Text: John 2:13-22
Before I tackle Jesus dismantling the temple in what the gospel of John portrays as a fit of anger, I want to say a word about this historic weekend in our nation. Fifty years ago yesterday foot soldiers and freedom riders changed our nation forever as they marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama for civil rights, specifically the right to vote. Bloody Sunday the day is now called. It marks the day that courageous men and women—black and white, young and old, Christian and Jew—were beaten, bloodied, and tear-gassed as they silently and non-violently attempted to make their way across the bridge. Over 300 people marching, risking their very lives—risking death—for life, liberty, and justice for all. You know the history; eight days after Bloody Sunday President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered a historic address that led to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Now, fifty years later, our country is in danger of overturning the Voting Rights Act.
Fifty years ago a young man named John Lewis, then 25 years old, led the march from Brown Chapel to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was on that bridge that he was beaten and bloodied as he tried to make his way across with his fellow foot soldiers. Yesterday afternoon at the fiftieth commemoration of Bloody Sunday, speaking at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Representative Lewis, now a US congressman, stood beside the first African-American president of the United States and spoke these words: “We are here to celebrate the distance we have come…and to use this moment to recommit ourselves. There is still work to be done. Get out there and push and pull until we redeem the soul of America. We come to Selma to be inspired. Don’t get lost in a sea of despair. Stand up for what you believe. We all live in the same house. The American house. We are one people.”
President Barak Obama followed Rep. Lewis with one of the most powerful and inspiring speeches of his presidency, in my opinion. There are several things I took away from his speech that I think are worth repeating here this morning—any one of which could be a sermon in and of itself. One of the points he made will serve as a transition to our lectionary text for this morning. But first, let me repeat these lines from the President’s speech. President Obama said, “Those who marched showed that non-violent change is possible.” Something our world needs to hear over and over. He said, “What has not changed [in the last fifty years] is the imperative of citizenship.” Throughout his speech he reminded us that “our work is never done” repeating that phrase several times. He said what America does not need are more “feeble attempts to define some Americans as more American than others.” “There are more bridges to be crossed…our march is not yet finished, our union is not yet perfect.” And in all his brilliance he noted that the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that was fought hard for by both Republicans and Democrats, was renewed by Ronald Regan when he was president and by George W. Bush when he held the office of the presidency. With the cadence and passion of a preacher he ended his speech quoting Isaiah 40: “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint.” He concluded: “We honor those who walked so we could run. We must run so our children soar. And we will not grow weary. For we believe in the power of an awesome God, and we believe in this country’s sacred promise.”
It was, however, the president’s reference to Susan B. Anthony that links yesterday’s event—yesterday fifty years ago and yesterday twenty-four hours ago—to our text this morning. Speaking of those foot soldiers and freedom fighters who beat the path to the bridge so that others, fifty years ago, may cross over it so that today we may run over other bridges, President Obama said, “We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some; and we’re Susan B. Anthony, who shook the system until the law reflected that truth. That’s our character.” Shaking the system—that is what Susan B. Anthony did and it is what Jesus did centuries before her.
A careful reading of John’s Gospel will reveal that his account of Jesus’ temple escapade is significantly different from the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Rather than placing Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple at the end of Jesus’ public ministry, as the other gospels do, John places it at the beginning of the Jesus narrative.
Why you might ask? Theologian David Lose explains it this way. He says that John places Jesus’ cleansing of the temple at the beginning “because of distinct theological agendas. Keep in mind that the Gospels are confessions of faith from the first century rather than historical accounts of the twenty-first century. So each difference provides us with a clue to the distinct confession of faith the particular evangelist offers. In this case, the synoptic writers cast the disruption in the Temple as the final provocative act of Jesus that precipitates his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. John, however, uses this same scene to announce the inauguration of a new era, one in which the grace of God is no longer mediated or accessed through cultic sacrifice but instead is available to all who receive Jesus as God’s love.”
