This is a sermon for the third Sunday in Lent. The Scripture it references is John 2:13-22.
If anyone ever asks you, “What would Jesus do?” remind them that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibilities.
That’s how the joke goes, anyway. But this story is Jesus at his most violent – at least, as far as the gospels show us – and it can be hard to understand what this is about.
We need to hold in mind two different layers to the story. The first layer is what Jesus was on about when he did this; his desire – his zeal – for people to be freely able to worship God, without obstacle or distraction. For people to know God, and to have the kind of encounter with the living God which has the power to transform lives and whole communities. We might have less cause to pick up a whip (generally speaking), but that passion for people finding their identity and human wholeness in God ought to be ours, as well.
The second layer of the story has to do with why John included this account in his gospel. By the time John was writing, the Jewish temple had been destroyed by the Romans. Jews – and Christians, who were emerging as a distinct group – were going through something of an identity crisis, because the temple had stood – literally and figuratively – at the centre of their worshipping lives. And John’s gospel presents Jesus as the answer to that loss; the replacement to the torn-down temple and its failed system of sacrifices and services.
That’s the significance of that bit of dialogue where Jesus talks about raising the temple in three days, and John points out that the temple is his body. For John’s community, Jesus now stands at the centre of their worshipping lives. Jesus is the focus of worship. Jesus is God Himself, dwelling among us. Jesus is the light of all people, where once the lampstand stood in the temple representing the light of God for all nations.
And so on.
In John’s gospel, Jesus disrupts the temple marketplace right at the beginning of his ministry; he’s called the first disciples, turned water into wine, and this is what he does next. It sets up, right from the beginning of the story, John’s claim that Jesus has both replaced and surpassed the temple. Something greater than the temple is here. So in the telling of this part of the story, Jesus has both re-claimed the temple for its intended purpose -that of worship which is an encounter with unadulterated glory – but has also claimed its significance as his own.
Remember, back at the beginning of John’s gospel, John tells us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us”? Except the word he uses isn’t the usual word for “lived;” it’s a word that literally means “pitched his tent.” God himself pitched his tent – as a human person – and lived among us. It’s a nice image but it’s much more than that; it’s supposed to remind us of the tent that Moses had made, when the people of Israel first left Egypt; the tent that was the kind of proto-temple, the tent where God’s glory was revealed on earth. And now Jesus is himself in some sense, John tells us, a living tent. And God’s glory is revealed on earth in and through Jesus. The glory of God – the power and presence of God – is available to us in relationship to Jesus, and not in any building or its rituals.
You might remember after this, also, Jesus has the encounter with the woman at the well; and she asks him which is the right mountain on which to worship. And he points her away from either of the mountains – with their associated temples – and to himself as the focus of true worship.
John is making a bold claim amidst the many conflicts around worship which swirled around him. True worship centres on Jesus. True worshippers know this, and worship Jesus in spirit and in truth.
The word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…
Are we paying attention yet?
Jesus’ glory – the power and the presence of God, made real and tangible to us in the flesh of a human person – ties so much of John’s gospel together. From the incarnation to the cross, the gospel glows with that power and that presence.
How else would Jesus have dared challenge the religious and economic temple-market system, boldly declaring that this is “my father’s house”? Not our father’s – not here; in John’s gospel God is only our father after the resurrection – but my father’s, the one to whom I stand in unique relationship; a relationship which gives me the right to oppose those who are doing the wrong thing. Or at least, that’s the claim; and John goes on to tell us that many believed in his name.
So here’s what we’re meant to take from this; Jesus is sent into the world by the Father, and part of what he had to accomplish was to reveal what it really means to worship. What it means to recognise the glory – the power and the presence – of God, and respond with total devotion. To refuse half-heartedness, lukewarmness, compromise or divided loyalties, but to have a genuine zeal which comes from knowing our own identity to be most truly established as worshippers of the only being in the universe who deserves to be called worthy.
Or to put it another way, to recognise the praise of God as the heartbeat of our life.
All of this rich and complex set of ideas asks us to re-examine what we do in our own worship. Is Jesus really at the centre? Do we come here to put everything else lower in our priorities, than encountering the power and the presence of God? Are we open to what that might do to us, in us, through us?
As attractive as the idea is, that this gospel story gives us licence to have a full-blown tantrum in righteous indignation, I think that’s kind of missing the point. The point is about the call to absolute single-minded, full-hearted, totally devoted worship of God in the person of Jesus Christ.
Anything less is unworthy, John says. Anything less is not real worship at all, and may well find itself being treated with the same contempt as the money-changers.
That’s a sobering idea to ponder.
But maybe we ought to take it seriously, as one of the challenges Jesus offers us this Lent. After all, we still have the opportunity, now, to put right anything in our hearts or lives that needs putting right.
And that window of opportunity is part of God’s gracious goodness to us. So let’s not take it for granted.