Feb. 7, 2021 “An Angry Jesus” Genesis 2:1-3, John 2:12-24
By now you should know I have a vivid imagination. As I read the gospel lesson, I could see the chaos in the temple that day. Jesus was on a cleaning spree. Table flipping over, money flying everywhere, animals stampeding as man and beast fled from the Court of Gentiles. Jesus is there with whip in hand. “Get out of here! How dare your turn my Father’s house into a marketplace.”
This is not a picture of Jesus who is meek and mild, is it? This isn’t the nice, gentle shepherd who leads us into green pastures and beside still waters. This is the angry Jesus, the passionate Jesus, the Jesus who scares us to the core. Why is Jesus so angry about what is happening in the temple?
The scene that greets Jesus during high holy days is not unexpected. Merchants offered sacrificial animals for sale to transient Jews who had traveled long distances to make their annual pilgrimage. Being able to purchase animals at the temple instead of bringing them on the long trek was a convenience. Likewise, the money changers accepted coinage from any number of distant places and replaced them with Tyrian coin required to pay temple tax.
Jesus’ reaction to this typical scene is shockingly aggressive. John portrays Jesus with a whip of cords to drive the crowd from the outer courtyard. In the same way the animal stables are opened, so too are the financial stables. The coins are spilled, the tables heaped with piles of riches are completely overturned.
It is difficult to understand the anger of Jesus. After all, these merchants were not doing anything illegal or immortal. In fact, they were providing a service which helped people to worship. As much as we want to understand this story as an indictment of commerce at the temple, I believe its much, much more than that. Jesus is angry not just with the merchants, but with the entire Jewish religious system that had desecrated God and worship. We would have a real budget problem today if we charged a service fee to handle our offerings. We would be functioning like a bank. That is what’s happening at the temple.
Instead of a place where Jewish pilgrims from several nations could gather to praise and thank Yahweh, the courtyard smelled like a barnyard. Underneath the bleating sheep and cattle noises, you could hear the doves cooing in their cages. At the low tables sat the money changers. The clink, clink of heavy coins was constant, while irritated, impatient voices were raised in argument over the rates of exchange. The temple courtyard was full of intense, busy people trying to get the best deal on an animal for the year’s Passover offering. Even the most righteous Jews would have trouble praying in this place.
The real problem here is not just that Jesus was mad, but that he is at the temple mad, that he is at the Passover mad! Hundreds of worshippers would have been at the temple at any given time during the Passover. This was one of the holiest of feasts for the Jews, because through it they remembered that the death angel “passed over” their homes that last night in Egypt. This is when they paused to remember their deliverance from slavery and when they became integrated as a people of God. Now, of all times, Jesus shows up and really lets them have it right between the eyes!
Why? Simply put, worship had become a market enterprise rather than a spiritual enterprise. Worship had become a matter of ritual—of doing the proper thing at the proper time, rather than a matter of heart and soul. It had become matters of transactions rather than relationships: you pay your money, and you get forgiveness.
Or as in our modern church, you just say a few words and accept Jesus as your Savior and all will be forgiven, and you will go to heaven when you die. Now before you revolt, hear me out. There is nothing wrong with what I just said, except when that is all there is to one’s faith. There was nothing wrong with the Jews buying doves, goats, lambs, and cattle for sacrifice, except when that was all there was to their faith.
Do you think Jesus got their attention as he brandished the whip like a maniac? If this stranger was going to act like a prophet, they wanted proof. “Give us a sign,” they said. And then what he did next seemed preposterous. Their leaders had been collecting money and working on this building for 46 years. What kind of braggart was this who claimed to be able to raise up the Jerusalem temple in only 3 days? Well, he didn’t mean the actual building. He was referring to the Temple as the place of worship of the one true God, and they had just about destroyed their covenant with Yahweh one more time. The priest needed money and they found a way to get it, but it was a horrible compromise of the principles of their own faith. Everyone who came for Passover quickly learned what the unwritten rules were. Even the poorest peasants would be cheated by the money changers; there was no justice in the temple for the downtrodden. The golden rule that was in place was this: “He who has the gold, makes the rules.” They were all going along to get along, until Jesus showed up—with a whip. The Sanhedrin tribunal would remember this action in a few days when Jesus would appear before them and would be condemned. This time he would be the recipient of the whip.
Jack Benny once did a skit to illustrate how money can become more important to us than anything else. Jack was walking down the street when an armed robber approached him and ordered, “Your money or your life!” There was pause and Jack did nothing. The robber said, “Well, what will it be?” Jack replied, “Don’t rush me, I’m thinking about it.” In the place of money, fill in the item that means the most to you.
One day a rich man who had a miserable disposition visited a rabbi. The rabbi took the man by the hand and led him to a window. “Look out there, what do you see?”
The rich man said, “I see men and women and children.” Again, the rabbi took to the mirror. “Now what do you see?” “Now I see myself,” said the rich man. Then the rabbi said, “Behold in the window there is glass, and in the mirror, there is glass. Bu the glass in the mirror is covered with a little silver, and no sooner is the silver added than you cease to see others, but you see only yourself.”
