Last week we looked at the first of seven miracles, or “signs” as John calls them, which Jesus performs in this particular Gospel. Jesus was at a wedding and he proved he knew how to keep a good party going by turning water into wine when the host ran out – not just a little bit, but 120-180 gallons, and of the best quality served on this occasion. We looked at how this sign served as a window to reveal some things about Jesus. Among those revelations: Jesus was fulfilling many Old Testament prophecies about the messianic age as a marriage feast with abundant food and well aged wine running down the mountains and filling the valleys. What Jesus brought was far superior to the old wine of Jewish ritual and legalism. And it was a foretaste of the marriage feast of the Lamb, the resurrection banquet in heaven at the end of time. This happened, after all, on the third day.
Today we look at the very next story, which is quite a change of pace. In it Jesus shows that he also knows how to shut down a party. This is not one of the seven signs John tells about, but it is a symbolic event which also opens a window for us to learn some important things about Jesus.
All four gospels contain some version of this story of Jesus creating havoc in the Temple in Jerusalem. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have this event taking place during the last week of Jesus’ life, after the Palm Sunday parade. John has it in chapter 2, right at the beginning. We have to keep reminding ourselves that John is not interested in writing history, he is interested in writing theology. For Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this Temple story is one of several events which go together to cause the death of Jesus by angering the religious officials in Jerusalem. John wants to remove the story from that setting so we can focus on a different meaning.
Last week’s story began, “on the third day,” so we knew it was a resurrection story. Today’s story begins, “The Passover of the Jews was near,” so we can expect that “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” is going to figure in it, and eventually he will.
Passover was, of course, the biggest festival of Judaism, in which people came to Jerusalem from all over to celebrate God’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Everyone was required to come to the Temple to pay the annual temple tax, which had to be paid with the Jewish shekel coin. Of course the Roman Empire ruled, so there were Roman coins with Caesar’s image on them and Greek coins and probably Egyptian coins among others. All needed to be exchanged for shekels, so the outer court of the Temple, the court of the Gentiles, had moneychangers at work doing just that. Of course, they charged a good commission for their work. You’ve probably seen the commercial where the pizza guy takes a big bite out of every slice of pizza before handing it to the customer, saying that’s for up front fees. And with the sacrificial system being at the heart of Judaism, everyone needed to offer a bird or animal for sacrifice at the Temple. These were also for sale in the outer court, because who wanted to keep up with them all the way from home, and they had to be without blemish anyway. It was definitely a seller’s market. We recently went with our family to Disneyworld, where the exit from every ride goes through a gift shop. Well, the entrance to the Temple went through the gift shop and lots of money was made there.
My guess is that Jesus had been there many times with his family and knew what it was like for working class folks to navigate this gauntlet. He’d had enough of it, though. He made a whip of cords and drove the sheep and cattle that were being sold out of the Temple. He poured coins out on the ground and overturned the tables where the moneychangers sat. He told those who were selling doves to take them away. He shouted, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples watched with wide eyed wonder and said, “Dude!” Actually, John says they remembered a quote from Psalms that says, “Zeal for your house will consume me,” but I expect they thought of that later and my interpretation is more accurate.
Now part of what the window opened by this symbolic act reveals is reminiscent of the words and deeds of Old Testament prophets. In Isaiah 1 God says, “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more! Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” The prophet Micah writes, “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Perhaps the closest connection comes from Malachi, the very last book of the Hebrew Scriptures. It says, “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.” The story of Jesus in the Temple is often called “The Cleansing of the Temple,” and could be called “The Refiner’s Fire.”
Then, of course, we have another one of those odd conversations which John recounts regularly. The Jewish leaders ask Jesus, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” They didn’t just call the police to haul him off. They knew there was precedent for this action, and they knew the Scriptures very well. They gave him the opportunity to show that he had authority that warranted what he had done. Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They took his words literally, as I think anyone would have, and they said skeptically, “This temple has been under construction for forty six years and you think you could build it in three days?” The conversation is over, but John lets his readers in on the secret: Jesus was actually speaking of the temple of his body, and after his resurrection the disciples remembered that he had said this and they believed.
Practically speaking, the money changers and the sellers of birds and animals were necessary both for Temple operations and for those pilgrims who came to worship. So the other big thing revealed through the window opened by this symbolic action is that the need for the Temple and the sacrificial system is over now that the Messiah has come. By the time John wrote his Gospel down, the Romans had destroyed the Temple and destroyed Jerusalem and exiled the Jews. There has been no Temple since that time. There has been no sacrificial system since then. John says, “It’s all good. They are not needed anymore. You can see that in this story – the Temple is destroyed and the new temple is the resurrected body of Christ, no longer bound by place or time. The Passover lambs have been replaced by the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The past is finished and gone; behold, the new has come. In fact, none of the Gospels ever show Jesus participating in the sacrificial system.
The Book of Hebrews does a great job of following through some of the implications of John’s Gospel, and this is a good example. Hebrews speaks of Jesus being our new intercessor, the role the priest used to play. It says, “Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (9:24-28)
When John was writing his Gospel, then, the Temple had been destroyed. Christians were a suspect, subversive sect within the Roman Empire. They had to meet in homes and use secret symbols like the sign of the fish to identify themselves and their meeting places. Not only was there no Temple, there were no churches to center the community of faith around. John says it’s okay, the resurrected Christ is the center. Wherever people gather in his name, he is in the midst of them. Jesus will speak to this again in his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, which we look at in two weeks.
In our day we are back to having churches of all sizes, shapes, and styles. It’s a good thing in most ways, but all churches still have our “sacred cows” which can come to seem more important than they should be. I’m certain that selling tickets to a Valentine’s dinner supporting youth mission is acceptable in God’s sight. Telling someone to move because they are in your seat probably is not.
Fred Craddock writes, “With the passing of time, Christians tended to replace old customs, traditions, rituals, and institutions with new ones. Not that these are intrinsically evil; of course not. Rites and places are not just permitted, they are essential. But within them the ancient evil lurks. Some will absolutize the rite and the place and lose sight of the One to whom they are to witness.” (Knox Preaching Guides, John, p. 27)
So we are well served by today’s text if we allow it to keep a sense of humility about our church, about our traditions, about how we have always done it. If this church should get torn down, it would be all right. The One who is at the heart of it, the One we are called to worship and to serve, will still be alive and loose throughout the world. The caretakers at the Temple that day didn’t get it and they wrote Jesus off. The disciples with him that day didn’t get it either, but they stuck with him and eventually got it… after the third day. Sometimes coming to faith requires patience and perseverance and an “Aha!” moment somewhere down the road. “Oh, that’s what he meant by that!” Blessed are those who stick around to the end, who read all the way to the end, who keep the door to faith open rather than slamming it shut when something doesn’t make sense or doesn’t come out the way you want it.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
January 21, 2018
Central Presbyterian Church