Third Sunday of Lent; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22
I wonder, have any of you noticed the weather? (I can’t believe I’m asking a room full of Minnesotans that question. Do we ever not notice the weather?) But this weather… May I say, “wow!, not to mention ‘thanks be to God” It got to almost 60 yesterday, beautiful, bright sunshine. And it looks like it’ll be just as phenomenal today. Makes you think about spring cleaning. Opening up the windows, letting that fresh, clean air rush in, and all the dust and cobwebs and stale detritus of the winter flow out.
In Jesus time, it was Passover cleaning. At Passover, traditionally, the home would be cleaned, every inch. Every bit of dust eradicated, every spare morsel of food consumed or thrown away. All the physical detritus and waste of the household would be systematically eliminated.
We are near Passover today as we join Jesus, and he is engaged in some serious housecleaning. The disciples have been called, and have responded to something deeply compelling in this extraordinary rabbi. Already, he has prophesied and spoken authoritatively of things they can barely fathom. They have witnessed the conversion of water to wine in the wedding in Cana. Now they travel to the temple with Jesus.
Understand, saying that they go to the temple is not like saying they go to church on Sunday. Before the temple’s destruction, it was a place of worship, certainly, but so much more. The temple was at the very center of Jewish faith. The temple was not just a house of God, it was God’s house, his pad, his home address, whereabout He put up His divine feet of an evening and settled in for a spot of tea.
The temple was where one came to participate in the complex system of tithes and sacrifices demanded of the pious Jew. Sacrifices required unblemished animals of sundry varieties – who can manage an entire pilgrimage with an unblemished animal? So there must be vendors at the site – a place to acquire such an animal. And you can’t pay for a sacrifice to God with a coin bearing the image of the false God, the emperor Caesar. But that is what you have – it’s the coin of the realm. So there need to be money changers there, to change your tainted coins for Tyrian shekel, with no visage on the coin. It’s noisy. It’s crowded. It’s what must be in order to do the right sacrificial thing.
The disciples are devout people accompanying this charismatic, extraordinary Rabbi to the holiest place they know.
Can you imagine their reaction to Jesus’s dramatic outburst? This gentle, devout man of glorious, flowing, divine ideas goes stark raving mad, seemingly. We call this the “cleansing of the temple”, which has such a wholesome sound to it, but His acts scream of anger and violence. He bodily throws tables. Money soars through the air, feathers are flying. The man brandishes a whip. A WHIP, for heaven’s sake.
This is not gentle Jesus, meek and mild, and it’s a bit, unnerving. We like our kind, sweet Jesus, healer, protector, always in our corner, aways on our side when we’re down. We like that Jesus. This guy we’re seeing today, well, he’s not very nice, is he? These people are following the rules, doing their best to make sure that the system keeps running, enabling everybody else to do the “right” thing. Maybe the worship gets a little lost, but the institution gets protected.
Consider the possibility that this is disturbing because it forces us to confront the notion that following Jesus is not about being nice. In fact, as Father Richard Rohr points out, “….the word ‘nice’ is not in the New Testament. Not once.”
All four of the Gospels contain this story, with slight variations. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the story occurs at the end of Jesus’ ministry, soon before he is arrested and eventually crucified. The event makes sense historically in that part of Jesus’ ministry as it would likely bring various authorities, already in tension with Jesus’ message to the breaking point. John, however, places it very early in Jesus’ ministry. It’s unlikely that there were 2 such events, and unlikely that John simply goofed. He put the story here, at the beginning, to tell us who Jesus is. Jesus is God. As such, He is the disrupter, the radical, the passionate advocate of clearing out all the detritus that stands between God’s people and God.
Lent is a time of spiritual housecleaning. A time when we, individually and as a church, can clear away the detritus that stands between us and God. As we saw with the Temple, this most likely is not a matter of rooting out the deep evil core. The money changers and the merchants served a purpose, keeping the institution going. But the whole system had fallen into these comfortable habits that served to keep the institution running, and failed to realize that those habits had become a block to the worship of God, clogging the courtyard, excluding the poor and the unclean, providing a venue for arrogance and corruption. What comfortable habits do we as individuals fall into that block the worship of God? What comfortable habits do we, as a church, mindlessly maintain that may block access to the poor, the lost, the lonely, the “different”?
Like at the temple, this spiritual housecleaning may not be a sweet, pretty, gentle process. We go through our daily lives, dependent on our habitual rhythms and our pre-conceived notions of God and right. It seems insane to give up those things which are comfortable and fit us well. And yet, “We must,” as theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.” We must embrace “God’s foolishness (which) is wiser than human wisdom.” Expend the spiritual, emotional effort to purge the debris that has arisen between yourself and God. Dare a flash of anger at the institutionalized wisdom that hampers any person’s access to the words of everlasting life.
anna murdock writes, “When tables are overturned and money is scattered, when righteous indignation of our Lord is seen and heard, the least, the lost and the lonely become visible and we become a voice in their gouging world.
When tables are overturned, we might begin to overturn shattered
lives. When feathers fly, we might begin to soar.”
Praise be to God!