04 March 2018

‘Zeal for your house will
consume me’: turning
the tables in the Temple

The Ten Commandments on two central panels of the reredos in Saint Margaret Lothbury Church, London, with the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed on each side (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday, 4 March 2018

The Third Sunday in Lent

9.30 a.m., The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion), Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick.

Readings: Exodus 20: 1-17; Psalm 19; I Corinthians 1: 18-25; John 2: 13-22.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Do you have problems with prayer, with praying?

It can be difficult, and difficult for priests too.

When we are ordained as priests, we are told in the Ordinal that we are to lead God’s people in prayer (Book of Common Prayer, p 565), but we are also charged by the bishop to be diligent in prayer, in the reading of Scripture and in study (p 566).

But being told to do something, and actually doing it, are two very different things.

So, to guide myself in prayer each morning in Lent, I am being guided by three sets of the Stations of the Cross.

I am taking one image each morning in Lent from three sets of 14 sets of stations that I have photographed in Longford, Millstreet and Lichfield, meditating on that image, praying, and trying to travel with Christ through Lent to the Crucifixion on Good Friday and the Resurrection on Easter Day.

There are times when prayer is not easy, and so these images, meditations and prayers at the beginning of each day, hopefully, help to shape each day in Lent that is grounded and rooted in prayer.

But prayer can often difficult for every one of us, and it is easy to be distracted.

Because the Church knew at an early stage that prayer could be difficult for all of us some of the time, and for some of us all the time, early and mediaeval churches were decorated to take account of our distractions, to catch us unaware of our distractions, and to bring us back to the reasons we find ourselves in church.

We can be distracted on a Sunday morning by the presence of other people, by thoughts that bring us back to the problems of the past week, by worries and anxieties about the coming week, by the snow outside, by noises outside the church, even by noises and people inside the church.

When we are distracted in prayer, we stop listening to God. But, frankly, one of the big distractions in prayer can be the feeling that God is not listening to us.

And the same thing can happen when we try to pray at home, in the privacy of our own homes or rooms.

In the past, many churches were decorated with frescoes and icons. Many Reformers objected to this as idolatry, and wanted to remove some, sometimes even all images from churches.

But the inspiration for those early church decorators was to call people back to prayer and the Bible, and to lift up their hearts and minds to God.

The bottom, ground level of the frescoes in a church were of earthly scenes. As our eyes moved up, we moved through the stories of saints, prophets and martyrs, through New Testament scenes, to events in the life of Christ, and finally, in the dome to Christ enthroned in splendour, as the Pantocrator or ruler of all, surrounded by the heavenly host of angels and the four evangelists.

Once, as I was a preparing for a seminar with students, I asked my sons when they were still children to close their eyes, to think of a church they knew, and to say what was the first thing they would see when they walked in.

One said, ‘The backs of people.’ It said a lot about how children can find some churches cold and unwelcoming.

The other said ‘Jesus.’

I thought he was pulling my leg and that he knew the reason for my little exercise.

But, no, he reminded me of how he held my hand as a little child as we walked into a dark church in a small village on a Greek island. And he told me how in the darkness his eyes were drawn up to the light streaming through the small windows in the dome, and he was startled by the image of Christ, lit up by the rays of sunshine and looking down lovingly on the two of us, father and son.

Oh, that everyone who came into our churches could say that the first thing they see is Jesus, rather than the backs of people.

Historically, Anglicans tried to undo the iconoclasm of over-zealous, small-minded reformers by providing a visual focus for us when our minds wander during prayer. This could be in stained glass windows or in a large painting behind or above the altar.

The Ten Commandments on two panels in Saint Carthage’s Cathedral, Lismore, Co Waterford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

One traditional Anglican way of catching the eyes of the distracted was to place a number of boards in the chancel area, two decorated with the Ten Commandments, as we have heard them in our Old Testament reading this morning (Exodus 20: 1-17), and one on each side of these, with the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed.

These boards recognised that we can be bored by sermons and distracted in prayer. But they allowed people to learn the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed, and so to learn to pray and to grow in faith and discipleship.

And they allowed us to bring our focus back to why we were in church and to return to prayer.

Many of these boards survive in the Wren churches throughout London, and I know of at least two in Ireland: Kenure Church in Rush, north Co Dublin, and Saint Carthage’s Cathedral in Lismore, Co Waterford.

