19 March 2006

Third Sunday in Lent

Texts: Romans 7:13-25; Psalm 19:7-14; John 2:13-22.

The last time I preached, Jesus was audaciously forgiving sins in front of the religious establishment. In the Gospel reading today, he is at it again. His bold actions in both situations come out of his emotions. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, we are told that he is moved by pity and compassion to heal, to comfort, and so on. But in Jerusalem, Jesus is beside himself with anger.

On finding merchants and money changers at the temple, he is incited to violence. His violent response is shocking to us, primarily because we hear so much of the friendly, welcoming, and loving Jesus, the Son of Man who heals the sick and welcomes children as an example to his disciples. Our culture has created a caricature of Jesus as someone rather like a cross between the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. Instead, Saint John tells us of Jesus driving people and animals out of the forecourt, yelling and carrying on like something atrocious is happening.

For Jesus, something atrocious has happened. The presence of commerce at the entrance to the temple, the herds of animals, and the people who are buying and selling: these are all distracting from the worship of God within the temple. He is on fire with a righteous anger, and he lets it out in spectacular form.

I want to speak for a moment about the motive force that underlies Jesus’ response. The presence of merchants at the temple was common practice at the time, and they served a specific purpose. As pilgrims arrived, they would be able to purchase the animals they needed for sacrifices to God. In this way, pilgrims – good and devout Jews – could be assured of finding the proper animals on their arrival and would not have to bring them on their journey. It simplified the adherence to the Law. The religious authorities could not accept Roman coinage, so the money changers were present to take, for a fee, Roman coins in exchange for temple currency. All of this was permitted by the priests and scribes, but Jesus challenged the economic system that the temple authorities have created. It is not only the fact that the merchants and moneychangers were present, but they symbolized for Jesus the misguided system of the Temple. The system, as a whole, defiled the purpose that the Temple was meant to serve.

What is striking in the Judaic context, is the priority Jesus gives to worshiping God, over and above properly fulfilling the Law. The religious establishment adhered quite strictly to the Law and the prescriptions it gives for Jewish life and worship. The Law made no mention of excluding merchants from the forecourt of the Temple, but it was quite specific about the sacrifices to be made to God. But in the Temple of Jesus time, the activity of commerce distracts from the worship of God. Jesus’ actions tell us, in our modern circumstances, where our attention ought to be. Our worship and the spaces in which we worship belong to God. The Church – buildings, people, policies – are so often caught up in the demands of the world and in the traditions that have been handed on. Our particular branch of the church, with its emphasis on liturgy, risks becoming wrapped up in ritual. As with Judaism, we have a set of practices that help to define who we are as a worshiping community. But our liturgies and rituals should never be the endpoint, the goal. They should, instead, be the way we move toward God. Being a liturgical tradition requires holding in tension the practices of worship with the One we honor and glorify. Jesus reminds us to stop and think now and again about where our center is. In Jerusalem, the center of attention and activity had moved out of the Temple and into the marketplace. For us, God is our center, both as a community and as individuals.

I thought that I would be telling you to leave behind the distractions of the world and to clear your mind to make room for God. But I realized that this would not be true to who we are as human beings, nor would it be an honest relationship with God. All of the stuff of life clings to us; it troubles us or brings us joy. It is impossible to shed our feelings and lives at the church door, and we should not even try to do it. I say this because God does not want us to worship Him as emptied shells, but as we really are.

Instead, I hope the story of Jesus driving out the merchants with a whip of cords serves to remind us of how we worship God today. Let your worries and joys come with you into this moment. They should be here, because they are part of you. Let them be present, but not the point. The aim of our worship is God, our Creator, Jesus, our Redeemer, and the Spirit, our Sanctifier.

The Temple authorities were drawn away from God by the trade outside their worship. The issue was not so much that pilgrims needed to buy sacrifices and that there were people to sell them. Jesus was provoked to anger at the defiling of God’s worship. The concerns of trading had taken the place of God as the center of the Temple’s activity. It consumed the attentions and energies of the priests, merchants, scribes, pilgrims: everyone involved. And it left very little room for God. What this tells us is that all of the things we do to come to church should not leave us without the energy to give ourselves over to God in this time and place. As Christians, the foundation of our faith is Jesus Christ: his love, his message, and his death and resurrection. From this foundation, our lives and worship as a Church, the body of Christ, are directed toward God.