03.07.21 – John 2:13-23
Our focus passage today comes from the gospel of John 2:13-22, a very interesting passage placed at a very interesting moment in the ministry of Jesus. It is shortly after he, his mother, and his newly formed family of disciples, attended the wedding of a family friend of Mary, Jesus’ mother. This was the event where Jesus was mom-pressured to take care of the ‘wine’ situation – the wedding hosts had run out and his mom, wishing to rescue her friends from a huge social faux pas, ‘asks’ Jesus to take care of the situation. You probably remember, this was the classic mother/son moment when the son responds to the mother’s persistent pressuring by saying the classic son statement, ‘What do you want of me. woman?” This was not only where the disciples saw Jesus perform a miracle, but it is also where they saw the humaness of Jesus, and it seemed, I’m sure, very similar to their own experiences of family.
As we approach chapter 2, I must point out, John often uses a different chronological system than the writers of Matthew, Mark, and Luke – John details Jesus’ visit to the temple at the beginning of his ministry. Jesus ‘cleanses’ the temple by confronting the collusion of the religious institution and the political system as well as aggressively challenging the merchants and money changers, all of who are taking advantage of the people for their own gain. While John places this significant event early in the Jesus ministry, the other three gospel writers place it near the end, during holy week. Some think it is just a choice made by the author, others believe this is two different events.
Jesus had surely been to the temple before, even before John’s early placement in the canon. We actually know he was there as an adolescent, and surely, because of his religious training, had been there at least three times a year as a young adult. It would not be odd for him to address the abuse at the beginning and close of his earthly ministry. Placing it as bookends of his ministry also confirms his own experience among the people, seeing their pain and misery, seeing their affliction and oppression, seeing that they were barely surviving when his passion was to give them life to its fullest.
Regardless of the time, or times, of this or these, temple experiences, there is an undeniable passion in Jesus’ response to the religious officials, for his fellow Jewish worshippers, and towards his earthly and eternal purpose. This may be early on his path through the cross, or he may already be in the shadow of the cross.
Regardless, of placement, we begin at the Temple.
Around 600 hundred years prior to Jesus’ visit to the Temple, the King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, and his forces destroyed Judah, Jerusalem, and the Temple – as well as taking most of the Israelites back to Babylon to be slaves to the Babylonians. During the seven decades of this slavery, the faithful realized there was an internal void in this new reality – they were now without the temple which, to them, meant they were without the presence of God. Even though they were in this new reality because they had neglected God, they now, slowly began to recognize their mistake. As they began to identify their need for God, they also began to navigate how to ‘Do Faith.’ God provided prophets such as Jeremiah who reminded them that God had not abandoned them. So, they began a journey not dissimilar to our experience this past twelve months, they began to meet in homes and other places, making mini temples, figuring how to make sacrifices that were not animal sacrifices, a practice that was a180 degree turn from how they had sacrificed at the temple – in doing this they began to understand the true and personal meaning of sacrifice. Over the course of the seven decades the Jews began to accept the fact of their own complicity that led to their exile and in turn, they began to turn back to God. This was a full immersion into a new, and very personal, way of observing faith, and of knowing God in a much more internal way. While they did not need masks, and of course virtual gatherings were not an option, they learned to have a new perspective, to open their eyes, they gained a willingness to sacrifice their ‘normal’ for themself as well as for others. They became a community of the faithful who were recognizing the forgotten power of community.
Take a moment to grasp this, they had no choice but to spend 7 decades on a journey of relating to the God they had rejected and having to do so in a totally new, and far less comfortable, than they had done since their birth. This was a lot of ‘normality’ and personal agendas to lay aside in order to truly worship and gather. Although we are just now approaching a year in our loss of ‘normal’ and it has been difficult, we like the Israelites have faced the choice of resist and reject all change, to, instead accepting the reality that sometimes we needed to accept the loss of certain rights, comfort, and normality in order that we could figure out how to navigate change.
Everytime we see God ‘break through’ into our reality, we see requisite change, a change that ends up leaving us in a new place, a new perspective, a new practice, all of which have forced us to give up and to accept a new normal. Often we attempt to return to the old normal, but the new normal is God’s gift to us for life, not just for ourself, but for others.
