Epiphany 3 (NL4)
January 21, 2018
Introduction to the Story:
To understand today’s text, we need a bit of background on 1st century Jewish worship practices. In 1st century Judaism, it was understood that God dwelt in the Temple in Jerusalem. And so around certain feasts (such as Passover), faithful Jews would travel to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple. An important part of worship was animal sacrifice. And so the scene that we are about to see with people changing money and selling animals was a necessary one. They are selling worship supplies, just like today we buy communion wafers, or oil for candles or hymnals. Travelers from Galilee, for instance, couldn’t haul with them a goat or a dove to sacrifice. They also couldn’t use coins with Caesar’s face on it to pay Temple tax, so they had to change the money when they got there. So while the system may not have been perfect, those tables that were set up were there to enable people to worship God in the way they understood to be correct. All of which makes Jesus’ response to the scene all the more surprising.
Another interesting point about this account is that, while the cleansing of the Temple is a story that appears in all four Gospels, the other three all place it at the end, right before Jesus’ passion – in fact as the event that precipitates his arrest. John places it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, as if setting something up for us as we continue to witness his ministry. What is he setting up?
Some things to think about as we hear this story! Now, please rise for the Gospel acclamation.
I gotta say… I like this Jesus. I like him because I can’t relate very well to a Jesus who is meek and mild and always keeps his cool, who’s never riled up. That just can’t be true about someone who is fully human. I like him because he shows us that righteous anger is okay, that God gets angry about injustice and that this can be holy if it drives you toward working for justice. Most of all, I like this Jesus because as he is whipping around those cords and turning over tables, he is fighting his way out of the box that we so want to keep him in: the box in which Jesus is always gentle and kind, in which Jesus – and with him, God – is domesticated, palatable, understandable, and easy to take. God is not those things, and so neither is God-made-flesh, and this text shows us so in no uncertain terms.
And I think that is what John is trying to show us by putting this story right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is making an important statement about who he is, and what is different now that he is around. And namely, in this encounter, what has completely changed is the way people meet and interact with God. Until now, it was understood that the Temple was the one and only dwelling place of God. Synagogues were all over as places to pray and to hear scripture read and interpreted, but God wasn’t there – God could be found only in the Temple in Jerusalem. That’s why people took such pains to get there, and why this whole system of selling animals and changing money had developed, to accommodate that practice. But now that Jesus is here, where does God dwell? What did we hear on Christmas about that?… God dwells “among us.” Among us, in the person of Jesus Christ. So that is why Jesus is making such a fuss at the Temple: it is to tell people, “All this mess is unnecessary! Why are you making this a marketplace? You don’t need this Temple. I am the Temple! You don’t need to come here and buy sacrifices and change your money to meet God: God is standing right here in front of you!!”
How unnerving that must have been! For someone to stand there and tell you (with whip in hand!), “This thing that you’ve always done, this way you have always known to interact with God, this thing that you’ve been telling yourself is right and good – it’s not! It’s way off!” I can imagine Jesus wasn’t the only one who was mad at that moment! Even today, we have a hard time accepting change to things that we have done a certain way for a long time. Even here – we started doing worship a little differently, using a different set of readings and presenting them differently, and I know that a lot of people have had some trouble with that. I get it! I also love to be comfortable and know what to expect. I also wouldn’t appreciate someone coming in the door with a whip, turning over tables and saying, “Nope! You’re doing this wrong!” We like to stay in our comfortable boxes.
And not just in worship. We don’t like disruption in any of the things that bring us a sense of security, whether that is change in our families, or change in our town, or change in our country. I listened to a piece this week on “This American Life” about the town of Albertville, AL, which has experienced a dramatic increase of Latino immigrants over the past few decades. For 8 months, the show interviewed locals, immigrants, business owners… and the response from the locals was just what you would expect. The underlying current was, “It’s not like it used to be, and I don’t like it,” (with, of course, a healthy dose of blaming!). Despite their perception, however, the influx of immigrants, many of them undocumented, had actually improved the economy in the town, providing more and better jobs for longtime locals, not fewer. In fact, the town is thriving today. So they were right – it wasn’t like it used to be – but in this case, that wasn’t a bad thing. It was different, and that takes getting used to. No one likes to have their applecart, or their tables, overturned.
But perhaps our desire for keeping things the same, even if “the same” is ultimately an unhelpful system, like that of the Temple, is putting our faith and trust in powers offering false security. As one pastor writes, “I read the cleansing of the temple as a stark warning against any and every false sense of security. Misplaced allegiances, religious presumption, pathetic excuses, smug self-satisfaction, spiritual complacency, nationalist zeal, political idolatry, and economic greed in the name of God are only some of the tables that Jesus would overturn in his own day and in ours.” Ouch – I definitely see some of myself in that list! Maybe we need Jesus to take his whip and his words right into our hearts!
Well. It is easy to focus on the table-turning. This is the dramatic, and the difficult part of the passage. But you see, Jesus doesn’t turn over those tables of false security and then drop the mic and walk out. No, he shares with them a new reality, a deeper sense of security. No longer do they need this system in place, because he was offering them something new: he was offering them the presence of God dwelling among them, full of grace and truth. He was offering them direct access to God, wherever they might be, wherever they might need God’s presence. He was offering himself to them as the Temple, a Temple which could not be destroyed, but would always be there to give them access to the God of love and grace.
Change is never easy, that’s for sure – perhaps especially when it is presented to us so dramatically. But Jesus’ radical reaction shows us that while seeking and finding our security in God, rather than any number of false sources, can be at first unnerving, shocking, and uncomfortable… it can also bring light and life to our darkness. That Jesus could be the presence of God dwelling among the people required a complete shift in thinking for a people who only knew God to dwell in the Temple, and this new reality was utterly astonishing… just like it might be uncomfortably different and utterly astonishing for us to find God at work among us, in our day-to-day life, not only in our best and most admirable moments, but also in our difficult decisions, our most embarrassing failures, our lowest points. But the good news is that God sees us in all those places, the good and the bad, and loves us still. God sees and knows what we do and say, and still forgives us for our shortcomings. And a God who dwells among us, dispelling our darkness with God’s light, is life-giving news indeed.
Let us pray… Present God, we often seek our security in false promises and beliefs. Help us to see you dwelling among us, and to place our trust in only you. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.