Third Sunday in Lent

Third Sunday in Lent

John 2:13-22

Jesus Cleanses the Temple
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “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 Jews then said, “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. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

Some people watch the Super Bowl to see the best football teams play each other, but for others it is all about the commercials. The 2021 broadcast was no exception. One commercial a car company hit all the right points for many in the audience, yet left others feeling uneasy.

It begins with a wide shot of a long road and man driving down it. After a few seconds of light music in the background, a voice says, “There’s a chapel in Kansas standing on the exact center of the lower forty-eight. It never closes. All are more than welcome to come meet here in the middle. 

It is no secret that the middle is a hard place to get to lately.” As sweeping shots of Americana imagery glide across the screen of wheat fields, trains, and houses (all with the car companies product in them, of course), the voice continues, “We just have to remember the very soil we stand on is common ground, so we can get there. We can make it to the mountaintop through the desert, and we will cross this divide. Our light has always found its way through the darkness. And there’s hope on the road up ahead.” It is as feel good as a commercial can get, drawing on a sense of collective nostalgia for small town rural America.

This commercial has some beautiful and touching imagery, and the sentiment behind the speaker’s words is worth pondering. However, for the Christian, there is one image worth questioning. A panning shot inside the chapel shows a lectern with candles in the corner of the room, and, on the back wall, a map of the United States painted as the American Flag. Over the map is a black cross. The two symbols are conjoined as the main focus of the worship space.

We tend to think of Jesus as more tame and subdued than the author of John shows in today’s lesson. Jesus’ rampage in the temple complex to drive out sellers and money traders appears in all four Gospels, but we only read it once in the lectionary cycle. Why was Jesus so angry? And what did he do in his anger? In the other Gospel accounts of this story, when it is closer to Jesus’ crucifixion, scholars and myself have seen Jesus having an issue with the proximatey of the money changers to the worship space. Earlier practice located the stalls for the animals and the moneychangers in a more distant location, in the Kidron Valley. But these vendors had been allowed to come into the the temple’s sacred areas. Although this is a good possibility I wonder if there isn’t something deeper John had in mind

First, we must remember that the money changers and animal sellers weren’t technically doing anything wrong in any of the Gospel accounts. They were aiding those who tried to keep the commandments. Roman and other coins that contained images of autocrats, gods or even animals violated the prohibition on creating images of living things. The money changers sold properly observant coins that didn’t violate commandments so people wouldn’t have to buy sacrifices with idolatrous coins.

In the same way, those selling animals were helping people observe commandments. The Ten Commandments of Exodus 34 (not the list that we read this week) demand that no one appear before the Lord empty-handed (20) and that three times a year all men have to make a pilgrimage to the temple to sacrifice (23). It would have been bedlam and chaos if everyone brought their own animals. Hundreds of Levites would have been required to conduct an additional inspection to see that animals were fit for sacrifice. Not to mention that, in an age of economic specialization, not everyone kept their own animals. So pilgrims to the temple relied on the convenience of buying sacrificial animals near where they would make the sacrifices that God had commanded.

But that leaves the question: Why was Jesus so angry? I don’t think Jesus was specifically upset about people doing business to try and help facilitate the God-ordained sacrificial process. True, Jesus overturned tables and told people not to have a market, but Scripture doesn’t indicate that trading in the temple was prohibited. Why did Jesus not want a market? When Jesus formed the cord, he drove out the animals—not the people (John 2:15). 

The thing that Jesus attacked was not the system of keeping commandments, but the notion of cheap grace for habitual sins, including acting with injustice; oppressing the foreigner, the orphan and the widow; shedding innocent blood; and going after other gods (Jeremiah 7:5-6, 9). Driving out animals and overturning coin tables made it impossible to offer the sacrifice that Jesus felt was too easy, too convenient.

If we make Jesus attack mere economic practices here, we let ourselves off too easily. That isn’t the only point. Jesus isn’t riled up simply by people charging money for sheep or making money from exchanging coins. Jesus is furious because we keep on oppressing people, and then we waltz into God’s house like it’s no big deal because we can be easily forgiven for our sins. No! Jesus says you don’t have the opportunity to be right with God before you are right with your neighbor.

By driving the animals out, he cut off people’s ability to make sacrifices to atone for their sins easily and without repentance. By overturning the tables, Jesus was cutting off people’s ability to hide their collaboration with the empire and the idolatry of power by changing their sinful money into “clean” money.

So what does this have to do with us today? Behind every closed church are people who love them dearly. Even some of the people who have moved away from those communities but grew up in those congregations are sad to see them close. “That little church was where I gave my life to Christ,” said someone sadly. “When that church died, part of my Christian faith died as well.”

What is a church? Yes, is bricks and mortar, but a church is also where many go to meet God. This church, though we might not think of it as “Temple,” is our indeed our temple, for what is a temple except a place where we go to meet God?

