What’s it going to take for us to believe?
What’s it going to take for us to believe that God desires a change of heart and mind in each of us?
What’s it going to take for us to believe that God has given to Jesus all the power and authority necessary to affect that change of heart and mind in each of us?
To those hard questions of human brokenness, this morning’s Scripture lesson from the Gospel of John speaks honest answers to fuel our Lenten journey.
Three of the Gospels take similar tacks in telling the story of God coming to us in Christ Jesus. Matthew, Mark and Luke all follow basically chronological approaches. But John – the last of the four Gospels to be written – takes a different approach.
The orderly telling of events as they unfolded is not what motivates John. Instead, John invests his time and energy in writing about the very-real truth of close relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Son and the incredible power and divine authority that flows from such intimate kinship.
That potent cocktail of relationship, power and authority is the intoxicating mixture that allows all of Creation to drink in God’s desires for repentance, reconciliation and restoration.
And so, we turn to John chapter 2 and the story of Jesus cleansing the Jerusalem Temple.
In a surprising move that seems quite out of character, Jesus disruptively and violently asserts his heavenly authority by upending the greasy business of greedy merchants and predatory money-changers.
In his hostility to shady dealing taking place in the temple, Jesus effectively incites a disturbance, and the temple’s leaders demand of him a sign to prove that he has standing to do what he does.
Jesus surely is divine and powerful, but he doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone – particularly to those who insist on being stubborn, inflexible and narrow-minded.
Jesus rebuffs calls for signs and answers and instead chooses to turn the tables on the powers that be.
This jaw-dropping event likely occurred just days before Jesus’s crucifixion, but John moves the upsetting scene to the onset of his Gospel to make crystal clear from the get-go that – in the here and now and in everything that follows – Jesus is indeed acting on behalf of God to carry out the will of God and reveal that the Kingdom of God is drawing near.
Turn your ears toward heaven, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, let the Word of Lord speak to your heart and resonate in your soul.
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
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 marketplace!” 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. (John 2:13-22)
Back in Jesus’s day – and for hundreds of years before that, the faithful believed that the white-hot glory of God actually dwelled in the inner-most court of the temple.
That place – known as the tabernacle – was off limits to everyone except the priests, who believed they were risking life and limb whenever they went into the tabernacle to offer a sacrifice to the Lord. Getting that close to God was thought to be so potentially overwhelming that dropping over dead in the presence of such power and glory was a real fear.
Whenever the priests entered the tabernacle, they would tie ropes around themselves, so that if, by chance, they did faint away at the sight of God, their bodies could be pulled out and recovered in safety, since no one would dare go in after them.
That holiest of holy places in the center of the temple stood in sharp contrast to some of the unholy shenanigans that were going on in the temple’s outer courts.
If you had broken God’s law – if you had committed a sin or somehow or other stepped out of line, you made things right with God by going to the temple and offering a sacrifice. If your sin was minor, your sacrifice might simply need to be a dove or a pigeon or two. But if you really messed up, that called for sacrificing a sheep, goat or cow.
Whatever the sin, whatever the sacrifice that the Jewish law demanded be made, folks didn’t always have a dove or sheep at the ready, so the outer courts of the temple became a marketplace for buying sacrificial animals.
Business was brisk and quite profitable. The price of sin needed to be paid, so merchants pretty much could charge whatever they wanted. It was simple economics 101, the free market in action: Prices skyrocket whenever demand is high. And these merchants were having a field day taking advantage of the desperate faithful anxious to make amends with God for their sin.
It was price-gouging at its worst, and the temple leadership just looked the other way. And why should they care? They likely were getting a cut of the profits!
Then along comes Jesus, who sees God’s house being defiled and God’s people being exploited, and Jesus does something about it.
He drives out the merchants and money-changers with a whip and a sharp, no-holds-barred rebuke: “How dare you?” How dare you turn this holy, sacred place into a warehouse of commercial filth and retail corruption?!
Jesus was a real person, and you and I really like the meek and mild Jesus who shows up in most of the Gospels:
The Jesus who welcomes children to sit on his knee, the Jesus who eats with sinners and outcasts, the Jesus who feeds thousands and cures the lame, the Jesus who loves and forgives.
