Due to a medical emergency that required paramedics to assist a church member in worship today, Pastor Marcus’ sermon was not preached today. There is no audio copy available. To read this sermon click on “Continue reading” below.
Sermon based on John 2:13-22
Perhaps you have heard the story of a snake that lived on a path along the way to a famous temple in India. Many people would walk along the path on their way to worship, and the snake would often attack people. Once a swami was on his way to the temple and the snake jumped out to attack him. Before the snake could attack the swami put the snake into a trance and ordered him to stop attacking people. “It is not right to attack people with your poisonous bite,” the swami told him. “From now on, you shall not attack anyone.” A few months later the swami was passing along this road and he saw the snake lying in the grass beside the path. The snake was all cut and bruised and was in an awful state. “Whatever has happened to you, my friend?” the swami asked. “Since you have put your spell on me,” the snake explained, “I have been unable to defend myself. “Please give me back my bite.” “You silly snake,” the swami answered. “I told you not to bite anyone. But I never said that you couldn’t hiss!”
Jesus cleansing the temple reminds me a little bit about the story of that snake. Jesus went on the attack in the temple. In today’s gospel lesson from John, we see an angry Jesus. For me this depiction of Jesus is rather refreshing, since we are so used to thinking of Jesus as gentle, meek and mild. The question we are left to ponder is why. Why did Jesus get so angry? What was happening there in the temple to provoke this reaction from Jesus? It will help us to answer this question if we remember the purpose of a temple. The purpose of a temple no matter what faith community builds the temple is to provide a means and a place where people may come in contact with God. A temple like a church is a place to experience God’s love. Temples are places where people go to give thanks to God. Temples are places where people go to receive guidance for their lives. Temples are special places for people to go hear God’s word. In Jerusalem something happened to the temple. The temple became a place where it became difficult to hear God. In Old Testament times the temple was a place where, in accordance with the law of God, people offered sacrifices.
Sacrifice has always been an important part of our faith. Sacrifice reveals the depth of one’s sincerity. Sacrifice shows that we put God ahead of our own prosperity, indeed ahead of our own needs. The Law of Moses stated what kinds of sacrifices should be made at the temple. Some of these, but by no means all of them, involved the sacrifice of animals. Parts of the flesh of the animals sacrificed would be offered to God, other parts would be given to the priests to support them and to provide resources for the poor and needy of the community. Often religious duty required that you bring oxen, sheep or doves to the temple. The spiritual leaders would sacrifice these animals. In Jesus’ day, as in ours, most people who lived in the city didn’t keep these animals hanging around the home. So when you went to the temple to make your sacrifice the authorities made it easy by having sacrificial animals for sale right there on the premises. Of course people had to use temple coins to make the purchase. If people didn’t have temple currency available to make the purchase, they could exchange their currency into temple currency right there on the premises.
The temple had convenience of animals to purchase, the convenience of currency all for a person’s salvation. It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize what ended up happening in the temple at the time of Jesus. Our passage from John tells us Jesus walks into this temple, and he sees the people selling these animals and he sees the moneychangers at their counters with their constantly changing rates of exchange. Jesus hears the noise, the shouting, the bargaining, and the bragging. Jesus smells the awful stench coming from these nervous animals. Jesus views all of these sights, sounds and smells that are there for the sake of the salvation of God’s people, and he becomes angry. Jesus takes some cord, scholars say probably his belt, and he lashes out with it, he flails at the merchants and moneychangers, tossing over their tables and flinging their coins to the ground. The animals and their owners are driven from the courtyard, and he shouts:
Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of merchandise!
Everything Jesus rejected in the temple was put there at first with the best intentions, it was put there to help people who came to the temple to seek God’s will for their lives and to thank God. What began as a good thing had become an evil thing. The temple had become a place that exploited the need for salvation, rather than a place that broadened one’s salvation.
I have often wondered whether there are things today that would likely provoke Jesus to that kind of anger? I wonder if there are some things that have to be driven out of our lives, churches and communities? Perhaps there are things in our life that rather than bringing us closer to God, are hindering our relationship with God? The story is told about an elderly man who lay very ill. A friend came to see him, and after talking for a while, asked, “Do you have any regrets in your life?” The person’s mind drifted back into their childhood. “When I was a child,” he said, “I often used to play with my school friends out by the roadside. One day, after my friends had gone away, I found at the corner of the road a signpost. I twisted it in its socket, so that the arms pointed in the wrong direction. Just today, for some reason or other, I’ve been wondering how many people traveling by car I sent that day on the wrong road.”
Similarly, how many people on their spiritual journey today are being sent on the wrong road? Do modern merchants still exist in our faith communities? Years ago while visiting Israel, I remembered visiting many holy places of the Christian faith, the birthplace of Jesus, the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized and the Garden Tomb. People were silent and respectful when visiting these places. Yet upon leaving these sacred sites we were bombarded with merchants wanting to sell postcards, holy water in tiny bottles, jewelry, and other items. Over time just like termites in the woodwork these things can eventually damage our relationship with God. From time to time, we might need to clean house in regards to our spiritual lives. Are there things or even people that exist in our lives that hinder our relationship with God? While we often think of things of a materialistic nature, we can also witness how authority, power, and control can affect our spiritual lives as well.
As a pastor my greatest fear is that our faith might become like everything else in our culture and society, some kind of transaction. We attend Opening Exercise, come to Sunday school, worship where we pray a liturgy, sing a few hymns, contribute our tithes and offerings, and listen to a sermon. However once the postlude begins I often wonder whether many Christians simply forget about their faith until Sunday comes again? If this reflects our lifestyle, than perhaps it is time for us to clean house in relationship to our spiritual lives. The season of Lent is a time to address those things that we need to eliminate those things hindering our relationship with God. Our faith is not a list of do’s and don’ts. Our faith is not about how big a sacrifice can or should we make to please God; or following the laws of the Old and New Testament, or even praying in a certain way.
It is at this point in our gospel lesson in which dialogue occurs between Jesus and the authorities on this subject matter. When authorities ask Jesus what sign he will perform to justify his actions he replies:
“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
While nobody understood his words, after the resurrection, the disciples remembered them, and they understood. They understood that Jesus was the temple, that in him they met God and talked to God, and experienced God’s love and forgiveness. They remembered how he touched people and spoke to them, how he fed the hungry and gave sight to the blind, how he put truth and justice in their right places. Jesus gave peace and joy to those who came near him. Likewise, we are to remember these things, and remember that Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life. The real power and presence of God is not found in our sanctuary building that we are worshipping in, it is not found in our Book of Worship, it is not found in the traditions of our Moravian Church. The real power and presence of God is found in an encounter with the living Christ.
This is an encounter we can only have through our faith, trust, and openness to God’s leading in our lives.
The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.
March 4, 2018