March 18, 2012
Rev. Stacy Swain
“True to the purpose for which we are made”
Let us pray
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our heart be acceptable to you, O God our rock and redeemer. Amen.
Where were you that day? Were you a disciples? Jesus was already up when the rest of us emerged from our night’s sleep. He seemed on edge. We did not really have a clue why, but he said he wanted to head up to the Temple straight away. And so we went. It was early, but already the narrow streets were packed with the day’s pilgrims. It was Passover. Thousands were going up to the Temple. But Jesus set out through it all like Moses parting the Red Sea. We followed in his wake as best we could.
He passed through the outer gate and then took the steps two at a time. It took us a moment to catch up with him. When we emerged onto the courtyard there was already quite a commotion. At first we didn’t even recognize him. He looked more like one of the fiery prophets of old. He had fashioned some sort of whip out of cords and was driving out the cattle and the sheep, pouring out the money and overturning their tables and all the while shouting “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s House a marketplace!” We were dumbfounded. I remember thinking “What in God’s name is he doing? What in God’s name are we to do?”
Where were you that day? Were you a money changers or sellers of cattle? We knew it would be a busy day for it was Passover and thousands were making their way through the gate and up the steps. So we got there in that outer court yard of the temple early. We set up our tables. Made ready the animals. We knew how it is done for we have been doing this for years. It’s a good job. The pilgrims come with their Roman coins, coins with the face of Caesar upon them, and because no Roman coin can be used in the temple to pay the temple tax. So we set up our tables to exchange the Roman coins for one without any graven image. One OK’d by the temple priests. And of course there is a charge for the transaction, but that’s OK, it how it is done.
And if the pilgrim wants to give a gift to God, wants to sacrifice an animal, Holy law says the animal must be unblemished. How could anyone expect an animal brought from far away to make the journey unblemished and so it makes sense for the doves and cattle and sheep to be there. And of course there is a charge for the transaction, but that’s OK, it how it is done.
We were all just about ready for the day when in he stormed in. He crossed the space between us in two strides. I thought at first Jeremiah has risen from the dead. He had that look of a wild prophet about him. With a whip in one hand, he grabbed my table with the other and hurled it to the floor, coins went rolling in all directions. Mayham set in as the cattle start to stampeed and the doves took to the air. And all the while he was shouting like he owned the place: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s House a marketplace!” We were alarmed. I remember thinking “What in God’s name was he doing? What in God’s name will I do now?”
Where were you that day? Were you a priest of the temple, maybe even Caiaphas the High Priest? We were in prayer in the silence of the innermost court yards, the place just outside the holies of holy, that privileged place where only we are allow when we heard the noise. It sounded like a riot was breaking out and so we made our way back out to the outer most court yard as fast as we could. We emerged to see that man called Jesus, upturning in seconds what we have worked so hard to secure. Who did he think he was turning all this on end, all of this that has given us so much and that has given Rome no reason to worry? We were infuriated. I remember thinking “What in God’s name is he doing?” What right does he have in this place?”
What in God’s name is he doing? It may be hard from our vantage point in these pews today to grasp how provocative and evocative Jesus’ actions were that day. For the repercussions from those tables hitting the stone floor of that great court yard echoed through the halls of power all the way to Rome and set in motion a wave of retaliation that would carry Jesus to the cross.
So what in God’s name was he doing?
Let us be clear about one thing. Jesus is not overturning the temple because he thinks it no longer matters. Just the opposite is true. Jesus loved the temple, he loved it fiercely. He loved it from that first time when he was twelve years old and his parents had taken him up to Jerusalem for the Passover feast. That time when he had sat himself down in the temple courtyard and was so riveted by the teachings and so riveting to those who were teaching that he did not notice that Mary and Joseph and the others had long left. He loved the temple so much that three days later when his frantic parents retraced their steps and finally found him in the temple he said “ Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must b e in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49).
For Jesus, the temple was home. There was no other place on the earth where he felt more himself. For there in the innermost holy of holies the presence the one he called Abba, the presence of God’s glory resided. The temple was the meeting place of heaven and earth and as such the it was the epicenter of what it meant to be Jewish. To go up to the temple was to go home. To return to the touchstone of faith. And at Passover, to go up to the temple was to come home to the truth of who the people were. It was to come home to the foundational story of the Exodus of how God delivered God’s people from bondage, of how God claimed God’s people as God’s own, of how God was leading them even now into God’s promised future.
One went up to the temple burdened by the loss of a job, worried about what was coming next, consumed by self doubt, but there in the presence of God, all of that was lifted off his shoulders, disappearing like the smoke from the offerings up into the air. Going up to the temple he was burdened but coming down he was delivered; delivered into the value of who he is and whose he is and the future promise that is yet to unfold.
One went up to the temple burdened by loss, grieving a relationship that will be no more, consumed by shame but there in the presence of God all of that was lifted off her shoulders, disappearing like the smoke from the offering up into the air. Going up to the temple she was burdened but coming down he was delivered; delivered into the value of who she is and whose she is and the future promise is yet to unfold.
One may have been poor but one was beloved, one may have been under the thumb of Rome but one lived in the palm of God’s hand, one’s life may have been hard but one’s future was secure.
That was what it meant to go up to the temple.
The only problem was the temple had ceased to be that place. It had ceased to be true to the purpose for which it was made. Instead of being a the means through which the people experienced the deliverance of God in their lives, the temple had become a part the problem, part of the system that enslaved the people. Instead of being a means to God’s end the temple had become an end in itself.
The temple was to be a place apart, but it had become a place within the economic, political and social ruling realities of the day. The temple priests, particularly the High Priest who himself was appointed by Rome, cooperated with Roman rule, working to assure that the Jewish people complied with roman requirements; making sure that the uneasy peace and often unseemly was maintained. Temple practice had become a kind of business onto itself rather than a place to encounter a God who was in the business of transformation and liberation. And so like those great prophets of old who loved the people too much to let them turn away from the God that loved them, Jesus set about sweeping out the clutter, over turning misconception, up ending that which enslaves.
It is no wonder that we read this passage during Lent. For Lent is to be for us a crucible time of winnowing, clarifying and purifying a time to return our true selves and our home with God.
And so I ask us to really take time and consider. Where are we this day? Is there something of the disciple in us? Are we ready to do our best to follow in the wake of Jesus liberating presence even if that liberation brings with it disruption and challenge? Perhaps there something of the money changer in us. Are we so busy with the busyness of the day that we do not have the time or energy to come home to the God that is ready to give us more than we could ever earn? Perhaps there is even something of the High Priest in us? Is there something that understands full well the cost to others of the prosperity and privilege that is ours, but because we are so well served, we are willing to ignore that cost preferring things just the way they are?
Where are we? I wonder. But one thing is clear. We know where Jesus is. Jesus is coming through that doorway of our life together and Jesus is coming through the doorway of our hearts. He is over turning upending, scattering all that is keeping us from being true to the purpose for which we are made. All that is keeping us from doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). Why? Because he loves us too much to let us turn away from God’s love. So let the repercussions from those tables hitting the stone flour of that great court yard echo all the way through the halls of this place and through the walls of our hearts setting in motion a wave of love that is even now delivering us into the truth of who we are and whose we are and into the promise of a future that is to unfold.. Thanks be to God. Amen.