We like that guy!
But Jesus isn’t afraid of a fight. He can be confrontational when push comes to shove, and we tend to shy away from the Jesus who chases people out of the temple with a whip.
What Jesus challenges that day in Jerusalem is a system of religious beliefs so wrapped up in its own rules and practices that it is no longer open to a fresh revealing of God. The good news that Jesus brings is word that God’s power and might no longer are confined to a little room deep within the temple.
No longer is God walled off from God’s people!
God has come to live, move and have the divine being among us in the grace- and glory-filled person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is now the place where God will be found, and God as revealed to us in Jesus is where all eyes, ears, hearts and minds should be focused.
And what’s at once awesome and amazing, humbling and intimidating, is that God in Christ also now lives in you and me by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
Our bodies – our souls, our spirits – are now among the places where the Lord God lives. As cliched as it sounds, our bodies are now the temples of God’s Spirit. Our bodies are one of the all-inclusive places where God abides.
Jesus is Emmanuel – God with us, God within us, God for us.
Jesus is the sacrificial Lamb of God who comes with healing grace upon grace to take away the sin of the world, and that includes all the nasty stuff within us, too.
It’s all the stuff that’s fouling up the places within you and me where God now lives.
It’s the stuff that exploits and takes advantage of us.
It’s the stuff that Jesus sees as plain as day.
But Jesus loves us still to the point of sacrificing himself for you and me to clean up and cleanse everything that evil has dirtied and dried up in these temples with two legs that God calls home.
Jesus dares us to follow him to the cross so that we might die to our sin and brokenness Jesus also invites us to rise with him – and to walk out of that tomb and into the light of resurrected life.
That sight might be hard to envision in the dimness of Lent and the darkness of our times, but really and truly, resurrection is our hope! Resurrection is our assurance! Resurrection is the white-hot glory of God made known to us and offered to us in Jesus Christ, who dares to confront us with the promise of saving us from ourselves and from evil.
And thanks be to God, Jesus bears the power to get the job done!
So, please don’t shy away from that – however scary it might seem, however angry Jesus might sound.
The Lord’s anger isn’t directed at us but at the corruption within us. As John goes on to write in his next chapter, Jesus comes not to condemn but to save. Beneath all the anger and outrage over the mess that sin is making in places where the Lord God has pitched his tent is enough industrial-strength grace and mercy to clean and to cleanse – no matter how filthy, dirty and rotten we’ve allowed ourselves and our world to become.
Again and again, God in Jesus shows us the way, and oftentimes the Lord’s way
feels counter-intuitive and counter-cultural, disruptive and uncomfortable.
But the Holy Spirit implores us to welcome the Savior’s authority, even if and especially when that authority upends and overturns everything within us and around us.
Remember that, at the start of his Gospel, John identifies Jesus as the Word who has always been and through which all things were made. Since he’s always been with us, the Word shouldn’t need and doesn’t need to prove itself. The Word already should be familiar to us. We’ve been taught righteousness for generations, and our failure to respond won’t be corrected by yet another sign.
Instead, let us take inventory of our lives and let the Word encroach upon and change our beliefs and behaviors. Let us welcome the Savior’s authority with open arms, even if it upsets and undoes everything around us.
Again and again, we are shown the way. May we fearlessly and grateful receive what the Lord has already given to us.
For the passion of his anger toward evil is part and parcel of the passion of his love for you and me.
Amen, and amen.
Pastor Grant VanderVelden shared this message on the third Sunday in Lent, March 7, 2021. It is the third in a series of sermons around the theme “Again and Again: A Lenten Refrain,” which draws on Psalm 13. Scholarship, commentary and reflection by T. Denise Anderson, Lisle Gwinn Garrity, Scott Hoezee, Gail R. O’Day, and Gerard Sloyan inform the message. (Artwork: Lisle Gwinn Garrity, Overturn, SanctifiedArt.org)
Our song of the day is “I Asked the Lord” by Sovereign Grace Music: