Setting Things Straight

Setting Things Straight

Jesus Cleanses the Temple
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, with the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 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.

John 2:13-22 (NRSVUE)

If you walked into a room and a picture on the wall was crooked, would you need to fix it? Many people become uncomfortable when pictures are not hung straight, or items are askew. While others can walk by something like that, if they see someone who appears to be sad or struggling, they need to stop and offer help. They can’t simply walk by. We all have things that pull at our heartstrings or toggle our last nerve, and Jesus was no different.

In our scripture reading today, we heard, “The disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me!’” And that was exactly what was happening to Jesus. This story of the cleansing of the Temple is found in all four of the gospels, so we know that it’s important. But John tells it a little bit differently than the other gospel writers do.

First of all, John places the story at the beginning of his gospel, just after Jesus performs his first miracle at the Wedding at Canna. The rest of the gospel writers put this story at the end of their gospels, just as Jesus is entering Jerusalem for the last time. Now please know that these were not two separate cleansing of the temple stories. It’s just that John’s gospel is not written chronologically; it is more organized by themes, signs, and events. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke focus more on the injustices of the way people are being treated in today’s story, John is simply upset that the focus in the temple was more on the business of worship than the act of worship. Selling animals for sacrifice and exchanging money seemed more important to the people in the Temple that day than worship itself.

A few moments ago, we talked about things that pull at our heartstrings or toggle our last nerve. Sometimes we might say that we are passionate about those things, that they burn within us and make us who we are. And that can be a good thing because it drives us to do difficult work, or it can cause us trouble. But earlier, we also heard, “Zeal for his Father’s house had consumed him!” And the word “zeal” is even more specific than passionate. It means a burning desire to please God and to further God’s message in the world.

On this day, it sounds like the Temple felt more like a zoo, with the noise of crowds and animals and money changers. I’m sure in the beginning, the practices started in a respectful, worship-filled way, but over time, the business of the Temple took over and in so doing, God became second fiddle. It’s easy for that to happen sometimes, isn’t it? Because in order for the Temple or the church to succeed, we need to manage it and care for it. But sometimes we focus so much on the business that we lose track of why we are really here.

I’ll never forget when I first graduated from seminary, I interviewed with several churches. And one night, as I was meeting with a search committee, they jumped right into the interview process. I stopped them and asked if I could gather us with a word of prayer first. I’ll never forget the look on their faces. They all looked at each other, somewhat strangely, around the table, and then someone said, “I guess if you need to.” For them, this was a business meeting, not a time of worship, so prayer was unnecessary. But for me, prayer and worship are an important part of the business of the church. So, I knew at that moment, that wasn’t the church for me.

Friends, whatever we do as the church, it’s important that our faith leads us. And we remember why we are doing what we are doing. The same is true with respect. This is a place where respect should be of utmost importance, isn’t it? While we are here in the sanctuary, we should be focusing on our faith, experiencing the presence of God, and searching for that which is bigger than us and our understanding.

Now, we may not be selling animals for sacrifice. (Thank goodness!) And we may not have money changers in our church. (Just to be clear, money changers did not collect offerings or taxes; they exchanged Greek and Roman money for Jewish and Tyrian shekels because money with a government seal or the face of a government leader was not accepted in the temple.) Okay, so we don’t sell animals for sacrifice and we don’t have money changers, but sometimes, believe it or not, the church can become a place of gossip, of complaining, of finger-pointing, and of judging others. And though that may not sound as egregious as selling animals for sacrifice and exchanging money in the temple, it can be just as harmful and disrespectful to God.

Now, I know that would never happen here in Oldtown because we all love our neighbors as ourselves, and we know that our neighbors are beloved children of God just like we are. But it’s something that we always need to keep an eye out for! And just like we would straighten a crooked picture or reach out to someone who might be struggling, we need to speak up to stop behavior that is harmful to our church.

I recently spoke to someone who used to attend our church. The reason why they no longer do is because, though we say that all are welcome here, they constantly felt judged, looked down at, and talked about. Folks, I’ll be honest, hearing that broke my heart, and though I know that we are all human and far from perfect, we need to work on setting things straight and constantly reminding each other why we are here.

Later in today’s scripture reading, Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up!” Now we know that he was talking about his physical body. Dying on the cross and being resurrected on the third day. But as we learned during the pandemic, the Body of Christ–meaning all of us as followers of Jesus–matters far more than the wood and nails and glass of a man-made sanctuary. So it’s not just about what we do here in this building. It’s not what we say and how we act during worship when we are on our best behavior. But how we live our everyday lives as followers of Jesus.

So, brothers and sisters in Christ, as you go out into your busy week ahead, think about the things that you are passionate about. Think about the things that make you, you, and then remember that following Jesus is not just a worship thing, it’s an every moment of everyday, choice kind of thing. And the good news is, by the grace given to each of us, even when we make mistakes, we can always set things straight and start again as we do our best to share the love of Christ with the world.

My friends, may it be so. Thanks be to God, Amen.


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