Exodus 20:1-17 Psalm 19 I Corinthians 1:18-25
Last Sunday’s text focused on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. You remember Peter’s example – Peter rebuking Jesus. Today’s text, so familiar to us, asks what it means to be the church of Jesus. Passover is near and hearts and minds are focused on the exodus story and expectations for deliverance. The Passover celebration took place yearly at the temple in Jerusalem. Every Jewish male was expected to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem during this time. This was generally a week-long festival – the Passover was one day, and the Feast of Unleavened Bread followed the rest of the week. The entire week commemorated the freeing of the Jews from slavery in Egypt.
A faithful Jew, Jesus comes into the temple, into the sacred space, the dwelling place of God on earth. It was a magnificent place. Herod the Great, hoping to win over his ungrateful servants began a massive restoration and expansion of the temple that was still going on in Jesus’ day. What a sight it must have been! But we know that appearances can be deceiving. Jesus enters the temple to find a mess, no sacred space, no quiet to commune with God, no honoring of the holy space. He found a circus. The Court of the Gentiles looked and sounded like an open air market. Cows bellowing, sheep bleating, turtledoves cooing, people yelling, coins clanging. Some of the activity may have been necessary, because the Temple tax had to be paid with temple coins, so money had to be changed. The religious leaders rationalized allowing money changers and merchants into the court, saying it was a convenience for the worshippers. But really it made money for the upkeep of the temple. The religious leaders didn’t seem bothered by that. The Court of the Gentiles was so crowded that foreigners found it difficult to worship. And worship was the main purpose for visiting the temple. No wonder Jesus was angry.
The temple tax had to be paid in local currency, so foreigners had to have money changed. But the money changers often overcharged the folks. The people were also required to make sacrifices for sins. Because of the long journey, many couldn’t bring their own animals. Some brought animals but they had them rejected because of imperfections- had to have a perfect sacrifice. The animal merchants did a flourishing business in the temple courtyard. The price of the sacrificial animals was much higher than anywhere else. Jesus was angry at the dishonest, greedy practices of the moneychangers and merchants, and he particularly disliked their presence on the temple grounds. They were making a mockery of God’s house.
God’s temple was being misused by people who had turned it into a marketplace. They had forgotten, or didn’t care, that God’s house is a place of worship, not a place for making a profit. Jesus is obviously angry at the merchants who exploited those who had come to God’s house to worship. All of this activity was in service to the temple, but…did these services have to happen inside the temple grounds? Was it necessary to rob the Gentiles of the one area they were allowed to enter and pray? Entering the temple, Jesus discovers how deceiving appearances can be. While the place appeared to fulfill its function, a closer look revealed that it had forgotten its purpose. The trappings were in place, but the place had no heart for what it was created to be. It had been taken over by the buyers and sellers, consumers and marketers who knew how to fill the pews and meet the capital campaign goals. It had lost its heart.
The ways of the world seem to invade the church gradually, subtly, rarely intentionally, always in the service of the church and its mission. Soon the church is full of cattle and sheep and turtledoves and moneychangers. Jesus is outraged. Moving through the market place with a “whip”, he created holy havoc. He left no tables unturned and no one untouched. Picture the familiar scene: tables turning over, coins bouncing across the floor, animals squealing and running for the hills, turtledoves flapping their wings and Jesus crying out, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market place.”
Challenges to the status quo will always be disputed. And Jesus has issued quite a challenge. Notice that those challenged did not ask “why” Jesus had acted in such a way. They knew that one day the Lord or the Lord’s anointed would suddenly appear in the temple to straighten things out. They asked Jesus for evidence that he was the one with authority to do this. After all, they were doing the things the way they were doing them, because they believed they were doing them right. They had no intention of violating God’s purposes. They would never knowingly oppose God. Isn’t that always the case? Yet Jesus’ words and actions suggest that the temple authorities were acting in opposition to God’s purposes.
Lent offers us an opportunity to ask whether we are destroying the temple. Lent is the church’s annual spring cleaning. It is our chance to take an honest look at who we are and compare that to the person, the community of faith, the church, that God hopes we can be. We are individuals in Christ, but we come together as the family of God, the Church, to live out God’s vision.
You may remember a couple of months ago, I preached on forgiveness. Each of us was given a rock to hold onto to symbolize something unforgiven in our lives. I asked you to hold the rock throughout the sermon to remember what, when, who you needed to forgive. Then when you came up for communion, I asked that you bring the rock and give that burden to God. Those rocks were blessed and given to God on the altar. It is those rocks that are a part of the display behind the altar. Those rocks represent how we are to live as a community of faith. We are to forgive each other, to have empathy for each other, to laugh together, to cry together, to be there for each other, to care for each other. We are to bear each other’s burdens. The display is to remind us of the starkness of our lives when we forget who and whose we are. It is to call us to come closer to God during Lent, but also to come closer to each other. There is much to learn!
We talked last Sunday about the disciples’ expectations of the Messiah. But don’t we have expectations about Jesus, too. Meek Jesus, let the children come to me. Sympathetic Jesus, heal Jairus’ daughter. Patient Jesus, teaching the disciples over and over and over again. But what about the turning over the tables Jesus? What are we to learn from this? One answer comes from how we see the life and ministry of Jesus lived out in the mission and ministry of the church. Yes, the church is a building, but the true church is the people who worship, the people who are the hands and heart and feet of Christ. We are the church. In everything that we do in the community, in our family, in our work, we are the church. Micah reminds us that God requires us to act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God. Jesus knew how the people felt when they were crowded out of that sacred space, much as we feel when we are ignored or overlooked. Jesus was so absorbed in keeping the space in the temple sacred space, so that the people could be fed, so that the people would be prepared for their long journey home from Jerusalem.
It is one thing to love this space, to care for this space, to be reverent in this space. It is another thing to step over the homeless on the street, to not speak to coworkers, to ignore those in pain, to have blinders on until Sunday. Jesus cared about the space, not because it was beautiful, that it was, but what the space meant to the emotional and spiritual life of the people. We don’t worship in a void. We don’t live in a void. We are connected to God and to each other through our communal worship, through our prayers, through touching each other’s lives.
That is what the church says to you - you are accepted – you are a part of something – you are not invisible. Isn’t that what we all want in our community of faith - to know that we walk the path to God together. To know that when we show up we are noticed and when we don’t show up, we are missed. That is what Jesus wanted for the folks worshiping in the temple. That is what we should want for each other. Jesus felt the limp of the crippled, the hurt of the diseased, the loneliness of the leper, the embarrassment of the sinner. He also felt anger at injustice and greed. We, as the Church, are called to respect the dignity of every human being. We are to have the same heart – the heart of Christ – a heart that stirs with passion, a heart that responds in love, a heart that beats in time with God. We are all called to let go parts of ourselves so that there is more room for God. We are to let go. We are asked to be the hands, and heart and feet of Jesus! We travel this path together. Amen.