Epistle Lesson: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
Gospel Lesson: John 2:13-22
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, both 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.
The focus of our Lenten Journey is now well into the wilderness. We have looked at what it means to be out in the wilderness, and as you may recall from last week, we began to look at what the expectations of discipleship to Jesus means. This week, we further ourselves down this proverbial journey. This is the message that we seek understanding of what it means not to just be a disciple, but rather a community of disciples. We come to this familiar setting of Jesus entering into the Temple with a purpose and as a prophet, one that we probably visit each year in this season of Lent, and this is the narrative that causes us to take a deep breath as we begin to ask, “Have we as a church, like these money changers also lost sight of our purpose?”
I’d invite you to hold onto that question as we will return to it. But for now I want to back up and help us place some context around this narrative of Jesus. Here we are in the outside the gates of the Temple, and it is near the Passover for the Jews. Now we know quite a bit about Passover. Passover, in the time of Jesus is a festival that required all Jews to come to the Holy Mountain of Jerusalem, and make a pilgrimage to the Temple to offer a sacrifice of a year old lamb without blemish. This is one of three festivals in which observant Jews would make this pilgrimage in a year. So, as you may imagine, the days leading up to this great festival was one that certainly brought a lot of people from all around into this city upon the hill of Zion. To maybe help you imagine what it is like, many of you may remember President Obama’s inaugural speech a few years ago and how the Mall in Washington DC was completely packed for what just looked like a sea of people on our tv’s. This is often the image that I think of as I think about the celebrations of the Jewish festivals. So you may imagine many people, elbow to elbow, as they are coming to the Temple. So anyways, as one comes to the temple, there were courts within courts that each had a special designation. Let me walk with you through these courts and as I speak, I want you to try and visualize the scene. Behind me are some pictures as I walk you through to help you with this visualization.
Behind you as you come to the outer wall is the Kidron Valley. Along the other side of the valley is the Mount of olives that are full of large based Olive trees. As you continue gazing up that hill behind you is a vast space of white rock as you see a stone graveyard filled with thousands of graves of your ancestors past. You have yet to enter any gate, but you are on the street outside of this tall wall that surrounds the temple. Outside of the most outer wall is a low wall with 13 places of entry.
On this outer street of the Temple to your left are people exchanging money. Throughout the this outer court you have what looked to be an open air market: Cattle bellowing, sheep bleating, turtle doves cooing, people yelling, coins clanging. These vendors have set up shop alongside this outer street. The picture on the wall is a picture of the place these events occured. Prior to entering the first gate you are required to divide between men and women.
You are then required to ritually bathe prior to entering through the first gate. You walk down on one side of a stairway into a pool of water, undress and bathe, and so not as to ritually contaminate yourself, you exited on the other side of the stairwell and place on clean clothes. Before you now is the opening to the first gate that you must pass through. Depending upon your sex, you either have entered the women’s court, a separate court that does not have the Temple in it, or if you are male you have entered into the priests court which is where the Sanctuary and Altar is located. Within the women’s court are places to give monetary offerings and places to store oil and wood for the altar. As you enter into the Priest’s court, you are still outside and before you is a great big stone altar that has a ramp up to it. On top of this altar is a great fire to offer up sacrifices to Yahweh. Directly beside this altar is a basin full of water as the priests are expected to sacrifice a live sacrifice and place it upon this fire and the water is thus used to maintain cleanliness. Behind this great altar of fire is the Temple building itself. Imagine with me if you will, a building that is about 150 feet tall by 150 feet wide. And 90 ft plus long. Let me help you erect this image in your mind. Imagine a building that is just one or two stories smaller than Roanoke Memorial Hospital. If you were a priest, you may enter into the Temple. As you entered into this great big vast building you first entered into a kind of foyer similar much to our narthex. Then you would enter into the Holy Place. To your right a golden table for the bread of Presence, with it 5 golden lamp stands, and on the left side, another 5 golden lamp stands. On the other side of the sanctuary is an altar for incense, the priest offers up prayers as the smoke carries them to Yahweh for the nation of Israel. And beyond that incense altar, before you, a veil that contained the Holy of holies, the place where God, the creator of heaven and earth, was present in the world among his people.
This was Herod’s temple. Herod who had begun re-building the Temple of Solomon in 20 BC. It remained under construction throughout Jesus’ life and was not complete until about 64 AD.
