SERMON 3/11/12 Lent 3B
Today’s gospel is filled with a level of drama that today, one may only find on reality TV. The commotion Our Lord created that day in the Jerusalem Temple would rival that of any good AMC television series. Imagine what the voice-over announcement for what that episode might sound like: “There are only two episodes left of AMC’s new drama “The Walking Temple.” This week, watch the young rabbi turn the tables on money exchangers and livestock dealers. Was it his anger that drove him to his actions, or was it the ultimate expression of his authority, and an affirmation that the locus of God self was manifested in Jesus? Tune in next week and see what happens.”
The scandal of the temple cleansing is one of the most intriguing scenes in Jesus’ ministry. The event occurs during Passover when the Temple and city of Jerusalem were crowded with folks, who were making a pilgrimage from all points of the empire. During this era, the cultic worship of The Temple centered on the sacrifice of animals. For most of the people, they had to travel great distances to make this great festival, so they could not bring their offering with them and thus, had to buy their cattle or sheep upon arrival in Jerusalem.
In addition, people who came to worship at the temple were required to pay a temple tax, but they could not use the empire’s legal tender because it had the image of the emperor on it, and thus, its use would have considered defilement to the temple. To resolve this dilemma, the Temple leaders allowed money exchangers to be on hand whose job was to convert the Roman coins to temple coins. These exchange agents did not offer their services for free though, they charged a fee, some were fair, others took advantage of the situation. What once was a place of prayer, a place where people came to experience the presence of God, where people came to be transformed and renewed, devolved into what for us today might look like the retail drama of the local mall or a flea market. No wonder Our Lord pulled out a whip. Through word and deed, Jesus was saying something new in a culture that was not ready to hear it.
In John’s version of the Cleansing of the temple, Jesus demands that the people “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” In Matthew’s version, Jesus says, “My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” The whip Jesus used to drive out the money changers was symbolic of his passioniate demand that the Temple of God, was not a place for economic transactions, but a place for prayer.
Prayer is a time when we engage in a spiritual conversation with God. Prayer refocuses our hearts away from the hectic noise of life, and toward the presence of God. In prayer, we direct our thoughts, our desires, and our longings toward the One, who draws us toward the One’s self. When we offer praise, intercession, adoration, petition, thanksgiving, and confession to God, we are in essence worshipping God. Althouth the Temple was intended to be a center for all of these types of prayer yet, it devolved into something completely different.
The cultic offering of sacrifices, although strange and almost revolting for us today, it was established in the early culture of Israel and influenced by local pagan customs. The sacrificial system served as a way for the people to commune with God, but over time, something changed. What once was a ritual in which people participated bringing them into a place of prayer, devolved into a commercial enterprise, an exchange of goods and services, and an empty social obligation. No wonder Our Lord pulled out a whip.
“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus was not touting his divine power to perform a feat of physical demolition and reconstruction related to buildings of brick and mortar. No, he was foretelling his own fate, and the authority, which came with it. Jesus was conveying that his authority to cleanse the temple, to overthrow the system that thwarted the original purpose of the temple, lie in his death and resurrection, which was also a play on words as well. The Temple in Jerusalem was defined by it being the dwelling place of God on earth.
In reference to his own body being crucified and resurrected, Jesus was saying that he himself was the dwelling place of God on earth. Despite the religious and political leader’s attempt to redefine his purpose through the punishment of the cross, Jesus’ mission would not be overcome. Jesus in the turning of tables and driving out of the dealers and exchangers was showing that God was present in Him. Jesus acted as God would act as he cleared out the temple of its distractions, which hindered rather than supported prayer and worship. Jesus vividly taught through his actions that God’s desire is our hearts and love, not our sacrifices.
“The mission of the church is to bring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” Throughout her history, the church has succumbed to things that have distracted her from her mission. Such trappings for some have become so comfortable, so routine, and so unchangeable that like the livestock sellers and moneychangers in the Temple, we no longer see how these accessories intrude on our mission. During a recent leadership teleconference in which I participated, one of the speakers shared a story she called, “The Parable of the Lifesaving Station.” As I listened to the story, I was deeply challenged and it has become for me, a warning of how in the 21st Century, some practices, attitudes, and traditions in the Christian community and for each individual Christian, can either support or interfere with our purpose in the world.
“On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur there was once a crude little lifesaving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought for themselves, they went out day or night tirelessly searching for the lost. Many lives were saved by this wonderful little station, so that it became famous. Some of those who were saved, and various others in the surrounding areas, wanted to become associated with the station and give of their time and money and effort for the support of its work. New boats were bought and new crews were trained. The little lifesaving station grew. Some of the new members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and so poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. They placed the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in an enlarged building. Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they redecorated it beautifully and furnished it as a sort of club. Less of the members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work. The mission of lifesaving was still given lip service but most was too busy or lacked the necessary commitment to take part in the lifesaving activities personally. About this time, a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of old, wet and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick, some had skin of a different color, some spoke a strange language, and the beautiful new club was considerably messed up. Therefore, the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before coming inside. At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal pattern of the club. But some members insisted that lifesaving was their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a lifesaving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the life of all various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station down the coast. They did. As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. They evolved into a club and yet another lifesaving station was founded. If you visit the seacoast today you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are still frequent in those waters, but now most of the people drown! Taken from Personal Evangelism 101, by Brent Hunter @ Florida College http://www.intervarsity.org/slj/article/4249/
Is it possible that like the Temple cult system in Jerusalem, we too have transformed into something other than our original purpose; bringing people to God, creating space for prayer and worship. The little parable we just heard is a warning to us the Church, that in all we do, we should exercise caution with some of the things we hold so dear. It may be possible that some things will no longer support spiritual growth and a deepening commitment and love of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Lent is a particularly essential time for this exercise of introspection and prayerful discernment. Each of us in our own spiritual journey in Lent is challenged to reflect and work on areas of our lives that deter us from being the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. We the Body of Christ corporate, as well must recognize that despite our best efforts, there is the brokenness of pride in our endeavors, both in our failures and in our successes. Reinhold Niebuhr a renowned 20thcentury theologian commented on the issue of pride in the midst of our mission and ministry. He said, “One such issue has to do with the realization of human sinfulness in all we do. There is as much sinfulness in our greatest accomplishments as in our worst failures. The sin of pride pervades all that we do. Therefore, a spirit of humility is always necessary in those actions that we take in the name of God.” Wood, William Pape. “John 2:13-22.” Interpretation45.1 (1991): 59-63. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 5 Mar. 2012
The leaders of the Temple were proud of their work and the system that brought so many people to the city for the festival, yet they lost sight of their the mission. For the Church, she too must wrestle with a real possibility that pride has the potential to pervade our endeavors. How do we avoid this dilemma? We begin by asking ourselves a couple of questions: 1) “Are we building up the kingdom of God in all that we do?” (2) “Are those who come to this community growing in their love and commitment to Jesus Christ?” If our answer is anything but a resounding “Yes,” then our work has merely begun. We are charged to be a lighthouse that draws others to the safety of the shore of God’s love and grace. So, if we but trust Our Master, who with whip in hand, used this instrument of correction to turned upside down a system gone awry, and if we follow his lead in all that we do, we will not lose sight of the prize, which is the glorious lifesaving adventure set before us.