by David Baer, January 21, 2018
Text: John 2:13-25
When I was in tenth grade, one of my teachers once talked about “Lutheran Sunday School Jesus.” She wasn’t picking on Lutherans in particular—in fact, she happened to be a Lutheran Sunday School teacher. But at my school she taught world history, and so she understood that the real Jesus was a first-century Jewish man living in the Eastern Mediterranean region. That means he was probably olive skinned and dark haired. Yet in her Sunday School materials he appeared with blue eyes, white skin. Not blond hair—that would have been a bridge too far even for the Lutheran Sunday School folks—but as light a shade of brown as they could manage. They gave this man who had grown up in the home of a carpenter smooth hands and lithe limbs that looked like they had never seen a day of honest labor. And it wasn’t just his physical appearance either. Everything about Lutheran Sunday School Jesus seemed aimed at making the Son of God not just gentle and approachable, but safe and domesticated. “Picture him,” she said, “holding a sheep under one arm and a child under the other one.”
The Jesus of this morning’s gospel lesson is not Sunday School Jesus. It looks like our Sunday School Jesus has been transformed into a raging berserker, like Bruce Banner into the Hulk. When Jesus comes into the Temple and sees the animal vendors and the money changers, something snaps and all of a sudden he’s overturning tables, spilling coins, loosing animals, and cracking a whip, as he drives the merchants out of the Temple. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” he shouts. What’s happening? Is Jesus losing it?
During this season of Epiphany, which lasts for the first six weeks of this calendar year, we’ve been hearing stories that help us experience who Jesus is. Last week Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding celebration. So often we live and act out of a feeling of scarcity, as though there isn’t enough. With Jesus at the party, though, the wine can never run out. And when we realize that in Jesus, God has provided enough and to spare, it allows for a new way of living—a way of life marked by generosity and forgiveness.
John’s gospel puts the story about Jesus in the Temple immediately after the wedding story. That’s different from all the other gospels, which put this story during Holy Week, at the very end of Jesus’ ministry. But I don’t think it’s an accident. I think we’re meant to read this text with the wedding story fresh in our minds. Because what Jesus is doing in the Temple is showing us how God’s abundance toward us changes our relationship with God.
The first thing you have to understand is what the Temple represents to first-century Jews. This was a place people came to pray and sing and hear the scriptures read, but that wasn’t what made it special. You could do all of those things in other places—in the synagogues that arose throughout the world, wherever Jewish people had settled. What made the Temple unique, what set it apart from the synagogue, was that it was the only place where animal sacrifices could be offered. That’s hard for us to relate to, but what the sacrifices did was to keep the people in relationship with God. If you had a firstborn child, you offered a sacrifice—not your child, but an animal in his place—to remind you that children are God’s gift. There were also sacrifices to cleanse and purify the people, to atone for their sins and restore them to God’s favor. All of this was provided for in the Law of Moses. It was seen as a gracious gift from God—the Creator of the universe had chosen to be intimately woven into the life of every Jewish individual, forgiving them and blessing their families. So the Temple was the place where people went to offer the sacrifices that sustained their relationship with God.
Now, let’s say you were a Jew living in Egypt, and you wanted to come and offer a sacrifice after the birth of your child, you needed a year-old sheep and a pigeon or a turtledove. But let’s face it–who wants to carry a sheep and a bird (and their food!) all the way from Egypt? The animal dealers provided a valuable service to Jews from faraway places who wanted to stay connected to God through worship in the Temple. And they were entitled to charge for the animals they offered. And the money changers were there because you couldn’t pay the Temple tax with Roman money, because it had pictures of emperors and pagan gods. So the money changers also performed a needed service. The animal dealers and the money changers were absolutely necessary for the kind of worship that went on in the Temple.
