March 15, 2009--Third Sunday of Lent
Lectionary Texts: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 2 Corinthians 1:18-24; John 2:13-22
Sermon Text: John 2:13-22
This morning’s text depicts a surprising scene:
When we intersect with the text, the business was in full swing with haggling and hollering and smells and animals. With all of the birds and beasts on sale for sacrifice, it probably seemed more like a petting zoo than a church parking lot. I’m sure the excitement from the pilgrim tourists was tangible, they were so happy to finally be in Jerusalem for a Passover celebration. There were many who would only get to come once for a trip like this and it was likely that they would never get as far away from home as they were. They were excited.
I am pretty sure that tourists were as obvious then as they are now. Admit it, you can spot a tourist from a mile away. Most of us have been that tourist that can be spotted from a mile away at some point or another. First of all, they always have a camera. They always have a camera and usually a lot of gear. Sunscreen, hats, cameras, an extra jacket, snacks for later. It is as if these foreign visitors were not sure that the locals would have basic survival elements that they would need. They stick out from the natives and just scream that they are not from around here, bless their hearts. These poor folks are just sitting ducks for a swindler.
The tourists in Jerusalem for that Passover celebration were no different. Even in their joy, they were being cheated in the changing of money from their native monies to the currency of the Holy City, while being charged inflated prices for sheep and calves and pigeons.
The money changers and vendors of animals must have been having a great morning. They had most likely been planning on this for months, making sure they had enough to sell and were probably full of glee at the fact that these foreigners were actually paying the prices they were asking. It is very exciting to receive more than you paid for something.
It is in this bustling commercial scene outside the Temple that we see the surprising way Christ enters the Temple square. Jesus does not enter in calmly saying, “peace be still.” He does not come into the scene with a quiet sermon in the corner. He does not offer free loaves and fishes to the crowds. Christ is not transfigured in all of His glory right there in the center of the marketplace.
No, the Prince of Peace does something far, far different from these other moments in His ministry. Jesus comes in a way that would terrify us with our post 9/11 sensibilities. Like a crazy radical, He tears the place up. Jesus comes in and makes a whip and starts turning over tables. He makes a scene and a mess and shocks a lot of people in the process.
Can you imagine? Seriously, think about it for a minute. Imagine a farmers’ market downtown here in Mount Vernon. Imagine all the beautiful fruit and flower stands and places that sell honey, imagine the smells of the folks that make the crepes and the sounds of a local blue grass band strumming on their instruments. On a normal Saturday in the summer there are smells and people and commerce happening all around.
Now imagine a crazed person with a whip coming into the farmers’ market, tearing stuff up. Imagine this person turning over the tables and screaming at the vendors. Consider him letting all the animals from the 4H sponsored petting zoo free to roam the streets.
That is a scary scene, isn’t it? This would cause a lot of folks to run away, to scream, to cry.
And yet this is part of the perfect ministry and witness of Christ.
It is part of the ministry and witness of Christ to show zero tolerance for anything other than hospitality and love. He has zero tolerance for anything other than pure devotion, devotion that is not meant to benefit ourselves, but to draw close to God. Christ here is demonstrating His deep care for people and His intense respect for the place of worship. He is raging against the use of religion to manipulate. He is defending His Father’s reputation and prophesying unto the Resurrection.
It is the ministry of Christ to stand for Truth. To help people understand, even if it takes turning over tables and letting the petting zoo free, that they are searching in all the wrong places.
These folks in front of the Temple were definitely getting it wrong. They were taking the devotion of these foreign guests and using it to their advantage, they were cheating and manipulating, they were being incredibly selfish. The tourists were getting it all wrong as well. They thought they could find God by going to a particular location and buying a special goat and having the right priest.
And yet we can not, must not, this morning point our fingers at the money changers and vendors or earnestly seeking pilgrims without first searching our own hearts.
This John 2 text is an excellent one to remind us of how Christ feels about our attempts to make the Gospel into something that benefits ourselves at the cost of others. We, as the church, may not have money changers and goats in our lobbies, but we are guilty of changing the Good News to fit our own needs at times.
How many churches put feeding the hungry above building improvements in their budgets? How many women’s ministries sell tickets for giving pedicures at a local convalescent center rather than for a tea with a touchy-feely speaker? How many of us are more concerned with the priorities of the Gospel of Love than the numbers we have on Sunday morning? How much time to do we spend in prayer and devotion to God? How are we making sure that we are close to Him and that what we do flows out of that relationship and not out of what we think is best?
How close are we to the ministry and vision of Christ?
If Christ came into our homes and work and church today, what tables would He need to throw over? Jesus wants to change us. His Love cannot help but transform us, His ways, if we let Him in fully to our lives, will disrupt our status quo.
Christ does not have any respect for the careful orders that we have put our lives in. Many of us feel the inevitable compulsion to point fingers and consider that Jesus is turning over other people’s tables. But it is so important that each of us understand that there are things in our lives that Christ wants to take His whip to. It is only when we can look down, see our wares and securities strewn on the ground, our herds loosened into the streets and Christ breathing heavy and telling us that all this will be rebuilt in three days, only then will we know what it means to--forsaking everything--follow and trust in our Savior to rebuild the things worth rebuilding and leave everything else.
One of my favorite prayer books is written by Ted Loder and entitled, Guerrillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle. The following prayer speaks to letting go and is entitled, What Can I believe? It reads:
O God, I am so fragile: my dreams get broken, my relationships get broken, my heart gets broken, my body gets broken. What can I believe, except that you will not despise a broken heart, that old and broken people shall yet dream dreams, and that the lame shall leap for joy, the blind see, the deaf hear. What can I believe except what Jesus taught: that only what is first broken, like bread, can be shared; that only what is broken is open to your entry; that old wineskins must be ripped open and replaced if the wine of new life is to expand. So, I believe, Lord; help my unbelief that I may have courage to keep trying when I am tired, and to keep wanting passionately when I am found wanting. O God, I am so frail: my life spins like a top, bounced about by the clumsy hands of demands beyond my doing, fanned by furies at a pace but half a step from hysteria, so much to do, my days so few and fast-spent, and I mostly unable to recall what I am rushing after. What can I believe, except that beyond my limits of my little prayers and careful creeds, I am not meant for dust and darkness, but for dancing life and silver starlight. Help my unbelief that I may have courage to dare to love the enemies I have the integrity to make; to care for little else save my brothers and sisters of the human family; to take time to be truly with them before time takes us; and to fear failure and death less than the faithlessness of not embracing love’s risks […] What can I believe, except that the touch of your mercy will ease the anguish of my memory; that the tug of your spirit will empower me to help carry now the burdens I have loaded on the lives of others; that the example of Jesus will inspire me to find again my humanity. So, I believe, Lord; help my unbelief that I may have courage to cut free from what I have been and gamble on what I can be, and on what you might laughingly do with trembling me for your incredible world.1
This Lenten season you have the opportunity to allow Jesus to come into your life and tear stuff up. You can see what He might laughingly do with trembling you for His incredible word. Allow Christ to whip you into shape. Trust Him enough to let Him in and have His way. Do not go running and screaming the other way, but wait and see what He will show you that is true. Follow Him so closely that you are not able to try and retrieve all of the things that have been upended by His powerful Love and Grace.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
1. Loder, Ted, Guerrillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle, Innisfree Press, Inc., Philadelphia, 1984 (p. 52-54)