Sermon for Sunday, March 7, 2021 || Lent 3B || John 2:13-22
Today marks the one year anniversary of closing the building of St. Mark’s due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Two days before the Third Sunday in Lent last year, the vestry met in an emergency capacity and made the heart-wrenching decision to close the church building for two weeks. At the time, the two-week closure was designed to help public health officials get a handle on where the virus was so they could begin tracking it. But two weeks became four, then a season, and now we mark a year. I went back and found the letter I sent to the parish about closing. It is clear in the letter that I had no conception that our building closure would last as long as it has. I could only comprehend two weeks at a time. I nursed a hope that we would be together by Easter. In March 2020 I would never have been able to conceive that we would still be apart the following Easter. But our building closure will last at least that long and most likely longer.
Our building closure. I am very conscious of using this wording when I talk about the last year. The church building has been closed. But the church has been alive and active in new ways. I know parsing this distinction is cold comfort for many – myself included much of the time. Of course, we want to be together in person, seeing one another, shaking hands, singing together, sharing the holy meal together. We have lost much in the pandemic beyond the staggering death toll, and so we have much to grieve. When I speak about what we have gained, I am not trying to sweep our pain under the rug. Right now, we are being invited to hold at the same time both what we have lost and what we have gained. The gains do not blot out the losses, and the losses do not erase the gains. We lament, yes. And we look for life-giving opportunities in the midst of struggle.
As we search for such life-giving opportunities, I’d like to offer a specific lens to look through. This perspective actively looks for the presence of Christ beyond the church building. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus makes the distinction between a static building and a living body. After driving the moneychangers and animal sellers from the temple, Jesus confronts some stunned onlookers. They ask, “‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’” The onlookers then say, “‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body.”
The temple of his body. This is such an important concept in the Gospel, so let’s take a few minutes to unpack it. We have to start way back with Abraham and Sarah in the book of Genesis. Abraham and Sarah made a revolutionary discovery when they left their city of origin and went into the desert looking for a new place to live. The discovery they made was that God was simply everywhere. This was revolutionary because the culture they came from claimed that each place had a local god that looked after it. Each river and hill and city had a god that did not venture beyond its own jurisdiction. These demi-gods were place bound. But when Abraham and Sarah ventured beyond their city they realized that the God they worshiped back home was also present in these new, strange places they visited. They set up altars at several places as reminders that they encountered God where they least expected to find God.
This discovery was the beginning of what is called Abrahamic religion – a belief in One God who is ever present, pervading creation and sustaining creation with that presence.
Many generations later, Moses led the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt, and once again they found their God in the wilderness. God provided them manna and quail and drinking water. God made prophets among the people and spoke through Moses, giving the Ten Commandments, which we remembered this morning. And yet, even with all this, it was really hard for the people to remember that God was present with them. They made the golden calf during one particularly rough patch. After that, Moses commissioned an ark to be constructed to hold the tablets of the commandments. An entire tribe of the people was tasked with looking after these relics, and a whole ritualistic ecosystem built up around them. Whenever the people stopped, they pitched a pretty elaborate tent in which to house the ark. The tent became the physical sign of God’s presence among the people. The tent was not God (not like the golden calf was trying to be); the tent pointed to God.
Fast forward many more generations, and the people of Israel have taken up residence in what they called the Promised Land. The peoples they conquered in order to live there held onto worship of local gods and gods made of stone and metal. Such gods were attractive to many of the Israelites because they were easy to see and understand. It didn’t seem to matter that the stone gods had no power whatsoever. Time and time again, portions of the people of Israel fell away from God to worship the local gods. The God of Israel had no statue, no face, no place. And the people began to see this as a deficiency rather than as the truth of Abraham and Sarah’s discovery.
By the time of King David, the king had a beautiful palace, and the ark still resided in the tent. The people had been stationary for so long at that point that the tent seemed an affront to God’s glory rather than (again) a symbol of God’s omnipresence. King Solomon built the first temple, a building that was designed to impress upon people the glory of Israel’s God. All of this seemed very natural to do, and the people who accomplished such a triumph of architecture were doing what they believed to be faithful to their God. The first temple was destroyed and a second one was built after the return from exile. This second temple was the one from which Jesus drove the moneychangers.
And that brings us back to Jesus and the “temple of his body.” In the prologue to John’s Gospel, we read the beautiful poetry: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” But this is a drab translation. More precisely it reads: “The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” The Gospel of John imagines Jesus as that tent that held the ark of the covenant, the one the Israelites traveled with, which reminded them they were always in the presence of God. When Jesus later says, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life,” he is echoing this concept of kinetic belief – a faith in God that is always in motion, always seeking God’s presence along the paths that life takes us. So when Jesus compares himself to the physical structure of the temple, he is pushing his audience to move the locus of their belief beyond the building and into a living, breathing, moving body.
The opportunity we have had during this year of pandemic has been to become more aware of God’s presence beyond the church building, that place where we most often practice noticing God’s presence. The word practice is important. Our worship in the church is exercise, weight training. But you don’t play the game in the weight room. We seek the presence of Christ and we embody the presence of Christ out in the community. That’s the field. That’s where we rediscover what Abraham and Sarah originally noticed – that God was present wherever they happened to be.
As we contemplate more Sundays of this lovely building remaining mostly empty, I encourage you to pray your way back into Abraham’s eyes, Sarah’s eyes, the eyes of those walking alongside the ark in the wilderness. See in our current circumstances an opportunity to practice seeing the presence of God beyond the walls of the church. As Godly Play says, “All of God is in every place.” That means all of God is here in this sanctuary. And all of God is right where you are, right where you are going, and already present among everyone you will meet.
You are in the presence of God. And the presence of God is within you.
Banner image: The desert bag from Godly Play.