Message for March 8, 2020
Texts: John 2:13-21 and Psalm 69:8-16
This past Wednesday our Bible study group engaged in a detailed “comparison and contrast” of the stories of Jesus’ disruption of Temple activities, looking at the account in Mark (a story which is largely the same in Matthew and Luke) and the account in John. The investigation uncovered lots of differences (onscreen: show comparison charts). John’s version doesn’t place the event during Holy Week, as the synoptics do, but early in Jesus’ ministry. What Jesus says differs radically between the accounts; the Hebrew scriptures cited by the authors differ; and the impact of the event is different, depending on who is telling the story.
This is not to say that one account is the “right” or “factual” one and the other is not, but that the authors have different aims as they relay these events. We conflate them — or combine all the details into one story — at our peril, for in doing so, we might lose the point that each gospel writer is trying to make. Appreciating those differences, and sparking conversation, is the aim of the study in which we are engaging, on Wednesdays during Lent, guided by the insights of Jewish New Testament scholar A.J Levine.
So although John doesn’t record this event taking place during Holy Week, as the synoptics do, we are looking at his account of the so-called “cleansing of the temple” today.
One characteristic I have noticed of John’s Gospel is that Jesus answers questions in ways that don’t seem to address what the person encountering him thinks they are asking or the concern they are raising. Here are some examples from other passages with which you may be familiar: 1) At death of Lazarus, Martha says: “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died” to which Jesus says: “I am the resurrection and the life.” 2) Nicodemus asks: “How can a person go back in the womb and be ‘born again?’” to which Jesus says, “God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes.” 3) The Samaritan woman at the well, hearing about the “eternal water which bubbles up to eternal life,” says: “Sir, give me this water!” to which Jesus says, “Go, get your husband.” Jesus often seems to be two steps ahead of the people with whom he is conversing. We have to let the conversation spin out a bit more, let his words soak in, before we can “catch his drift.”
That happens again here, in his interaction with the Jewish leaders at the Temple. In response to his passionate display at the money changers’ tables, they ask: “By whose authority are you doing this?” And Jesus replies: “Destroy this temple in three days and I’ll raise it up.” The leaders go away scratching their heads, remarking on 46 years of construction and expansion of that temple under Herod and the seeming “impossibility” of Jesus’ odd assertion. It is only later, after the resurrection, that the disciples understand the import of this statement. (One might argue it is much later, since it is believed that John wrote this gospel at the end of his life, some 40 to 50 years after this event, giving the story a distinctive theological spin that is very different from those of other gospel writers, and this perhaps accounts for the differences in their storytelling.)
Indeed, it may be true of all the gospels, but is certainly the case with John’s gospel, that it was written after the Jerusalem temple was demolished by the Romans. That was an event that had already happened by the time this story was written down.
What we have here in John is a disciple, at the end of his life, remembering backward, appreciating the significance of “three days,” and concluding that the new “Temple” is Jesus’ body. The new temple is the people who had come to be known as “the body of Christ,” rising to serve the broken and the lost, to declare that God’s grace is for all, and that death and destruction is not the end of things.
Furthermore, Jesus’ prophetic action comes out of a respect and love for the Temple, and not a hatred of it. What John says comes to the disciples’ remembrance as they witness Jesus’ righteous anger are these words from Psalm 69: “Passion for your house will consume me” (or destroy” me, depending on your translation) — and, by adding the unique-to-his-Gospel detail of the whip, John foreshadows Jesus’ death — the length that he will go to carry out that love.
I think most of us have been impacted either by Sunday school illustrations or by much of Christian art that makes it appear, in our mind’s eye, that Jesus’ actions attracted everyone’s attention and completely shut down Temple business for the day. This comes, in part, from imagining such a scene happening in our own sanctuaries. But we should contrast that with what scholars know of the actual size of the Temple: A.J. Levine compares the space to the length of 11 soccer fields.
I did a little followup research and found this great piece about a retired British farmer, Alec Garrard, who spent 30 years building an impressive model of the Temple of Jesus’ time. Garrard died in 2010 and his family has honored his wish that it no longer be displayed after his passing, but during his lifetime, thousands came to visit the shed where he kept it. A far more famous archeologist constructed a much bigger model, displayed for years in the Holy Land Hotel in Jerusalem and later moved to the Israel Museum, but Garrard’s 1:100 scale model, at 12 feet by 20 feet, with thousands of ½ inch high human figures made of clay, was much more photo-friendly, and with the creator in some of these photos, his model gives you a good sense of the massive scale of the original Temple.
These photos also help to demonstrate what a “drop in the bucket” kind of event this table-turning would have been. The money changing and selling of animals for sacrifice (a necessary service, since travelling with sacrificial animals put them at risk of becoming injured and therefore unacceptable) would have taken place in the so-called “outer court,” not the “inner court” or “Holy of holies.” It was an area open to men and women, Jews and non-Jews — and as the Temple would have been, as A.J. points out in her book, a major tourist attraction, you might imagine this like hanging out in the entry area of Disneyland: a scene full of people, animals, and noise (someone in our Bible study group compared it to the county fair.) No wonder witnesses could not agree about what Jesus said (Matthew and Mark make note of this in their report of Jesus’ trial before the Temple authorities). What Jesus was doing, as John tells it, is a sort of “sign” — a pointing toward something else — in this case, his laying down his own life, offering himself as the sacrifice, even though those watching the goings on didn’t immediately understand this.
Perhaps you sometimes feel like your passionate efforts are a ‘drop in the bucket.” You educate a child, participate in a protest or a letter-writing campaign, cast a ballot, recycle, comfort someone who is ill, listen to someone who is feeling down, practice small acts of kindness. You do these things out of your faith convictions, and it seems like nothing changes, the ball does not move. People continue to suffer, the planet seems to continue careening toward disaster. Fear, division, injustice, anger, greed and blame seem to rule the day. The Church as we know it is headed for change, and, some would say, decline.
And yet, God reigns. And yet, God saves. And yet, transformation still happens.
Painter Vincent Van Gogh once wrote: “Great things are done … by a series of small things brought together.” It’s my belief that most of us will not see the whole “painting” in this life. But we must do our part, and trust the Master Painter with the final result.
So allow your passion and faith to set your course. Together, we are the Body of Christ. We are his hands and feet and heart and voice in the world, empowered by his Spirit. It’s up to us to carry out his mission, and it is worth the risk. Amen.