Sermon ~ 14 January

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.” They said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 

 But Jesus 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. When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing.            John 2:13-24

There are differences between the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, of course — a lot of them — but they are more similar to each other than they are different, and they are based on a similar sequence of events. John is not. John is quite different. 

John was written late in the New Testament period, and, if we might imagine the others to be snapshots of the events of Jesus’ life, John would be a stained glass window. It’s stylized, it has a different way of telling the story. John is not a historical look at Jesus. It is a theological mosaic. The difference being, it is more clearly about God revealed in Jesus, the divine Word that has become flesh and dwells among us, and it is less about Jesus, the child of Mary, through whom the power of God is at work. I don’t know if you get that distinction, but the author of John took the characters and stories that he had heard, that he found to witness to the experience of the resurrected Christ, and arranged them to tell the story. It’s a step removed from Luke’s orderly recounting of Jesus’ life – like a stained glass window is a step removed from photography.

This temple clearing episode, for example, shows up at the end of the other gospels, just a few days before Jesus’ death. It’s his last Passover. He goes to the temple and clears out the moneychangers saying they have made his father’s house a den of thieves. 

In John, though, this appears as the second story of the gospel. It is told way at the beginning because it defines his ministry and his identity. The sequence of events in John is that Jesus is baptized in the Jordan (but we just hear about it from John, we don’t see it), he calls his first disciples, they attend a wedding in the town of Cana, and then they go to Jerusalem for Passover. All faithful Jews who could manage it, came to the temple in Jerusalem for the Passover. 

The mention of Passover is a little tip-up flag. John the Baptist (just a few paragraphs earlier) called Jesus the Lamb of God. The first passover was in Egypt, when the blood of a firstborn lamb without mark or blemish was to be painted on the lintel and doorframe of the Israelite’s homes. Because of that blood, the final plague passed over them. The blood of the slaughtered lamb saved them from death. 

Jesus, the Lamb of God, comes to the temple for Passover. Spoiler alert! This event is paired back to back with an extraordinary outpouring of grace in water turned to wine at a marriage feast.  John pairs stories this way and overlaps layers of imagery from Hebrew scriptures to give us a full, thick, rich picture in such a way that we know what’s coming at the end of the gospel long before any word is directly spoken about it. He uses imagery and allusions the way a film maker uses the soundtrack and flashbacks to tell a story beneath the visual story appearing on the screen.

Back to the temple. It was huge. Within the stone walls, besides the temple itself, were marble courtyards for women, and a courtyard for gentiles – because neither of those groups could go into the sanctuary. It had various pools for ritual washing and healing using the Roman aqueduct system to bring in fresh water and fountains. It had gathering places for the elders to discuss and argue scripture, and a courtyard for rabbinical teaching to boys. It had stalls for buying food and the items that would be offered as sacrifices – so that people didn’t have to walk their lamb or bull, or carry their doves and olive oil all the way from Galilee and points beyond.  The market stalls were there as a convenience for pilgrims coming to worship; a necessity, really. Money changers exchanged the Roman and Greek coins of normal commerce for special coins that were acceptable within the temple for offerings. This was standard practice. The gospel of Matthew implies that the moneychangers and animal sellers made undue profits.  We can easily picture the venders at the state fair or a professional ball game and have an idea of the price gouging going on. But, in John, Jesus doesn’t call it a den of thieves. The motivation is different.

“Making a whip of cords, he drove them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. (I want to stress that detail, he did not drive out the people or use the whip on anyone, despite the clipart you may have seen). He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take them out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

It shouldn’t be a marketplace – the goods of God aren’t for sale or trade; the mercy, the love of God doesn’t have a price  (although Jesus’ life will be traded for 30 pieces of silver.)  The wrangling over the price of a sacrifice for the forgiveness of a sin, or a blessing of grain and oil – all of this transaction stops now. Not because it’s unjust, but because it is unnecessary… because Jesus is the new temple. Jesus is the dwelling place, the meeting place of God among people.  “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Jesus is dismantling institutional atonement. When they said, “What justification or authority, what sign can you show us for doing this?”  Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  They said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” Of course they are confused, but we’re catching on to something – and this is the second time we’ve heard about three days.