Very early in John’s Gospel, Jesus strides into the temple and drives out of the temple those who have made a business of religion. As someone who makes a living off religion, this story makes me nervous! I spend most of my day working for the church, attempting to edify this congregation, trying to keep this congregation together, so to speak.

And I believe that my labors for the church are a good way to make a living. I believe that having a building here is a physical, tangible witness to the rest of the community. Sure, it’s possible to have certain vague, spiritual experiences anywhere because God is everywhere. But most of us human beings need a place, need a space dedicated to interaction with God. Thus, we gather on a regular basis in this sacred space because here we feel close to God in ways that we don’t feel anywhere else.

The temple in Jerusalem was just that sort of sacred, holy location for Israel besides being a whole lot more—an economic hub, a symbol of national pride, and a political gathering space. In Jesus’s criticizing and cleansing of the temple, he seems to be implying that somehow all of this business of religion has somehow gotten sidetracked, confused, impure. And as somebody who spends my day working for the practice of religion and helping all of you to do the same, I confess that I can understand how it’s possible even for so noble and institution as the church, even for so beloved and beautiful a setting as this. And even for so spiritual a set of practices as our music, prayers, and praise to become sidetracked, confused, impure.

We wake up, and we are just going through the motions, just repeating the words, and there’s not much Spirit in it. I’ve had this conversation more than I can count:

“I wish I could again say the Lord’s Prayer the way I first said it when I learned by heart when I was six,” I heard a woman say.

“But don’t you say the Lord’s Prayer in the same way as an adult, using the same words that you used when you were a child?” I asked.

She replied, “I meant that I wish I could again feel so deeply that I was talking to God, the same way I felt when I first learned to say the prayer by heart.”

In my earlier years in ministry, when I was telling an older pastor how much I enjoyed my first days of ministry, how invigorated I was by the task of preaching and leading worship, the more experienced pastor said to me, “Son, sad to say but there will come that Sunday when leading God’s people will be just another day at the office. You won’t feel the same enthusiasm for the tasks of ministry that you are feeling now.” Sad to say, life at the temple becomes routine.

Maybe that’s one reason Jesus is so angry in this morning’s scripture. But I think we’re meant to see even more. After all, it’s the Gospel of John, and there is always more to be seen.

John gives us a rare moment of commentary on Jesus’s words. Jesus had said, “Destroy this temple and in three days it will be built back.” Not many years later the temple was indeed destroyed by the Romans after a Jewish liberation movement. But John says Jesus was not talking about that. John says Jesus was talking about the “temple” of his body.

Get it? Now, in Jesus Christ, all of those laborious, expensive temple mechanisms by which people came to the temple—chip in for an offering, and place the offering upon the altar of God, just as scripture tells them to do, and the priest takes their offering and offers it up to God—all that is being ended in Jesus. Now, we have a way to talk to God and a way to be with God that is provided by God—Jesus Christ, the Word, Son of God.

The ways of religion—our buildings, our altars, our priests—are our conventional ways to God. And at their best, they are very helpful ways whereby we are made to feel close to God. These ways of religion, the spiritual practices, can be seen as gifts of God, a sign of God’s determination to connect with us. But now, in Christ, God has given us a much more direct, visible, bodily way whereby we can connect with God and God can connect with us. 

When Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” he is giving us a very different definition of truth. Now the truth about God has become a human being and moved in with us. Jesus has not come to tell us the truth nor point us toward the truth: “I am the truth,” he says. Truth is more than an idea; truth is personal, a Jew from Nazareth who lived briefly, died violently, rose unexpectedly, and returned to resume the conversation. God doesn’t wait for us to discover truth; God comes as the truth who speaks, who calls us to follow. Now the Truth speaks for himself. Jesus is the Temple.

I believe that you know this. You have experienced, right here in this church, sometimes beyond the bounds of this church, Jesus coming to you and being present. Origen, a great father of the church, said that whenever you read a biblical text, and you are moved by that text and are led to say, “Now, I understand,” Origen says it’s a “visit from Jesus.”

We asked God to show up; God does so as the Incarnate Word, God with a name, a face, God speaking. What’s the point of Jesus Christ, God with a body, coming among us? John’s answer: “Fellowship”—camaraderie, communion—“with the Father and with his Son….”

In a few weeks we will follow Jesus to his trial where the governmental and religious authorities will render a verdict against him. They will horribly torture his body. He will be nailed down to a cross. That’s our human verdict, the end of God’s “temple,” this bodily meeting place between us and God.

But just wait three days and we will discover God’s infinite determination to be in fellowship with us. The temple shall be raised.

What incensed some of the 2021 Super Bowl audience with the car commercial was the presence of national symbols in a worship space. Two thousand years ago Jesus used an important holiday to show that not everything is acceptable in the worship space, even if it is useful. In the synoptic versions of this story, Jesus says, “My father’s house shall be called a house of prayer.” Jesus shows that the people working in the temple forgot to make the main thing the main thing.