So what was Jesus trying to do? In some versions of the story, Jesus calls this marketplace in the Temple “a den of thieves.” But in this version that’s not what he says. Jesus objects to the vendors just being there: “Take these things out of here!” he yells. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” So this story isn’t about greed or exploitation on the part of these vendors. He doesn’t want them to reform their business practices. He wants to put them out of business. And if you put them out of business, you put the Temple out of business. If the Temple can’t be a marketplace, then you can’t have animal sacrifices. And if you can’t have sacrifices, you can’t have a Temple. The authorities saw what Jesus did as an attack on their religion, and they were right. This gospel story is traditionally referred to as the “cleansing of the Temple,” but it’s not so much a cleansing as a destruction. Jesus is kicking away the very foundation of worship in the Temple.
And if you take away Temple worship, if you take away the animal sacrifices, what happens to the relationship between people and God? How are people to be assured of God’s forgiveness? How are they to be made holy and acceptable to God? “What sign can you show us for doing this?” the Jewish officials demand to know. And Jesus tells them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” And we’re told that he is not talking about the physical structure within which they’re standing, but the temple that consists of his own body.
Something changes, when God’s abundance, God’s grace, God’s overwhelming generosity that abides in Jesus comes to live with us. The author of this gospel says at the beginning of his story, “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace” (1:16). Up until now the task of becoming acceptable to God has been an enterprise that requires human beings to offer up sacrificial animals. It’s an economy that requires production and exchange. And it’s subject to anxiety about scarcity in the way that all economic goods are. What if you got mugged on the way to Jerusalem? Could those infamous Roman tax collectors squeeze not just your finances, but your relationship with God too? And this is a system that requires constant maintenance. The need for sacrifice never goes away. The people have to come again and again to the Temple, making sacrifices for forgiveness and purification.
But something is different, now that Jesus is here. Jesus says his body is the new Temple, the new sacred ground. His body is the place where the relationship between God and human beings will be played out. There isn’t a need for animal sacrifice, because Jesus will offer the only sacrifice that’s needed. And if there’s no need for animal sacrifice, there’s no need for buying and selling of animals in the Temple. Your relationship with God is not something that must be bought and paid for. It’s not something that you have to struggle to earn. It is a free gift that flows out of the abundance of God that comes to be with us in Jesus.
When I was six, my family went to Argentina for a month. We were accompanying my father, who needed to do research in some archives in Buenos Aires. But there was time for exploration and fun as well. I remember our Argentine friends bringing us to ride on a carousel. They went up to the ticket counter and put down some money. But a big voice from behind the counter—someone I couldn’t see—just laughed. A hand pushed back the money, and with it several handfuls of candy. We were urged to take the candy and go through to the carousel without paying. My parents told me later that it was “children’s day,” some sort of national holiday for celebrating and appreciating children, and that the carousel operator told the grown-ups he wouldn’t dream of charging admission on such a day. It was a wonderful surprise, one that I treasure more than thirty years later.
This is the meaning of what happened in the Temple: The abundance of God has come to us in Jesus. Jesus brings a season where there is no admission to come in, where God laughingly pushes back our attempts to buy access and showers us with blessings instead. And as people who are gifted with such abundance, such “grace upon grace,” we become bearers of grace ourselves. Having been accepted by God, we can welcome and accept others. Having been forgiven by God, we can forgive others. Having been generously blessed by God, we can richly bless others. The Christian life is not a struggle to buy access to God. It is a struggle to give away the excess of grace we have already received.
Now, just to be clear, not everybody is happy about this. The people who question Jesus about what he did have built their livelihood on a system where access to God is a scarce commodity, and they are going to fight to the death to hold onto their privilege and power. They’re going to go after Jesus, but also the people who trust in him, who rely on the divine abundance Jesus brings.
But even in the face of this threat, Jesus offers a promise. Tear this temple down, Jesus says, and I will raise it up in three days. The promise of resurrection isn’t just about what’s going to happen to Jesus’ body. It’s about what’s going to happen to us. God’s people over the years have been battered by persecution, and now by countless political, social, and economic influences that want us to live out of a mindset of scarcity rather than divine abundance. But Jesus says to them what he says to the authorities: Do your worst, and in three days I will raise it up. The forces that threaten us are real, and they get to have their day, but Christ’s body will live, God’s love will live. God meets us in Jesus with a new and rich life, an abundant life that begins now and that no one can take away. Thanks be to God. Amen.