Lose continues, “Notice, for instance, that not only the timing of Jesus’ actions is different in John, but so is the accusation he levels at the moneychangers. Rather than accuse them of turning the Temple into a “den of robbers” – accusing them, that is, of defrauding the poor – Jesus instead says they have turned the Temple into a market place. Ironically, however, the Temple had to be a market place – or at least have a market place – so as to enable devout Jews to purchase animals for sacrifice and to change the Imperial coin for the local currency with which to make such purchases. So when Jesus drives the animals out of the Temple, overturns the tables of the moneychangers, and demands the end of buying and selling, he is really announcing the end of this way of relating to God. God is no longer available primarily, let alone exclusively, via the Temple. Instead, as John confesses in the opening verses of his account, Jesus invites us to experience God’s grace upon grace (1:17) through our faith in him. Given that John’s account was written well after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans, his insistence – and perhaps reassurance – to his community that they would find God’s mercy in Christ outside rather than inside the Temple” Lose concludes, “makes practical as well as theological sense.”
When Jesus dismantled the temple it wasn’t just about him being angry that people were selling cows and sheep and doves in the temple. It wasn’t even about money being exchanged in the church. He was angry because the sacrifices—the accouterments—had gotten in the way of the worship itself. What happened in the temple that day was about shaking the foundations of a system that had lost its purpose. The “stuff” had become the focus. And as Jesus enters that scene, in a somewhat disruptive manner, he announces the beginning of a new way of relating to God: a way that didn’t require the commercialism of faith—the selling and buying of things; a way that challenged the understanding that God resides in a particular building; a way that announced that God’s love and grace are available to all regardless of what you have or what you can afford or who you are.
And so, if we have ears to hear, this text is challenging us to consider what gets in our way of authentically worshiping God? What gets in our way to keep us outside worship? What gets in our way to create distance between us and God? We have spoken recently here of our identity as Christian and as Baptist, both important parts of our story and of who we are in the world. But even this, identity itself, can get in our way. If we spend too long defining who we are (and who we are not), we lose sight of our intention to seek God and to experience God, and our earnest questions of identity become as problematic as the moneychangers Jesus swept out of the temple.
What gets in our way? And who in our world, in our community, in our congregation, is shaking the system to make us see what is our way.
In reflecting on this text I have wondered if Jesus walked into our churches today what would cause Jesus to react in the same way as he did the day he cleansed the temple. What shaking of the system would he do? There are no animals to drive out, no moneychanger’s tables to overturn. There may not be a parallel. And yet, I’m quite sure there are some systems he would shake. We, here at Pullen, are accustomed to shaking external systems. But what about our internal ones? What of our internal systems need shaking a bit? I’ll name just two.
There is this commercialism of faith and of the Sabbath that I think Jesus would challenge us on. In talking with one of you about this text, you reminded me of such things as the Christian yellow pages, all of the Christian dating sites, and commercial of the car salesman saying, “We are closing early on Christmas Eve because we love Jesus.” You noted, “We may go to church on Sunday and shut things down early on Christmas but do we really honor a day of Sabbath?” Does it matter that before and after our one hour of worship in church on Sunday that we do just about everything else that we do the other six days of the week—run errands, buy groceries, work? Could it be that Jesus would turn those tables over on us?
I also wonder about our privatization and personalization of faith and worship. Is that a system that Jesus might shake? I often hear people say, “I worship on Sunday at my breakfast table with the paper and a cup of coffee.” Or “I worship at the lake sitting on the dock all by myself.” I get it. We all need down time. We all need those places in our lives where we can connect with the sacred and holy doing something that renews us and restores us. Walking a trail, riding our bike through the woods, working in our gardens, sitting on the deck or dock listening to the song birds—all of these things can draw us close to God, close to that which is holy and sacred. We all need those individual moments of connection to God. For certain, keeping the Sabbath can look different to each of us. After all, Jesus’ new way affirmed that God is not confined to a building. AND, I believe, that Jesus’ new way also reminds us that faith, and particularly worship, is not solely a private or personal matter. There is something necessary about community and community worship—about people faith coming together to worship God, to give witness to faith, to hope, and to love. The life of faith is not lived in isolation. We need one another. We need the encouragement, support, and the challenge of community. And so, it is this popular notion of a privatized and personal faith and worship that I wonder if Jesus might shake up and overturn on us.
And so I come back to the question, “What gets in our way of truly worshiping God.” And what cleansing do we need to do this Lent? What internal systems do we need to shake in our lives that will free us to more fully worship God—a God who indeed offers grace upon grace to all who seek?