Said You Could Do That?
a sermon based on John 2:13-22
by Rev. Thomas Hall
Our gospel lesson describes a very strange thing
that happened one spring morning. See what you make of it. The time is Passover and if we
can trust the math of the Jewish historian, Josephus, the ground swell in and around
Jerusalem has grown to nearly three million people. People are everywhere. The many are
merged into an immense organism that inches along the narrow cobblestone streets. Families
have walked to the big city from the Negev, the Shepelah, the Mediterranean coast, and
from as far away as the Tigris/Euphrates basin. Passover had for centuries brought
worshipers to Jerusalem to celebrate their national story-their liberation from slavery in
Passover, of course, required sacrifice. So animals had, from Moses time on, been
the stock in trade for this celebration. Experience had taught pilgrims that goading a
single-minded ox all the way from home didnt make for a very relaxing trip. Not
surprisingly, many worshipers would purchase their animal in Jerusalem.
Heres an interesting aside that may help us to understand this part of the story.
Josephus describes an ongoing feud between the Sanhedrin and the Jewish high priest,
Caiaphas that had happened prior to this spring day. Apparently, Caiaphas was peeved at
the Sanhedrin and had forced them from their office space in the Temple area. In
retaliation, the Sanhedrin invited merchants to sell animals near them outside the Temple
area. Not to be out-retaliated, Caiaphas had allowed merchants to sell their animals and
exchange money right inside the Temple precinct. So amidst the barnyard smells of dirty
pens and restless animals, within the sound of clinking coins-secular money being
exchanged for kosher coinage-Jesus entered on this spring day in Passover.
Something, however, is about to happen that will turn this spring day into a Passover
nightmare. As an observant Jew, Jesus goes to the temple area among the thousands of other
pilgrims. No doubt he wants to take in the sights and sounds, to re-connect with his
heritage, to converse with other pilgrims, maybe even to teach a little. But without
apparent provocation, Jesus suddenly whips the whole temple area into a frenzy. He rigs a
makeshift whip and then runs waving and swinging his whip like a madman at the animals and
merchants along the walls. And when he reaches the tables of the moneychangers, he
vice-grips the tables and hurls them topsy-turvy. "Get your things out of here!"
he yells, "Stop turning my Fathers house into a shopping mall."
You can imagine the impact of his violent actions. Thousands of pilgrims instantly
freeze in shocked disbelief. For an entire minute no one moves, no one says a word. In the
distance, the animals bleat and gambol in their freedom. But in the Temple area people are
Weve been in those awkward situations, havent we, when someone blunders or
acts in such a party-destroying way that we all just stand where we are in silence,
shocked, almost relieved when someone begins to talk again? No one will forget this spring
day in Passover.
What on earth would cause Jesus to make such a scene in this worship area? Is that any
way to act when you disagree with something? Just up and throw a tantrum? Most of us value
civility. We like to be polite and to be treated with graciousness in return. Even in
worship we prefer some sense of calmness and predictability: thy bulletin and thy Gloria
Patri, they comforteth us. What isnt comforting is a Pentecostal outburst in the
middle of a service that leaves everyone shocked and speechless.
When Matthew, Mark, and Luke get a hold of this story, they know for
heavens sake why Jesus reacted the way he did. In their gospels, Jesus was torqued
that worship had been turned into a marketplace, a fund-raiser, a money-making event. We
know what thats like-worship that includes a carwash, or worship with some Christian
artist hawking her CDs and DVDs after singing praise to Jesus. Makes some us
downright angry. Makes us feel that weve compromised gospel for glitz, worship for
entertainment, or holiness for Hollywood.
Thats the way Matthew, Mark and Luke interpret this story-they defend Jesus
actions as a simple case of confronting extortion and worship-gouging. Making money off of
worshipers is pathetic. Ratcheting up fees and selling animals like used cars in the name
of religion is a terrible thing. Passover time had morphed into hand-it-over time. No
wonder Jesus got vein-popping mad. Jesus was simply lashing out against despicable abuses
that had crept into the worship space.
"See," say some commentators who hold a different take on the story,
"Jesus is human, just like us. He too gets mad!" Well, this makes sense; we can
all agree with that. Jesus sure does get hot under the collar. Could be that. It certainly
would make us feel better when we get angry at the office, to know that Jesus occasionally
flies off the handle.
But thats not what this is about in this gospel account. In Johns gospel
were right in the middle of a different kind of worship war. We dont have a
"see, Jesus is human just like us" and this isnt about selling cookies in
the hallway during worship. Jesus isnt interested in advocating cosmetic changes or
in tidying up our little worship messes. There is something else going on at the core of
the Fourth Evangelists gospel story. To help us, he leaves some clues like bread
crumbs that will lead us to his conviction about this strange spring day in Passover.