When the Israelites did finally returned to Judah, they were quick to return to their old ways and their very distant faith, one in which it was easy to dismiss God. They set out to rebuild the temple even though the temple, which had always held the significance of holding the presence of God, now could not serve the same purpose. This people had learned that God’s presence was there they were, they had experienced the God could be worshipped where they were. However, they built anyway. This was not like when God led King Solomon through the details and process of building the first temple, the building of the second temple was primarily a human endeavor. While God gave prophets to continue to guide them in their faith, this mammoth project was still a human project. They did not have the donations and resources flowing in such as had been the case with the first temple. Lebanon was no longer eager to give their cedars, nor were the surrounding nations willing to contribute money and laborers. As a result the temple seemed to be an ongoing and never-ending endeavor. At the time of our passage it had been almost fifty years since the Israelites had begun to build. When this temple was near completion, people were disillusioned and disappointed because it was not as majestic as Solomon’s temple.
This people who had figured out how to do faith without a temple had quickly returned to their pre exile existence. The result was that non-Jews began to contribute, and, began to have a say in the building of the temple. The unholy began to have a hand in the establishment of the holy. Even Herod the great, who order the death of the new born boys in order to solve his ‘Jesus’ problem contributed and glamorized the very simple and basic temple..
So, when the religious officials ask Jesus to prove himself and to justify his actions in the temple, his response is – “destroy this temple and it will be rebuilt in three days.’ God would prove the words of his Son by doing what he said would be done. Jesus, who along with the followers of God, was the temple, and he would rise to life after destruction. There wold be a resurrection. Today we have 2 lessons.
First Lesson of a Cleansing. Don’t Be Stuck.
The encounter with Jesus inside the Temple is a classic example of ‘Stuck’ thinking. The religious officials, from within the Temple, could only see a structure that was not as good as the past, the project was now half a century later, it was still a process in the making and still not done, there could be no Ark of the Covenant, and there could be no glory of past days. All they could see was what they no longer saw, which was not Solomon’s temple.
Have you ever sincerely told someone that you liked their new haircut only to receive a response pointing out everything wrong with the cut. No matter how great you think they look, all they can see is what is not there. This is what is taking place with the religious officials, all they could see was the past, a past which was no longer visible, present, or real, so, even tough a valid statement is being made by Jesus – it is impossible for the leaders to see or grasp. All they can see is turmoil and tables overturned in the temple square which still has a wall that is unpainted and a door that is barely hanging on one hinge – all they can see is what they have to do, they see no glory, they don’t see that God has broken through, right there in their presence.
They are stuck in a nightmare building project and cannot see an ongoing abusive system that has managed to be reestablished, a system which should not have been in place ever before, even in the first temple.
We saw this a year ago, as we were called to sacrifice for the safety of ourselves and others. Many people of faith, especially the Christian faith, began to scream out that they were being denied their freedom to practice their faith, lawsuits were filed and political recalls were instituted. At the same time, we saw other faith communities recognize the opportunities and began to formulate new ways to practice and observe their faith, to redefine worship and sacrifice, to get unstuck. Being Stuck causes us to miss the curve in our path on which God is letting us travel to see something amazing and life transforming.
Second Lesson of a Cleansing. Look for Glimmers of Light.
A couple of months ago I was working from home at a desk I had pushed against a window. It was an unusual winter morning, especially for this odd year, it was warm outside but a little too cool to actually work outside so I did what made the most sense, I opened the window as I worked. Pretty soon, a small finch landed on the windowsill and began to ponder taking a step past the usual barrier of glass, a step that was going to put the finch inside the house. I sat as still as I could be, I was about to become Mary Poppins, it was really cool and I attempted to not move or even blink while watching God’s creation closer than the length of my arm. While I sat there, my excitement moved from how cool this was to all the things that could go wrong. Our house is not a Sam’s warehouse where a bird can fly around overhead and do so unnoticed. I realize the door of the room was open meaning that this finch would probably wreck havoc on the rest of the house. As I moved from wander to distraction, I moved, the finch realized that it was a human sitting there and not a post to sit to – in an instant the little creature flew away and I was left with only a story an no possibility of a finch on my finger joining me in a song. I missed a moment because I forgot to look for the glimmer of light.
