March 7, 2021 Third Sunday in Lent The text is John 2: 13-22.
13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 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. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 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.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
We read that Jesus consistently does the unexpected, taking actions that are contrary to the accepted practices of the day. His entire ministry seems to be a collection of situations where Jesus turned things upside down, and in the process incurred the wrath of those in power; be they political or religious leaders. He broke Jewish law by healing on the Sabbath, he dined with prostitutes and tax collectors, he vehemently disagreed with the religious scholars of his day, and he told us that the meek, rather than the powerful will inherit the earth.
We certainly don’t see the meek side of Jesus this morning, as we encounter him in the Jerusalem Temple. Here we find not a hypothetical example of Jesus upending a cultural or theological norm, but rather, a quite literal one. Jesus, enraged, strides among the money-changers literally turning their tables upside down. No meekness here, no turning the other cheek, no “love thy neighbor”. Jesus is overcome with rage at what he sees as a desecration of his Father’s house. We know that Jesus was himself a faithful Jew and that his piety was a guiding principle of his ministry. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus states that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.
And, in order for the faithful to keep within the dictates of the Torah, pious Jews were required at Passover to make animal sacrifices at the Temple. In this way they might atone for their sins. Thus, it wouldn’t be unusual to find cattle, sheep, lambs, and doves within the Temple courtyard during the several religious festivals. And these animals for sacrifice needed to be purchased by the pilgrims coming to the temple for atonement. And only coins from the region of Tyre were deemed appropriate for these transactions. The Temple was in Jerusalem, and the faithful made their pilgrimage from throughout the Middle East. They brought with them the currencies from their native lands. As when we travel today, only local money was accepted as payment in the temple. As tourists we exchange our dollars for whatever the local denomination is, be it Euros, Pounds or Pesos. In the same way, the Jewish person attending the temple festival traded their drachma or denarii for shekels. So far so good, right? Animals for the required sacrifice are being purchased and those purchases are being made in the appropriate local currency. So what prompted Jesus to react as violently he did? This is really the only time we read that Jesus seems to lose control. Why now, why this place, why this circumstance? Why was he so overcome with anger? Let’s paraphrase these few verses of John’s Gospel as though it were the script for a movie or play.
Act 1: Scene 1 of: “Jesus cleanses the temple”. Enter Jesus of Nazareth. We observe him striding through the several courtyards of the Temple, arriving at the area where sacrificial animals are being sold. Jesus, for reasons which we don’t yet understand, becomes enraged at what he sees. He takes off his belt, fashions it into a whip complete with knots, and begins to scatter the crowds.
He begins yelling at the top of his lungs, people and animals scurrying to get out of his way. One after the other he overturns the money-changers’ tables, their coins scattering to the floor. As Jesus strides past them we see the money-changers on their hands and knees trying to scoop up their spilled money. He is hollering “Get out all of you, leave my father’s house”. “This is a disgrace; this is the House of God, it’s not a shopping mall, it’s not an ATM.” Exit Jesus. The scene ends.
Jesus wasn’t specifically regaling against the practice of making animal sacrifices to God. It was the corruption of the practice that brought about his anger, especially since this misconduct was occurring within the confines of the holy temple. You see, a dove for sacrifice purchased inside the courtyard of the temple sold for as much as fifteen times what you could buy one for outside in the marketplace. And, the moneychangers charged a fee to exchange foreign coins for the shekels required to pay the temple tax. And this fee was considered by most to be excessive. The occupying Roman officials allowed the marketplace to exist, and they made a tidy tax profit from it. The Temple priests also had the piece of the action, and Jesus was incensed that so many were making a profit from pilgrims who had traveled to Jerusalem to comply with their religious obligations. We can better understand his rage once we realize that Jesus felt that these practices interfered with the desires of people who were attempting to achieve a right relationship with God by obeying his commandments. So, in a very real sense Jesus was prompted to right this wrong, to “clean house”. He saw the need for a thorough housecleaning in God’s Temple.
If you’ve ever seen the movie “Full Metal Jacket”, think back to the opening scene. For the first twenty minutes of the movie, we see the drill instructor berating each recruit in turn, pointing out the smallest flaws in each of them. If you will, form a picture in your mind of that battle-hardened Marine Corps Drill Sergeant. Now imagine him as a short, stocky Irishwoman in a floral dress. Imagine that she is just as tough as the drill sergeant is, except that she’s barking her orders with a thick Irish accent… you now have an image in your mind of my grandmother. Grandma Francis lived in Ireland when I was a kid but she would stay with my family for a few months every few years, usually beginning in the spring.