Clue #1: Who said you could do that? Ever been challenged by an authority? I was
once driving with the flow of traffic. (Translation: I was driving ever so slightly over
65 mph.) Before long before a friendly driver with a blinking red light on his dash
invited me to pull over and show him my license. Have you ever noticed the physical impact
that such a scenario has on the human body? The heartbeat doubles, the skin gets clammy,
and in my case I have a knee-jerk reaction: I reach for my clerical tab sitting in the cup
holder and frantically stick it into my collar. Im not sure that a priestly driver
increases police sensitivity or lessens the amount of the ticket, but it is my
instinctive, life-embracing reaction when confronted by traffic authorities. Whether
walking down the hall without a permission slip or getting pulled over by the authorities,
being challenged by authorities is intimidating.
"Whats the big idea?" says one official-looking person. "Yeah, who
said you could do that?" says another. "Who do you think you are? God?"
chimes a third. "If God sent you, then what sign do you have to prove that God told
you to do this?" they say with one voice. Authority. Whos got it and where did
it come from? Thats the question this story raises. We can understand why Matthew,
Mark and Luke overlook this part-theyre so focused on Jesus Temple
reformation. But not the Fourth Evangelist. He sees something going on about power and
whos got it.
Clue #2: Show us a miraculous sign to prove your authority is from God. Signs in
the Fourth Evangelists gospel are given to provide greater insight into spiritual
reality. But here the interrogators demand that Jesus show a sign as if it were some badge
of authority that allowed him to drive his unmarked car through the Temple area.
"All right," Jesus says, "Ill give you a sign. Here it is-destroy
this temple and in three days I will raise it up. There? Now are you satisfied?"
Now its their turn to be stunned. They cant believe their ears! I wonder if
the reactions of his listeners ran the gamut-from deep confusion to high hilarity.
"Did he say, tear the Temple down and Ill put it back together again in
three days?" Maybe one of them was an architectural engineer. Guy looks up from
the blueprints and says, "Three days? It took forty-six years to build this Temple,
you whacko-and youre going to do it three days? Guys crazy."
The authorities satisfied that Jesus is incoherent but potentially dangerous, stalk off
to retrieve the animals and set the bingo tables back up. "Psssst," whispers the
Fourth Evangelist, "they didnt get the sign, but you get it dont
you?" He got that right. They didnt get the sign. In fact, the disciples
themselves would be scratching their heads for years about the retort until it finally
dawned on them what the sign was. Jesus had uttered a double entendre, a one-liner with
two possible meanings.
Clue #3: Destroy this Temple (naos). Not only was the Temple a place where the
Presence of God was considered to dwell, but it also referred to a magnificent and newly
rebuilt structure-a marvel of the day. Jesus words foreshadowed a seismic shift: The
Temple will not last forever. "Destroy this Temple and I will raise it up in three
Clue #4: . . . and I will raise it up. Jesus uses a word that at one level is
simply a building constructors word, "to build." Thats how pragmatic
listeners heard him. They thought he was going to bring in the bulldozers and do a quick
prefab reconstruction of the Temple. But egeiro was to early Christians also a code
word that referred to resurrection.
Putting the clues together, the story according to Johns gospel goes like this:
on one spring day in Passover, Jesus walked into a business-as-usual outer precinct of the
Temple bustling with merchants and animals and worshipers and challenged something much
more imposing than a few animal dealers and money changers. On that day Jesus challenged
an entire system-the street address that locked God to a specific place on earth, the way
business was done, and the confidence placed in a structure that was supposed to last
forever. He walked in and claimed a new authority and another locus of worship: Christ
himself was the new temple within which the Spirit and presence of God lived.
This is not one of those stories to give us specific action points or to inspire new
programs. This is a story to give us pause and to invite us to think about our own Temple
practices and authorities. Let me offer some closing questions that we may want to ask of
our worship and work in Gods name.
- Can we run through our orders of worship and be more concerned about doing it right than
whether our whole being is attuned to worshiping God alone?
- Does the thought of contemporary worship vis-à-vis traditional European worship produce
more energy from us than our awareness that Jesus is among us and wants our undivided
- Are we more invested in the machinery-our church programs, rolling out the next project,
launching new fund-raisers-as a way to perpetuate our institution than in fulfilling the
mission to which God has called us-to make disciples among all the nations?
- Have we allowed lesser authorities to usurp Christs authority in the Church?
Hear the Good News! In Jesus, worship has changed from buildings and commerce and
programs to a Person. Jesus is the Temple, the High Priest, and the Sacrifice. In him we
have a new worship and in him we have forgiveness, and in Gods name the Sacrifice
has been offered for our sins. Because one spring day in Passover, Jesus walked into the
Temple precinct. Amen.