Then, It Made Sense; John 2:13-22
First United Methodist Church; March 7, 2021
Pastor Toni Carmer
Perhaps because of the setting in which I’ve worked for 30 some years, I have on many occasions, enjoyed taking the opportunity to go and sit in the sanctuary of the churches I’ve served during the week, when no one was around, to simply breath in the peace of that space. I’ll generally sit several rows back from the front, take in a few breaths, focus on the cross, and—depending on what’s happening in my life or in the life of the church and in my own spirit on that day—will simply empty myself of all that, or, engage in a silent conversation with God. Prayer. I’ll then return to my office and whatever needs to be done, carrying those peaceful moments with me.
Perhaps you have done the same kind of thing. I know a few of you enjoy coming early for church when we’re able to do that together, just to sit and breath in the space before worship begins. Perhaps you have also, like me, sat in other sanctuaries as you’ve traveled, as you’ve journeyed in life. You remember breathing in that peace, and allowing it to renew your heart, mind and soul.
Jesus enters the temple in Jerusalem and that space on that day is anything but peaceful and renewing. It is more like auction day, Wednesdays at the Shipshewana Auction Barn: cows mooing, sheep bleating, doves flapping their wings. Coins clinking, people trying to hear themselves above the noise, speaking loudly. Certainly not a place to breathe in peace and connect with God.
This is all happening in the Court of Gentiles; the outer court, the only place in the temple where gentiles are allowed. What if a person were there to make a spiritual connection? What if they’ve come there to ponder God’s presence? The entire temple compound is considered holy, it is the place of God’s habitation. And yet, here are animals, coins, loud voices and chaos. This is a festival time, but in the temple that festival had evolved into a circus!
Jesus responds. He’s angry. He moves into action. He makes a whip out of cords and begins driving the animals out of the temple. As he does this, he tips over tables, sending vendors scrambling as cages of doves and containers of coins fall to the ground. Jesus shouts, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
Maybe it would be helpful to envision our sanctuary (I know you can do it!), the back section filled with sheep and cows and cages of doves, and tables with vendors ready to exchange your US dollars into currency used by the church. (The Israelites were exchanging Roman coins with Caesar’s image on it that could not be used in the temple, for half-shekels that could be used.) You want to give your offering and a half-shekel is required from every male over the age of 20. You also want to purchase an animal to offer as your sacrifice: it makes sense to purchase your animal here, rather than trying to keep it healthy and unblemished on the journey.
If you want to connect with God in this place, it’s going to be a little hard to do with all that activity happening behind you.
It probably wasn’t such an awful idea to have animals and money exchange readily available for pilgrims to begin with. It was most likely offered as a convenience. But at some point, it got out of hand. At some point, it seems that folks lost track of what they were doing: they weren’t there to shop and bank. They were there to worship God.
We are guilty of doing that sometimes: we forget the meaning behind what we’re doing. The classic example I think of, is the woman who always cut off the ends of her roast before putting it into the oven. Someone asked her why she did it and she replied that that was what her mother always did. When she asked her mother why, she was told that mom didn’t have a pan big enough for a family sized roast so she always cut the ends off to fit it into the pan. The pan was now big enough, but the practice continued.
That kind of thing happens in the church, too: we forget why we do what we do. For example, do you know or remember why we light candles before worship when we’re all together, and then carry the light out at the end of the service? Or do we just do it out of habit? (The light represents the light of Christ with us during worship, and then the light is carried with us out into the world at the end of the service).
When we say the Lord’s Prayer, are we hearing and praying the words from the heart, or are we simply voicing words we learned a long time ago, out of habit, without real thought or conviction about what we’re saying?
Maybe you can think of other examples…things you do out of habit, rather than really thinking about why you’re doing it.
Maybe that’s what happened at the temple. It wasn’t meant as a bad thing to begin with, but in time, it grew. It distracted worshipers from what they were there for. And that distraction didn’t sit easy with Jesus.
We might wonder why he gets so angry now, on this occasion. Jesus has been coming to the temple his whole life for these religious festivals. That’s what faithful Jews did, and that’s what his family did. So, from the time he was a boy he’s witnessed this happening at the temple. And now, it’s suddenly become a problem for him?
I don’t know…maybe he didn’t see it before in the way he sees it now. Or maybe in the 20 some years he remembers it’s gotten worse? (I’m guessing memories of the “good ole days” isn’t only a modern phenomenon).
Or, maybe now, as he lives into what he has learned about what it means to be the Messiah, he now recognizes that it’s his task to address the wrongs he sees—the injustices, the oversights, the inconsistencies, the adherence to rules while disregarding human need. If Jesus doesn’t take action, then who will?
I think of the story immediately preceding this one, as Jesus and his mother and his disciples attend a wedding in Cana of Galilee. When the hosts run out of wine, Mary tells Jesus to do something, and instructs the servants to listen to him. Jesus protests, “it’s not yet my time, mother,” and then goes on to perform his first miracle of turning water into wine.
