Monday, January 24, 2022

Encountering the Messiah: Overturning Tables

In today’s lesson, Jesus encounters the religious leaders in the temple. The temple had been built by Solomon. It served as the center of religious activity for God’s people, who would often travel hundreds of miles to offer sacrifices to show their love for God. It was an elaborate temple that took decades to build. Most importantly, it was central to the Jewish faith and was considered the place where God dwells.

Our reading today is from John, chapter 2.

It was nearly time for the Jewish Passover, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. He found in the temple those who were selling cattle, sheep, and doves, as well as those involved in exchanging currency sitting there. He made a whip from ropes and chased them all out of the temple, including the cattle and the sheep. He scattered the coins and overturned the tables of those who exchanged currency. He said to the dove sellers, “Get these things out of here! Don’t make my Father’s house a place of business.” His disciples remembered that it is written, Passion for your house consumes me.

Then the Jewish leaders asked him, “By what authority are you doing these things? What miraculous sign will you show us?”

Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.”

The Jewish leaders replied, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and you will raise it up in three days?” But the temple Jesus was talking about was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered what he had said, and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

While Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover Festival, many believed in his name because they saw the miraculous signs that he did. But Jesus didn’t trust himself to them because he knew all people. He didn’t need anyone to tell him about human nature, for he knew what human nature was. --John 2:13-25 (CEB)

I mentioned earlier that I have a new kitten in my apartment. Romeo. Have you ever experienced introducing a new animal into your home? A new cat? Or dog? Or some other animal? What was that experience like?

Romeo is joining Dakota, who is a 3-year old female that I’ve had for a little over 2 years. I picked Romeo up on Friday. So, as you can imagine, the past couple of days have been quite an experience. He is, as most kittens are, quite wild and fearless. Dakota tends to be very conservative, sometimes a little skittish. And sometimes a little grouchy, too. Romeo doesn’t fully understand this yet. He also doesn’t understand that Dakota has established patterns in her life here. Certain routines and elements of her day-to-day life that don’t change very much. She’s created a system here - a way of being here in my apartment that Romeo has now completely upset. And as he bumbles his way into what it means for him to live here, for him to create his own system, he is coming up smack dab against hers. And she’s not very happy about it. She’s grown quite comfortable with her way of being here. And so, with a few hisses and one or two snarls, she is making her unhappiness known about this new little creature who is turning her life upside down.

Now, maybe it’s a little sacrilegious to compare Jesus to a 6 month old kitten. But, in some respects, the experience of Romeo and Dakota is similar to what is happening in today’s lesson. This story is found in all four gospels. However, it’s only in John that it happens at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It’s centered, as I mentioned earlier, around the temple. At the time of the Passover. 

I’d like to take just a moment and imagine yourself in the midst of this scene. During Passover, thousands of God’s people would travel to Jerusalem. Estimates are that they population swelled from around 600,000 to more than 2 million people as they made pilgrimages to the Temple to worship - to make sacrifices. Picture yourself in the courtyard surrounding the buildings. It’s packed with people. You hear animal vendors calling out that they have unblemished animals for sale. This was a common and needed thing. Because so many people traveled from far away and, because of this, it was nearly impossible to bring an animal for sacrifice that would remain unblemished over such a long journey. Hear the bleating of the sheep. The mooing of the cattle. The cooing of the doves. All animals available for sacrifice. 

You can also hear the cries of the money changers. People need to exchange their coins for temple currency to purchase an unblemished animal. It’s a noisy chaotic scene in the temple courtyard. But, these money changers often didn’t just exchange currency. They also charged extra, making a nice little profit on the side. This made Jesus angry. He didn’t want the temple to be a place of profit, a place where people were treated unfairly. But a place of worship - where people could encounter God. So, he created a whip and drove the animals out of the courtyard. Then, he overturned the tables of the money changers. His was a righteous anger - a protest against unfair practices.

It wasn’t long before religious leaders came to challenge him. They had grown pretty accustomed to this way of being. Just like Dakota. When Jesus started to push against the systems they had created or allowed to exist, well, they were not happy. They challenged him. They questioned him - “Under whose authority are you doing this?” It’s here where the conversation takes an unexpected turn.

Jesus speaks in figurative language about the temple. The religious leaders take him literally. Destroy the temple, they ask? What took 46 years to build, you will destroy and rebuild in three days? They didn’t get it. Interestingly, neither did the disciples. I doubt that we would have, either. It was only after the fact, after Jesus’ actual death and resurrection, that they fully understood that the destruction Jesus was talking about here was his own body. On the cross. 

But, Jesus wasn’t only talking about his death. He was also talking about his resurrection. He was also talking about the death of these temple systems. About the complacency of the religious leaders. About the unjust practices of the temple. About all of the systems that had been built that had begun to exclude people. These things needed to die, too. Not permanently, but for God to bring about something new. That something new was about where God would dwell and how God would be made known. Not through any building or not even through religious practices. But through Jesus.

What needs to die in our world? What needs to die in our lives? In our churches? What is excluding people? What is no longer serving us well? What no longer offers life? We are in the midst of our own overturning of tables. Our world, our lives, our churches have been upended. We are all trying to make sense of things, much like Jesus’ disciples, living in a time of conflict and upheaval when events are happening that we did not expect or fully understand in this moment. 

The disciples, later on in their remembering, were able to make sense of things. This is how the Spirit works, for it was only after Jesus was gone that they would fully understand. When we are past this time, we, too, will look back retrospectively and begin to comprehend. To make sense of things. In the meantime, we move forward in faith - the faith that has been inworked in us by the Holy Spirit, sent to us through Christ Jesus. Who dwells within us. And who accompanies us on the way in all its twists and turns. 

May we, like the disciples, go forward in faith, trusting that after death comes resurrection. For Jesus. And for us. Amen.

Preached online January 23, 2022, with Grace & Glory, Prospect, and Third, Louisville.
3rd Sunday after Epiphany
Readings: John 2:13-25, Psalm 127:1-2

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