When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone. John 2:13-25 (NRSV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, the Messiah, who is Christ, the Lord. Amen.
I don’t know if you’re like me, but, I’m one of those people who, as each year draws to a close, likes to read all the articles and listen to the reports that recap the last year’s events and tries to put them into a broader, longer-term perspective. I’m always trying to make sense of things that have happened that, in the larger scheme of politics or economics or from a societal standpoint have made an impact.
Sometimes, the events in those annual lists are things that have had just a small effect. At other times, they have made huge and lasting impacts on our world.
What comes to mind for you, for example, if I mention the fall of 2008? For those of us who lived through it, we know the huge impact--the radical shift--that the one week in September made upon not just our economy, but the economy of the entire world.
Or think about how the world--and maybe even your life--has changed since the iPhone was created just over ten years ago. Before 2007, we didn’t know what an “app” was. We had no way of being constantly connected to the internet. We had likely never used a touch-screen before. Or known what “pinch-to-zoom” meant. Or taken a “selfie,” much less upload it to Facebook or Snapchat or Instagram. Or even known what “outsourcing” was or thought about where our devices came from or heard much about labor abuses in Chinese iPhone factories.
It seems to me that what often appear at first to be fairly small, insignificant things or events end up having a huge impact. They can make a radical shift in the way our world operates or understands things.
It is this is what is happening in our story today. A seemingly small incident in the temple that is really a radical shift. A radical shift that will completely change faith and our understanding of God. And a radical shift that not only changes Judaism and the temple, but still impacts us as believers today, some two millennia later.
First of all, it is important to note that this story--the cleansing of the temple--is located in John in a very different spot in each of the other three gospels--Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Unlike in John, where it is located at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, in the other three--the synoptic Gospels, It is located at the end of Jesus’ ministry. In the synoptics, it is Jesus’ actions in the temple that are the catalyst for the anger of the Jewish leadership and their plot to kill him. In other words, this story in the synoptic Gospels is the beginning of the end of Jesus’ ministry and, ultimately, his life.
So, why does John put this story at the beginning of the Jesus’ public ministry?
If you remember all of our stories from the Hebrew Scripture last year, perhaps you will recall that, for Israel, the temple in Jerusalem was central to their worship. It was in the temple, in the Holy of Holies, where God’s promised to remain. This is why the city of Jerusalem and, more specifically, the temple was central to all of Israel’s religious practice. This is why the Jewish people trekked days and miles to Jerusalem to worship for the major feasts. This is why Israel was so devastated that Jerusalem was captured and the temple destroyed by the Babylonians. This is also why it was so important to the Jewish people that the temple be rebuilt. Everything about their faith, their spiritual lives, and their religion was centered in the temple in Jerusalem.
Central to Israel’s worship practices at the temple was the sacrifice of animals. Everyone was required under liturgical law to make an animal sacrifice. If you were traveling hundreds of miles to worship, it was pretty impractical for you to bring along a bull, or a ram, or a dove. So, it was only practical that, when you got to Jerusalem, you needed to purchase an animal to sacrifice. So, eventually, a marketplace grew up around the temple, where merchants began to offer for the people’s convenience animals for sale for temple sacrifice.
In the same way, many people came from places where different currency was used. So, when they arrived in Jerusalem, they need to exchange their currency for money that would work in Jerusalem. Thus, the Jewish version of American Express arose, where people could do this.
So, the marketplaces that were happening around the temple were very practical and they were needed by the Israelites journeying to Jerusalem to worship. So, in John--please note that the perspective in John is different than in the other gospels--in John, when Jesus drives the merchants out of the temple, it is not necessarily because Jesus believes that the marketplace is evil. There is no mention by John that any financial abuses were happening at the temple.
Instead, it seems that Jesus is doing this to send a message about who he is and what his role is in this fourth Gospel. Jesus is making a bold statement, not so much “against” anything, but rather “for” something. For his authority to represent and reveal who the God of the temple is, whom Jesus knows intimately as his Father. And as a result of his actions in the temple, Jesus is about to inaugurate a radical shift in the understanding of the Jewish people as to where God’s presence is located.
His actions lead to a confrontation. “Who are you?” the Jewish leaders ask. “What gives you the authority to do what you’ve done?” They challenge him.
Jesus responds with these words: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”
It is clear that the Jewish leadership don’t understand the double-meaning behind his words. In fact, it is not only the Jewish leadership that misunderstand, it is also Jesus’ disciples. Note the language in verse 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.” They, themselves, didn’t fully understand until after the resurrection. And we, some 2,000 years later, get that Jesus was referring to his body as a temple and, particularly to his coming crucifixion and his resurrection.
But, what was the deeper point that Jesus was trying to make here? To get the Jewish leadership to understand?
What was the deeper point Jesus was trying to make here?
His point was that God was no longer going to be restricted to the temple. In fact, it was that God was right there. Right in front of them. Jesus was telling them that God’s Spirit would no longer live in a building, but it would live in him and then, after he had ascended, it would be poured out into every human heart. No longer was God to be found only in the temple. God would be found in the heart of every human being.
This was radical for them. It is still a radical idea for us, too.
Can you see what God is giving? Do you see Jesus present right now in front of you? Here, in the Word made flesh? Here, in the bread and the wine? And in the heart of every single person you meet? Do you see God in front of you?
That is the message of Epiphany. God is right here in front of you. God is present in the flesh, incarnated for you and for me and for all people everywhere.
Come. And see.
Preached January 21, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
3rd Sunday after the Epiphany
Readings: Psalm 127:1-2; John 2:13-25