Lent 3b, March 4, 2018

March 5, 2018

The Shocking Truth

John 2:13-22


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.


For some people, this story of Jesus creating chaos in the Temple is one of the most endearing stories in the Bible. I mean it’s nice to hear about Jesus healing blind people, and relieving other people of all kinds of suffering, but this story of Jesus getting fed up with the way things were operating and tearing up the furniture is the stuff of dreams. This may be one of the most referenced stories in all of the Gospels. People like to point out that there was a day when Jesus had had all he could take, he got mad, and tore some things up.


A lot of people like to think this somehow justifies their own reckless behavior when they get mad and engage in some behavior that’s out of the ordinary, but I don’t think that’s a good use of this passage. Jesus didn’t do what he did because he was having a bad day and he needed to blow off some steam. Jesus wasn’t exercising an early form of road rage when he turned those tables over. He wasn’t being randomly aggressive – Jesus was mad about the way in which God was being portrayed in the very place that was supposed to provide the best access to God.


It is very satisfying to see Jesus spring in to action the way he did, but it was an isolated incidence. Jesus wouldn’t go on to instruct his disciples to disrupt everyone who wasn’t behaving as Godly as they aught to be. Instead, Jesus saw this as an opportunity to gain some good attention. You might say that he used this occasion to destroy the distorted way in which God was being portrayed and to gain the attention of those who were seeking to serve the living God. Jesus was being deliberately shocking in order to make a clear statement.


Of course it didn’t just gain the attention of those who were genuinely wanting to serve God. This got everyone’s attention, and this highly visible act didn’t go over so well with those who were there to sell their stock of unblemished animals or those who held the money changing franchise at the Temple. This drama wasn’t so well received by those who were invested in the system, and there would be some unfortunate consequences for Jesus, but he knew that and he did it anyway.


This was not an easy religious system to navigate. The religious executives required all able and righteous Jews to make the journey to Jerusalem to buy an approved animal with the right kind of money. You can bet a lot of people knew this system wasn’t right, but it’s what they were told they had to do if they wanted to maintain their good standing in the religious community and with God. It was a dreadful operation, and what Jesus did got a lot of people’s attention – which is exactly what he wanted to to.


It’s worth noting that John places this story early on in his account of Jesus. The synoptic gospels all place this story at the end of his ministry, and in the way the other Gospel writers tell the story this was the event that convinced the religious authorities that Jesus must be eliminated. But John does something different with this story. John places it near the beginning of his portrayal of Jesus. It exposes the extent of the conflict that existed between Jesus and the Jewish authorities from the very beginning, but this placement does something else as well. It serves as an invitation to see Jesus as the new Temple. If you wish to encounter the living God you don’t need to go to the Temple – look to Jesus if you want to see God.


It’s widely understood that the Book of John was the last of the gospels to be written and that it was probably produced about 70 years after Jesus had been crucified. The Jewish Temple had actually been destroyed for about 30 years at the time the book of John was written. The Temple was gone, but the Jewish community was held intact through meetings at local synagogues – which were sort of like local churches. But a great rift had developed between the traditional Jewish community and the Jews who believed that Jesus was the messiah, and the Jews who followed Jesus weren’t welcome in the synagogues.


This isn’t an easy thing for us to get our minds around, but I think it’s sort of interesting to think of the Book of John as the product of a writer who came out of that rejected Jewish community of believers in Jesus. These people had a very interesting perspective on Jesus. They were living in really harsh circumstances. They weren’t welcome in the traditional Jewish community, and the Roman authorities were suspicious of them, but they found Jesus to be the source of true access to God. And because of that they were willing to deal with the troubles they faced.


I’m sort of getting in to the theological weeds here. What I’m trying to describe is worthy of a chapter in a book instead of a paragraph in a sermon, but what’s not hard to see is that the Gospel of John is different from the other three Gospels. Each of the Gospels have their own special perspective about Jesus and they each reveal different truths about him, but one of the special truths that John wants to convey is that Jesus had become the replacement of the Temple. Jesus had become the place to go to encounter Jesus.


