Saturday, March 10, 2012

Let's NOT Make a Deal

Moe Lutheran Church, Roseau, MN
March 11, 2012/Lent 3
John 2:13-22

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.
In today’s gospel lesson we meet “scary Jesus”—a Jesus who’s out of control, itching for a fight. And because I’m never quite sure what to do with this scary Jesus, I usually avoid preaching on this text when it pops up in the lectionary….

….but not today, because I’m thinking that some of you might actually want to make sense of this startling story, and as a matter of fact, so do I!
So here goes!

We’re in the Temple of Jerusalem, early in the first century A.D., and it’s not just an ordinary day.  It’s Passover—a feast to remember God’s liberation of his chosen people when they were slaves in Egypt.
The way pious Jews of that day did that was to pack their bags and travel to Jerusalem.  So the city is teeming with the faithful, all of them heading toward the Temple which was their “access point” with God.  

If you’re an observant Jew at Passover time, the Temple is where you meet your God.
So Jesus is in this vast crowd of pilgrims, taking it all in—all the sights, sounds and smells of the Temple.

And Jesus doesn’t like any of it.   Jesus doesn’t experience the silence or solemnity or “gravity” of what a sacred space should be.  Instead Temple is a noisy, bustling hubbub.   There’s a lot happening there—and a lot of money is changing hands.
Because, you see, no one was supposed to come to the Temple empty-handed.  You were supposed to sacrifice something on an altar…whether you could afford a top-of-the-line bull or just a small dove that symbolized your gratitude to God.

No one was to come to the Temple empty-handed. 
And yet, with swarms of pilgrims converging on Jerusalem from all over Israel, they couldn’t all drag along their own oxen or sheep or crates of turtle-doves from home.  So an enterprising business had sprung up in the Temple, allowing you to purchase your sacrificial animal on-location. 

Think of it as the original “convenience store!”
But you couldn’t buy your sacrificial animal with filthy Roman money.   You couldn’t purchase the raw materials for a holy sacrifice to your holy God with a coin bearing the image of the pagan tyrant Caesar.

So before you bought your sacrificial animal, you had to “buy” some holy money, exchanging profane Roman coins for the image-less shekels that had “currency” only in the Temple.
And all of this was GOOD, mind you!   The purpose of this whole rigmarole was sound.

It may strike us as peculiar or arcane, but the intent of all this buying and selling was wholesome—because it was about connecting you with God.
All of this buying and selling in the Temple expressed good intentions….but Jesus was still not happy with any of it.   So Jesus staged his own one-man “Occupy” movement in Jerusalem’s Temple. He disrupted the sacred commerce in the holy place—evicted the sellers, turned all the cattle and sheep and doves loose.  What a holy mess!

Why did Jesus do this?   Here’s his explanation:  Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!”
In the original language of the New Testament, Jesus says:  “stop making my Father’s house an emporium.

That is to say: “Stop making this point of access to my Father a ‘product’ that can simply be bought and sold.”  Stop giving the impression that connecting with God involves some kind of “deal.”
This story is not about the perils of conducting bake sales in the narthex or selling tickets to the lutefisk dinner after worship—though it has been used that way in the past by our Lutheran forebears.

No, there is something different, something far deeper here.  It is about how we connect with God, regularly, wholeheartedly, “savingly.”  It is about how God seeks us out, draws us to himself, opens up the channels of communication with us, so that God can do ‘vital business’ with us and send us back out into God’s world.
God intends for that access to be free and fundamentally open to all and not subject to anything that even looks like a transaction or control on our part.

Let me say that again:  God intends that our access to him be free and open to all and not even look like a transaction of any sort.
THAT’S at least part of what was bugging Jesus enough for him to “make a scene” here in Jerusalem’s Temple.   “Stop reducing this house of prayer for all people to an emporium catering to the few who can pay the price of admission.”

That gets us closer to what Jesus was up to here.   
But there’s even more.

And to understand that we need to ponder the other thing Jesus says in our story:  “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
Asked for a sign, a reason to take him seriously and not just condemn him for the mayhem he had caused, Jesus cryptically responds:  “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

At first Jesus’ words simply sail right past his questioners.  They hear “temple” and can’t think beyond the brick-and-mortar edifice that took nearly five decades to construct.
If it all came crashing down--all the walls and pillars and furnishings and roof—if an earthquake reduced it all to rubble, Jesus could construct a new Temple in just 72 hours.  

Yeah, right!
But as usual, the literalists in the crowd were missing the whole point of Jesus’ words.  Jesus reference to “three days” was a dead give-away.   Jesus wasn’t speaking of a chunk of real estate here.

Jesus was speaking of himself, the Word made flesh (John 1:14)--God’s own truth-filled, grace-overflowing presence “tenting” (again, 1:14) among us.
Jesus upended business-as-usual in the Temple because he was making this old bricks-and-mortar Temple obsolete.  Jesus, from here on out, would himself be the one, the only point-of-access between God and us.

In Jesus, the Temple would no longer be a block of real estate in Jerusalem.  
In Jesus, the Temple, the location where God meets us, would forever be “out-and-about,” in the world.   Rather than being a destination for us to get to, this “Temple” was coming toward us, making a pilgrimage in our direction, hunting us down, seeking us out, making God freely and fully available to us, with no transactions, no buying-or-selling necessary for God to do vital business with us.

Here’s where the cleansing-of-the-Temple leaves us in John, chapter two.  
All the merchants, all the critters, all the sacrificial animals are cleared out. 

There is just one Sacrificial Being left in the Temple:  Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).   Jesus is God’s “last man standing,” because Jesus is bringing in a New Regime, a fresh way of connecting with us—in which “business” (as we usually understand that word) no longer plays a role.
There are no more quid-pro-quos, no more “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch your back” deals, no more transactions.

Because in Jesus, God is now fully and forever, fundamentally available to us and to all people, for us and for our salvation. 
And where exactly is this Temple whose name is Jesus?

Well, for one thing, Jesus is always out ahead of us, beckoning us forward into God’s future.  I saw a great bumper-sticker on Facebook this past week.  It said simply:  “Don’t look back—you’re not going that way!”
Jesus is out ahead of us, meaning that wherever life is taking you, you can expect to find Jesus there.   But you gotta know where to look, because Jesus the new Temple is always surprising us, popping up where we’d least expect him:  in our points of deepest need…when we’re overwhelmed by all the “no”s of life, Jesus the new Temple meets us with a washing, and a feeding, and a forgiving, liberating Word.

Jesus also shows up in one another.   Jesus might run into you in the form of someone who needs you, someone who’s destitute or grieving or in despair.   Jesus the new Temple shows up always in flesh, not brick-and-mortar.
But most vitally, Jesus the new Temple appears is always with us to set us free.  

If your hope is rekindled, if you no longer feel stuck in sin, if you imagine that God has use for you, if it dawns on you that God isn’t going to let a little thing like death get you down—well then, Jesus the New Temple has caught up to you once again, not to make a deal with you, but simply to set you free, for once and for all.
In the name of Jesus.   Amen.


  1. dear larry, i'm on sabbatical in london. the national gallery has four paintings of Jesus driving the traders out of the temple. A couple of the paintings are named "Purification of the Temple."
    Blessings to you,
    Pastor Ron Glusenkamp

  2. Thanks for the Word. Another way of saying this is Jesus takes us back to the tabernacle, the portable tent temple, the one that is on the move. "Jesus has left the building." Maybe we should run to catch up. Peace