Now, when she was very young growing up in Ireland, she was what was then called a “charwoman”, something akin to a housekeeping maid. She cleaned other people’s homes to help provide for her family. Believe me, this woman knew how to clean house. Like it or not spring cleaning in our house was a family affair; my grandmother, the drill sergeant supervised my mom, my two sisters, my dad and me. The thing I most remember is that she would, without fail, follow along behind us inspecting our work. And she was rarely happy with the results. My grandmother said we were all “surface cleaners”. She would forever catch us dusting a table without moving a bowl or a vase out of the way first. Or failing to get some little bit of grime in the corner of a window. My grandmother despised “surface cleaners”. She expected, and demanded that we delved deep below the surface to be sure that everything was spotless.
In this season of Lent we are called upon to engage in self-reflection, repentance, and a desire for a deepening of our relationship with God. Lent itself comes from an old English word meaning “Spring”. It’s rather appropriate, since springtime is a season of renewal, when the world emerges from its dark, cold winter into a time of growth and rebirth. And this is especially true this year as the world anticipates an emergence from the fear, worry, and isolation brought about by the pandemic.
We are called to do a thorough “spring cleaning” of our hearts, our minds, and our spirits. We can’t be spiritual “surface cleaners”; we have to dig deep inside ourselves, seeking out every speck we can find of whatever would prevent us from living a full, rewarding grace-filled life. We need to recognize our sinful nature, repent of it and become acutely aware of our need for God’s grace. We need to perform a thorough “Lenten-cleaning” of ourselves, of our souls. We ought to approach this time as a period when we should strive to do all we can to prepare ourselves as worthy recipients of God’s gifts, of God’s promises. But in truth, we know that this inevitably is impossible for us to accomplish. All the cleansing of our hearts and minds that we could possibly attempt could never be enough for us to achieve righteousness with God. Our sinful nature will always draw us away from God. We are not able to earn God’s grace; God knows this and in his mercy he offers the unmerited gift of his grace to us, in spite of our unworthiness.
Jesus’ cleansing of the temple was not a hypothetical symbol of his earthly ministry, it served as the factual, concrete example of his overturning of all that was previously thought to be true. He told his detractors that even if the great Jerusalem Temple were to be torn down stone by stone, he would rebuild it in three days. Jesus himself is the substitute for the Temple, he would be bodily raised three days after the crucifixion. And then God would no longer be relegated to an ark hidden deeply in the confines of a single building. God walks among us in the person of Jesus Christ. Even as Jesus was driving the money-changers from the Temple he was foretelling the purpose of his ministry on earth. The people would no longer have to offer up animal sacrifices to God so that sheep, lambs, or doves might be the substitute for their sin. The son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, was to turn the world upside down yet again. He was to be the sacrificial lamb, the One who would atone for the sins of the world, once and for all. Our Lord and Savior has completed the ultimate cleansing, the final “spring cleaning”, through his death and resurrection.
In a moment we will take the bread and wine of Christ’s Holy Communion. We are told to do this “in remembrance of Him”. As we do so let us remember what it is that we are celebrating. By his death and rising from the cross Jesus has washed us clean; we are made bright, shiny, and new again through him and his sacrifice. We have permission to stand before our God, granted salvation in spite of our brokenness, free to enter into a righteous relationship with the Father. Let us approach Christ’s Holy Table with hearts and minds that acknowledge that we are not capable of performing even the slightest “surface cleaning” of our sinful nature. It is only through Jesus’ taking the sin of the world upon himself that we are made worthy to partake of this gift.
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious and Holy God, we give you thanks for Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. We thank you for the sweeping away of our unkind words, the cleansing of our sinful thoughts, and the tidying up of the mess we make by our actions. We give thanks that we have been washed clean. And as we boldly step into the world help us to be ever mindful that no matter how soiled we become, that through you your Son, we will be made spotless again. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One whose actions remind us that we too, from time to time, need to turn over and scatter those things that come between us and the true expression of our faith. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.