“‘Destroy this Temple,’ replied Jesus, ‘and I’ll raise it up in three days.’
‘It’s taken forty-six years to build this Temple,’ responded the Judaeans, ‘and are you going to raise it up in three days?’
But Jesus was speaking about the ‘temple’ of his body.” - John 2:19-21
The biggest annoyance factor for this (mostly) stay-at-home mommy is not the occasional “give lip” sessions from her five-year-old. It’s not the daily excavation digs my two-year-old makes in every room of the house, which regularly lend a post-apocalyptic feel of unmitigated chaos to our living surroundings.
The real bane of my existence is this- that two kids and a husband generate a “s#%t load” of laundry.
The other day this expression took on literal significance. I opened the dryer, in what would be yet another Sisyphean task of extracting and folding clothes, to discover a very unflattering smell. No lavender scented, Walmart-brand laundry detergent here. No, the smell was more akin to what I would procure if I were to stick my face in my daughter’s dirty diaper dispenser.
It was a bit of a Sherlock Holmes moment. The mystery of the poop-smelling sheets and clothes was one this mommy had to solve, and quickly. As a mother and world traveler, I’ve set foot in many a hygienically dubious setting, but this was beyond even my limit.
And sure enough, I got to the bottom of the mystery pretty fast. Aha! There in the dryer, looking like a very large, dried-out, wrinkled pebble, was a generous-sized nugget of fecal matter, “poop,” in other words. By this point it looked so perfectly rounded that it could pass as a paper weight- or at least some precocious kid’s science experiment regarding what happens when poop spins around at high temperatures.
Sherlock Holmes’ next question? You guessed it. “How, my dear Watson, did this specimen of fecal matter make it into our dirty clothes hamper in the first place?”
In this case the principle of Ockham’s Razor proved its merit. The simplest explanation was indeed the right one. My five-year-old had had an accident in his pants and thrown both undies and their foul-smelling deposit into the dirty clothes hamper, unbeknownst to his mother…
In Jesus’ time you might say the temple was the arena for doing spiritual laundry: it was supposed to be that clean, set-aside, fresh-scented place where God had come to rest and dwell among His people and to renew in them clean hearts and right spirits. People healed from leprosy and other ailments that had separated them from Israelite society would go there to show themselves to the priest and be officially declared cleansed. Only those with the “cleanest” hands, (in Israel’s time, these were to be the priests themselves), could enter the temple’s most “holy of holies” to offer sacrifices to God. The temple, as a kind of sanitation site for sick, broken bodies and a laundering place for impure souls and spirits, was intended to be a physical reminder of a God who is not only with us in the messiness of life, but like a dutiful mother, takes all our dirty laundry.
But on the day Jesus visits he finds instead a boatload of dirty laundry that His people are pretending they can do all by themselves. The place is stinking to high heaven with all of the ways that God’s people have used the temple for their own devices, making holy ground look a bit like the Mall of America. You might say they’ve gone and left a very large, foul-smelling deposit right in the middle of the temple.
And I would venture to say that not a lot has really changed since then. You’d think we religious types might have learned our lesson by now, but of course, we really haven’t. We’re slow learners.
Instead, we make our churches into altars for celebrity pastor worship. We do our best to brand ourselves as “cool,” or to market our “programs” for the widest segment of consumerist believers. We reduce the challenge and costliness of God’s love in Jesus Christ to little more than a hip label or enjoyable Sunday worship experience. We make our dysfunctionality and, in turn, the depth of God’s love- in the light of which even our best works look like “dirty rags,” to quote the Psalmist- we make these things a big secret, by glossing over the hard, messy, cross-shaped reality of a life with God. Instead, in the quintessentially American, capitalist way, “church” has to be “big;” church has to be “successful;” church has to be about pleasing the consumer and making our own selves look good, relevant or worthy.
Funny thing is that this Jesus who intrigues many of us, this Jesus whom some of us try and fail to follow every day…this Jesus chose just twelve committed followers, none of them especially noteworthy for anything in particular. Then this Jesus told these twelve to keep his whole identity as Messiah secret. The disciples’ dysfunctionality? That, on the other hand, was as plain as day.
But back to the scene at the temple. Because much like God came walking through the garden looking for Adam and Eve after they had sinned and gone into hiding, God in Jesus took a stroll through the local church (the one with the biggest parking lot and prettiest building at least), again looking for His people to see where they had gone. And what He discovered this time is that His people had managed to get worlds away from Him without having even left the building. They were at the spiritual “laundromat,” so to speak, and they may even have been kidding themselves that they were actually doing the laundry, but no matter. Because it was all coming out stinky.
Ask yourself this: how many times have you hoped to find and be part of healing and restoration in a community of believers and the world, but have come out feeling like you’ve been trading in smelly, dried-out paper weights? Yuck, and no thank you.
This reality angered Jesus. I bet he even said some cuss words (albeit in Aramaic). (I bet these were probably edited out later.)
But in that moment Jesus also got it. He got that the s$%t load of laundry required something more than a new detergent. Or, the “perfect” church. Or, a better set of directions for pleasing God. Or a self-help manual for how to sound like we Christians have figured life out.
Jesus got that what His people most needed was not a building and rituals but God Himself. In the flesh. In intimate relationship. And Jesus had shown up like a dutiful mother who does the gathering, sorting, purifying and cleansing for her children right before their eyes, all the while calling, dressing and sending them out in a fresh set of clean-smelling clothes.
This God, who was with and for His people, is also a God who is with and for us. No more self-promoting, self-help answers. No more religious pretenses that we can “fix” our messes. No more big secrets about our dysfunction, as if by becoming Christians we stopped being human beings with struggles like every other human being God ever placed on this great, green earth.
Jesus in essence said “No more of that bull s$%t,” and, “Leave the dirty work to me.” And, He said this knowing full well that the job He had signed up for would get him killed.
Thank you, Jesus, for doing the job, anyway.