Perhaps he sees now, at the temple, that it is his time. It’s time to take action. Again, if he doesn’t, then who will?
Perhaps reading this text is really troubling to you. This angry Jesus isn’t the one that comes to mind when you envision our Savior: it’s much more comfortable considering the Jesus who treated the Samaritan woman and the leper and the blind man with care and respect. You’re more comfortable thinking of the Jesus who pulled children onto his lap and said, let the little ones come unto me, and who lifted up the offering of a widow as an example to others, rather than diminishing the worth of children and widows as was the custom in that day. An angry Jesus cracking a whip and shouting in the temple is an uncomfortable one. So, maybe it would be best just to let this image go and move onto the next story in John. That would be Nicodemus. Yeah, that’s a good story. It seems to have a good ending and everything.
Last year I preached on this same text during Lent, and at that time we focused on Jesus’ anger and then considered our own expressions of anger. But today, I’d like to follow a little different trajectory: I’d like us to consider how our anger/our frustration might be used in positive ways to bring about change…reform…transformation.
How often do we see a wrong and choose not to rock the boat because we’re afraid—of what others might think of us, perhaps we’re afraid we’ll be labeled a trouble-maker, or that maybe no one will listen to us, that we’ll be standing there all by ourselves. Embarrassing ourselves. Our family. Or maybe letting God down because we’re not strong enough. But perhaps it’s worth considering that sometimes the anger that rises in your chest is a good thing. A God thing. An anger that grows out of our love for God and God’s people and for Christ’s Church. It’s not a license for violence or vandalism or freedom to be rude or unkind—there’s too much of that in the world today. But it’s the willingness to feel righteous anger at the injustices and inconsistencies that we see and to prayerfully ask God how we might helpfully respond.
I can’t help but think about the late Senator John Lewis from Alabama, who talked about getting into Good Trouble. He talked about necessary trouble that would redeem the soul of America. When we talk about good trouble in the church, it’s the kind of trouble that happened when Jesus flipped the tables and chased out the animals. Its trouble that brings about needed change/reform.
It’s important, I think, to consider the placement of this story in the Gospel of John. The same story is written in each of the Gospels which leads us to acknowledge its authenticity—we might not like the idea of Jesus being angry, but it’s pretty convincing that he actually did throw over tables and run the animals out of the temple. The detail of the whip made of cords is only mentioned in John. Matthew, Mark and Luke each have Jesus saying that the temple should be a house of prayer, but it’s been turned into a “den of thieves” or a “hideout for crooks” depending on your translation. John, we’ve read today, says the temple has been made into a marketplace.
In the other Gospels, the cleansing of the temple comes later, preceding Jesus’ crucifixion while in John, here it is in Chapter 2…right after the first miracle. What we can interpret from this is that John has less concern about chronology then he does theology—he is letting us know right up front, that Jesus came to turn tables upside down, to make changes, to bring about reform…transformation. John wants us to know right up front who Jesus is and what he’s about to do. He’s going to be bringing some good trouble.
Last week we focused on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ: we considered what it means to give ourselves up, to pick up our cross and follow him.
This week our task is to consider what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ. What do we need to do to transform, reform, or restore to be who we’ve been called to be as his church.
I think a really good question to consider this morning—one I asked those who were a part of the Bible Study this past Wednesday is this: What tables would Jesus turn over today in his church?
I think it’s probably easier for us to think first about the church in general—what Jesus might be pleased with, and what he might not be pleased with in the Christian church as a whole…and then from there, turn our attention to our individual church. What tables might Jesus turn over in our church, right here in Plymouth, Indiana to help us be on track, to renew and reform us to be the church we’re called to be? What good trouble would Jesus cause here?
In a very real way, we’ve been asked to consider the answer to that question over the past 2 years. First, with the loss of the use of our sanctuary, and then with the onset of Covid. Over this time, we’ve had to re-define church. We’ve had to move out of our sanctuary and into this fellowship hall. And then, a year ago, we had to move out of fellowship hall and into our homes. We’ve had to re-define church, and in this time, it seems to me we’ve learned many things.
Most importantly, we’ve come to know that God’s presence is not known/contained in a building but is found in Christ’s Body, the Church, which is so much more than a building. It is instead, God’s people…
In a bit, we’ll be sharing Christ’s Body in the sacrament of Holy Communion. We’ll be reminded that though the temple fell, though our sanctuary is not yet usable, the Body of Christ lives. It was raised up after 3 days. And that makes all the difference.
I think of the disciples who witnessed that event in the temple; who experienced Jesus’ zeal. They heard Jesus say he had done this, telling the Jewish leaders, “Destroy this temple, and in three says I will raise it up.” No one understood, of course. Until later. I appreciate the commentary John offers us as he writes his gospel. He says that after he died and was resurrected, his disciples remembered what Jesus had said. They believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
Then, it made sense.
I wonder how we’ll understand all this one day, as we look back.