Posted by: owizblog | March 8, 2015

Cleansing the Temple: Sermon, UCB 8 March 2015

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


There are some questions you can only ask from a certain perspective. Here’s one. How do you get an elephant to Speke?

Elephant sings

The answer is: through the Mersey Tunnel…

elephant to speke

It’s a question you can only ask from the perspective of somebody on the Wirral. It doesn’t actually make sense in Liverpool. Or Rothesay, actually, because you just need to take your elephant down the M8, the M74, the M6 and the M58….

That’s one thought our joke emphasizes this morning. Perspective. Where you ask the question from. The second thought, which is where I’d like to start, is to do with tunnels themselves. I don’t remember my first few trips through the Mersey Tunnel, because I would have been a baby, but I do remember the first one I remember, if you see what I mean. I remember knowing for a few days that it was coming up, because my godfather, from Port Bannatyne, was staying with us, and we were going to Liverpool as a big treat, and we were going to have lunch at the Greasy Grill, which was Uncle David’s mischievous name for the really rather swish Reece’s Grill, and I would probably come away from the day with a really nice toy…

I like tunnels. Even the Clyde Tunnel. But there’s that problematic wee sign that stands at the entrance to it.


Here it is:

30 limit (1)


Our Old Testament reading this morning was the Ten Commandments. It’s a big favourite with some people. “If we all lived by the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, the world would be a better place!” “If we all lived by the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, we would be living the way God tells us to live!”

That, of course, completely misses the point that Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, takes us right up to the point at which our ability to live out of the Law starts to break down. When we are doing it in order to earn God’s favour rather than trust God’s love and grace. When we deny those bits of us that are actually desperate to do the very things we are told we are forbidden to. When we deny the things that are there in us, anger, envy, lust, so that we can claim to be fulfilling the Law. We don’t.


“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, `You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, `You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.

DOwn into Clyde Tunnel

I don’t know about you, but I drive into the Clyde Tunnel and down the steep angle to the bottom, and see that 30 sign, and think:

“Who can keep this law? Who can stick to 30? Even cruise control won’t hold the car at 30!”

And sometimes, I apply the footbrake, and drop to 28, and the white van behind me starts catching up rapidly, and flashing his lights, and I think things about him that a Minister shouldn’t think about his fellow human beings, and sometimes I mutter them out loud.

And then I remember:

“Everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, `You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.”

How do you keep to the 30-limit in the Clyde Tunnel,when every vehicle around you is drifting up to 36, 37 miles an hour? And when you know your speed will drop like a stone when you start climbing up, the other side of the river?

But the law is the law. dura lex, sed lex. The law is hard, but it’s the law. And keeping it is difficult. And that’s just the traffic law of the United Kingdom, not the Ten Commandments.


But look again at the Ten Commandments.


You don’t have to have done Hebrew to find yourself thinking “That’s not an awful lot of writing to cover everything that Stewart Shaw just read to us from the Bible…”

And you’d be right! We usually remember the Ten Commandments as crisp, neat formulations: Thou Shalt Not Kill, Thou Shalt Not Steal, Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery, Honour Thy Father And Thy Mother, Thou Shalt Not Take The Name Of The Lord Thy God In Vain…

And that’s clearly how Cecil B. DeMille wanted to portray them on the really quite concise tablets Charlton Heston is holding here.

But there’s a lot more in the text of Exodus 20 than that. When Stewart was reading, earlier, how did you hear this? With a squirm, like me?

But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave…

How about this?

You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour…

I’m not comfortable with references to slavery as an acceptable social institution, and I’m sure you aren’t, either. Our natural impulse is to say “But that’s a text from the best part of three millennia away!”

The trouble is that only a century and a half ago, a great civil war was just coming to an end which was fought over the question of the place of slavery in a modern society, and there were plenty of people who were prepared to justify slavery out of the Bible, and out of passages just like this.

It’s only a hundred and fifty years ago next month that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.


And it’s only fifty years ago yesterday, on a Sunday in 1965, that the first Selma march, in Alabama saw six hundred unarmed marchers attacked by law enforcement officers with billy clubs and tear gas at the Edmund Pettus Bridge as they left Selma; Amelia Boynton, later Amelia Boynton Robinson, the Civil Rights leader who had taken the lead in organizing the march, was beaten unconscious, and a famous photo of her lying supported by a marcher went round the world.

Amelia Boynton at Selma

These people were protesting against the law of their community and society. And when we speak of the law, we usually mean the law as it exists in our particular society and community. We abhor the very idea of slavery. We know that racial discrimination is a blasphemy against heaven, and the God who took the human nature that unites us all, black, white, male, female, and abolished those distinctions as grounds of any discrimination. The letter to the Ephesians tells us that.

But we still feel uneasy in recognizing that chapter 20 of the Book of Exodus contains elements that we have grown beyond, and grown beyond partly because between then and now, God in Christ has taken flesh, and everything is different.

So what can we possibly mean when we speak of the authority of the Ten Commandments for us today?

