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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

The Temple and Times Square - 03/04/2018

I am remembering this week the first time I was in Times Square in New York City. It was a sensory overload. There were all those electric towers of light, color and advertising messages. Traffic was moving in every direction, cabbies were honking at visitors like me who were trying to cross the street and take it all in at the same time.

You could hardly step three feet without coming upon someone selling “I <3 NY” t-shirts and other Big Apple memorabilia. My nose tried to make sense of familiar and unfamiliar smells that seemed to zip through the air, while my ears registered sounds of voices, traffic, construction cranes and jack hammers, music and maybe even the constant drone of all that electricity. 

Restaurants and street vendors offered every kind of food imaginable and called out from everywhere like an army of carnival barkers. And the people – there were so many people. I had never seen so many people, even having grown up in Chicago.

There were other tourists, like me.  And there where many, many people with very hurried walks. The people walking like this in Times Square, I supposed, were the city residents –  trying to get to work or their next appointment, or perhaps New Yorkers just all end up walking at that pace regardless of whether they are trying to get somewhere on time or not. I wondered at one point if all 8.5 million people who live there were out on the street with me that day.

The point is, there were so many images, sounds, smells, tastes and textures, that I didn't know what do do with it all. What was really the point of all this stuff going on and filling every inch of space around me?

Getting into this text from the Gospel of John, the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, can be a bit like that. This text has so much going on to get our attention, doesn't it? So what is the point? What is the central idea or message we're supposed to take from this text? To what are we really supposed to be giving our attention?

The account of Jesus cleansing the temple is placed at the beginning of this gospel – at the beginning of Jesus' ministry. Matthew, Mark and Luke place it at the end. There's not really any consensus among scholars on what this means. Some say Jesus cleaned the temple more than once, some say John had theological reasons for putting it at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, but I like what Martin Luther said …. He acknowledged that the gospels do not agree on when this happened, but it doesn't matter. What matters is what is at the heart of this passage, what is the ministry of Jesus pointing to here?

Luther's words prompted me to remember something else about studying the bible. When you have a text that seems to evade you in some way, look at the actions and words of God or Jesus. I think this is especially helpful in passages that catch our attention with so much law – all the parts of the narrative that tell us or remind us of what we should do, how we are expected to act, what we've done wrong, what earthly things we should hold dear and sometimes even holy.

Now it's true, the law is there to guide and regulate us. It's important – why else would we understand the law of the 10 Commandments to be so relevant in our lives thousands of years after Moses brought them down from the mountain?  And human-made law, though decidedly imperfect, is meant to promote peace, safety  and contentment for all involved – whether that body of people are those gathered at the temple, the people in this room, the people you work with or go to school with on a daily basis, the body of Christ in creation.

But we hear or experience the weight of the law everywhere in this life, don't we? We already know that we will fall down and fall short of the law. We understand ourselves to be creatures who will not keep the commandments perfectly 100 percent of the time. So I think we are to go a little deeper here …  past the “should haves” and “must do's” and “do nots.”

Past all that and right to the actions and words of Jesus in this story.


The disciples recalled the words of Psalm 69 when they witnessed Jesus' words and actions at the temple. His reaction to all these people crowding the enormous Court of the Gentiles just outside the gates of the main temple seems very physical and sudden. He assembles a whip with what he finds at hand, apparently. This is not a premeditated thing. This is an intense outpouring of anger – a very real … and, BTW, very human … emotion. And then the upheaval begins as Jesus lashes out. He begins cleansing the temple, clearing a path to the presence of God. He is consumed with the need to remove all obstacles between the people who had come to worship and the place they understood to be the literal house of God.

As Jesus clears this path toward the gates into the temple, maybe you recall the words of John the Baptist we heard at Advent. John said as he baptized people at the Jordan, “I am not the Messiah … I am the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord!”

Then Jesus overturns the tables of the money changers. They would have been exchanging currency for all the people who had come from other places, some over great distances, to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem. They would need local currency while in the city.

