St. John's, Centreville
March 4, 2018
3 Lent B
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Jesus is angry.....really angry. This is the only story we have in the gospels where Jesus shows this kind of anger. And that can make us uneasy because it is so different from our image of the gentle shepherd, of the shepherd seeking out the lost sheep, of the feeding of the 5000, of his care and concern for the people he healed. We would rather overlook the fact that God in Jesus has the full range of human emotions, including anger. And it makes us uneasy. Why? Because then Jesus might get angry with us.
So let's take a closer look at this story and see what is really going on. Jesus is going to the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, along with thousands of other faithful Jews, from all over the countryside, to worship and to recall the events of the exodus and the Jews deliverance from slavery. Now the temple had a courtyard where the Gentiles could pray, as only the Jews could go into the temple itself. In this courtyard is where the moneychangers and those selling sacrificial animals set up their tables.
It probably started out as a way to help those who had come a long way. Everyone had to pay the temple tax, but it could only be paid with temple currency and people coming from other locations had different kinds of money. Some had pagan gods on their coins and that would not be accepted as payment for the temple tax. So money changers provided a needed service. But then, over time, their fees for this service increased, allowing them to line their pockets and make a big profit off the backs of the poor.
Animal sacrifices were required for those who had committed various sins and the animals had to be without blemish. Those who traveled quite a distance could not get to Jerusalem without animals getting blemishes. And the inspectors of the animals might only approve those animals that were purchased at the temple. A little collusion, perhaps?
So what may have started out as a way to help the travelers coming to the temple turned into business ventures out to make a profit. When Jesus arrives at the temple, this sacred place to worship God, he is mortified at what he sees. It's like an open air market with cattle and sheep and turtledoves; with people yelling and coins clanging - certainly not a worshipful atmosphere.
Did all this have to be done in the temple courtyard? Was it necessary to rob the Gentiles of the one area of the temple where they were allowed to enter and pray? How could worship take place in such a noisy and chaotic atmosphere? The ways of the world were invading the church, perhaps subtly and unintentionally, as a service to the temple and its people.
What Jesus saw when he walked into the temple that day was outrageous. He took a few moments to twist some cords into a whip and he drove the money changers and the animals and their owners out of the temple. Imagine that scene - tables turning over, coins flying everywhere, people running, animals squealing, and Jesus yelling, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!"
Was Jesus crazy? People had always sold things at the temple. Who does Jesus think he is to upset things this way? People don't like it when the status quo changes.
Jesus refers to the temple as his Father's house. When the Jews ask Jesus what sign he can show them to prove who he is and by what authority he is chasing them out of the temple, Jesus says that he can raise up the temple in three days. The Jews are appalled. It took 46 years to build the temple and Jesus says he can do it in three days? But the Jews misunderstand. They think he is referring to the temple literally, to the bricks and mortar. But Jesus is referring instead to the temple of his body that will be raised from the dead after three days.
It is easy for us to sit in our pews some 2000 years later and say to ourselves that we would never put obstacles in the way of allowing people to worship God; of demanding that people offer a sacrifice for their sins or pay a temple tax; or make the place of worship so noisy and chaotic that worship cannot take place.
No matter how unintentional it may be, we need to look at what we might be doing to put obstacles in the way of those who want to worship God. Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers. What tables would Jesus overturn today? What do we put in the way of enabling people to worship God, to strengthen their relationship with God? Is it segregation, or making groups of people feel they are not welcome, such as the homeless or the LGBT community, or not being accessible to people with physical or mental disabilities? How do we welcome, or not welcome, those who are different from us? How do we help or hinder people in worshipping God, or having a deeper relationship with God, not just at St. John's, but in the wider community? What obstacles do we put in people's way of helping them to know God? Maybe its by insisting others worship just like we do. Or perhaps it's because our actions don't match our words of love and respect. Or perhaps it's because others can't see Christ in us.
The story of Jesus in the temple makes us uncomfortable. We don't like to see Jesus angry because we know that he could justifiably be angry with each one of us for things we have done, or have not done. This story is supposed to make us uncomfortable. It is supposed to make us look at and question what Jesus might want to overturn and drive out of our lives that gets in the way of us worshipping God. Maybe it's self-righteousness or jealousy or indifference. Maybe it's our lack of care for the poor or the suffering around the world or lack of care for our environment. It could be a lot of things.
Lent is a good time for us to take a look deep inside to see what gets in our way of worshipping God. If we can identify what that might be and get rid of it, Easter will be an even more joyful celebration. Amen.