January 21, 2018
Temple of God
We’ve been reading from the Gospel of John, which has its own unique telling of Jesus’ life. When you read John with fresh eyes, you see how surprising and unexpected the invitation to faith really is. John’s Gospel begins by drawing us in with poetic mystery: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the was with God and the Word was God….”
When Jesus begins his ministry, he appeals to people’s curiosity: “Come and see.” No condemnation, no harsh words, just invitation.
And when Jesus reveals his first sign, it’s pure delight: vast amounts of water changed into wine for wedding guests at Cana! I swear, in John’s Gospel, it’s like curiosity and pleasure are virtues!
But nothing is simple with Jesus in John’s Gospel. As Jesus enters Jerusalem for the first time in his ministry, things quickly turn tense.
Listen for the Word of God.
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the Temple he saw people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, as well as money changers at their tables exchanging currency. Making a whip from ropes, he drove them all out of the Temple, including the cattle and the sheep. He scattered the money changers’ coins and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling doves, “Get these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house into a marketplace!” His disciples remembered the quote from the scriptures, Passion for your house will consume me. [Ps. 69:9]
Then the Jewish leaders demanded, “What are you doing? If God gave you authority, what sign can you show us?”
Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”
The Jewish leaders replied, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and you will rebuild it in three days?” But the temple Jesus was talking about was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered what he had said, and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
While Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover Festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he did. But Jesus didn’t entrust himself to them, because he knew all people. He didn’t need anyone to tell him about human nature, for he knew what was in each person’s heart.
* * * * *
It’s not something we usually associate with Jesus, this anger. How else would you describe this scene? It’s not the kind of image we’re comfortable with, this righteous indignation on Jesus’ part. We prefer the Jesus in our stained glass windows – the comforter of children, the good shepherd, the anointed. At least I know I do.
But we miss something if we omit the confrontations – and John’s Gospel is full of them. Long ago I heard someone rue that we’ve reduced the Gospel to platitudes – “God is nice, you be nice, too.” Well, clearly Jesus wasn’t always nice. And you know as well as I do that there are some things worth getting angry about.
So what exactly set him off? What were they doing that was so offensive? How are we to understand this first scene in the Temple?
It might help to know a bit about the Temple in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day – why there were money-changers in the first place; why people were there selling animals. Jerusalem – and the Temple in particular – was the epicenter of the Jewish faith. There were Jews living all over the ancient Near East in those days; and even though the majority of Jewish people lived in the area of Israel, many were scattered far and wide. It was expected that they would make the pilgrimage to the Temple for the Passover whenever they could. And if they came from other parts of the world, they would need to exchange currency. There needed to be money-changers for these people.
And the pilgrims were expected to make sacrifices; it was part of the ritual of Passover. You couldn’t exactly drag your livestock with you all the way from the outer regions. So the sellers made it possible for people from outlying areas to be part of the Passover celebration. Those who could afford it would sacrifice larger animals, but doves were available for those who couldn’t. That way everyone could participate.
But it was also ripe for corruption. The pious visitors were at the mercy of the sellers. It was, shall we say, lucrative. An easy way to fleece the faithful. That’s what was so wrong. “Stop making my Father’s house into a marketplace!” Jesus told them. A den of robbers, a den of thieves.
That’s still one of the bad raps about religion, isn’t it? Vulnerable people, getting fleeced for their faith. Gullible, kind people being swindled in the name of God. It’s how televangelists got such a bad name – think of Jim and Tammy Faye Baker. Religious leaders living high off the hog because good, pious folks trusted them. If you really love Jesus, send in your money. It’s no wonder religion has such a bad rap. It’s ripe for corruption.
But that kind of blatant manipulation isn’t the only way faith can be warped. Sometimes it’s more subtle than that. Sometimes we do it to ourselves, with habits and assumptions that miss what God wants for us.
Let’s go back to the Temple for a minute, what it stood for, its importance. Then maybe we can see how things got so warped, and why it was Jesus was so angry.
The Temple was the center of faith for the people of God. I think it’s hard for us to grasp how important it was, how central to Jewish life and identity; there’s really no equivalent for us. In an Empire ruled by the Romans, there wasn’t much that the Jews could call their own. This was where they remembered who they were, and whose they were.
The Temple wasn’t just a place to worship, it was thought to be the place where God dwelt. Deep inside was the holy of holies, where only the great high priest could enter, it was so powerful. Once each year, the high priest could come into the presence of God. The holy of holies was protected by rooms where only the other priests could come. Then was the area where righteous Jewish men could come. Farther out still were the women and the non-Jews. All of this was meant to maintain purity. And all the rituals and all the cleansing and all the sacrifices – they were ways to try to honor God – and to keep their identity separate from the pagan world around them.
They were surrounded by the pagan, Roman culture; they were steeped in it: a culture all about money, achievement, and desire. The Temple stood as a witness to a different way of life. It was the place that brought them back to the heart of God, that sealed their identity as God’s own.
The corruption of the Temple was more than bad religion. Do you see? It was a threat to their very identity. It warped the faith into an empty shell. The place of transformation had become just another place for more transactions, just like the culture all around them. That’s why Jesus was so angry. It was as if God had no part in it. For me, that’s the symbol of the money-changers. As if all religion was, was another transaction. I bring my gift, I get something in return. Pay to play, you might say. I pay my dues, I have my rights. Like it’s a club, and membership has its rewards.
It’s still a danger to religion, isn’t it? Just another transaction, because, hey, that’s just the way the world works.
It’s interesting to me to think about this text the day we’re ordaining our elders and our deacons. We have every right to believe that our leaders have our best interests at heart - more importantly, that our leaders have God’s hopes and intentions at heart. Not that this is like the Temple in Jerusalem… But it is a holy place, and we expect to find God here, that it will change us. That when we come, there’s something more than a transaction going on here. That what we’ll find is transformation.
It’s not so much that God lives here - but that we go out knowing that God lives in us. So when we come and worship, it’s not just that we “got something out of it,” but that there’s something that got into us. So when we leave this place, we’re people who reflect the light of Christ in the world, people who are filled with God’s Spirit, witnesses to something more than what the world offers. Not that we’ll always be nice – we may even get angry. But we will know that everywhere we walk is holy ground, and everyone we see is God’s own child. Being transformed, by the living presence of Christ.
Rev. Karen Chakoian