A sermon based on Psalm 19 and John 2:13-22 preached on March 8th, 2015
If ever we had a notion that Jesus was always a nice, smiley, guy—the first ever hippy, always peaceable and calm—then this story of Jesus cleansing the Temple should dispel that real quick.
There are people who read this passage and doubt that Jesus could have used the whip in his hands to hit others with—not only the animals but also people, chasing them all out of the temple.
We have a hard time thinking of Jesus losing his cool like this. We prefer a careful, kind, and considerate Jesus. The truth is, though, that there’s no reason to believe Jesus used his whip on only the cattle and the sheep.
We don’t like our Jesus wild and out of control like this. We like our Jesus domesticated. Even-keel. In easy to swallow tablet form. So, it’s right to start of by admitting that this story startles us. It’s an unsettling portrayal of a Messiah who we’re most of the time very comfortable with.
It’s right for this story to leave us with a queasy feeling. Just as Jesus upsets the tables of the moneychangers and chases both the animals and the people out of the Temple, so should this story upset our sensibilities and chase out our assumptions about Jesus. Maybe we’ve become too comfortable with Jesus. Maybe he’s a whole lot more than we have ever imagined before. We’re right to let this version of Jesus upend every one of our notions.
Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola refer to this story as Jesus’ Temple tantrum. And what a big Temple tantrum it is!
I mentioned a few weeks ago that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all place this story at the very end of their Gospels—right in the middle of Jesus’ last week on earth—just days before he was arrested, tried, and crucified. And odds are Matthew, Mark, and Luke are right. Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple most likely happened later on in his ministry, not at the beginning where John places it here. In fact, upsetting the Temple like this was certainly enough to get him hung on a cross. This is the probably the stunt that did Jesus in.
But John places this story up front, all the way up here in chapter 2, as a foreshadowing of things to come. Here, even this early in John’s gospel, Jesus refers to his upcoming crucifixion and resurrection.
But, that’s not the only difference between John’s version of this story and all the rest of them. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the reason Jesus gives for his anger is that the moneychangers were taking advantage of the poor peasants who were coming to the Temple, just trying to do what the Law required, just trying to be faithful people.
There’s no mention of that here in John’s version, though. The reason Jesus gives for his Temple tantrum in John’s gospel is that the Temple has become a place for business. But there’s a problem with that reason. The Temple needed to be a place for business. How else would it function? You can’t find pigeons or goats for sacrifice just anywhere. And moneychangers were needed because good Jewish folks came from all over with who knows how many different forms of currency. They needed to be exchanged for Temple tokens. That’s what they used to buy the birds and animals with. And John says nothing about price gouging here.
So, when Jesus raises his voice and shouts that his Father’s house has become a marketplace, what he’s getting at is that everything about the Temple—absolutely every aspect of it—is distraction. It’s not real worship, it’s all just hastle. Buying and sacrificing of animals. The haggling with the vendors. Pushing through the crowds. What’s worshipful about any of that? What good is all that it for? What Jesus is saying is that this whole place isn’t at all necessary.
So when Jesus turns over the tables of the moneychangers, demands the ending of all the buying and selling, and chases everyone and everything out with a whip, he’s really announcing the end of this way of relating to God. The Temple, Jesus says, needs to go.
We domesticate this story by making church guidelines that state that no one can use this building to sell things for a profit. No flea markets, or bazaars, or private sales inside the church building. Those policies aren’t bad, but if that’s all we’re getting from this story, then we’re not going far enough with it. It has much, much more to say to us.
The Jewish leaders that day confront Jesus and ask him,
By what authority are you doing all these things? What miraculous sign will you show us?
Destroy this Temple and in three days, I’ll raise it back up again.
The Temple needs to go. From now on Jesus himself will be the Temple—the human Temple. One not made of earthly things like stone, brick, marble and mortar, but one made of heavenly things.
Jesus is the new Temple we travel to. It is in Him that we will meet God. It is He who will offer sacrifice for us. It is He who we journey towards.
