I wondered, does this mean this Jesus is going to die like our other prophets?

Then we heard the religious leaders ask him, “What kind of sign can you show us? What is your authority for doing this? How come?” And Jesus said the strangest thing. Instead of answering them directly, he said (and it sounded rude and holy at the same time), “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Now – I knew he meant something different. But they were so literal, and so angry. They said, “Huh! You? This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?”

John who wrote the Jesus story we use said, “He was speaking of the temple of his body.” Well, I thought that even before John wrote it down – I thought, maybe he’s taking about his body. Is he telling us that he is where God lives? That instead of a temple of stones and wood, God lives in him? I even thought, but never would have said it then – “Could Jesus be God?” Could this man with fire in his kind eyes actually be God come down to earth?

And then, I thought – wait! The commandments say we shouldn’t have “other gods” before Yahweh. If we do that, we have idols. So I thought that if God dwells in this man doing and saying the strangest things, then maybe in some equally strange way, he is God. But we’d also heard how John the Baptist called him twice, “the Lamb of God.” And I looked at my own little lamb who might one day be sacrificed, and I thought well – is Jesus going to be sacrificed like my lamb? And if he is, but if he is God, how could He possibly die?

Of course, he did die. He was sacrificed, like a lamb, but then he rose from the dead – after three days – just like John said. People, even me, saw him afterwards, and so many of us remembered all of this – over and over, like we remembered the Passover.

(When it was all over and he was leaving, he saw me and my friend and my lamb in the corner, and he stopped for just a moment and looked at us and smiled. It was like he could tell everything about us. Then, three years later, after he rose from the dead, and I was older, I was in a crowd with some people and he saw me again. He recognized me, and smiled at me like I was someone very special. I will never forget that look!)

After that memorable Passover my father and my friend’s father had a long talk. They decided that what Jesus said was right – that selling animals and trading money had really become more important than worshipping and loving God; and they agreed that, whatever else Jesus was, he was certainly a prophet like so many of our prophets; and that God certainly lived in him. They kind of secretly followed what Jesus was doing for the next three years, and often talked about what they called “signs.” After he rose from the dead, they really became his followers with most of our families as part of that sect called “the Way” – or Christians. Even though it was hard, we came to know that to really be a follower of Jesus means we believe God really dwells in him, that he really is the Messiah, the one to save us and give us real life.

And we discovered, little by little, that God really lives in Jesus – then, now, and always. And – this is really important. He lives in the groups of people who belong to him – the Church. Not in the church buildings, not locked in the temple walls but in us. In people gathered – even when they are apart.