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Lent 3B Sermon
John 2: 13-22

March 7, 2021

Sermon Archives


John 2:13-22

13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. 15Making 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. 16He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ 17His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ 18The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ 19Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ 20The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ 21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After 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.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; Amen.

Estimates of how many people lived in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus are all over the place from a few thousand to over a million. The figure that I have seen most often is 40,000 or so people. Those sources also claim that during Passover the population swelled to over 250,000. While it was not mandatory, Jews from all over were encouraged to return to Jerusalem for the major festivals. This was what was happening when Jesus came into the Temple, wove a whip out of cords, and drove out the merchants and money changers, claiming that they have turned his Father’s house of prayer into a marketplace.

This kind of reminds me of Christians on Christmas and Easter! Our numbers of worshipers here at Clinton Heights swell on those two Holy Days of the year to around double a normal Sunday morning worship. We sometimes call folks who come on those two days, “Christmas and Easter” people or “C & E”ers. The three major festivals of Judaism are Passover, the Festival of Booths (Succoth) and the Festival of Dedication (Hannukah). I wonder if Jesus and his disciples referred to the people who flocked to the Temple these three times of the year as P, B & D’s? Not only were there more people inside the walls of the old city, but these were people who might only come to the temple once a year or once in a lifetime. While they probably observed the rites and rituals of their faith in their own communities and synagogues, this was an opportunity to be in this most holy of places, the temple. It makes me wonder what kind of impression it makes on them when they expect to be in the presence of “The Holy,” and are met immediately with the presence of moneychangers and sellers of sacrificial animals.

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, we must remember that these merchants are providing a needed service for these travelers. It would have been difficult if not impossible to travel any distance with the required sheep or cattle, so they would purchase one upon arrival. And the monetary units that people used in everyday commerce were Roman Denarii, complete with the head and face of Caesar on them - not allowed as offerings in the Temple. They had to be changed out for Temple coins. On the surface it all seems to be normal behavior going on at this busy time of year in Jerusalem. So what makes Jesus so passionate that he fashions a whip out of cords and turns over tables, pours out coins, and accuses them of turning his Father’s house of prayer into a marketplace? This has been a bit of a mystery for many Christians for a long time!

In my own mind I imagine this building for a number of years. Remember, Jesus has been coming to the Temple regularly all of his life. He was even left behind when he was 12 as he taught and debated with the religious leaders. He must have seen a lot of changes happening over the previous twenty years since then - some troubling ones. Maybe when he was younger, this necessary business was conducted outside the walls of the city. At some point the merchants and moneychangers were able to move inside of the walls, setting up shop on the streets around the Temple, prime spots since the closer to the Temple, the more money you could get in these exchanges of commerce. Possibly at some point one merchant offers a cut of his profits to the priests or the temple to be on the inside. After the priests realize how lucrative this is, they make it a regular part of the yearly budget. This was okay in their minds - after all, it was a necessary service. The problem was, according to Jesus, none of it had anything to do with the Passover, worship, prayer or cultivating their relationships with God.
Sometimes things build slowly over time until behavior that once would have been condemned for good reason has been accepted as the norm. This had obviously become normalized behavior - they believed that they NEEDED this to take place for their rituals. They stopped considering why it was all so necessary. It is kind of like that old fable about the frog and the boiling water. If you place a frog into water that is already boiling, it will jump out and hop away immediately; but if you put it in tepid water and turn the heat on under it so that it slowly heats, the frog will stay where it is, adapt to the temperature and before it knows what is happening, it is being cooked.

I wonder how often this happens, that things around us which at one time we wouldn’t dream of thinking or doing slowly becomes normalized thought and behavior. Recently I saw a quote on a friend’s social media page that read, “Yes, lockdown poses its own mental health challenges. But can we stop pretending our former world of long working hours, stressful commutes, hectic crowds, shopping centers, infinite choice, mass consumerism, air pollution and 24/7 everything was a mental health utopia?” I dare say that so much of life that we deemed, “normal” became that way because it slowly, progressively was adapted as so, usually with the help of increased competition to earn or do more and more according to social norms. When things shut down nearly a year ago because of the pandemic, we were like frogs dumped into a pot of boiling water - we wanted out, but for us there is a barrier preventing escape. We didn’t have the opportunity to adapt to this new life and because of those previous systems in place - many of which were unhealthy anyways, favoring certain people over others - many have focused more on returning to those “normal” days than on experiencing and sharing the presence of God in the reality in which we find ourselves. It is important that we do not miss the presence of God because we are too occupied with rituals and habits that we think are important enough to protect at any cost!

I would like for us to consider this past year as likened to Jesus cleansing our temple. We have certainly been given an opportunity to focus primarily on what matters most to our community - worshiping God. On March 22, 2020 and for the next month or so our worship was bare-bones: our LIC seminarian Rita, my daughter Hannah, and me with a guitar being broadcast and recorded on a cell phone camera. And you know what? It was good! Now I am not saying that being here with an organ and hearing the bell choir play is bad, but I believe that in the midst of things that frighten us and concern us, God has continued to be our sure and certain presence. Folks who have never stepped foot in this sanctuary, or who have not been able to be here because of distance, are sharing God’s word and a time of prayer with us. God is blessing us with patience in the midst of uncertainty and healing in the midst of disease. And even though I am not going to say that God brought this virus upon us in order to clean our temples, I do believe that God is using this time to encourage us to become more healthy in many different ways, especially spiritually - so that we might not be so preoccupied with preserving those rituals that we miss the presence of the one who has loved us perfectly and eternally.

Friends, Jesus was passionate about getting rid of those things that had become more important than prayer and experiencing the presence of God for those pilgrims coming to the temple in his day. I believe that he still wants that for our lives. As we turn the corner to the second half of this Lenten season, may we not so much focus on returning to what we knew as normal as on how Jesus continues to break into each day with love and healing and peace. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; Amen.