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March 11, 2018

“A Little Spring Cleaning”

John 2:13-22

One of my earliest recollections of Jesus came from a picture I saw in Sunday school class.  There was Jesus seated on a rock with a big smile on his face, children climbing into his lap. A year or so later I latched onto another image of Jesus as the gentle shepherd leading his flock. These are images of Jesus that are comforting and reassuring. They were formative for me in my understanding of who Jesus was-loving, gentle, and kind. Today’s passage from John, however, gives us quite a different image of Jesus, a Jesus who gets angry.

There are several scenes in the gospels when Jesus showed feelings of being angry or upset. Before Jesus cured a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, "he looked around at the Pharisees with anger, for he was deeply grieved that they had closed their minds against him." (Mk 3:5) Another example is when Jesus was annoyed with Peter and said, "Get out of my sight, you Satan!" (Mt 16:23) I’ve often thought it would be fun to have Matthew 16:23 as a license plate, a silent protest to those who like to tailgate...The most vivid evidence of Jesus' anger, however, is in John's description of Jesus cleansing the Temple. (Jn 2:13-22) Jesus is not just somewhat angry in this scene—he is white-hot with anger! This episode and the others mentioned underscore the reality of our Lord's humanity. It gives us a fuller image, not just of a gentle and kind messiah, but also of a Jesus who got angry.

 

What is the significance of Jesus cleansing the temple of merchants and his anger towards them? What was his purpose in this action? Perhaps we can understand some of his motivation by looking into what was going on when this occurred.  All four gospels agree that this event happened during Passover, the commemoration of God’s deliverance of the Jews from Egypt on the night of the Exodus. This was when the angel of death passed over those homes that had doorposts marked with lamb’s blood. Passover was one of three annual pilgrim feasts- which meant large numbers of worshipers came from outlying areas to Jerusalem and filled the capital city. Jesus’ activity in throwing out moneychangers and livestock salesmen played to a full crowd.

Where did this happen? We can see in verse 14, Jesus act of clearing the temple happened at the temple courts. This is most likely in reference to the court of the Gentiles. Gentiles were barred from entry into the inner court of the temple, as were women. An archeologist recently found a tablet from the area of the temple which states as follows: No foreigner shall enter within the temple, and whoever shall be caught shall be responsible for his death.  One reason Jesus attacked the temple was that it limited access to God. Only faithful Jewish males could enter into the inner court.

 

Why did Jesus attack the livestock salesmen?  The sale of sacrificial animals was a valuable service to those who had traveled from afar, enabling them to buy animals on site rather than have to carry them along. Sacrificing animals was an important part of a pilgrims’ worship. Yet since it was so important, it is more than likely the price charged was far more than it should’ve been. Needing an animal to sacrifice was necessary, but expensive. Those who sold the animals exploited the pilgrims who came to God’s house to worship, for they ended up paying a high price to do so.

What about the money changers? The pilgrims who came to the Passover feast needed their money changed to the local currency because temple priests saw any other currency as unclean. Therefore their rate of exchange was likely quite high. Both these groups of merchants were making good profit off of those who sought access to God. In addition to this offense, they disrupted the only place of worship available to those who were non-Jewish, the Gentiles. They made the outer court a place of business, not a place of worship. Imagine someone selling fair trade trinkets right now here in the sanctuary as we are conducting worship. These exchanges should’ve occurred NEAR the temple, not in it. The temple, once the glorious symbol of God’s dwelling with the people, had degenerated into a place of commerce and perfunctory ritual. Jesus attacked those cultural and societal things that cluttered God’s house that kept others from having access to God. The messiah came not only to challenge the abuses undermining true worship of God, but also challenged the very authority of the institution of the temple.

 

We’ve seen why Jesus cleansed the temple. When in his ministry did he do this?  For John, this event occurs at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, whereas in Matthew, Mark and Luke, it happens near the end of his earthly ministry-just prior to his arrest, trial, betrayal and death. Why does John change the time line? We believe the gospel of John was written in 90 A.D., some 20 years after the temple had been destroyed by Roman soldiers. The temple was the symbol of Jewish national and religious identity.1st century historian Josephus describes the temple as being “covered on all sides with massive plates of gold, radiating so fiery a flash that persons looking to it were compelled to avert their eyes. To approaching strangers it appeared like a snow-clad mountain; for all that was overlaid with gold was of purest white.”  To John’s community, this symbol of religious pride and identity had been laying in ruins for nearly 2 decades. They felt they had no access to God, for God dwelt in the temple, and the temple was gone.

In John’s version of this story, as Jesus cast out the merchants from the temple, he became the replacement of the temple in the life of the believing community. They had direct access to God through Jesus Christ. Therefore Jesus’ words, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” has a double meaning. The primary one for John’s community was that Jesus was now the new focus of God’s presence on earth instead of the temple. Secondarily, Jesus spoke of his own death and resurrection, that since he was the “Temple,” when it was destroyed, (When he was crucified) it would rise up again in three days. According to Mark’s gospel this saying was one of those used against Jesus as he was brought before the Sanhedrin to stand trial. It was also referred to when Jesus had been crucified. Those who passed by said, “So, you who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself.”(Mark 15:29-30) Jesus’ proclamation that he was the temple and his destruction of  its symbolic and religious authority did not sit well with those who were in charge, and in time Jesus payed for this act with his very life.

 

Christ’s death on the cross gave us even more access to God- for the chasm of sin had separated God from human beings. Christ’s sacrifice once and for all allowed the people of God to have forgiveness, to access Grace, and to pray to God, all outside the confines of a temple. We have a “full back stage all access pass” to God, thanks to the gift of the Son.  This gift was further enhanced by the gift of the Holy Spirit, which Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 3:16 has become a part of us- “Do you not know that you yourselves are God’s temple, and that the Spirit of God now dwells in you?” says Paul.  The spiritual time line for us is that the temple of God was replaced by the temple of Jesus Christ, giving us access to God. That access was further enhanced by the death of Christ on the cross and his resurrection. And now we are seen as God’s temple through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

How might we apply this passage to our lives today? Were Jesus to come and walk around in our own lives, what might he be angry with? What would he see as clutter- what would he see that keeps us from full access to God? Do our work schedules keep us from having time to worship, time to pray, and time to listen to God’s word? Does our retirement travelling keep us from spending time growing our faith? Do we fill our lives with business, possessions, and noise? Are we so concerned with providing for our family that we have no time to give God access to our lives?  The Great singer and part time theologian James Brown once said, “sometimes you struggle so hard to feed your family one way, you forget to feed them the other way, with spiritual nourishment. Everybody needs that.” Have we filled the temples of our lives with so much clutter that we have no time for spiritual nourishment?

 

God calls us today to take stock of our lives and notice what we’ve placed in them. What things do we truly need? What things do we need to rid ourselves of?  What does Jesus want us to get rid of, that we might have time to worship God, time to find nourishment? The apostle Paul had something like this in mind when he wrote to the Philippians. At the beginning of his letter to them, Paul wrote: “My prayer is that ... you may learn to value the things that really matter”...Phil. 1:9), and concludes with the benediction: “My God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:19).

 

 

Ralph Waldo Emerson said the needs of life are much fewer than most people realize. “We need someone to love--and to be loved--so we may share our joys and sorrows. We need something worth doing so we can fill time and not kill it. We need faith in God so that we can make sense out of life.”

 

 This day, may we look at the lives we live, may we look to our own temples of the Spirit, and see where there is clutter, distraction. May we let Christ in to surround us, that all else might be driven out, so that nothing else will matter, allowing us full access to the living God. Amen.

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