Text: John 2:13-22 (RSV)
Jesus Cleanses the Temple
13 The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers at their business. 15 And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16 And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for thy house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign have you to 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, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he spoke of the temple of his body. 22 When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
So much for our concept of “gentle Jesus meek and mild”!
We think of this as a story of moral outrage – Jesus, fed up with the practice of buying and selling and money changing going on at the Temple, takes up a whip and forcibly throws all of these people out, turns over the tables of coins, and drives out the animals. He causes quite a stir.
And we all believe we know why he does this – he wants to purify the Temple and restore its holiness.
Well, as H. L. Mencken once wrote, “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”
I also assumed that this passage was about Jesus getting his dander up at the way the Temple had become a marketplace – but as it turns out, that was one of those “neat, plausible, and wrong” explanations Mencken wrote about. Restoring the holiness of the Temple might be a nice by-product, but it’s not Jesus’ main motivation.
In fact, the reason those animals and moneychangers are there in the Temple in the first place is so people can buy them for sacrifices in their worship. They had to come from somewhere! And the reason why the moneychangers are there is because people had to exchange their Roman money for Jewish money in order to buy the animals. Roman coins, with the image of Caesar as a god, were considered blasphemous and could not be brought in the Temple. So the Temple actually had to be a marketplace where people could do these things. These merchants, believe it or not, were actually serving a necessary religious function!
There’s more here than meets the eye; certainly more than “just” Jesus’ righteous indignation at the commerce being conducted in the Temple. The Gospel record gives us some clues as to what that something is.
First, we note that every one of the Gospels has an account of this incident. So we know that was an extremely important historical event.
Second, unlike the other Gospel writers, who place this event at the end of Jesus’ ministry and make it the last straw, you might say, that brought about Jesus’ arrest, conviction, and Crucifixion, John puts it at the start. He also doesn’t quote Isaiah (56:7) and Jeremiah (7:11) as he does in the other gospels (Mark 11:17, Matthew 21:13, Luke 19:46) by way of accusing his opponents of turning the Lord’s house of prayer into a den of robbers, which suggests that the source of his anger was what he saw as the defrauding of the poor, the corruption of the Temple leaders, and collusion with Romans. However, in John’s account, Jesus instead says, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace,” which called into question practice of changing coins in order to obey sacrificial law, which, as we have already seen, quite necessary for Temple worship.
John tells a different story; he puts the encounter in the Temple at the beginning because it tells us something crucial about who Jesus is: As we read in John 1:16, Jesus is the embodiment of “grace upon grace.” In other words, there is no longer any need for sacrifice. Jesus, in himself as the Incarnate Word of God, embodies grace which is fully, wholly, entirely, and completely sufficient. With Jesus on the scene, there is no need for changing money, for purchasing animals, for making sacrifice…at all or ever again.
By indulging in this act of civil and religious disobedience, Jesus is doing nothing less that calling for the complete dismantling of the entire system of Temple worship!
In putting this act at the beginning of his Gospel, John tells his audience: “See? Right from the very beginning, this Jesus was and is something entirely new under the sun.” John tells us that Jesus did what he did to make a break from the past and usher in a new era, an entirely new way of relating to God: God is not to be found only, or even primarily, in the Temple. God is everywhere. In the very first chapter of his Gospel, in verse 17, John makes a very clear distinction between what went before and what happened with Jesus: “For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
There was also an historical reason for this. John probably wrote his Gospel after 70 A.D., which is the year the Romans destroyed the Temple. For people to whom Temple worship had been the only way to worship God, this was utterly devastating (which is exactly why the Romans did what they did). John reassures his audience that they don’t need a Temple to find God’s mercy in Christ; the God of the Universe can’t be locked away in a building. Later on in his Gospel, in Chapter 4, Verse 24, John makes that point this way: “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (NIV).
The actions of the Jesus in this Gospel lesson say, “The Temple of stone might be gone, but the Temple that counts, the Temple of my body, yet remains.” By turning over the tables of the moneychangers and driving out the vendors selling animals, Jesus puts an end to this way of relating to God. A new way is dawning: God invites us through Jesus to experience him by our faith, wherever we may be.
What does that mean for us today?
Like the people of Jesus’ day, who thought that God lived within the confines of the Temple, many people today think of the church as the place where we go to find God. It’s the place we go to get something – spiritual benefits, fellowship, whatever. And that’s certainly true; the church is the only place I can think of where we can gather together to encounter God as a community. Great things happen here.
But the work of our church does not begin and end within these walls. In fact, the most important work of the church happens outside of these walls. As the bulletin board downstairs so aptly puts it, “The church is not a building. The church is its people.” We are the church, wherever we are. Just as I am your Pastor wherever I am, whether I’m writing the Sunday sermon in our church office or in my home office, or visiting people in their homes, or at the hospital, or at the grocery store, so too you are St. John’s Church wherever you find yourselves. When Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them,” he did not specify a location! Any location is as good as another; and every place is a place touched by God. God is never far from us!
I find this very heartening and encouraging. Even though we, God’s children, have an incredible talent for straying from the path God would like us to travel, even when we are lost, God is still right there. We just fail to look for him.
In the remaining days of Lent, let’s not fail to look. Let’s take the opportunity to look God’s presence in different places than those where we usually look. Let’s take the opportunity to step outside of the box, so to speak, and encounter God in and through the people we meet!
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. AMEN.