Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, November 18, 2018
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Reverencing God's House

John 2:13-25

 One of the mysteries of this passage is when did it happen?  In John’s Gospel, Jesus clears the Temple at the beginning of his ministry.  But in the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus does this at the end of his ministry, during that week between Palm Sunday and Easter.  

 There are basically three possibilities.  One is that John is right and Jesus did it at the beginning.  The second is that the other Gospels are right, and Jesus did it at the end.  Which is more likely, since Matthew, Mark, and Luke were more interested in keeping events in their proper sequence than John.  John was more interested in connecting events according to their meaning.  And the third possibility, which I actually think is the correct one, is that Jesus did it twice, once at the beginning and once at the end of his ministry.  There are a few differences between the two accounts that hint that it might have, in fact, happened twice.

 Regardless of whether it happened at the beginning, the end, or both, this much we know:  It happened at Passover.  Passover was the most important of the annual Jewish festivals.  It remembered God’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, and it was always a time of increased nationalism, and often riots and demonstrations against Rome.  

 It was the biggest of the festivals.  Over a million people would come to Jerusalem each year for it.  All Jews who lived within a certain distance were required to come.  Most Jews who lived in Judea or Galilee or the neighboring regions would come every year.  And all Jews, no matter where they lived, were required to come at least once in their lifetimes.  So the city would be full of visitors from far and near.  

 Unfortunately, it had also become a time of greed.  Animal sacrifices were part of the Temple ritual, and there was a Temple Tax to be paid.  Both became occasions for taking advantage of worshippers.

 The Temple Tax was relatively small.  It equaled about two days’ wages for a common laborer each year.  But the chief priests, the influential members of the priestly families who basically ran the Temple, required that it had to be paid in local currency.  The reason is that most currencies bore the image of the Roman Emperor and had an inscription that called the Emperor a god.  That was idolatry.  So that idolatrous money had to be exchanged for local currency.  And as a matter of “convenience,” the priests

allowed money changers to set up shop in the outermost court of the Temple, the Court of the Gentiles, where everyone, Jew and Gentile, was allowed to go.

 On the one hand, this was a necessary service.  The problem is that the money changers charged exhorbitant fees.  According to the sources I could find, it was 15-20%.  That’s pretty high, compared to the 2-3% you would expect to find at a bank today.  

 And the sacrificial animals offered in Temple also had to be fit for use.  They had to be free from any blemishes or defects.  So if a worshipper brought in an animal that was purchased outside the Temple, it would have to be inspected first.  Fortunately, the priests were willing to inspect animals, for a fee of course.  Not surprisingly, pretty much all of the animals, doves, pigeons, sheep, etc, that were brought in from outside failed the inspection.

 No problem!  There were plenty of merchants in the Court of the Gentiles who were selling animals that had already been inspected and approved.  Of course, the prices inside the Temple were a little bit higher, as much as 20 times higher.  

 And all of this, the money changing and the selling, took place in the Court of the Gentiles.  That was the only place where people who were not Jewish but who still wanted to seek out and worship and learn about God could come to worship and learn and pray.  So this place where supposedly anyone could come to worship had been turned into place of commotion, greed, and taking advantage of pilgrims.  

 Jesus was not happy.  He made a whip, overturned the tables of the money changers, and drove the merchants out.  

 Needless to say, the chief priests were also not happy.  He’s cutting into their profits, at their most profitable time of the year.  He’s undermining their authority.  So they challenge him, “By what authority are you doing this?  What sign will you give to authenticate your right to do this outrageous thing?”

 Jesus responded, “Destroy this Temple, and I’ll raise it up again in three days.”  

They thought he was talking about the Jerusalem Temple.  There were some Jews in the first century who thought that when Messiah came, he would build a new and greater Temple.  But the idea that Messiah would destroy the Temple didn’t fit with their concepts.  

Besides, it was impossible.  How could this Temple be destroyed, let alone rebuilt in three days?  It had taken 46 years to get this far.  The Jerusalem Temple was a massive structure, over one hundred feet high, and the whole Temple structure, including all the courtyards was over 10 acres.  Parts of it were built with blocks that were 40 feet long and 10 feet wide and high.  The construction began in 20 or 19 BC, which means that this was probably 27 AD when these events happened, and the construction would not be complete until 64 AD.  How could Jesus even talk about rebuilding the Temple in three days?

Because Jesus was referring to his body.  He would be killed and rise again to new life in three days.  

What does this story mean for us?  

Some people see Jesus’ anger as an example of his humanity.  To be human is to feel anger.  The difference is that Jesus’ anger is a righteous anger.  Righteous anger is outrage at injustice, rather than a self-serving rage.  After all, Jesus’ anger can’t be a sinful anger.  

 I think that whole line of thinking is kind of suspect.  Do the Scriptures not make it pretty clear that God also experiences anger, righteous anger over injustice?  

 What is much more significant than Jesus’ anger is his authority.  On what basis does he claim the authority to act in this way?  He is given authority by the Father.  And the proof of his God-given authority is that he can lay his life down and take it up again.  No one else has ever been able to make such a claim, and it’s unlikely that anyone else ever will.

 Of course this story has a lot to say about what it means to have reverence for God’s house.  Over the years, I’ve heard plenty of examples of what other people think this story means for reverencing God’s house.  I’ve been told that children running or playing in the church building shows disrespect for God’s house.  I’ve been told that eating food in the church building shows disrespect for God’s house.  I’ve been told that any kind of selling or any kind of exchange of money in the church building shows disrespect for God’s house.  I’ve even been told that fundraising for a good cause shows disrespect for God’s house.  I heard the story one time about a church that was approached to host a fundraising dinner for a family whose daughter was ill with cancer. 

The elders of the church said “no” because it meant the selling of food and exchange of money in the church building.  

 I think what is missing in all those examples is that the focus is on the church building.  God is far more concerned with how we treat people made in his image than in how we treat a building.  Over and over again in the Old Testament, the prophets brought God’s word of judgment on the nation for how they were treating people, how they were oppressing and taking advantage of the poor and the disadvantaged, even as they were fastidious about observing rituals and offering sacrifices.  

 Here in the Jerusalem Temple, pilgrims from distant lands were being cheated.  They were being charged exhorbitant fees for exchanging their currency.  They were being charged to have their sacrifices inspected and rejected, then being charged excessively for approved sacrifices, all under the justification that it brought in money for the Temple.  

 The Gentiles were being excluded from the worship life of the Temple by having their place of worship turned into a marketplace and, as Jesus said, “A den of thieves.”  Any worship that excludes a single person who is seeking God is ungodly worship.  

 God cares far more about justice and compassion and how people treat each other than he does about what kind of sacrifices or gifts we bring to him.  

 And let us not miss this detail:  The real Temple is Jesus’ body, not a building in Jerusalem or even this “temple” where we worship today.  Jesus made this clear in chapter 4 of John’s Gospel, his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well:  Real worship is not about times and places but about worshipping in spirit and in truth.  

 Worship has changed.  It’s not place-focused.  It is person-focused; first and foremost on the person of Jesus, and not to exclude any persons for whom Christ has died.  

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