Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, January 22, 2022
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Worshipping God and Not Religion

John 2:13-22

When I was a teenager, there was a fad in Christian circles of wearing bracelets with the letters WWJD on them: “What would Jesus do?” Well, the Gospels remind us that “flipping over tables and chasing people around with a whip” might be a legitimate answer to that question.

In all seriousness, we see Jesus here, like other prophets, expressing righteous indignation at injustice. And we should be indignant at injustice, too. But we should be careful that our indignation is righteous, and not just selfish. Sometimes we have a tendency to confuse the two.

It’s Passover time. Passover was the biggest of the three major Jewish festivals. Passover itself was just one day, but it was followed by the week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread.

Many Galilean Jews would travel to Jerusalem each year for the big festivals. And there were many more pilgrims from outside the land of Canaan, since all Jews were required to make at least one pilgrimage to Jerusalem. There could be as many as two million people in Jerusalem at Passover time.

There’s an interesting question here though: Did Jesus cleanse the Temple at the beginning of his ministry, as John’s Gospel reports, at the end of his ministry, as the other Gospels say, or did he do it twice?

It would be unlikely he did it twice, since the Temple Guards would keep a pretty close eye on him after the first time. If he only did it once, then it was more likely at the end. John’s Gospel is far less concerned with the chronology of events than the other three are. According to the date given in the text, this is the 46th year of work on the Temple, which would make this 27 AD. Twenty-seven AD is one of three possible years of Jesus’ crucifixion, the other two being 30 and 33 AD. If he did do it twice, then 27 and 30 AD would fit, as well. In the end, we have no way to be sure.

Jesus is in the Temple, specifically in the Court of the Gentiles. This was the outermost of the three courts, and it was the only one where anyone could go. The two inner courts were only for Jewish people.

The merchants and money-changers have set up shop here. One of the other Gospels also tells us that people were carrying goods through the Temple. Apparently, it had become a “shortcut” between parts of the upper and lower city.

Now it was necessary for there to be merchants and money-changers. Pilgrims needed to buy animals for the sacrifices, since it would be difficult to bring an animal 1000 miles with you. And the Temple tax had to be paid in the local currency, since the foreign currencies all had “idolatrous images” on them.

But the merchants and the money-changers didn’t have to be in the Court of the Gentiles. This is the only place where non-Jews could come to worship, pray, and learn. According to the understanding of the day, worship had to be done on holy ground. The only holy ground for Gentiles had been turned into a noisy marketplace.

And they certainly didn’t need to be cheating people. This was probably the bigger issue. The money-changers would charge up to 50% to exchange currency for the Temple tax or for buying sacrificial animals. And the prices for “approved” sacrificial animals inside the Temple could be 15 or even 20 times higher than for “non-approved” animals outside the Temple.

Jesus shuts down this “gravy train” at Passover time, the busiest time of the year. This was the equivalent of someone taking the NFL off TV on Super Bowl Sunday. And they weren’t happy!

The story reminds us that religion can be misused for material gain. And when that happens, it gives ammunition to those who oppose Christ. Lately, I’ve seen a lot of criticism leveled against the Church for its “greed.” Some of it is well-deserved criticism for the luxurious lifestyles of “mega-church” pastors and televangelists.

This also happens in other ways. Church should not be viewed as a place to “network” or build up our business contacts. I’ve heard a lot of criticism over the years directed at multi-level marketing companies, Avon, Thirty-One, etc., for using church relationships to makes sales and to recruit. As is always the case, sometimes the criticism is deserved.

Religion should be about knowing God and doing his will, not personal gain.

Everyone understood Jesus’ actions to be a Messianic claim. He claims the Temple as “My Father’s House.” That was a pretty bold claim! And the religious elites want to know, “By what authority are you doing this? Prove you have this authority.”

The proof Jesus offers is, “If you destroy this Temple, I will raise it up in three days.” Jesus’ authority derives from his death and resurrection. By his death and resurrection, Jesus is raised to the highest throne, at the right hand of the Father, far above all rulers, powers, and authorities.

But the religious elites are still fixated on the physical Temple, which was in the middle of a six-decade long restoration and expansion. They were so focused on a physical structure that they missed out on the real presence and activity of God, which was Jesus himself.

The trappings of religion, things like buildings, music, traditions, and so on, can all become substitutes for the real point of religion, which is to know God, to glorify him, and to honor him by doing his will. There is a danger in the Church of equating our institutions of religion with the power and presence of God. And when we do that, we close ourselves off to the possibility of God’s Spirit bringing about change and reformation.

Worship changed with the coming of Jesus. Up until Jesus, worship was restricted to “sacred space.” But through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is now present with his people, “where two or three gather,” he is there. As Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4: “The time is coming when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” Be careful that when you worship, you are worshipping God and not the trappings of religion.

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