March 4, 2018 – Lent 3B
© 2018 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
Five hundred years ago, when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, he didn’t do it because he thought that church was a bad idea. He did it to question the way in which the church was operating. Sixty-two years ago, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, she wasn’t taking a stand against public transportation but against Jim Crow and the law that required her to give up her seat to a white passenger simply because she was black. Two thousand years ago, when Jesus chased the livestock out of the temple, poured out the coins of the money changers, and turned over their tables, Jesus wasn’t “cleansing the temple” because he thought that Jewish worship was fundamentally flawed. He was trying to cleanse the hearts of those who had forgotten what worship is all about.
This passage from John is fraught with interpretive danger. On the one hand, this dramatic encounter can easily be mistaken for an anti-Judaic or perhaps even an anti-Semitic rant by the Son of God, who, of course, was himself Jewish. Yes, Jesus’ actions were challenging. Yes, they were a prophetic rejection of the status quo. But to use this passage to conclude that Jesus was opposed to Judaism is like saying that Susan B. Anthony was un-American because she dared to think that women should have the right to vote. And that leads us to the other interpretive danger. If we lock this passage into an ancient condemnation of Second Temple Judaism, we miss its prophetic implications for the Christian church today. In other words, if we think that Jesus was only speaking to the Jews of the first century, how will we ever hear what he is saying to us now?
Frequently in John’s gospel account, the setting of a story is important, and it is no accident that John begins this story by telling us that it was the season for Passover. At Passover, all able-bodied Jewish people would make their way to the holy city for the annual remembrance of the people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. This was a time for the nation to recall how their ancestors had been slaves, how God had heard their cry, and how God had set them free from the hands of their oppressors. That was the defining moment in Israel’s history. Everything that happened in the temple was supposed to be a reflection of that—of the relationship between God and God’s people as the ones whom God had rescued. When Jesus walked into the outer courts of the temple, he found exactly what everyone would have expected him to find: the pigeons, sheep, and cattle that they needed for the appointed sacrifices and the half-shekel coins for which they needed to exchange their imperial money with its graven image in order to make their offering. But Jesus was looking for something else, and the sight of business-as-usual filled him with a prophet’s rage.
The temple in Jerusalem was the place where God was said to dwell. Although God could be found anywhere, the temple was the place where God lived and lingered. It was the place where God’s people met their God and where God stooped down to meet them. It was the place where God’s heavenly throne was given an earthly foundation. The temple gave God’s people the opportunity to encounter the Holy One. It was the portal through which God’s reign was manifest on the earth. It was the doorway through which God’s will was realized in their lives. It was the place where they could live as if God’s kingdom were already here on earth because, indeed, within those sacred courts, God’s kingdom was already here on earth. And, when Jesus walked into his Father’s house and saw that everything on the inside was the same as it had always been just like everything on the outside, which was the same as it had always been, he announced that it was time for a change.
If the best that God’s people could do in response to God’s abiding presence was pretend that a system of animals and coins would make everything alright even though Rome ruled the land with an iron fist and bought peace by making deals with Israel’s religious and political leaders, who took the Empire’s money but left the poor to fend for themselves, Jesus had something to say about it. The problem wasn’t the animals or the coins. The problem was thinking that God could be kept in gigantic stone box—that what happened inside the temple could be kept separate from what happened outside. This was the place where God’s people were supposed to live as if God himself were their king—as if he were the Lord of their lives. God was the one who had set God’s people free, but the leaders of this generation were content to remain in bondage because it was politically and economically expedient. Thus, the worship that took place in Jesus’ day wasn’t a reflection of their true identity. It was a hollow exercise that barely resembled anything that truly would honor God.
What does it matter if God is given the pigeons, sheep, and cattle that the law requires if no one among God’s people will stand up for justice outside the temple walls? Who cares if the coins put into the temple treasury are in the correct denomination if there are men and women and children among God’s people who don’t even have enough money to buy bread? Listen to what Jesus says to them: “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” The issue isn’t the nature of worship itself but the act of treating the sacred place where God dwells as casually and inconsequentially as if it were a grocery store. I wonder what Jesus would say about our church.
This is the place where we encounter God. Our worship is supposed to reflect our belief that we are God’s people and that God is our God—the one who creates us, rescues us, and calls us into new and abundant life. That’s why we offer our songs of praise and prayers of thanksgiving. That’s why we place our very best into the flower vases and into the alms basins and onto the altar. That’s why we insist on being at peace with one another before approaching the altar. This is where the kingdom of God comes into focus. What we do in this space is supposed to image God’s reign in the world. We do all of these things because this is the place where we live completely and totally as if God were in charge of our lives. But what difference does it make if everything we do within these walls is perfect yet perfectly meaningless for the lives we live out in the world?
In our worship, we don’t have any pigeons, sheep, or cattle, and for that I am deeply thankful. But we do have a lot of coins and bills and checks. Today, Jesus asks us whether we are using them to make God’s reign a reality only within these walls or out in the world as well. We have fancy silver cups and plates and bowls, and we fill them with wine and water and bread. When we offer those things to God, are we simply going through the motions, or are those things a way for us to make God’s will the rule of our life and the way of the world? If Jesus walked through that door, would he recognize our worship as the means by which God’s kingdom is taking hold in the world around us, or would he make a whip of cords and chase us all out?
God is here in this place. We have come into God’s presence, but for what? So that we might sit and bask in his glory long enough to get our Jesus fix and then leave it all behind for six days and twenty-three hours? Or are we here so that we might be changed into people who care as much about God’s reign in the world around us as we do about turning to page 355 in the Book of Common Prayer? You are here, and so is God, but will this encounter still mean anything when you wake up tomorrow morning?