Grace Presbyterian Church
March 7, 2021, Lent 3B (recorded)
Zeal For What?
The good folk who formulated the Revised Common Lectionary seem to have decided that the season of Lent, Year B, should start off with some Angry Jesus. After last week’s account of Jesus calling out Peter as Satan, today we get the story often labeled as Jesus’s “cleansing of the temple.” What’s more, we get it in the version found in the gospel of John, which seems in some way more intense and, well, frankly, violent than the accounts found in other gospels.
After all, in John’s gospel this event happens very early in Jesus’s public life – you could even argue that this was his first public appearance. Yes, John had pointed him out in his baptizing activities, and a few disciples had come to him, and he had turned water into wine at that wedding in Cana, but this was out in front of the whole world, in about the most public place one could be in Jerusalem. For another thing, while the other gospel accounts of this story do speak of Jesus driving out the moneychangers and animal keepers and in some cases flipping their tables over, only John includes that business about Jesus fashioning a whip out of cords to drive the animals out. He’s not just picking up a whip that was lying around; he made a whip on the spot. To put it bluntly, something set Jesus off, and he acted on it.
Jesus’s words point pretty clearly to what set him off. Evoking words of the prophet Zechariah, Jesus directs particular ire at the sellers hard at work on the temple grounds with the cry “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” We find in the very last sentence of the book of Zechariah (14:21) the exultation that, on the day of the final victory of the Lord over Israel’s foes, that “there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.” Jesus’s cry thus evokes the degree to which the state of the temple was far short of its intended ideal as the house of the Lord.
Those words also help explain the reply of the temple authorities. Rather than launching into a full-fledged assault on Jesus for the disruption of temple business, their reply indicates that they remember Zechariah’s words as well; thus they ask for a “sign” for Jesus’s prerogative to do this. They know as well as Jesus does that this isn’t how the temple is supposed to be.
Other gospel accounts of this incident, besides placing it during Jesus’s final week in Jerusalem instead of the beginning of his public ministry, hint that there is double-dealing going on in this temple marketplace. Since particular animals “without blemish” were required for sacrifice in temple ritual, those who came to participate regularly brought their own sacrifices. However, those sacrifices might be judged insufficiently unblemished or “pure” to meet temple standards. How convenient, then, that this marketplace was right there to provide “pure” animals for sacrifice, at what was certainly a most reasonable fee, right? At minimum, the potential for abuse in such a system was clear, and in the other gospels such abuse is strongly hinted as a reason for Jesus’s anger. Here in John, though, it seems to be that it is simply the presence of the “traders,” in Zechariah’s words, that is the offense.
Does it indeed serve the purpose of the temple for these traders to be present? Or does it become an obstruction? Does it hinder the people from being able to offer their sacrifices without being exploited or drained of their meager resources? Does it detract from the holiness of worship? These are all possible responses to what happens in these first verses of John’s account, reinforced by that quote from Psalm 69 the disciples recall at this point.
That phrase – “Zeal for your house will consume me” – sure seems to fit here. You can see why John reads this thought into the disciples’ collective thought; Jesus has seen the temple overrun by marketplace activity and he went all crazy on them. The remainder of the reading, though, should perhaps give us pause before rushing headlong into taking this as our particular lesson from the story.
We have already noted that rather than outright condemning Jesus for his act, the temple authorities ask Jesus about a sign. His answer, as much as those temple authorities might not get it, is what truly unlocks what Jesus is about at this moment, and it turns out that Jesus might not really be quite as concerned about the building as it seems.
Jesus answered the authorities, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” And let’s be honest, the reaction of those temple authorities is, on the surface, very logical. The temple has been “under construction” for forty-six years, as they observe (which suggests it still wasn’t quite complete), and this one man thinks he can build a whole new temple in three days? Dude must be crazy is a perfectly reasonable way to respond to such a statement, if you’re going to take that statement literally.
However, those temple authorities didn’t get what Jesus was saying, and apparently Jesus’s own disciples didn’t either, at least until after Jesus had been resurrected years later. John is particularly fond of this little trick he pulls here – sticking in a little after-the-fact editorial comment that unveils the “real story” behind a moment like this one. In this case, the hidden nugget of wisdom John drops has everything to do with what the true “temple” really is, and what it really means to worship God in spirit and in truth. And it doesn’t necessarily have much to do with a building.
John’s little insert is pretty simple, actually: “But he was speaking of the temple of his body.”
On the surface, it might seem like a non sequitir – wait, what does his body have to do with the temple? – but following the logic of the statement we find ourselves with a whole lot to unpack. For John to epeak of the temple of Jesus’s body points way, way ahead in the story. John acknowledges this in his note that the disciples only really understood what Jesus was saying here after the resurrection.
This becomes part of the gospel that sweeps through the infant church in the book of Acts. You can hear it in Stephen’s last great speech before his stoning, when he tells his listeners that “the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands” (which is itself an allusion to Isaiah 66:1). God is not bound up in human buildings at all, nor can the worship of God be so bound.
Hopefully, if we’ve learned anything in this past year, we’ve learned that. Indeed it was a year ago tomorrow that we held our last service in our sanctuary before the pandemic started shutting things down. We ended up finding ways to keep worship going, somehow, even if our cats became unintentional fixtures of the service for a few months.
Not all churches seemed to learn this lesson. You might remember that there were a number of churches that insisted that they had to continue meeting together, no matter how much virus-spreading that caused. You could also see churches rushing back into in-person worship only to have to resort back to the remote version when people started contracting the virus as a result. At the risk of seeming to denigrate fellow Christians, what kind of God do they think they worship? Some kind of God who can be contained in a building?
Or are they bound by all sorts of external concerns that in fact have very little to do with the worship of God Almighty? Are they so bound up with the idea that worship itself is bound up in a particular building (not unlike the temple in the biblical account)?
If the center and focus and reason and locus of our worship is in anything other than the person of Jesus Christ, we’re doing it wrong. Even as at some point we do return to worship in the sanctuary, we had better be reminded that there are those who cannot gather with us or with any church in person even under the best of circumstances and remember that Jesus would not have us exclude them from the worship of the Lord because of that hindrance.
The way we as the larger church think about worship needs to be different, now and forevermore. Anything that detracts from the source and object of our worship being Jesus and Jesus alone has to be put out of mind for good. If we can’t do that in the church writ large, we aren’t serving anybody particularly well – not God, nor Christ, nor ourselves nor the world around us. And it’s probably best to start that rethinking and reimagining now, before we are back together again all vaccinated and protected, and think we have permission to let everything go back to “normal.’ There are some “normal” that should never return, and the whole idea that the worship of God in Jesus through the Holy Spirit can or should be contained to a building needs to be one of those “normal” that never rears its head again.
For Jesus Christ, our only Temple, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #61, Your Law, O Lord, Is Perfect; #394, Christ is Made the Sure Foundation