Exodus 20:1-17 & John 2:13-22

It is passover and Jesus has gone up to Jerusalem to the Temple. And when he gets there he is confronted by stalls and pens and cages full of lambs and pigeons and calves to be sold to the pilgrims to sacrifice. There are also money changers because you’re not allowed to take Roman money into the temple so it has to be changed into local currency… for a small commission, obviously.

And Jesus is clears them all out.

But why? People are required to present a sacrifice at the temple. What’s the problem?

Often this passage is explained as being about two things… the first is confrontation. Jesus is somehow setting himself up in opposition to the Temple authorities. We usually read this passage in Holy Week. The other three Gospels place this story there, so it becomes one of the things that just keeps piling on the pressure. But this is at the start of John’s Gospel.

The second is that Jesus is upset at what the temple has been turned into. A profit is being made from the people’s obligation to present a sacrifice.

Those two understandings are absolutely legitimate, and I agree with both, but I think there’s something even deeper going on here.

I think this is a story about identity, both Jesus’ identity and the people of Israel’s identity.

This happens at Passover.

Passover is the celebration of the liberation of the slaves from Egypt. It’s the day when a group of slaves changed their identity. They were set free. But we know that like many who have been imprisoned or enslaved, the idea of freedom can take a while to get used to. Not having structure, not having someone else tell you where to go and what to do, can be overwhelming, even if your previous circumstances have been pretty awful.

Having to work out a new identity is hard when it’s just you. Imagine what it’s like when a whole nation has to try to come to terms with their new reality.

We’re going to go all the way back to an important moment in that journey because without it none of the rest of this will make much sense…

This is what it says in Exodus 20.

God spoke, and these were his words:  “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, where you were slaves.

“Worship no god but me.

“Do not make for yourselves images of anything in heaven or on earth or in the water under the earth.  Do not bow down to any idol or worship it, because I am the Lord your God and I tolerate no rivals. I bring punishment on those who hate me and on their descendants down to the third and fourth generation.  But I show my love to thousands of generations of those who love me and obey my laws.

“Do not use my name for evil purposes, for I, the Lord your God, will punish anyone who misuses my name.

“Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy.  You have six days in which to do your work, but the seventh day is a day of rest dedicated to me. On that day no one is to work—neither you, your children, your slaves, your animals, nor the foreigners who live in your country.

In six days I, the Lord, made the earth, the sky, the seas, and everything in them, but on the seventh day I rested. That is why I, the Lord, blessed the Sabbath and made it holy.

“Respect your father and your mother, so that you may live a long time in the land that I am giving you.

“Do not commit murder.
“Do not commit adultery.
“Do not steal.
“Do not accuse anyone falsely.
“Do not desire another man’s house; do not desire his wife, his slaves, his cattle, his donkeys, or anything else that he owns.”

We know these as the 10 commandments. They are the rules God gave to Moses on the mountain. But I want you to hear them in a different way today. Not just as a list of things that we aren’t supposed to do, but as a statement about the identity of the people they were first given to.

It starts with an introduction. Hi. I’m God. I’m the one who freed you from slavery. I did that. Nobody else, so you don’t need any other gods. I’m the real deal. But this is about more than me. This is about you and who you are.

In the beginning I created humans. I made them in my image. You don’t need to make statues or icons or anything else to give you a clue what I look like. Just look at each other. Or look in the mirror. You are my likeness.

Imagine hearing that. Who me? I’m just a slave who doesn’t have a master any more. How can I be the creation of the God who made all things?

And God says, you’re not a slave any more. I’m nothing like your Egyptian masters. In fact, the only thing I’m going to command you to do is to have a day off!!!

Also, I want you to celebrate your heritage. Honour your ancestors. There is nothing there to be ashamed of, despite what you have been told. I made a promise to your ancestor Abraham and you are part of that promise.

All that should be enough. You don’t need to be jealous of anyone, angry with anyone or need anything. You are mine and I love you.

Can you imagine being told that?

Can you, even for a moment, wrap your head around what it must have been like for those escapees to be talked to by God like this?

Who us?

Yes. You.

Fast forward one and a half thousand years to Jesus, standing in the Temple in the capital city of the land promised to Moses and those slaves, at a festival celebrating that moment when they were set free telling them that they have forgotten who they are… and they have absolutely no idea who he is.

The Temple is important. It’s a symbol of identity. A place where God is worshiped at the very heart of the nation. So, what the problem? People, including Jesus, travelled for miles to worship in the Temple. Jesus calls it ‘my Father’s house’ so he doesn’t have a problem with the Temple as an idea. His problem is with who the people have become.

Let’s take the sacrifices as an example.

A sacrifice is something that is costly to you. It’s not a tip. It’s not a minor inconvenience. It’s something that is significant. So, there’s a big difference between when you are the one growing or breeding and feeding and looking after a lamb that you then take with you to the Temple as a costly offering than when you turn up and buy one from the shop. Sure, it costs you money, and you have worked hard for that, but it’s not yours. The cost is different.

The whole point of sacrifice is that it is a sign of gratitude. It’s a response to that statement by God that you are his and that all you have has been provided for you by him… because he loves you.

Sacrifice has become an obligation, not a response.
It’s become a business, not an act of devotion.
It’s become an imposition rather than a celebration of freedom.

Remember that amazing statement made to those newly freed slaves? You don’t need to make idols or images because I created you in my likeness. The people have forgotten that. They have gone back to thinking of God as distant, far off, locked in a room in the Temple where they need to go once in a while and make an offering so that God will not be angry with them.

How do you help people to see that God isn’t to be contained? Well, standing among them is a pretty good start, don’t you think?

Tear down this temple.
This body…
I am the temple.
And so are you!

The Temple isn’t about God being in one place and you coming to Him, although there’s nothing wrong with coming to worship God. But the lesson of the wandering in the wilderness was that God was with them wherever they went. They relearned the lesson in the years of exile in Babylon, but they have forgotten again.

This confrontation between Jesus and the Temple leaders is another one of those moments when everything the people believed about themselves and about God is turned on its head.

Tear down this temple…

This temple. This body. This place where God is.

God is there… standing among them, standing right in front of them, not locked in a room where no-one can go.

And when they ask for a sign Jesus tells them that God will show them what he always wanted for them. God will show them that sacrifice is something God is willing to embrace on the cross, but that sacrifice is not the end.

If it all ends at the cross then the whole thing has just been about God keeping us company in our misery. Which is nice. Helpful even. But that’s not all there is…

There’s more… so much more. Tear down this temple and in three days I will rebuild it.

Resurrection. The defeat of death. The end of fear. The sign that this life is not all there is.

And then there is ascension. After the resurrection, when Jesus ascends to heaven, only then is the sign complete. God’s plan is for us all to be united with Him, because we are his and he loves us.

This is who we are.
This is our identity!
And we should never forget it!

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