So there was likely price gouging and other dodgy behavior going on throughout this marketplace, but mostly, I suspect, these were probably people trying to provide a service or product and make a living. With so much competition, the task of ensuring cash flow for slower times of the year and keeping business in the black would not have been easy.  And then Jesus enters this fever-pitched courtyard of barking and bargaining and literally turns this economic engine upside down.

He also targeted the selling of doves – the animal most likely to be purchased by the poorest of those coming to temple. If they had to travel any distance, people would often buy an animal for sacrifice there rather travel with it. Because if the animal did survive the journey, it may not be unblemished and approved by the temple priests for use as sacrifice.

It's when he's running these dove sellers out of the place that Jesus speaks for the first time in our story today. “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” It's at that point Jesus' reaction reminds the disciples of the Psalm. It's as if Jesus is crying out to God through the words of the Psalmist: “It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” (Ps 69:9)

I'd like to offer a side note before we go on to the next thing Jesus says. We hear a lot of references to “The Jews,” in John. It's important to understand how this is being used in its original context or we may read it as though the Gospel writer is referring to all Jewish people. This is not the case. For one thing, the writers themselves are Jewish. They are a community of some of the first Jewish people who believed Jesus was the Messiah. But that did not mean they stopped being people of the Jewish faith – just as Jesus was a man of the Jewish faith. In the time and community of when John wrote this account of Jesus, the Jewish leaders did not believe Jesus was the Messiah and had made it clear that anyone who said that would be put out of the synagogue. Excommunicated – which means outside of the community. So when we hear “The Jews” in Johns' Gospel, we should really understand it as “the Jewish Leaders.”

So back to Jesus' words and actions … In our story for today, these Jewish leaders begin to question Jesus after he's turned the place upside down. They ask for a sign, which is another way of saying: “What authority do you have to come here and upset everything? Who are you?”

We, of course, like the first followers of Christ, know precisely who Jesus is. “Jesus is the Messiah! Come and see!”

So as Jesus is questioned by the Jewish leaders we find ourselves leaning in with all who believe this is the Messiah, with those who want so desperately to belief, with those who didn't even know they wanted to believe. We lean in and listen – how will Jesus respond?

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” he says. It's a bit cryptic, especially to the Jewish leaders who do not know who Jesus is. They hear it very literally, as though Jesus will sack the temple and then begin an impossible construction project. Anyone among us today who builds things ... from camps to strength to cars to organizations … understands how ridiculous this would sound taken literally.

We, like the disciples in the story, know Jesus is alluding to his resurrection, but it doesn't mean we should gloss over this statement. Because in addition to pointing to the pinnacle of Jesus' ministry from the cross and the tomb, it also points to the true location of God's temple  – the presence of God in Jesus Christ the Messiah.

At the time this gospel was written, the temple in Jerusalem where this story takes place was a thing of the past. It took 46 years to build it and it was destroyed by the Roman Empire less then 10 years after it was completed. That means the people of the gospel writer's time were already faithful Jews without the temple at Jerusalem, the holiest place their people had ever known. And now, because of their belief in Jesus, they were in danger of being put out of the synagogue, of losing their local place of worship too.

So this revelation that Jesus is the temple of God is truly Good News for weary ears in John's community.  Because it meant the presence of God was not locked up in a secret sanctuary somewhere. It meant their journeys to be in the presence of God were not blocked or hindered or congested by costly requirements or any other “should haves” and “must do's” and “do nots.” It meant the temple was immune from human destruction. In Jesus, the presence of God was revealed to be upon them, around them and within them because that is what God desired. For the first people of this gospel it meant freedom to believe and live in the truth and love the Messiah had ushered into creation. There was nothing the Jewish leaders could do to get between them and that promise.

And here's the thing about a temple that is not subject to the building or demolition plans of kings or warmongers or anyone else … all of it remains raised up for us today too.

Worshiping together is one of our responses to that gift from God. We hear Jesus, the true and eternally durable place where God dwells among us, revealed in the words of confession and forgiveness when we gather to worship. We see and feel Christ among us when we share the sign of peace. We taste the promise of the bread and wine given for us and for all people as a sign of everlasting life with our Creator. … and as a way of being sent from here, transformed – ourselves – into signs that point to the Messiah, the presence of God, in an often overwhelming and busy world of sensory overload.  Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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