Jesus is our pilgrimage. No need for anything else. Jesus represents God for us. Just He, and He alone. Everything else is too small to contain God. Even the vastness of the Jerusalem Temple—all 38 acres of it—is too small for God.
There’s a lot of Lent left. We’re about halfway through, and there is a light up ahead—off in the distance.
Easter morning is that light at the end of Lent. That morning, we will be invited to peer into the tomb of Jesus to find out for ourselves that it is indeed empty. There’s no one in there. Not anymore there isn’t!
There are spaces too small for God. And on Easter morning we will come proclaiming that God doesn’t stay in containers. Not even a tomb can hold onto God!
Temples and tombs, Temples and tombs. Both are too small for Jesus!
But for now, here on this third Sunday in Lent, we come as pilgrims to this church. But this building is not our destination. It’s not where we stop; it’s only where we pause for a moment.
Think of Kuhn Memorial Presbyterian Church and every other church out there more like training facilities—they’re vocational counseling centers for the Christian disciple, charging stations—use your own metaphor, because you get what I mean. We don’t come to church on Sunday mornings because our faith resides here. This building is way too small for that.
To do something I never thought I’d ever do and use a NASCAR analogy in a sermon, this building is our like our pit stop. We take on fuel and a couple new tires, and then we have what we need to race the next couple laps.
We aren’t asked to stay here. Our vocation as a people of God in Jesus Christ is out there, the field we play on and the game we train for—they’re outside these walls.
This place is not the Mecca to our pilgrimage. It’s just a stop along the way. Church is important, but it isn’t a God-box. We shouldn’t think of church as a place we go to for some experience with God. Church is more like the place we’re sent from, where we are engaged and equipped with what we need, and ready to partner with God in our daily lives—the place where we fine-tune our eyes, our ears, and our hearts so that we can see God at work out there. It is in this church that we build missionaries for out there.
And this is where we need to return again to the queasiness that this story brings to our stomachs and our hearts, because not only does Jesus’ anger flip upside-down our notions of him as a peacenik.
With his Temple tantrum, Jesus is also giving his church a stern challenge here, saying to us all that neither ultimate truth nor ultimate meaning reside in any of our institutions or organizations—not even in our churches. We should allow this story not only to speak to us, but also to let it speak against us. If we ever confuse church membership with Christian discipleship, then we’re not listening to this Jesus—the One who raises a ruckus inside of a church building. If we ever get confused and think that being a member of a church or attending worship on Sunday mornings are ends in themselves, then we aren’t hearing this Jesus.
Jesus’ romp through the Temple should make us swallow hard and ask ourselves honest questions: Just like the ancient Israelites who bought pigeons and goats to sacrifice year in and year out at Passover, don’t we too find ourselves, at least occasionally, simply going through the motions?
Don’t we sometimes confuse our status as church members with our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ? And don’t we Christians often confuse our effort to uphold the institution of the Church as our vocation, when Jesus wants our hearts and minds set on much bigger things?
See, their animal sacrifice, our status as church members, and this institution we call church—it’s not that they’re wrong, but they’re really just containers, and God doesn’t stay inside of containers.
Friends, our God is alive and out there. And that’s where our calling as Christians resides—out there. The race is run out there.
This building and our Sunday morning worship in it—it’s just a watering hole we pause at along the way for a little bit of a breather and some refreshment.
Temples and tombs, temples and tombs. Temples don’t hold a thing, and neither do tombs. They’re both way too small for God.
An unsettling word for us church people? Yes, I think it is. And thanks be to God for it!
Jesus doesn’t call us to be church people. Jesus calls us to be Jesus people.
This table-overturning God doesn’t want us to get too comfortable anywhere, because when we get too comfortable, that’s a sure sign that we’ve stopped paying attention to Jesus.
If what happened on that first Easter morning is any indication, our God doesn’t stay in one place for too long at all!
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!