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“A Holy Disturbance”
Sermon on John 2:13-22
3rd Sunday of Lent, Year B
The story we just read may not fit your image of Jesus, that “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” you met a long time ago in Sunday school watercolors. It’s hard to reconcile that person with this furious stranger lashing out in the Temple courtyard. The Jesus of today’s account is one we rarely see, though in earlier centuries the so-called “cleansing of the temple” was a favorite subject for painters. To be honest, I’m not sure this is a Jesus most of us like very much – we expect, hope for, and, I think, assume a safer Jesus, that mild and unthreatening figure from our Sunday school classes.
Two thousand years of Christianity have had the effect of domesticating Jesus for popular consumption. We’ve made him over in the image of the savior we would like to have, but a less comforting Jesus pops up from time to time to disturb us. The Gospel writers, if we pay attention to them, are always giving us a Savior who is stranger, more demanding, and even, on some occasions, angrier, than feels quite safe.
Sometimes people will point to this story of Jesus charging through the temple with a whip and screaming at people as proof of our Lord’s humanity: “See, Jesus got mad, just like we do!” That is reassuring, I suppose, but that does not seem to be John’s intention in telling this story. Whatever emotions Jesus may have been feeling are beside the point for John.
When John tells a story about Jesus, he’s always working with some kind of symbolic association: light, water, bread. He takes the stories of the Old Testament and reinterprets them from the perspective of someone who knows Jesus has come into the world as God’s Messiah, or Christ. So, for example, when Jesus feeds people “bread from heaven” by the Sea of Galilee, we’re meant to think of the manna God provided to the Israelites in the wilderness. And then we’re meant to make another connection as well: that Jesus is not only the provider of the food, the heavenly bread, he is the bread himself. That’s how John’s Gospel operates.
In today’s text John wants to tell a story about the Temple of Jerusalem. The three other Gospel writers tell the same story about Jesus, but all three of them place this story near the end of his ministry, as the final, provocative action that got him killed. John, on the other hand, puts the story at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, right after he turned the water into wine at Cana. John clearly wants this story to tell us not just about something Jesus did, but also something about who Jesus is.
It is not entirely clear what Jesus was so incensed about in the Temple that day. The sellers of doves and livestock were not doing anything illegal or unsanctioned by the temple priests, and neither were the money-changers. The way it worked was that pilgrims would come from all over Palestine to worship at the Temple during Passover. Animal sacrifice was an intrinsic part of worship, but the pilgrims couldn’t be expected to bring their animals with them as they traveled on foot over long distances – so there would be animals for sale in the courtyard. And the money they used to pay the temple tax couldn’t be in Roman currency because it had the head of Caesar on it and was therefore sacrilegious – so worshipers had to change their currency before going into the Temple. From most people’s perspective, the livestock sellers and the money changers were simply performing a useful public function, allowing people to worship in the Temple properly. It was just part of temple protocol to have them there.
Jesus would have been well acquainted with this system; he and his family made the same pilgrimages to Jerusalem that other observant Jews did. Of course, there were abuses of the system, but in this story Jesus doesn’t seem to be attacking the abuses – he is attacking the system itself.
I’m going to ask you to bear with me for a moment as we look at some Old Testament scriptures about the Temple of Jerusalem. We need to do this in order to understand what is happening in this story. About six hundred years earlier, Jeremiah had preached a fiery sermon in the Temple of Jerusalem, challenging the people to match their actions with their pious words:
“Hear the word of the LORD, you that enter these gates to worship the LORD: Thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place….Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely…and go after other gods….and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’ – only to go on doing these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?” (Jer. 7:2-3, 9-11)
Jeremiah, by the way, gained no more popularity for his temple sermon than Jesus did for his actions in the temple courtyard.
Later the prophet Habbakuk preached against those who made themselves rich from the Temple (Hab. 2:9-11). Zechariah envisioned a day when the whole world would be turned to the worship of the God of Israel. On that day, Zechariah says, “there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 14:21). And finally, Malachi, the last Hebrew prophet in our Bibles, talks about a day when God will send God’s personal messenger to the Temple to purify it. If you know Handel’s “Messiah,” you recognized these words when we heard them a few minutes ago:
“The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” (Mal. 3:1-2)
Malachi then goes on to talk about a vast purification process, a cleansing by fire, beginning with the priests and then moving on to everyone associated with the temple, especially those who profit from its operations, as well as anyone guilty of holding down workers’ wages, discriminating against foreigners, or failing to provide for the poorest people in the society. The point of all the prophets is that the Temple will not serve as a cover for unholy behavior. If you’re lying, cheating, or just being ungenerous six days a week, presenting yourself at the Temple on the seventh won’t do you any good. Many Christians have the idea that ancient Judaism was all about ritual sacrifice, but that is not the case; the sacrifices were symbolic of the offering of the whole person to God.
John saw Jesus’s action in the Temple courtyard in the light of Israel’s prophetic tradition. Jesus was the messenger who had suddenly come to the Temple to purify it – to strip away from it everything that did not correspond to the righteousness and holiness of God. That means that his judgment of the Temple activities came with the authority of God. But John is saying even more than that. For ancient Israel, the Temple was the place of the presence of God; if you wanted to meet God, the Temple was where you went. What John is saying is that Jesus is the new place to meet God – Jesus is the new Temple. In him we are confronted by the holiness and righteousness of God.
In the Temple that day Jesus challenged “a religious system so embedded in its rules and practices that it [was] no longer open to a fresh revelation from God.” John’s Gospel is pointing to the most ancient, insidious tendency of religious people: the tendency to substitute religion for God, to let our religious practices become more important than anything else. There is always the danger that forms of worship will replace true worship itself. (This is a problem for all religions, it’s not just a Presbyterian problem or even a specifically Christian problem.) And when we get to the point in our worship or congregational life in which we are mostly concerned with preserving our institution, we are shutting out the possibility of an encounter with the living God.
All those money-changers and vendors in the temple courtyard, and the whole system that supported them, including the clergy and temple staff, were acting as if they could control the people’s access to God. And then right there in the middle of it was God’s own Messiah himself, but who would have known? It took an act of violence, a dangerous disruption, a holy disturbance, to announce that something and someone different was there.
The messenger of the covenant seeks to come among us – to overturn our conventional expectations of safe, “nice” worship, to challenge our ethical behavior, to expose our poses and pretenses. That cannot be very comfortable. That cannot feel very safe. We like our routines, we like a certain predictability, and, most of all, we like to believe that we are in charge of how we will encounter the holy. But there may come a time when we won’t be able to keep God at a safe and comfortable distance any longer. There may come a time for us to be “purified” in the clear, searching, burning light of “the messenger of the covenant.” When this happens, we should rejoice and be glad, for the Lord of life, who comes to create a holy disturbance in our midst, comes to offer himself as the true and only object of our worship. He comes to redeem us, cleanse us and make us new.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
March 4, 2018
 Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume Nine (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 545.