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Who 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 Egypt.

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 didn’t make for a very relaxing trip. Not surprisingly, many worshipers would purchase their animal in Jerusalem.

Here’s 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 Father’s 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 dumbstruck.

We’ve been in those awkward situations, haven’t 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 isn’t 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 heaven’s 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 that’s like-worship that includes a carwash, or worship with some Christian artist hawking her CD’s and DVD’s after singing praise to Jesus. Makes some us downright angry. Makes us feel that we’ve compromised gospel for glitz, worship for entertainment, or holiness for Hollywood.

That’s 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 that’s not what this is about in this gospel account. In John’s gospel we’re right in the middle of a different kind of worship war. We don’t have a "see, Jesus is human just like us" and this isn’t about selling cookies in the hallway during worship. Jesus isn’t 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 Evangelist’s 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. I’m 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.

"What’s 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. Who’s got it and where did it come from? That’s the question this story raises. We can understand why Matthew, Mark and Luke overlook this part-they’re so focused on Jesus’ Temple reformation. But not the Fourth Evangelist. He sees something going on about power and who’s got it.

Clue #2: Show us a miraculous sign to prove your authority is from God. Signs in the Fourth Evangelist’s 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, "I’ll 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 it’s their turn to be stunned. They can’t 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 I’ll 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 you’re going to do it three days? Guy’s 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 didn’t get the sign, but you get it don’t you?" He got that right. They didn’t 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 days."

Clue #4: . . . and I will raise it up. Jesus uses a word that at one level is simply a building constructor’s word, "to build." That’s 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 John’s 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 God’s 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--vis traditional European worship produce more energy from us than our awareness that Jesus is among us and wants our undivided devotion?
  • 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 Christ’s 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 God’s name the Sacrifice has been offered for our sins. Because one spring day in Passover, Jesus walked into the Temple precinct. Amen.