Of course Jesus isn’t a place. He isn’t even a person in the way that we generally encounter people, but we have these stories of Jesus and we have our own prayerfully induced encounters with the living Christ, and it’s by looking to Jesus that we encounter the living God. Jesus destroyed the religious enterprise that was going on at the Temple so that we would come to see him as our new Temple.


I didn’t come up with this on my own. I’m sharing the work of some scholars on this, but it makes sense, and it gives me new appreciation for the Book of John. In my opinion, the Gospel of John can get pretty tiresome in the way it’s written. As opposed to the other gospels that are filled with parables and events that create teaching moments, the Book of John has some really long passages where Jesus seems to be talking about himself. He compares himself to bread to a grapevine, to and to the gate of a sheepfold. Jesus does a lot of talking about himself, but it wasn’t because he wanted to be adored — Jesus wanted us to pay attention to him so that we would find our way to God.


Of course in this passage we actually do have some action to go along with his words. He’s not just comparing himself to the Temple he’s wrecking the Temple so that we will see him as the new Temple. These words about how he would rebuild the Temple in three days is an affirmation he was a Temple that couldn’t be destroyed. People would continue to find access to God through his resurrected presence. Jesus disrupted the Temple because he knew that we sometimes need some kind of shock to get us out of our old ways of thinking and to see life in a new way.


I’ve got a friend named Don who is sort of known for getting himself in to shocking situations. He and his friend, Gene, were nearly killed in a hot-air balloon incident one time, and he was with that same friend on the Arkansas River one day when they encountered another treacherous situation. Gene had gotten a new boat and he invited Don and his parents and some others to go out on the river for a leisurely cruise. They had gone down the river a pretty good way when the weather changed and visibility became very limited. As they headed back to the dock Don said the visibility got so bad he had to lay on his stomach on the front of the boat in order to try to watch where they were going. In spite of this they ran aground and it threw Don into the river.


Don wasn’t hurt, but it was pretty unsettling to everyone on the boat. I’m not sure how far they were from where they were trying to go, but when they came to a familiar rock jetty going out in to the river they decided it would be a good idea to get everyone off the boat. Don’s mother had had a stroke about a year before this and while she was able to move around pretty well she had not been able to speak. At least not until Don told her they needed to get off the boat and on to the rocks. And this woman that hadn’t spoken a word for a year said very clearly: I’m not getting off of this boat.


Sometimes we need a bit of a shock to get our attention and to get us refocused on what is true and essential.


I had a shocking call the other night from a young man I know who struggles with alcohol addiction. He was in the Garland County jail after being arrested for a DWI. He was asking if I could help him post bond to get out of jail. I told him I needed to speak with some of his family about the situation, and after talking to his father I came to believe that the best thing was not to do what he was asking me to do. His father said he was happy he was in a place where he couldn’t drink and that maybe it would help him decide to go in a new direction.


I feel bad for not helping him, but I’m sharing his father’s hope that this will somehow get his attention. A bad experience isn’t a tragedy if it helps us see what’s true and what’s essential. Jesus wasn’t opposed to giving people a hard time if it would help them see what was wrong with what they were doing and where they could find access to true life.


I don’t think it’s easy for any of us to get a clear view of who Jesus is and what he’s calling us to do. Most of us are more comfortable with our view of who we think Jesus is than we are by the sight of who he really is. Sometimes we have some willful ignorance of the truth about Christ, but none of us have a perfect view of who he is and how we can best serve him. Fortunately we can all grow in our understanding of Christ, and some of the most revealing encounters with Christ are the result of shocking failures.


None of us like to have our worlds upended, but sometimes a good shock can bring us to our senses and help us find our voices. Thanks be to God for all the ways – large and small, that enable us to let go of our false idols and to see the truth of our living and loving God.


Thanks be to God.



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