Title: Driven by Zeal / Message by Rev. Carol Kniseley / Text: John 2: 13 – 22 / 3rd Sunday in Lent
I want to begin today’s message with a visual. When you look at today’s bulletin cover…what do you see? What do you envision taking place? Chaos…violence…action…tables overturning…money flying…animals running…doves flapping? And this man with a whip in his hand…is this the way we’re use to picturing…Jesus? Needless to say, this image of our Lord will seldom, if ever, be found in a children’s picture Bible or even in a Bible story book. And for very good reason. Pictures like this one scare us…even flying in the face of everything that you and I have been taught when it comes to “behaving” just…like…Jesus.
The story that was chosen for us on this Third Sunday in Lent…is actually one that appears in all four of the Gospels, making it a very credible event. The only real difference of note being that John’s Gospel has Jesus appearing in the Temple at the very beginning of his ministry, whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke place this event at the end of Jesus’ ministry. In fact, for all three of the Synoptics, this event takes place during the last week of Jesus’ life. We call it the week of the Passion, which begins with Jesus riding into the town of Jerusalem on the back of a donkey one day. And by the next, we see him in the Temple…engaged in a bit of ‘house cleaning’ of his own. All four Gospels, then, report that Jesus brought a ‘holy purging’ to the Temple in Jerusalem…at some point in his ministry.
The question that we need to ask of the text is perhaps the most obvious:
what drove Jesus to do what he did…knowing full well that it would not set well with those in authority?
To begin with, despite which Gospel we turn to, there is no mistaking that it was Passover week. It became the most important of holy days on the Jewish calendar. Passover celebration began on the 10th of Nisan, when Jews “are to take a lamb for each family.” On festival days the Jews of Jerusalem and thousands of pilgrims went to the Temple to purchase their sacrificial animals. Imagine what incredible chaos would have descended when the city quadrupled in size and most went to the market on the same day. The sights, the sounds, the smells of the extra livestock and crowds of people at the temple must have been overwhelming.
People came from surrounding regions and even countries to be a part of this important celebration commemorating the time when Moses led the people of Israel from out of Egypt…and out of slavery. It was a time when people’s emotions and imaginations were running rampant as they entered the Holy City jam packed with visitors and merchants out to pocket a quick sale. And I say this because upon arriving at the Temple itself, every person was obligated to meet two requirements.
First, an animal sacrifice…usually a dove…had to be made. The dove had to be perfect and without any blemish of any kind. And even though an animal could be brought in from another place, the odds were pretty darn good that the animal wouldn’t pass the watchful eye of the temple inspectors. So, under the guise of keeping all sacrifices “pure”…the temple just happened to have doves for sale…and at a price to their liking, for sure.
Secondly, the people had to pay a tax…a temple tax to be exact. It was due every single year during the time of Passover AND had to be paid using the local currency. Now you know what I’m going to say next, don’t you? Knowing that there would be thousands upon thousands of foreigners in Jerusalem to pay the tax, so called “money-changer” were allowed to set up shop right there in the temple court…for (you guessed it!) a modest fee, of course.
It’s not too difficult to see what ticked Jesus off. Pilgrims journeyed days upon days to see and to experience God in worship and prayer…and before they could even get through the Temple door, they were preyed upon by the vultures of greed and self gain. What was promised…and what was delivered were two entirely different scenarios.
Our question: what drove Jesus to do what he did…seems to have a pretty clear answer. The picture of Jesus at this point in John’s Gospel is clearly one of divine wrath and divine self-awareness. This is not a crazy man on the loose with a braided whip in one hand. This is the Son of God going about his business of reclaiming his father’s house as a place of prayer and pray-ers. And if that is an image of Jesus that tends to scare us…then perhaps it is for a reason.
Could it be, that there are some in this holy place even now…who don’t quite have their ‘houses’ in order? Perhaps some of us have been spending too much time with other interests and not near enough time listening for the still small voice of God. And just maybe, and yes, I will speak for myself as well…none of us have taken seriously what it truly means to be able to come to God’s house and worship openly and in public without fear of being persecuted or imprisoned for what it is we profess to believe. Have we grown so use to the ‘status quo’ that even we, at times, can not be moved by the Holy Spirit breathing new life into old wine skins? Dust bunnies run amuck…it’s a vision worth contemplating…and certainly one that deserves our attention, and our sweepers, for sure.
When the Jews asked Jesus for a ‘sign’ to justify his authority for upsetting the status quo, the answer Jesus gave was one they didn’t understand. When he spoke of the temple being destroyed and being raised in just three days, people assumed the obvious. What Jesus was really alluding to was the fact that worshipping God was no longer contained to a building. In the person of Jesus, God was creating something brand new…a relationship between God the creator and we the created that was now under one authority and one authority alone.
The sign that the people wanted from Jesus…to prove that he had the authority to do what he did…is a sign that is available to us every single time we gather for worship. When we break the bread and pour the wine, it is Jesus himself who fills us with his presence. And when we listen to his teaching as proclaimed in the preaching of the Word, again…it is Jesus who does the speaking. When that happens, then all I can say for sure…is that the sign pointing to the kingdom of God has already appeared. Whether or not we recognize him, or even take the time to get to know him…is a completely different story altogether. Thanks be to God, this is the third Sunday in Lent…and we still have time to clean up our act…for life. Amen