The first temple, the one Solomon built that was covered in gold, was destroyed and looted in 587 BC during the Babylonian exile. It was rebuilt, though not as grandly, beginning 71 years later. It is this second 500 year old temple that Herod the Great began rebuilding 20 years before Jesus was born. Herod enlarged the temple mount, added fortifications to expand it’s footprint on the top of Mount Moriah and rebuilt the entire temple. Work continued after Herod the Great’s death and was completed by Herod Aggripa just 6 years before the Romans destroyed the whole works in 70 AD. It was a monumental building project, under construction for the whole of Jesus life and beyond. And Jesus said, “destroy it and I’ll raise it up in three days.” And then the narrator gives it away: 

“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.”

Jesus is the temple. And this is the beginning of his ministry. The Temple, the indwelling presence and place of God on earth is he, himself. John the Baptist twice called him the Lamb of God, and where Jesus is present, the temple is no longer necessary. If his questioners had been quick enough to understand that that was his meaning, the gospel would have been a lot shorter. He would not have lived another three years. Think of what it means for the commerce of Jerusalem if the Temple is no longer necessary. If all you need is a relationship with Jesus. 

After Passover and their escape from Egypt, the presence of God travelled with the Israelites in a pillar of cloud and fire. In the wilderness, God’s presence remained with them in a tent called the tabernacle, and then later in the arc of the covenant as David moved it to Jerusalem (still in the tent) and eventually his son Solomon housed the arc in the gilded temple. The scriptures say the temple is where God – or God’s name – chooses to dwell.  

In the temple in Jerusalem, a chosen priest entered the holy of holies – an inner chamber – only once a year on the Day of Atonement to sprinkle the blood of sacrificial animals offered as ransom for the people. The temple is recognition that people need places to meet, places to be when they are seeking God’s presence in worship and prayer.

The prologue to John says Jesus is the Word of God that has become flesh and is dwelling among us (the word in Greek is tabernacling); just like the presence of God was with us in exile, so it is with us in Jesus. Dwelling in a simple tent. Not marble, not stone, but flesh like ours. No courtyards keeping women and outsiders at a distance, no more healing pools to lay beside hoping to be the first one into the water after it’s surface has been ruffled with the breath of the Holy Spirit, no more transactions and sacrifices to pay for God’s blessing or mercy. Jesus is the temple. Where Jesus is, God is.

That’s why John places this story at the beginning of the gospel. We are supposed to hold all of this imagery and background information — Lamb of God, Passover, exile, the Temple and it’s sacrificial exchange for the expiation of sin, with the memory of finest wine filling giant stone jars to the brim, the wedding feast — all of that gets packed in together at the beginning to tell us who this Jesus is, and why we should keep reading, keep leaning in to see where the story goes. John is trying to tell an irresistible story, so that we become irresistible witnesses to what happens when God comes to earth and dwells among us.

It does suggest a question as we sit in this beautiful little church where we perform the duties and rituals and sacraments of our particular faith tradition. Does it help— this church?  Where do we meet God? Where do you encounter God’s presence, in what ways are you awakened to God’s spirit? If Jesus is the temple, the final transaction in the commerce of God’s grace, then meeting Jesus is what the gospel of John is trying to help us accomplish. That might happen here, now and then.

One of the classic insights from the medieval mystics is that God is in all things and all things in God. So, if you’re looking for a relationship with the God who made you, you might encounter God – everywhere, anywhere. 

Perhaps, though, at some point that in-the-world generality isn’t enough, doesn’t satisfy the communal part of our natures. Perhaps we also need a way to be with others who are also seeking the reality of God’s presence. 

Where have you experienced the meeting place of heaven and earth in your life? Have you felt compassion, inclusive hospitality, healing, real welcome and nurturing? Have you found acceptance from others when you can’t even love yourself? Have you experienced that? In our church? At work? In a relationship or conversation? In a crisis? In the midst of some kind of service done for others? In a chance moment? 

Where, when have you known the transformative power of the risen Christ – forgiveness for all the crap you carry around, all the hurt, all the guilt, the suppression of your spirit…

Where have you felt  redeeming love beyond reason, deep joy, and peace? Maybe through music or nature or a shared love… 

Have you felt that, experienced any of that? And if so, did you, could you, share it with someone – tell your story, act out of your story? Living a new life and inviting someone else to share in it, is to say “This is what I found, come and see.” 

God’s love calls each of us to be engaged and engaging. And, God’s love for all makes that a  challenge.  It might— probably does — call us into a new relationship with ourselves, our maker, and with our world.

So in the quiet space following the sermon, try to recall your experience of dwelling in God’s love, of feeling yourself to be changed. — Retell it to yourself, remember when it was and what it felt like… hold it in mind, abide within that wonderful Word of God tenting among us. And afterward, with a bracing cup of coffee in hand, ask someone about their story.