A Sermon for 4 March 2018 – 3rd Sunday during Lent
A reading from the gospel of John 2:13-22. Listen for God’s word to us.
“The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 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. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 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.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
It’s the third Sunday amid the season of Lent. And how interesting that the gospel reading assigned in the lectionary for today takes us back to the second chapter of the gospel of John. Right to a story that doubtfully ever will be depicted on a sanctuary stained-glass window! Seemingly in contrast to the gentle Jesus who carries the little lambs, the story of Jesus entering the Temple to throw over the money-changers is not often told to youngsters. It appears in all four gospels, which is one way the early church proclaimed to listeners: now hear ye! This one MUST be included in any understanding of the Christ! In the Synoptics of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; the wild-eyed, resolute Jesus cleanses the Temple as one of his last acts in Jerusalem before his arrest and crucifixion. But in the gospel of John at the outset of his public ministry, the first time we hear of Jesus going up to Jerusalem for the Passover; he’s pouring out coins, throwing over tables, cracking a whip to rid his Father’s house of that which he finds an utter disgrace.
While some point back to this event as the time Jesus got really really mad, righteous anger fuming like smoke from his ears; zeal is the word that is used. The gospel of John declares that zeal for the LORD’s house consumes him – which is not about anger at all! Right about now we well-reasoning Presbyterians should be warned. The gospel’s taking us into the depths of an energy many tend to shy away from: passion! That upwelling of energy that moves us into the amazing. That intensity of emotion that leaves us feeling absolutely alive! . . . Webster’s defines zeal as an enthusiastic, intense interest – as in a cause or ideal. Also known as ardor. Another unfamiliar attribute today. Ardor is warmth of emotion, intense heat, red-hot burning passion. Which by the way is not just about something sexual as seems today’s only acceptable realm for such intensity. Though truth be told, most in our post-modern culture are misdirected regarding passion in that realm too!
Here in the gospel of John, the story of Christ decidedly begins with passion. Jesus’ upsurge of intense energy that will not allow the house of God to continue to be desecrated. It might be helpful to point out a few things about the context of Jesus’ act. First, it was Passover. The annual festival when Jesus and his people celebrated freedom from the Pharaoh. Release from the bonds of Egypt. When God saw the people miserably enslaved for the benefit of the Pharaoh’s economy, God found Moses. Ardently consuming a bush that was not burned up, the LORD declared: “Go to Pharaoh to let my people go!” (Exodus 3). Passover was the annual institution for a free people to remember and rejoice! God delivers in order for a liberated people to give great thanks. In order for a people to be an alternative light to all the nations. Imagine the affront to such freedom the buying and selling of animals caused. The exchange of the emperor’s money inside the Temple gates in order for the annual Temple tax to be paid by every Jew of the nation. Of Jesus and the money-changers, one author writes: “had the traders been confined to the streets around the Temple, all would have been well. The (Jewish) Talmud records that a certain Babha Ben Buta had been the first to introduce 3,000 sheep of the flocks of Kedar into the Court of the Gentiles. His profane example was eagerly followed, until in Jesus’ day the stench and filth of the flocks of penned sheep and oxen filled the air as they were bargained for by the traders and visiting pilgrims.” Thus, the author continues, “Jesus made a whip of cords and drove them all, including the cattle and sheep, from the Temple area. To those who sold doves he said: ‘Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!’” (Robert Backhouse, The Kregel Pictorial Guide to the Temple, 1996; p. 22). What God has made free, let none re-enslave!
It also might be helpful to know the layout of Herod’s massive Temple. The Second Temple, which was even grander than the First Temple built by King Solomon that ended up destroyed when the people were exiled by the Babylonians. Nearly six hundred years later, the Second Temple was the expanded spot for God’s people to gather. Imagine something like a massive medieval cathedral with an exterior wall enclosing 36 acres on “the top of the hill on which the city stood” (Ibid., p. 12). That’s like four times bigger than the entire building and property of this congregation. The Temple expansion Herod began in 19 B.C. finally was completed in 64 A.D. – thirty-some years after Jesus’ resurrection and a handful of years before Rome destroyed forever all but a portion of the Western-facing wall. Around an impressive edifice in the center of the 36 acres, stood a four-and-a-half-foot wall called the Wall of Partition. At the punishment of death, only Jewish men or women could traverse it. One author describes what was found inside: “Passing within the Wall of Partition, a flight of 12 steps led up to an area 9 feet higher, where the Women’s Gate and the Gate of the Pure and Just gave access to a paved court known as the Court of Prayer. At the end of this court, on a semi-circular raised dais, sacrifices and gifts were brought to be presented to the LORD. Beyond this was the Court of the Priests, with its great altar of sacrifice and brazen laver for the ceremonial washing of priests.” The description includes that: “The porch led into the Sanctuary itself, compromising the Holy Place and the Holiest Place. Inside the Holy Place stood the seven-branched golden lampstand, the table of showbread, and the altar of incense. The Holiest Place was about 30 feet square and 60 feet high and was separated from the Holy Place by a great curtain” (Ibid.). Outside these inner sanctums, sprawled a massive courtyard all the way to the edge of the 36th acre with a thousand-foot in length Temple wall. People from around the world were allowed to be in that part of the Temple in order to make their own prayers to the LORD. It was there, in that massive Court of the Gentiles, where anyone from anywhere might have been able to pray – if not for the ruckus that had become the buying and selling of all things needed for a proper Passover sacrifice.
The gospel of John records the scene in the Court of the Gentiles as that which stoked the fervor of Jesus. The place of prayer for all had become nothing better than a street-fair circus (with lots and lots of animals). The site alone bursts the gates of Jesus’ guts so that a fiery furnace flares. It’s easy to understand how this scene gets pegged as anger – as an enraged inferno ablaze among bleating sheep, wrestling cattle, and flapping doves. Passion may be so unfamiliar to us that we cannot tell the difference between one who is in a rage and one who is utterly inspired. Zeal puts us among the latter as a force far stronger. Think of the one so on fire for a cause that nothing can stop them. The one whose body and soul has come fully alive as passion courses like racing blood through every cell of their system. Passion is less like out-of-control rage and more like on top of the world vigor. Like the greening that returns to spring grass. The zest that gets one moving – despite any obstacles. I’m pretty sure it’s known in Jewish circles as hutzpah – gusto. The bold audacity to get up to try again and again and again.
This is the energy recorded in the gospel of John as the surge of life that engulfs Christ’s body at the beginning of his public ministry. Passion: the fiery voice of One living fully alive among us that we might too! . . . Imagine the body of Christ today being infused with such zeal. Coming alive to ensure justice for all to have enough. Space for all to heal. Welcome of any excluded. Peace in every heart and home. Whatever it is that alights our spirits as our deepest concern meets the world’s deepest need. Then at last we will know the kernel of Christ’s intense energy. The essence of his fiery fierce passion: not anger. But love. Love. Love enacted for all the world to see. May his body today surge with this same zeal!
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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