FIRST IMPRESSIONS – Third Sunday in Lent, Year B

March 7, 2021

Revised Common Lectionary
Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

Lectionary for Mass (RC)
Exodus 20:1-3 (4-6) 7-8 (9-11) 12-17
Psalm 19:8, 9, 10, 11 (John 6:68c)
1 Corinthians 1:22-25
John 2:13-25

American humorist Will Rogers once remarked, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, we hear about the very startling—yet clearly deliberate—first impression that Jesus made on the religious authorities in Jerusalem. After his baptism by John, Jesus had gathered a few disciples, attended a wedding—during which he rescued the hosts from running out of wine—then made his way to Jerusalem for Passover. His first stop on arrival in the Holy City was the Temple. Catching sight of the commerce being conducted there and filled with anger, he formed a whip out of cords, proceeded to drive out the merchants and their goods, then overturned the tables of the money changers.

Enter “the Jews,” by which the Gospel writer means “those other Jews,” the religious authorities who had charge of the Temple. Jesus—also a Jew—has gotten the attention of the very officials who make and enforce the rules about what goes on in the Temple precincts. The actions of Jesus are more than a reaction to the commercial activity taking place; they are a stinging rebuke of the religious authorities themselves.

Jesus has made his first impression, and now they are demanding an explanation: “What sign can you show us for doing this?” (Jn 2:18)

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” he replies. As with many other conversations recounted in the Gospel of John, the words of Jesus are met with confusion. In this case, the Temple officials think that he is referring to a building when in fact he is speaking about his body. This encounter, Jesus’ first impression, is the beginning of what will become an increasingly contentious relationship. Ultimately that conflict will lead to the very sign that he was speaking about: his death and resurrection.

Even if the leaders had gotten the gist of Jesus’ reply, the message of the cross is hardly the kind of sign that humans are naturally drawn to. As Paul teaches in today’s Epistle reading, “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:22-24).

Lent isn’t just for individuals but is a call to the entire community. The setting of today’s Gospel story in the Temple reminds us that the church is a temple “built of living stones” (1 Peter 2:5), a house that is “built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (Eph 2:22). The passage we hear this Sunday presents two ongoing challenges for our communities as we continue our Lenten journey.

First, how is the church viewed by those who come among us? Do our gatherings, our events, our places of worship give evidence that we are focused on the mission and life to which we have been called? Do we need the kind of purification that Jesus brought to the Temple in Jerusalem? (Spoiler: The answer is yes.)

Since the church is constantly in need of reform and renewal, the second challenge flows from the first. How can the life of our communities more effectively and more authentically proclaim the wisdom of God that is viewed as foolishness when judged by human standards of power, wealth, fame, position, or success? How different really is the church from other human institutions? How clearly do we give witness to Christ’s self-sacrificing love through lives poured out in service of others?

What kind of first impression are we giving in our life together? Is it business as usual or is it “zeal for God’s house” (Jn 2:17)?

A Hymn for Today: “You Strode within the Temple, Lord”

Lutheran pastor, theologian, and hymn writer Herman G. Stuempfle, Jr., is noted for his large collection of hymns based on readings from the Sunday Lectionary. A professor of preaching, he viewed hymns as another way of preaching the Gospel. This text, based on today’s passage from the Gospel of John, is a fine example of a hymn that preaches even as it offers praise and prayer.

You strode within the Temple, Lord,
Where merchants vied for gain,
And cried, “Your wares corrupt God’s house,
This place of prayer profane!”
With corded whip and fiery wrath
You put God’s foes to flight.
They could not bear the searching beam
Of your unshielded light.

The temple of your body, Lord,
They crushed when you were slain;
But after three days’ sleep in death,
God raised it up again.
And now you have a dwelling place
On earth, in all its lands.
Your people are your temple, Lord,
A house not made with hands.

Make ev’ry heart your temple, Lord,
Each life a holy place.
Forgive the sins that flaw your plan,
Your patient work deface.
In love that does not shrink from truth
These temples purify.
And then in mercy, Lord, remain;
Your Spirit’s gifts supply.

Come, visit, Lord of righteousness,
The Church that bears your name.
Drive out our fear and unbelief,
The pride that is our shame.
Renew the life we share, O Christ,
In love and prayer and praise.
Then send us forth, our strength restored,
To serve you all our days.

Text: Herman G. Stuempfle, Jr., 1923-2007, © 2000, GIA Publications, Inc. Used by permission under OneLicense #A-729857.

Image Credit: Explusion of the Money-changers from the Temple, detail, Giotto, 1266?-133ul
“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.