Beyond the laws, which we make, and change, there is the Law. The Judaeo-Christian tradition speaks of the Law as God’s demand on us as his people, to live a shared life in a certain way, to live towards others in a certain way. Thou SHALT not kill. Thou SHALT not steal. HONOUR thy father and mother – and, by the way, others like them, as they age, and develop new needs, and need to be given their place in new ways, which is something we might wonder if our society really does properly. Thou SHALT not covet – which means “seek to strip away from others, so that you can become wealthy at their expense, and they, in their impoverishment become powerless and worthless before you.” I wonder how many global banking leaders would snigger at that one, if they knew what it meant…

When we respect only the letter of the law, we are, as Paul tells the Galatians, in danger of murdering its spirit. We turn it into regulations and rules, the keeping of which is our salvation, and the sum total of our belief about God. The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life. The Spirit, that draws out the meaning of God’s intentions for the world, and makes us listen. If we seek our justification in the letter of the law, we can find endless ways to ignore its actual demand for justice, which is God’s radical demand on us.

The people who marched from Selma to Montgomery, fifty years ago yesterday and fifty years ago tomorrow, were protesting that the laws of their society were an affront to God. They were doing exactly what Jesus is doing in our Gospel reading this morning, which is the story of the cleansing of the Temple, which we will hear after our next hymn, itself a plea for the Spirit to come and cleanse us.

[Hymn 115 Come down, o Love Divine]

[Reading: John 2]


It’s odd, isn’t it, how in the story of Jesus’ ministry as Mark tells it – and his account is copied by Matthew and Luke – the Cleansing of the Temple comes right at the end, either on the day Jesus enters Jerusalem, Palm Sunday, or on the following morning, while in John, there, it comes practically at the beginning, just after Jesus’ first miracle, turning the water into wine at the wedding in Cana.

The three synoptic Gospels seem to agree that, although the opposition to Jesus had been growing and deepening for a long time, this was the turning point. Jesus directly attacks the central institution of his faith, and the religious authorities, the conservative Sadducees and the populist Pharisees, are suddenly united against him.

John actually suggests the same thing – but for John, who places the cleansing right at the beginning of the ministry, the opposition to Jesus had been there, full-strength, from the start. In John, Jesus makes plain from the outset the challenge that he poses, and is.

Cleansing of Temple

He takes a whip of cords, and he drives the moneychangers out of the Temple, along with their animals, and turns the tables on them literally as well as figuratively. He turns everything upside down.

What the moneychangers are doing, where they are doing it, is perfectly legal. There’s nothing against it, and that marvellous phrase “use and wont” – which translates into guid Scots as “it’s aye been” – is all for it. Here they are, in God’s house, perfectly legally helping people who come to the Temple keep a particular interpretation of God’s law, fulfil their obligations of sacrifice and purity, changing money for them and selling the livestock of sacrifice.

And Jesus throws them out. Why? Because Jesus doesn’t just represent, Jesus embodies God’s radical demand. All of this is beside the point. Things are not as God wants them to be. Things are not as God will have them be. God’s demand, which Israel once heard and understood in terms of the Law, which it studied and elaborated, has been muffled and distorted by the accretions of “it’s aye been…” and “Everybody does it this way…”

And Jesus challenegs that head-on: “You’re actually using your complacent, cozy, “it’s aye been” understanding of the law, to silence the demand God makes on you.

We know that from the history of the last century how dangerous an attitude is: “Keep your head down and obey the law. Go along with it. If you aren’t doing something you shouldn’t, why would you be afraid of the law?”

no nazi salute

Here’s an incredible photograph. It’s circulating on the internet at the moment. Your first reaction, when you see it, will be distaste and despair, as was mine.

But can you see what the person in the circle, at the top right, is doing? Or, rather, not doing? It’s clearer here:

no nazi salute 2

In that forest of Nazi salutes, one arm stays resolutely down. I can’t imagine the moral, and physical, courage that must have taken. To stand where you must stand, to do what must be done, not only against the conviction of everyone else, and their hostility, but against the whole weight of the small-l law, and everybody’s conviction that by obeying it, they were obeying God’s Law, God’s will.


We opened this sermon by saying that there are some things you can only see from a certain perspective. Jesus calls us to stand in a particular place and see how things look from there. But it isn’t a detached, comfortable place. It’s a dangerous place, because we see the world in such a way that we have to challenge it. The view from Selma, on the 7th of March 1965, or the view from that Sieg-Heiling crowd in thirties Germany, these are such places.


But here’s a thing: this is James Reeb, a white American Unitarian Minister, whose faith brought him to Selma that weekend fifty years ago, and he, with a group of other white Ministers there to support the marchers, was attacked by a racist gang outside a restaurant, and badly beaten. He died four days later.

But he was there because he believed he had to stand where Jesus was, and in that spring of 1965, that, he believed, was Selma.

If we think that our safety and salvation lies in keeping the rules, in ticking off the Commandments, and in pretending that we wouldn’t want to break them if we thought God wasn’t looking, our coats are on shougily nails, we who can’t even keep to thirty going through the Clyde Tunnel.

But if our faith is trust in the God who brings his people through all things, and obedience to his radical demand for justice, the demand which brings Jesus to the Temple, and shortly thereafter to the cross, we will understand a bit better the verses we were looking at last week:

“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”

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