Jesus stood in the open space of the temple witnessing something that few even recognized anymore. He had surely, as an adolescent, been there as his own parents had to over pay what they did not have in the first place, he had seen the downtrodden look on his father’s face as the money changers over charged him, he saw the abuse even as the leaders walked around caught up in their ‘work of God’ missing this miserable aspect of the human existence. So, on this day, Jesus stood in the temple again, and again, he noticed that the the pilgrims who had already sacrificed much just to be at the temple, were now asked to unjustifiably sacrifice even more. Jesus knew the it was not a holy sacrifice, it was an act of abuse by those who saw an opportunity to abuse others in order to get for themself. Jesus also saw that this abuse caused those who came to worship to be so distracted they forgot there was a beautiful finch sitting on the windowsill to remind them that light was right in front of them, God was reflected in his creation yet all of creation was no longer visible.
Jesus, who adhered to the greatest commandments of God, to love God and to love others, and this same Jesus, who came to give full life, and this same Jesus, who saw the misery and oppression of the people and sought to address it wherever he went, this Jesus could not help but act there in the temple. He confronted the situation, he overturned tables, he yelled at the abusers, he disrupted, he vandalized, he did what he could do there in that time, and at that moment, to be a glimmer of light exposing injustice and suffering.
That is one of the things we Christians do with this story, we focus on the aggressive actions and the loudness and tone of his voice. We question, ‘could Jesus really be angry, or worse yet, could he be mad?’ We argue if it is possible to react in the most human of human ways. Jesus actions are an essential element of this story but not for those reasons, it is not a question of ‘can Jesus be angry/“ but it must be a question of ‘WHY would Jesus be angry in this moment?’
One of the periphery glimmer of lights that God we witnessed this past year was the Black Lives Matter uprisings. We that have sat in privilege cannot genuinely attempt to imagine what it is like to be afraid to let a child go out after dark, we cannot grasp the experience of watching a spouse drive away knowing that the very act of driving on the street or walking on the sidewalk might cause their death. We sit in our own paradigm and say that we are not racists, or that racism does not exist in our community, or in our neighborhood, or in our government. As God gave us a glimmer of light through the testimonies of so many parents and loved ones this summer, those with different pigmentation and cultural backgrounds, expressed, in a very real way, their pain. Since we can’t fathom this reality we chose to dismiss it, or even to attempt to discredit it. We saw the riots, some even acknowledged that something needed to be done, we began to hesitantly accept the reality of the problem. However, our first response was to say ‘well, they should vandalize, they shouldn’t be so aggressive, they should’nt disrupt, destroy, they shouldn’t turn over the tables, they shouldn’t be so lourd, they shouldn’t call so much attention to themselves.’ Recent poll results publicized this past week show that the majority of Americans have forgotten their own concern and outrage from this last summer, that we have largely forgotten the still present pain and suffering that exists for many Americans. They just remembered that tables were overturned and that someone had to clean up the mess – but went back to noticing that the temple needs another room, a nicer facade, that it needs to be like it used to be. Much like our response toward Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling stance during the national anthem, we choose to be dismayed instead of thinking if this is something we need to think and pray about, if this is a moment we need to consider the why of this action.
Jesus, in his unacceptable confrontative attitude, was a glimmer of light the day in the temple, a glimmer that was quickly dismissed, a glimmer that was too radical, too uncomfortable, too difficult to look at.
Early 20th century philosopher George Santayana wrote
‘There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.’
We live this earthly existence in OUR interval, reconciled to knowing little of our ‘before’, and holding only to hope for our ‘ahead’. We choose to settle in and just survive when God is calling us to flourish while we nurture. We choose to navigate change or, instead, to ferociously fight it, we can try to hold our tongue in the midst of injustice, or we can add our voice to the injustice inflicted on others. We can learn from our own past as well the history of others, or, instead we repeat those mistakes in our attempts to re-experience past successes. Sometimes our interval takes forever, and sometimes it seems to pass in a blink of an eye,. Our interval journey can be tough but nevertheless, Jesus calls us to live it to its fullest and to be a reflection of the light for others to do the same. To be a light that shines light on God’s truth, God’s mercy, God’s compassion, God’s Love, that accurately reveals God.
Jesus stood in the temple square and saw the same thing he had seen everytime he entered the holy space, only this time he could not just stand there. This time he had to do the unacceptable, he had to turn over some table, to run out those abusers and the selfish profiteers, to loudly speak truth to the authority, to be an emissary of God, telling and living truth. He chose to use this interval to make a difference.
Jesus intentionally lived out his interval, how is God calling you to live your interval?