3/8/2015 Third Sunday in Lent The text for today is John 2:13-22.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Meek and mild mannered; passive, like a sheep is before its shearers; gentle; compassionate; humble…all these words describe our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. All of these words describe the images etched in stained glass and hanging on the walls of churches. Yet, the Jesus we get in today’s gospel cannot be described in those words. Today, we get the other side of Jesus…determined, aggressive, bull-headed, strong, quick-tongued and angry. I’ve never seen a stained glass window showing this side of Jesus, and if we can believe that the gospel writers recorded what was important for us to know about our Lord, then we’d have to believe that this side seldom showed itself.
So, what is it that causes Jesus’ anger? What triggers such a dramatic outburst of emotion? What exhausts his patience to the point that he literally “cracks the whip”? Surprisingly, it is none of the things which illicit righteous indignation and moral outrage in this generation. There is no taking of innocent lives. There is no oppression of rights. There are no roadblocks preventing a person from getting ahead. And yet, what Jesus sees in the courtyard of the temple makes him sick to his stomach and brings him to the point of displaying the wrath of God.
“How dare you turn my Father’s house into a marketplace!” Jesus cries out as he boldly stages an attempt to restore the holiness of the holy space. For this is no Price Choppers or Walmart! It is the temple, a place set aside for the worship of God.
This episode, placed by the fourth evangelist at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry rather than close to the end is traditionally known as the “cleansing of the temple.” Yet, the sellers and money changers in the temple are not truly unclean by the Jewish standards of the time, any more than the common Joe, earning a daily wage, in today’s world. They are just people doing what needs to be done. The birds and animals for sale are set up there to make worship more convenient. So, you didn’t have to bring your own pigeons to offer as a sacrifice; you could buy them on the spot. The money that was used to make such a purchase cannot be Roman coins, bearing the image of Caesar or other deities. Special temple currency is needed. So, there are money changers who turn Roman coins into temple currency – much in the same way banks turn American dollars into European euros for travelers.
With the advent of the Passover, by midmorning, the courtyard is jammed with customers. In every corner merchants are shouting, hawking their wares, selling everything imaginable: cows and sheep and doves, prayer shawls and cushions and beads, religious literature and artwork and crafts.
In such a busy place, Jesus’ entry into the courtyard goes unnoticed. But, nothing escapes his eyes. People are busy going about the business of doing what they feel they need to do to meet the requirements of the Passover without ever taking time for God. They are engaged in trivial pursuits while missing the purpose for the rites and rituals they are about to engage in. For, sacrifices are not to be made in order simply to fulfill a tradition handed down through the generations (like dressing up and coming to church on Easter or partaking in a Christmas pageant), nor are they done simply to do what is dictated by the law of Moses. No, sacrifices are to be made to help the people remember, remember the power and compassion of their God who delivered them from the bonds of slavery into the freedom of the promised land. That means that sacrifices are a form of worship and thanks giving, and the temple prayers, that go hand in hand with the sacrifices, are in praise of God. But, in all the haggling and busy-ness, in the trivial pursuits of the courtyard, the rites and rituals which are meant to keep the people seeped in a meaningful relationship with their God become subverted.
Then, suddenly, without warning, Jesus reaches down and grabs the table of a money changer and lifts it up, scattering the money and records everywhere. He throws the table upside down to the ground. He grabs a whip from one of the cattle dealers and begins driving the cattle and sheep toward the gate. And, in an instance, business as usual comes to a screeching halt.
The merchants and the money changers had made the critical error of coming between God and his children. And Jesus is so angered by their interfering with the worship of the people that he takes a whip and charges after them. It must have been an awesome sight and one which they hope that they will never see again!
But whenever convenience takes precedence over meaningful worship, whenever rites and rituals which are meant to help people stay connected to God are subverted, whenever tradition waters down the purpose for coming together and giving thanks to God for the salvation he has prepared for his children, whenever holy space is marred by trivial pursuits, Jesus gets angry. He gets angry, not because merchants and money changers and people who use their services are unclean, but because the purpose of the holy places are altered and the reason for worship is subverted.
All of this leaves us to question: what is it in this place and in our lives that does the same thing? What is it that changes our holy spaces into cluttered marketplaces? What barriers have we erected in our lives that hinder a meaningful relationship with the God of our salvation?
Often when we hear this passage and experience the anger of Jesus, we limit its impact to those things we do in the church in order to meet expenses. Those fund-raising activities, like yard sales and dinners, Harvest fairs and car washes, which we know, deep down in our hearts, we probably shouldn’t do. But these activities are only bad if they interfere with our worship of God, if the people who involve themselves with these activities think that they can substitute for daily prayer and weekly attendance. Working at a bake sale cannot substitute for the bread and wine of holy communion. Attending a coffee hour or a committee meeting cannot substitute for singing God’s praises.
Even within worship, rites and rituals which no longer serve a purpose for bringing us closer to God are subject to scrutiny. Anything that hinders worship, true worship, not spiritual wallowing, but true worship, is to be driven out. For the God, who did not spare his only Son, but gave him up for us all, is worthy to be praised.
So, cleanse those things which get in the way of your worship of God. Make the time and space to remember what God has done and is doing and will do forever. For, He is the author of life and the Lord of your salvation. May nothing stand in the way of your relationship with Him. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your minds and your hearts in Christ Jesus. Amen.