Jesus, has not yet entered through any gate. But rather is on the most outer gate, on this street in fact where you may see the places where little stores may have been. Regular money could not be used to purchase an offering, nor could regular money be used to make an offering to the Temple. You see, on regular money was a graven image, an image of Caesar. This was unacceptable to the Jews and still today you will not find any graven images of anything in a Jewish Synagogue. And so, people in order to buy a sacrifice had to first exchange their money for a temple coin. In other Gospels, there is some basis for understanding that the money changers knew that by their religion, the people HAD to make an offering, and the difficultly of bringing a sacrifice with you and it remaining without blemish was near to impossible, the money exchangers exhorted people out of their money and demanded such a high exchange rate, that they were pretty much robbing those who came to offer a sacrifice. But in the Gospel of John, this is not the issue that Jesus raises. Jesus, in righteous anger, makes a whip of cords and drives them out saying that they have made his Father’s house a marketplace. He begins to overturn tables, and pouring out the money changers bags! The Jews, who in the Gospel of John are often not meant to be a name of those who are Jewish, but rather those who opposed Jesus, begin to ask for a sign. Who are you! To tell us that this is wrongful? Jesus, in all of his great wisdom answers them about both how he does this, and who he is. He says, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up!” Foolishness this was to those who heard it! Imagine with me if you will…actually let me show you another picture.
This is a picture of me outside the outer wall that is left remaining. They actually discovered this wall in an archaeological dig. Look at the size of these rocks compared to me. Jesus says to them, destroy this temple, all of it, and I will raise it up in three days. The people, with worldly wisdom respond pretty wittingly, We have been building this temple now for 46 years! And you will raise it up in three days?! But we, as the disciples later to come to understand what Jesus meant by this as he was referring to himself as the Temple.
So in this narrative that is often called, “Jesus cleanses the Temple”, what exactly did Jesus cleanse and what are we, as a community of disciples, and as individuals supposed to learn from this narrative.
On the surface level, Jesus confronts the issue of those who were exchanging money and selling animals to be offered up as sacrifices. Let me first defend though that both of these jobs were needed functions for the operation of the Temple. The temple would not, and could not function as it needed to be done in the present age without these services. However, sometimes, and often times, we as a church, as a people will put into places practices that are practical, but not very good theological. This is precisely what I understand Jesus to be addressing. Those who were selling the sacrifices, and exchanging money were there not because of what was right and good in terms of theology, but rather had come to be that way because it was most practical. Let me give you an example of this in our own history, of when practice has trumped theology. Early in the Methodist history here in the U.S. we were growing and growing and growing. There were more communities than there were ordained elders. And so, one of the practices that had been put in place by Mr. Wesley was the idea of circuit riders. Now when Mr. Wesley had put those in place, the Methodists were only a society, and were not designed to be a church. They were there to assist in the spiritual renewal and growth of the Church of England. But when the United States seceded from England, so also we seceded from the Church of England. The Methodist societies in place here in the states then were no longer assisting any church, but rather became the only means of the church. Well here is where practicality broke down in the Methodist Circuit riders. You see, Methodist circuit riders would only come around to the communities once a quarter or so, and when they did so they would come and offer the Sacraments of Communion and Baptism. This became the practice, not based off of theology, but rather based of practicality. As we have grown, and have established congregations, in the large majority we have the ability to practice good theology and partake in the sacrament of communion weekly as it had been in tradition based out of Scripture from the beginning. But our practice from being used to always doing it monthly and still for some congregations quarterly has trumped our better judgment of theology. But as we come back full circle now, Jesus was righteously upset because they had set their minds not on the way God intended it to be, but they had done it the ways it has always been done before. They did not question what they were doing theologically, but rather practically. It is so often the temptation to do this, especially as the church. We have so many models to look at today of how to structure. Some people have so often confused the church with the business world that the church begins to function just as the world does in all of its worldly wisdom.
This leads me to the second point at hand that Jesus addresses. The people of course respond to Jesus driving them out. They want a sign, they want something to prove that this man is who he says he is. Jesus has just made a BOLD claim in the eyes of the Jews. He called this house, the temple, his Father’s house. This is the same charge that pretty much convicts him of his charges to be crucified later that week according to the Gospels of Matthew Mark and Luke. And Jesus gives them a response. Jesus gives them a response that to them is completely irrational to worldy wisdom. But when understood in the shadow of the cross, it makes perfect sense. And this, my dear brothers and sisters is the crux of our message today. If you don’t take anything home but this, then so be it. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians sums it up well, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
I’d like to close with this quote from Jeff Paschal as we think about the cross and our sermon from last week, “God’s foolishness in the cross also calls into question what we value. So often we are starstruck by the beautiful, the popular, and the wealthy; but the cross is ugly, unpopular, and poor, representing the very poverty of Christ, who is emptied for the sins of the world. We are impressed with the violent, ravenous power, but the cross means nonviolent self-giving. We are mesmerized by the eloquent, but the cross speaks God’s peculiar power and wisdom. The cross reminds us of our ultimate allegiance not to our county, not to our family, not to our work, but to Christ. For Christians, the cross declares that we embrace truth when lies seem easier, gentleness when force is attractive, justice for the oppressed when maintaining the status quo would be simpler, generosity when hoarding would be more comfortable, forgiveness when a hateful grudge would taste so good.”
So, let me ask you today for us to reflect on this week, “What worldy wisdoms need to be cleaned out of your lives and the life of the church and be replaced with who we have been called to be as Cross bearers?”