The frescoes, icons and Stations of the Cross in other churches serve the same purpose. They are positive distractions when our minds and our eyes are tempted to wander in prayer and in worship.

But there are negative distractions too.

Do not get me wrong, please. I never children a distraction in church. Children should be as comfortable in church on a Sunday morning as they ought to be in their grannies’ on a Sunday afternoon.

But there are negative distractions that take our eyes and our minds away from where they should be on Sunday morning: what’s happening around us; the sounds outside. The first hit for the Saw Doctors was a song with a crude description of how a young man is distracted by the female form at Sunday Mass. But it was ever so.

I cannot imagine that the only conversation that Mary and Joseph had when they brought the Child Jesus to the Temple was holy talk with Simeon and Anna.

In the Temple in Jerusalem, when they came together on high holy days and holidays, such as the Passover scene in this morning’s Gospel reading, of course they stopped and joked and chatted, and consoled and congratulated one another as they caught up on the latest news.

It was building up community, the family of God. In the Church today, our social chit-chat, before and after, is not just mere gossip or a distraction, but builds up the Body of Christ. This is positive distraction.

But in our Gospel reading this morning, Christ is dealing with negative distractions, a whole package, a whole collection of negative distractions.

The Ten Commandments on a Torah Mantle on Torah Scrolls from Adelaide Road Synagogue now in the Dublin Jewish Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Ten Commandments are the summary of our relationships with God and with one another. They summarise the purpose and direction of worship and prayer, and they summarise and express the core values of community relations.

Christ’s action in our Gospel reading is a reaction to how those values have been abused and set aside for personal gain in a place that is supposed to be at the heart of these relationships.

In the outer court of the Temple, he finds a thriving market, where visitors can buy the animals needed for sacrifice and change coins with images of Caesar as a god for coins that are acceptable as Temple tax.

He must have known that Mary and Joseph had to change coins and to buy their turtle doves when they brought him in their arms to the Temple.

Jeremiah had said that impurity would destroy the value of the Temple in God’s eyes, and it would ‘become a den of robbers’ in his sight (Jeremiah 7: 11).

All classes of people, indeed all the nations of the earth, should be able to worship God, the prophets had declared, so that ‘there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord’ (see Zechariah 14: 21; Isaiah 56: 7; Tobit 14: 5-7).

Christ’s action this morning is not a mere outburst of temper, but the energy of righteousness being used to confront people whose business and sharp practice have become distractions from prayer and worship.

It is not those who are praying, or those who are distracted from prayer, that he wants to hear what he has to say, but those who have no time for prayer at all and instead are there to make quick profits out of money changing and large profits out of selling animals that distracts or even deters those who should feel welcome to worship of God, and to meet one another. For the love of God and the love of others is the summary of the law of Moses.

The disciples are reminded, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’ (see Psalm 69: 9).

But this rebuke is heard and interpreted only in material ways. Those around him are so distracted from their prayers that they cannot grasp that the true, lasting Temple is the body of Christ which, as the disciples would see after the Resurrection, would be raised up in three days.

Hopefully, we shall continue to see this as we journey with Christ through Lent this year.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This sermon was prepared for Sunday 4 March 2018, the Third Sunday in Lent.

‘Christ driving the Traders from the Temple,’ by El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos, 1541-1614), ca 1600, The National Gallery, London

Liturgical colour: Violet.

Penitential Kyries:

In the wilderness we find your grace:
you love us with an everlasting love.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

There is none but you to uphold our cause;
our sin cries out and our guilt is great.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed;
Restore us and we shall know your joy.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day:

Merciful Lord,
Grant your people grace to withstand the temptations
of the world, the flesh and the devil
and with pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only God;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Lenten Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

Being justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 5: 1, 2)


Through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who was in every way tempted as we are yet did not sin;
by whose grace we are able to overcome all our temptations:

Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord our God,
you feed us in this life with bread from heaven,
the pledge and foreshadowing of future glory.
Grant that the working of this sacrament within us
may bear fruit in our daily lives;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Christ give you grace to grow in holiness,
to deny yourselves,
and to take up your cross and follow him:

The Ten Commandments on the ‘parochet’ or curtain on the Ark containing the Torah Scrolls in a synagogue in Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


645, Father, hear the prayers we offer.
553, Jesu, lover of my soul
330, God is here! As we his people.

The Cleansing of the Temple, Giotto, the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

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