TEXTS: Exodus 20:1-17; John 2:13-22
I almost feel as though I need to begin with an apology this morning, or at least bit of an explanation. Last week I noted that throughout the first eight chapters of the Gospel of Mark, (the full first half of the Gospel) Mark places the ministry of Jesus largely in the region of Galilee and around the sea of Galilee. I noted that Jesus did not venture down to the capital city of Jerusalem until after he had proclaimed his coming suffering, death and resurrection. In other words the last half of the gospel of Mark concerns itself with a single trip to Jerusalem at the very end of Jesus’ life where Jesus entered the city in triumph, taught and performed miracles in the temple, was arrested, condemned and crucified by Roman government, and then rose again from dead.
Now we find ourselves in the Gospel of John, where in the second chapter and at the very beginning of his ministry Jesus traveled to Jerusalem in a typical Jewish pilgrimage and managed to make a huge scene on the temple grounds before leaving town and heading back north to Galilee. “The cleansing of the temple” as it is described by John falls at nearly the very outset of Jesus’ ministry. As I have noted, the event happened in the Synoptic gospels immediately after his triumphal entry and basically five days before his death.
Here, then, is one of the classic places where the Bible disagrees with itself, where on writer says one thing and another writer says another thing. So, which is the accurate, historical account? Do we believe the writer of the gospel of John or do we trust Matthew, Mark and Luke? The simple answer is that no one really knows. One thing that scholars do tend to agree upon, one thing that has a great deal of bearing on where the story was placed, is that the Synoptic Gospels use the cleansing of the temple as an extension of the triumphal entry and as one of the prime reasons that Jesus was killed. John on the other hand, uses the raising of Lazarus as the tipping point that led to Jesus’ condemnation, arrest and execution. The cleansing of the temple was for John a statement of the identity of Jesus and of his authority.
Let us then set aside any disagreement between the gospel writers and examine the story of “the cleansing of the temple” (as we like call it) in John’s context alone. In John’s story there was no triumphal entry at this point. Jesus simply went to Jerusalem, as did thousands of Jewish pilgrims, for the annual feast of the Passover. It seems that Jesus entered the city quietly enough, but when he got to the temple complex he became deeply disturbed by what he saw. Now you will notice that I said the “temple complex”. Again, a bit of explanation may be needed.
Herod’s temple complex (which was still under construction long after Herod’s death) was a walled enclosure that covered an area of around two acres while the temple itself was no bigger than this sanctuary. The temple complex was divided into several compartments by barriers and screens. The largest section was the Court of the Gentiles which anyone was allowed to enter. Immediately around the temple was the Court of the Women that only Jews were allowed to enter. Within the Court of the Women was the Court of the Israelites where only purified Jewish men were allowed. Sitting within the Court of the Israelites was the temple itself and the Court of the Priests where only temple priests were allowed. Within the temple itself was the Holy of Holies where only the high priest was allowed.
Over the centuries, since the original temple had been built, the temple cult had become quite a business. Not only did the temple priests receive direct gifts from pilgrims and other worshippers, they also received animals which were to be sacrificed on the altar; hundreds and even thousands of animals, far too many to actually burn on any altar. So only small bits of each animal brought there were actually sacrificed on the altar. The rest were butchered and sold to meat markets. Likewise the hides were sold to tanners. In addition, temple approved merchants sat in the Court of the Gentiles, ever ready to sell animals to those who had none to sacrifice, and to exchange Roman coinage for Temple coinage so that the temple treasury would not be defiled by the presence of gentile minted money. Of course the merchants of animals made a hefty profit on their sales and the money changers had their own sizeable markup in their coin exchanging.
I was reminded as I was writing this sermon of the US flags that are given to families of deceased veterans and by members of Congress to a host of people being honored for any number of things. It is usually noted that the flag being given has been flown over the Capital building in Washington, D.C. In a news article about those flags, the obvious question was raised about how thousands of flags could be given away each year, all of them having been flown over the capital building. The answer, shown in actual video footage of the act is that people are hired to stand on roof of the Capital building daily and for hours each day raise and lower one flag after another in rapid succession on a small flagpole there. The end result is that over 100,000 flags flown over our nation’s capital building are given away each year. Considering days of inclement weather, that comes out to about 350 flags a day raised and lowered.
So back to Jesus. We are told in the Gospel of John that Jesus saw the economy of the temple cult on grand display and realized that it had been raised above the actual worship of God. And – he basically threw a fit. Jesus made a really big scene, driving out animals, dumping over tables of coins and generally making a mess of the place. The key to John’s story though was not the action itself, but the encounter between the temple leadership and Jesus following his actions. It seems that just about any action might have been deemed acceptable if the perpetrator carried the appropriate authority, if the perpetrator could flash the appropriate badge or credentials; and so the leaders of the Temple asked Jesus what sign he could offer that would show such an authorization that would prove his authority. Jesus said to them, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up again in three days.” This, of course, went right over the heads of his opposition, since they were stuck in a world of literalism, a world of materialism in which there was only one temple, the physical temple of stone where they were standing, a temple of stone wood that had been under construction for the past forty-six years and was still not done!
The gospel writer, looking back with 20/20 hindsight, quietly informed his readers that Jesus was really speaking about the temple of his body, which was indeed raised to new life on third day. The point to be made, I believe, is similar to the point that I made last week; even the people of God are nearly always stuck in the immediate, the physical, the perceived world around them, while God in Christ was and is constantly playing at a whole different level, a spiritual level, a divine level which, while open and available to all God’s people, is somehow extremely difficult for us to grasp. Even faithful congregations, diligent followers of Jesus Christ often find themselves wallowing in buildings and budgets while God proclaims in their midst entire new realities of existence and a resurrection to eternal life.
This past Thursday evening I found self at another ecclesiastical council, called for the examination of a candidate for ordination by pastors and members of New Jersey churches. The young man that stood before us on Thursday was quite obviously an artist and a visionary. He talked about doing “church” in new and exciting ways. His statements were refreshing, his visions inspiring. In the meantime, this young man will most likely be continuing his current duties as the associate pastor of a church which has to deal with what I believe to be the largest physical plant of all of the UCC churches in the state of New Jersey, a property that covers nearly a full city block and a building that has nearly bankrupted the congregation. Therefore one of the things that interested me the most that evening was listening to John talk about a church without physical structures, a church that is taken to the people, in the streets; while knowing that enormous amounts of daily staff time in his own church parish are taken up in dealing with the building and its contents.
Friends, Herod’s Temple complex in Jerusalem was finally completed 84 years after it was begun. And it was totally destroyed by the Roman Armies only six years after it was completed. Jesus Christ was shaped by the Holy Spirit of God before time itself to be God incarnate; and while his earthly body was destroyed, his resurrected presence was raised up in three days and will continue with us forever.
In this Lenten season let us strive to see the big picture and let go of those things that complicate our daily lives in favor of those things that lift us from our daily lives to life eternal. Embrace the Good News; proclaim God’s kingdom; know that what this is all about, in the end, Is life abundant and life eternal. Amen.