Scripture: John 2:13-22 NRSV
13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making 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. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After 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.
We all seem to have an idea of what some of the Bible stories must have looked like. Most of us have a image in our minds, for instance, of a skinny 12 year old boy with a slingshot going up against someone the size of the Jolly Green Giant, only neither green or jolly. Whereas David was actually an adult who had spent years facing down and killing ferocious sheep-eating beasts with that slingshot, and Goliath, who was undoubtedly a greatly renowned warrior, was possibly only as much as 7 feet tall. A giant, like Andre the Giant of WWE fame and the Princess Bride, but not quite a big as some artwork would have us believe.
Likewise, from the time we first heard today’s story as children, we have had the impression of a whip wielding Indiana Jesus wading through a crowd of evil moneychangers, snapping his bullwhip with one hand and flipping tables full of gold coins high into the air with the other. Probably not.
What the Bible says is that Jesus made a whip of cords or rope, and used it to drive all the sheep and cattle out of the Temple Courtyard. He also poured out the coins on the money changers’ tables and knocked over their tables. He told the people with caged doves to take them away. No humans were whipped in the making of this story. Which is a good thing, because beating people with a bullwhip just doesn’t seem like something Jesus would do. Neither does cursing a fig tree, but that’s an adventure for another Sunday.
Tables lined the walkway on the way into the sanctuary. One was covered with nuts for sale, and one with T-shirts, another had candies, while yet another had pretty things that were all handmade by the ladies of the Ruth Circle. I always felt like I was running a gauntlet, frankly, because they all knew my name, and although they knew that I rarely had any “extra” money, they also knew I was a sucker for any kind of worthy cause. And please understand this didn’t happen every now and then, like at Christmas time. This was weekly. There were always tables set out for fundraisers, every single Sunday of the year. I asked the pastor one time if it didn’t kind of remind him of the whole money changers and livestock for sale in the temple thing, and he replied, No. These are not inside the building, in the narthex. These are outside of the church building. So it’s nothing like what was going on in the Temple.
Later on, when I had learned a bit about Temple worship, I realized that the tables lining the walkway into worship truly weren’t anything like what was going on in the Temple, because I didn’t need any of those things once I got inside. I didn’t have to pay upwards of a day and a half’s wages to purchase the dove I needed to sacrifice that day. I didn’t have to change my foreign currency for Temple currency in order to buy the dove, because foreign currency wasn’t acceptable currency for sanctified things. If I had any self control at all I could get past the salespeople - oops, I mean church volunteers. But there were cute little artsy crafty thingies, and chocolate . . . And I could convince myself that I was giving to the church when I bought these things. After all, the money was going for important ministries, like camp scholarships and the local women’s shelter and new carpeting and curtains in Fellowship Hall . . .
Temple worship was also nothing like the worship that God had decreed in his instructions to Moses. Because Moses was leading a nation of nomads, herdsmen and hunters. So when they were asked to sacrifice a dove, they hunted one (probably with a slingshot). When they were asked to sacrifice a sheep or a calf, they simple took one from their own herds, or bartered with a neighbor. Cash in the form of coins, etc. was neither readily available nor needed. But the Temple was built in a city. Urbanites don’t have livestock, so a trade in the sorts of animals required for sacrifice grew up, with the market taking place in the Temple Courtyard. And, because the Temple insisted that only its own coinage was acceptable, people had to change their Roman coins for Temple coins in order to buy those animals. Quite the lucrative business had grown up to support Temple worship, and I imagine the Temple got some sort of “rent” from those merchants. And Jesus knew that it was distracting from actual worship of God. He knew that the important things were being overlooked in the constant worry about making sure the right rituals were done in the right way, when God had told the people once already that incense and burnt offerings were not what God wanted - that what God requires from us is justice and kindness and humility.
By his actions Jesus tried to draw attention to the intended purpose of the Temple, a place to worship God and to be restored to wholeness. For example, after a woman had given birth, she needed to sacrifice a dove and participate in a ritual bath so that she might be pronounced clean by the priests and once again join her family at meals, go to the well and the marketplace. Likewise, anyone who had been ill of a skin disease (aka leprosy), or had simply touched someone who had been bleeding, or sick from certain illnesses. The sacrifice and ritual bathing were necessary to restore them to wholeness, to bring them back into communion and communication with the rest of society. It was about much more than simply buying a dove or a sheep or a calf. It was about community, and somehow that meaning had gotten lost.
It’s kind of a normal progression, for people to go from simple worship to all out amazing spectacle! From tent worship to a Temple filled with gold and treasures, from house worship to great cathedrals with spires reaching into heaven and stained glass bringing the Bible to life with incredible beauty, from simple wooden meeting houses to megachurches made of glass and steel, from simple psalms sung by the congregation to performances by massive choirs accompanied by a full orchestra. And I hope, although I don’t know, that so long as our focus remains on worship - on what worship is really for - we won’t have to worry too much about Indiana Jesus coming through to straighten us out.
Mind you, I love the beauty of this place. The stained glass, the wood, the way the sanctuary is decorated for each season, all of those things fill my heart with joy every time I walk into the room. I love the congregational singing and the musical performances dedicated to God’s glory. I love the rituals around the lighting of the candles and the Lord’s Table. It is easy to feel God’s presence in a place that is so obviously dedicated to worship. Just as it is easy to feel God’s presence on Thursday mornings at the SMART Center, and anytime at Second Chance Animal Shelter, and Wednesdays at Christian Cafe, and Saturdays at Block Parties, and while making valentines for the patients at the Selma Convalescent Hospital. Hopefully, what you feel here is what sends you there - out into the world to do good for no reason other than because it is right. And maybe what you feel there is what brings you back here, to worship and give thanks to the God who fills your life with so many good things.
We are focusing this week on materialism - the belief that possessions and physical comforts are more important than spiritual values and altruism - the practice of selfless concern for the well-being of others. Materialism, for example, might be giving money for a building (like a school or hospital) and putting your name on it, whereas altruism would be naming it for someone who inspired you, or endowing a scholarship in the name of someone who inspired you - with the important part being not the name recognition, but the help that your gift will provide. Obviously, most of us here won’t be endowing hospitals or university buildings any time soon - unless there are some billionaires here I don’t know about? And if there are, can we talk later? — but we can give of what we do have in terms of money and time to care for others without seeking recognition or reward. Most of you are already pretty involved in helping others, but just in case anyone needs more ways to serve our community . . . instead of staying in front of the TV or computer on Saturday, we might decide to go help clean up neglected areas of our city with the Selma Beatification Committee. We might do something as simple as putting our change in a jar for some mission we find important, or giving just a little more when the offering plate comes around on Sundays. There are so many ways to give of ourselves, so many opportunities to do God’s work in the world - and God’s work isn’t restricted to church stuff. Helping out at the animal shelter is God’s work. Giving to the Children’s Hospital is God’s work. Any donation or action that will help someone else is God’s work. Any time we reach out to help another, we are doing God’s work. Church, and God’s work, are about community - all the community, not just the folks inside this place, but all of God’s children.
My brothers and sisters, like the Temple in Jerusalem, this is the place where we come to worship and to be restored to wholeness, so that we might go out from here and do the same for our neighbors. Let us leave behind our focus on the things of the world, and go forth to share God’s blessings with everyone. Let us take time this week to pause and wonder about what it might mean if we give selflessly, caring only about the wellbeing of those who need our help. And let us do these things in Jesus’ name.