By The Rev. Sherry Deets
3 Lent – March 11, 2012
Last Sunday’s text focused on the Lenten question, “what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus?” Today’s text focuses on the question “what does it mean to be the church of Jesus?”
To a faithful Jew, the temple was sacred space, the dwelling place of God on earth. It was a magnificent place. In a futile effort to win over his “ungrateful” subjects, Herod the Great in 20 BCE had begun a massive restoration and expansion of the temple that was still underway in Jesus’ day. What a sight it must have been!
But appearances can be deceiving. Entering the temple precincts Jesus found little in the way of sacred space. The Court of the Gentiles looked and sounded like an open-air market. Cattle bellowing, sheep bleating, turtledoves cooing, people yelling, coins clanging.
This story is found in all four gospels, but it has a unique position in the Gospel of John. Most of us remember this story as told by Matthew, Mark and Luke. All of them place this episode late in the life of Jesus, during the last week of his life. In Matthew, it is found in chapter 21, in Mark, chapter 11, and in Luke, chapter 19. But in John we find this story in chapter 2!
The first story in John chapter 2 is Jesus’ miracle at the wedding at Cana. You remember the story, how they ran out of wine at the wedding. Jesus tells the steward to fill six stone jars with water, which he then turns into the finest wine. When the steward sips wine he finds it of such quality that he wonders why the host has saved the best wine for last.
Sometimes we struggle with the meaning of Jesus’ first miracle. The tee-totalers among us would prefer that Jesus not make wine. But John adds a particular detail that we may miss in our fascination with all that wine: the stone jars filled with water were used for the rites of purification. That is an important detail for John and for Jesus. Jesus turns the waters of purification into wine.
Jesus overturns a system with purification at its center. An elaborate system had been developed over the centuries which named some things “pure,” others “impure.” Women were impure for seven days after the birth of a son, fourteen days after the birth of a daughter. Dead bodies were impure. People with blemishes caused by leprosy and other diseases were impure. Certain foods were unclean. The list was very long.
Changing water into wine was not primarily a way to enhance a party – it was an act of transformation, a breaking down of boundaries, a different way of seeing the world and God’s presence in it.
It is not accidental that the next action takes place in the temple for the temple had become the center of the purity system. The animals being sold in the courtyard are for sacrificial purposes. The cattle, sheep and doves here are the proper animals for sacrifice, sold according to one’s ability to pay. There were economic implications for purity: poor people who could hardly afford to give a tenth of their crop away found they were then unable to sell their grain for it was judged “impure.” When it came to temple services, the poor were unable to buy the best animals.
Money-changers became a very important part of this system. Roman coins were considered impure and could not be used to buy sacrifices. The money-changers weren’t simply giving change for a twenty – they were giving “pure” tokens in exchange for “impure” money…sometimes, for an extra fee.
Imagine an updated version of this story in our church today. Suppose everybody was required to make an offering when they came to church, but the vestry refused to accept American money or regular checks. The new rule requires that all offerings to the church be made with a special credit card, perhaps one with a cross on it. Everyone must use that credit card to give their offering. And by the way, the bank will make 25% on the exchange of your money! Nobody would be very happy with that arrangement, but it is very similar to what was taking place in the Temple.
The money-changers were making profit on the people’s worship. Jesus was outraged by such hucksterism of piety! He threw them out of the Temple because they were hindering true worship. Jesus came into the temple not to be destructive or disruptive, but to draw us back to the heart of God. Jesus came to the temple to overturn every barrier that separates us from God.
It’s a subtle process, this turning the temple into a marketplace. Like the houses we live in – a little dust and dirt build up on the baseboards and in the hard-to-reach nooks and crannies of each room, lint balls accumulate under the beds, mildew forms in the shower stall and around the tub, coffee stains appear on the carpet, cobwebs hang from the ceiling – it all happens so slowly that we hardly notice, until, one day, a n alarm goes off, and we come to our senses, and we realize it’s time to do some spring cleaning and put our houses back in order.
And this is what I hope you’ll take home with you today: Lent is a time of introspection, of looking within and taking note of the various ways we’ve strayed from the righteousness of God. It’s a time for cleansing the temple and making our lives – mind, body and soul – worthy places for the Spirit of God to dwell.
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