When our faith is determined more by what we want or need than by what God wants for us, then we are destined to become more like Walmart than the Church of Jesus Christ. We have so contaminated the nature of the church that often people go “church shopping” with the attitude of seeing which church offers the most bang for the buck, rather than spending time in prayer seeking God’s will. Too many of us are singing, Standing on the Promises, when we are sitting on the premises. I wonder what cheats you out of the time you need to spend in personal devotion to God or reflecting on just where your life in Christ is going these days? What needs to be cleaned out of your life because it is taking up too much time and space? It may be a simple couple of sitcoms or an evening on the internet. What is it that keeps you from hearing the still, small voice of God?
Jesus is striking out at a loss of sacredness, at a loss of a sense of holy places and holy times, which is revealing a loss of relationship with Holy God. When worship becomes duty rather than love, obligation rather than opportunity, it is not long before it becomes optional altogether. When we lose worship, when we lose the sense of the Holy God among us, we have lost what makes us special creatures of God. Whenever I see a person drop out of church and worship, except for medical reasons, I know it won’t be long before God becomes a distant memory. When God becomes a distant memory, we have opened our lives to all manner of chaos. For without the Spirit, creation always returns to chaos—every time.
One lesson I have been learning as I get older is about limits. There are all kinds of limits, but the hardest to accept are the ones about time and energy. I have figured out that God is not going to give me more hours in the day to accomplish the long list of things I think have to be done. There are definitely new limits on my time and energy. I really can’t concentrate on anything abstract after 9pm. Its as if my brain has notified me it is on vacation and waving goodbye. Some days this occurs earlier than usual!
Each day’s time and energy are precious—as precious as a temple that took more than 46 years to build. Cleaning out the money changers that rob us of time with God is one of the tasks of the Lenten season. What needs to be cleaned out so that you feel connected with God each day? How do you leave the marketplace behind so it doesn’t take over your life and separate you from the source of life and love? Millions of people want to have immortality. They are the same people who don’t know what to do on a rainy day.
A study shows that an average 70-year-old man has spent 24 year sleeping, 14 years working, 8 years in amusements, 6 years at the dinner table, 5 years in transportation, 4 year in conversation, 3 years in education, and 2 years in studying and reading. His other 4 years were spent in miscellaneous pursuits. Of those 4 years, he spent 45 minutes in church on Sunday and 5 minutes devoted to prayer each day. This adds up to a not at all impressive total of 5 months that he gave to God over the 70 years of his life. Even if he had been a faithful churchgoer who attended Sunday school and 3 one-hour services a week, he would have spent only one year and 9 months in church. If you have a question about this arithmetic, sit down and figure out how you have been using your time. How large a portion of it for the things related to God? When you finish the exercise, ponder what Jesus asked, “What good will it do a man if he gains the whole world yet forfeits his soul?” (Mt. 16:26)
To regain a sense of the awesomeness of God, we can begin by regaining a sense of the Sabbath. The Sabbath was meant to be a separate time, a holy time, in which we consciously pause to nurture our souls. The Sabbath was to be a reminder that life is not all about who we are or what we do, but that this is more about who God is and what God does. Through a genuine Sabbath rest, of deep worship composed of heartfelt prayers and serious wrestling with the scriptures, we can regain the sense God’s presence and renewal of our souls. When was the last time you let your mind rest and your soul soak in the presence of God? It takes a long time for a soul to heal from starvation—much longer than we could ever dream. Much as those with anorexia learn to live on very little, if not no food at all, so we learn to live on just enough spiritual food to get by. Our souls can slowly wither and die, and we don’t even notice. Food for thought.
Today, the third of the Artisans of the Cross series, you will hear the testimony of the Blacksmith. Hold the small nail found in you packet. Then just listen. Followed by the unison poem in your bulletin.
Closing Prayer: Gracious God, help us to rest in you and when we do, feed our souls. Call us into a relationship with you where we can be restored by your living presence in Christ Jesus. He is the wellspring for our thirst and the bread for every hungry heart. Let us bask in your holiness and your love with our whole being and find respite in the Sabbath of our days. As we have gathered in this holy place, we believe that you are turning us toward the eternity of your love. Your purpose for us and for all humankind comes into focus with the light of the Passion of Christ on the horizon. Let us live in hope that whatever the evils of men, there is power at work that brings order to chaos, peace out of war, light of community out of the midnight of despair. We pray for our families: where there is brokenness of body, of the mind, of the spirit, we pray for the healing grace that you alone can provide. Walk with us Lord, through the valleys, lighting our way with your presence until we come at last to the foot of the cross. May what we bring be blessed and multiplied for your kingdom work, may our hands be your hands to care for those in need, may our spirits be strong for those whose spirits have waned. Father we pray all these things in the name of Jesus Christ who taught us to pray…Our Father…
Feb. 14 “God So Loved the World” Numbers 21:4-9, John 3: 14-21
Feb. 21 “Whenever We Want to See Jesus” John 12: 20-23
Feb. 28 Palm Sunday “Fairweather Fans or Followers?” Isaiah 30:4-9a, Mark 11:1-11
Mar. 4 Easter Sunday “The Misplaced Christ” John 20:1-18