Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
At the beginning of worship, I invited you to remember some events you might have attended in this sanctuary or over zoom in worship. Now, I’m going to invite you to close your eyes and think of Jesus. What kind of picture of Jesus first pops in your head? Maybe it’s Jesus knocking on the door. I preached about that a couple weeks ago. Or, maybe it’s Jesus sitting down at a dinner table. I preached about that last week. Maybe it’s Jesus praying in the garden or Jesus on the cross. Now, I’m going to invite you to open your eyes and look at this image of Jesus. In this picture, Jesus is pretty mad.
This story is one of those that is important enough that it’s in all four Gospels. We need to pay special attention because each Gospel writer had an idea about who Jesus was and picked stories to share based on what they thought were important. All of them thought this story was important. In her commentary on this text, Karoline Lewis points out that John does use this story different. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all put it towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, just after he returned to Jerusalem for Passover but before he was crucified. That placement makes it seem like this story might be part of the reason he was arrested. John changes it up though, putting it right at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. In fact, flipping over tables and whipping people is Jesus' second public act. This is quite the introduction!
At this point in John, most people didn’t know who Jesus was and he had no reputation as a public teacher that would help people understand what he was doing. He was just one more Jewish guy at the Temple for Passover (though a few people might have remembered that he was a good wedding guest in Cana who made sure they didn’t run out of wine). Karoline Lewis notes that as a pilgrim, he would have been expected to take part in the rituals and purification required for temple worship. He was just expected to be a regular guy... not the kind of person who would have the authority to make any changes to who was present in the temple or what kind of business they were running in service of worship at the temple.
Because it’s not how we worship, it might be strange for us to imagine all these animals and people crowded onto the temple grounds. Other than Buddy the dog and the neighbors’ cats, you don’t really see animals here at church. But the animals and the people selling them and people offering money exchange services were actually supposed to be there. People were required to make sacrifices and needed to have access to animals and to the proper kinds of coins in order to make these sacrifices. Travelers bought their sacrificial animals at the temple, instead of dragging them from home, and everyone traded the Roman money for half-shekels, the kind of money you had to use for your offering. These merchants had an approved role at the temple. It would have been unheard of for someone to get mad at them.
If somebody ran into our church and knocked over the communion elements and flipped over the offering plates, would you be surprised? Would you be mad at that person? Would you wonder what is going on? I think all the people who watched Jesus run the animals and merchants out of the temple would have been surprised and maybe mad at what he did. And they probably would have been confused when he said, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" Because the temple, at least one part of it, kind of needed to be a place where people could buy and sell things. The things they were buying were necessary for them to do the rituals God told them to do.
To understand this story better, in her commentary on this text and some others she paired with it, Dr. Wil Gafney states that Christians need to work hard to remember how important the Temple in Jerusalem was. She wrote, “It may not be an overstatement to say that the temple represented the physical manifestation of Imannu-El, God with us.” The building of the Temple and the destruction of the Temple, and taking of the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple by Babylon, were two pivotal events in the national life of Israel. Rebuilding the temple after the exile was a significant undertaking for generations of Judeans. There was what Dr. Gafney called a “deep national cultural investment in the splendor of the temple.” Jesus’ wild and raucous rage would have been a scandal!
Other pilgrims asked Jesus, reasonably I think, what on earth could justify running the merchants out. Specifically, which kind of sign from God he could show them to explain why what he did was right. His response... his response was not a placating one. It was just about as wild as running the merchants and sacrificial animals out of the space. He says “Destroy this temple, and in three days, I will raise it up.” That’s right, he said destroy the temple... this most holy place that they had been trying for generations to get to feel like it did back in the heyday before Babylon.... this temple that Herod the Great had already been working on updating for 46 years. Destroy the temple! And he says that he can rebuild it in three days?! The nerve of this guy.
Three days... what else do we know happened in three days? Right. We who have read the rest of the story know that there are three days between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Our reading from today says that after the resurrection, the disciples will remember this statement and understand that they have witnessed the fruition of a prophecy. We modern readers might also understand something else. If we remember that the temple was particularly important as special abiding place of God (though not the only place) and that Jesus seems to be comparing his own body to the Temple, it seems to be a fair interpretation that John believed that Jesus understood God to be dwelling within him, “every bit as much as [God] dwelled in their ancestral temple,” according to Dr. Gafney.
Alycia D. Myers, in her commentary on this text, notes that at the beginning of John, the author tells us that Jesus was the Word of God which became flesh and lived among us. And, Dr. Lewis notes that later stories, like the story of the woman at the well in John 4 and the blind man that Jesus heals in John 9, show us how people who weren’t even there at the temple still act as though they know God is with Jesus. In response to his teaching and his healing, they offer worship... worship much like that at the temple. And, that worship is good because God is there, like God would be at the temple. It is vital for the followers of Christ to be reminded that God is present in the disruption of routines as well as in our most beloved rituals... that God is present in the demand for transformation from institutions that work very hard not to change as well as the systems that keep these institutions functioning. This story reminds us that God is not apart... God is with. May we feel God with us at the tables that must be flipped, in our temples, and by the wells where we will worship anew.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2377
Alicia D. Myers: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-john-213-22-5
Wil Gafney, "Proper 27 (Closest to November 9)," Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.