On this Sunday when we are at the half way mark on the Lenten journey to Easter, the writer of the Gospel according to John has us stop to witness a scene that seems totally out-of-character for the Jesus he portrays - saving the host from embarrassment and wedding guests from thirst, chatting with a woman everyone else shuns, feeding thousands so they won’t go without a lunch, cradling a lost sheep, healing the lame and the blind, washing His disciples’ feet, and – from the cross – looking out for the care of His mother.
But that is NOT the Jesus we meet today in a scene John’s Gospel puts right up front, while the other Gospel writers save it to the end, when Jesus is on His way to arrest, trial, and death.
It’s typical of the writer of the fourth Gospel to put a story like this one at the beginning as a signal to be prepared to see it take on meaning and reach its climax at the end.
So, Jesus, according to John’s Gospel, kicks off His ministry housecleaning the temple – at the height of the festival season of Passover, when Jerusalem would swell from its approximate count of 80,000 to 3 million Jews and Gentiles. And He doesn’t take a broom to do it, He wields a whip, sending tables flying and money-changers running, unable to profit from converting coins of the provinces into the only acceptable coins of the temple. Animals are taking off in all directions, leaving their suppliers unpaid, and the pilgrims with nothing to purchase to make the sacrifice required at the time of Passover. Tables, coins, animals – wiped out at the peak of the season when Temple authorities, merchants, and animal raisers make a huge profit from the Passover crowd. All lost with Jesus’ wielding of the whip!
When asked if He doesn’t realize the cost of His rampage through the temple, standing as a breathtaking shrine built as a monument for Hebrew worship, He defends His whip-swinging with the announcement: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” John’s Gospel account adds, But he was speaking of the temple of his body. and admits His disciples didn’t catch on until After he was raised from the dead. Then they remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. Then, they remembered; what we are to do now as we realize why the writer John intentionally placed this story, up front, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus is announcing that He has come to be everything the Temple was meant to be, a raised mount intended to take everyone to Mount Sinai to hear the words I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, (Pharaoh's rule) out of the house of slavery. (out from bondage) an introduction that makes the ten laws a “breathtaking announcement of freedom:” (Thomas G. Long, in “Dancing the Decalogue,” March 7, 2006) which Jesus comes to bring to life for humans to see: Jesus, freeing us from the idols of the world that enslave us in a busyness to dress to the sevens and run with the upper crust and name-droppers, and be duped into buying gimmicks to keep us young in body and mind. Jesus, freeing us from the Pharaohs that enslave our minds in the rhetoric of prejudice and hold our allegiance through fear of breaking away from the party line. Jesus, freeing us to receive “The Ten Commandments” as good news that, as Thomas G. Long says, has us “dancing the Decalogue” (IBID.) following the lead of Jesus, Who takes us through the steps of devotion to God, and respecting, honoring, caring for, one another, with each of the ten laws being a note in the song that has us dancing to the beat of the steps of love for God, neighbor, and self. These Lenten days are a time to let Jesus lead us through those steps, and houseclean our places of worship, sweeping away the clutter, to make room for all people to be caught up in the commandments' breathtaking dance of love, with Jesus as our partner. With whip in hand Jesus also announces that He has come to be the embodiment of God, giving His Body as the sacrifice to bring an end to the Temple’s altar, dripping with blood, flooding the floor to the height of the knees of the priests. He comes to end the high-priced sacrificial offering of animals at a cost which makes the poor poorer and never stops the cycle of confession and absolution. He comes to make Himself the priceless offering of forgiveness and pardon. Jesus sweeps altar and animals away to make a place of worship the meeting place to receive the gift of His total and unending love.
These Lenten days become our time to toss out anything that clutters up worship and diverts our gaze from the cross, where Jesus emptied Himself in death to give us His life, to be poured into us, and this place where no one is too unworthy to come. Gaze on the empty cross raised before us as the sign – empty of the nail-pierced Body of Christ Who now moves among us, coming to make His home in us. And see the Table beneath the cross, made for Christ to give Himself to us through the signs of bread and cup, and in receiving, our bodies become a shrine where Jesus dwells.
Soon we’ll go back to the world of idols and Pharaohs where children are used as slaves, women sold for sex, the poor treated as disposable laborers; one race, one class, shunning, even killing, another; sights that should move us, as they moved Jesus, to drive out all that desecrates a sacred place for people to have room to celebrate the thousand-year old words of Symeon, a much-loved monk and poet of the Eastern Orthodox Church: “If we genuinely love Him, we wake up inside Christ’s Body.” These Lenten days become our time to sweep away anything that denies or trashes that confession, and to clear a temple-like space for more “wise fools,” like ourselves, judged by the world to be stupid, but, like Paul, knowing the wisdom in claiming: 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... Who leads us in the dance set to the music of the Ten Commandments, and makes us a temple made holy by His love, and now do you see why the church is called the "body of Christ?" His church of “wise fools” who always make room for more. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Martha B. Kriebel is the pastor of Trinity Reformed United Church of Christ in Collegeville, PA