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Third Sunday in Lent
13The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. 15Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!” 17His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. 23When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing.
The wedding in Cana had been such a lovely experience; the disciples just couldn’t stop thinking about it. In the midst of the crush and tumble of the wedding celebration, something new had been silently unfolding. Jesus had performed a miracle by turning water into wine, saving the reputation of the host and bestowing upon the newly committed disciples a little affirmation that they had made the right choice in following Jesus.
“This is going to be really sweet,” they thought to themselves as they made their way to the temple for the Passover celebration. “He’s a miracle worker. We’ve hit the jackpot.” The disciples congratulated themselves over and over for having the wisdom and insight and daring to take a risk on an unknown who was looking good. They waited in line, thinking these things to themselves as they counted out their Roman change to pay the temple tax, coins which had to be changed into Jewish currency to be an acceptable temple offering. Suddenly they were jolted out of their daydreams by a commotion. Jesus had slammed his fist down on the table. “Uh oh,” thought one of them,” Jesus has been short-changed. How so very like the moneychangers who worked the temple. They were doing the hundreds of out-of-towners whose pockets bulged with foreign currency a big favor. The moneychangers made it easy for the pilgrims who came directly to the temple for Passover to change their money right there. But sometimes they did charge a high exchange fee, or tweaked the numbers a bit. Suddenly everything became a blur. Jesus slammed his fist down on the table again, and then grabbed the edge and flipped the table on its back in an instant. Coins flew everywhere. And he didn’t stop there. He opened the cages of the small doves and other animals that could be purchased as a sacrifice for the temple. Again, a favor to those who traveled so far. Jesus hurled the cages and wings flapped and feet scampered as the animals made their escapes. He grabbed a handful of cords and lashed them at the retreating animals and shook them at the frightened money changers. Later, when the dust had settled, Jesus sat watching one dove that went around and around in circles, dragging its broken wing behind him, cooing in pain or confusion. But before that, in the middle of the ruckus, they had heard Jesus shout: “Take these things away! You shall not make of my Father’s house a house of trade.”
Who was this man? The disciples had been terrified and exhilarated by Jesus’ rage. What had they gotten themselves into? They had seen Jesus snap at his mother at the wedding, but was this temple tantrum a sign of some deeper instability or merely the political genius of someone sending out a clear message that his intentions were to be taken seriously. Jesus had wasted no time in antagonizing the powerful. In the other three gospels, the cleansing of the temple occurs at the end of his ministry, just before he is crucified, when he has been worn down by the criticism of the religious establishment. But here, in John, Jesus starts out in a rage and grabs our attention. At first, we look at the scene in John and say: “Yes! Throw the scoundrels out. Show them what’s what.” We cheer him on, until Jesus slowly takes his eyes off of the broken bird and looks at us with the same smoldering stare. How is this passage about us? How can we tolerate the anger of Jesus?
The set-up at the Temple was a complicated compromise with Rome. God’s people lived with the realities of being an occupied people, and uneasy deals had been made with Rome. The changing of Roman money into coins that would not offend Jewish temple practices was one of those adjustments that had been made. An attack on Temple practices was an indirect attack on Rome. Jesus rages against this collusion with Rome. We can’t but wonder how Jesus would rage at a church that has made uneasy compromises with the Powers That Be since the time of the conversion of Constantine. The church has an ugly history of selling its soul to the power of war, the Crusades being the most glaring example of this. We can not help but think of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in relationship to the rage of Jesus. Did we speak out enough against these wars? Jesus rages against the machine, the great war machine. Although many of us rage with him, the truth of our insecure position in this world is revealed: we are caught between devotion to Rome and to God. Our mixed loyalties are revealed in the light of Jesus’ anger, for his frightening rage burns with the white hot intensity of a thousand suns.
And there was another dimension to Jesus’ message to those in the temple, and another truth revealed that challenges us to look more deeply at ourselves. “You’ve made too much clutter between the people and God,” Jesus says. And we look at the busy, noisy scene in the temple, and think of the sacred silence beyond, the holy of holies, the vast, spare mercy seat in the inner sanctum of the temple. We can almost see how the noise, the rituals and all that has grown up around it to sustain the practices of the temple seeping into the holy, sacred silent place of God, drowning out any possibility of a real encounter with the Holy.
What if Jesus were to come storming into our hallowed place, interrupt all our rituals, sacred and profane, and slam his fists down on our communion table? Would we be shocked? Startled? Horribly offended? Probably. Would we dare to take him the least bit seriously and wonder how we, too, might be keeping people from God by our very best efforts of being religious? There is a French proverb that says: “He who is near the church is often far from God.” How terribly insulting. But sometimes it is also terribly true. There are many among us who have stories to tell about how they have been deeply wounded by Christ’s church, rejected, hurt, and frightened away by people who meant well but failed to understand the deeply welcoming nature of God’s love for all.
Years ago my spiritual director, Leith, told me that every month she would have lunch with a friend whose one job it was to tell Leith stories about people who have found God in church. Leith said “I hear so many stories about people who have lost God in church that I need my friend to remind me on a regular basis that God can still be found in church.”
Surely Jesus doesn’t mean us? Surely the past two weeks in the life of this church show the church at its best, providing love and support to one another during a time of tremendous personal loss as we watched our sister Martha Jane die. We try so hard to be faithful, and kind, and loving. But in spite of our best efforts, is it possible that we, too, may at times drown out the Holy in our lives? Have our wounded efforts seeped into the silence of the holy of holies, contaminating and diluting the power of the holy in our lives. Surely Jesus doesn’t mean us?
But we have to ask ourselves: are there times or places where we have gotten in the way of God? In our churches, have we allowed committee meetings and budget problems and petty grievances with one another block someone’s way to God? In our families, have we allowed busy schedules or old angers or unresolved issues defeat any attempt at true intimacy with God and each other? In our work, does our obsession with getting ahead, or even hanging on by our fingernails become more important than acting as God would have us act? Our souls ache for a true experience of the Holy, one that will call forth our truest, deepest selves. We hunger for God, and yet sometimes we are no longer clear what it is we hunger for. So we come to church, and we keep things running, and we keep busy, and we develop good programs to meet the needs of the people. Yet the silence of God, in the holy place within, calls to us. There is a deep mysterious holiness that calls to us, beyond church, beyond religion, beyond all of our best efforts to be good.
Jesus turns his smoldering stare on us, and we are stunned by how deeply we need his mercy. We are frightened by your anger, Jesus. Grant us the courage to ask these hard questions of ourselves. Show us your mercy, Jesus. Amen.