Posted on Mar 04, 2018 by Pastor Dave Whetter
Today, and for the next two weeks, we will be reading our Gospel text from the Gospel of John and not the Gospel of Mark. Now in John’s Gospel, things often happen in a slightly different order than in the other Gospels and our story today is one of those stories.
In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke the story of Jesus entering the temple overturning the tables of the money changers doesn’t happen until Jesus’ final week after he makes his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. But here in John’s Gospel, Jesus has just begun his ministry. Immediately after being baptized Jesus begins to call his disciples and then three days later John tells us that Jesus was attending a wedding and while there he performs his first “sign” when he turns water into wine. When the wedding was over, John tells us that Jesus, his disciples, his mother, and his brothers returned to Capernaum for a few days. But it was also nearing the Passover and so, like any good Jew would do, if possible, for the Passover, he went to Jerusalem, which was about 120 miles away. Upon arriving in Jerusalem, again he did what all good Jews would do when the first arrived in the Holy City, he went to the temple. But when he arrived at the temple, he discovered something disturbing. He discovers that the temple has been turned from a place of worship into a marketplace. Instead of the predominant act in the temple being one of worship, it had become one of selling of animals and the exchanging of money for profit. The vendors and moneychangers seem to be more interested in serving their own interests and greedily filling their own purses with profits than in serving God and God’s people. Instead of helping people worship God, they are getting in the way of worship. The commercialization of worship means that those who cannot afford the costs are unable to offer their worship to God, and money becomes a god more valued than the God to whom the temple was dedicated.
Jesus finds this situation unacceptable and as we read in our text from Exodus today the first commandment clearly states, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3). Jesus will not allow anything, especially money, to be given more devotion than God. Jesus’ ultimate purpose in coming to earth was to take away the barriers between humans and God, so that all people might be reconciled to God through him.
Keep in mind here, I don’t believe Jesus was opposed to the selling of the cattle, sheep, and doves. And, I don’t even believe he was opposed to the moneychangers themselves. The moneychangers in Jesus’ day most likely did not set out to deceive the people. My guess is that they originally wanted to provide an inexpensive service for the people and at the same time provide funds for the temple. It was good for all parties involved. But, as is so often the case, somewhere along the way, things got out of control and the moneychangers began to take more and more profit for the benefit of themselves, at the expense of the people who were obliged to purchase animals for a holy sacrifice.
The system had turned the temple into an autocratic place where people came to fulfill a law and meet certain sacrificial requirements so they could then leave there to go about their lives feeling good about themselves. But doing things so we can check off the boxes of life requirements was never the purpose of the law or the sacrifices God called his people to do.
Sacrifices were never about doing an obligatory act; no, God created them as a means to allow God’s people to show their sorrow for sin or show their praise for thanksgiving. In other words, I don’t confess my sin to God because God said to do it, or because I need to tell God what I've been doing. God already knows what I’ve been doing and God already knows my sin. No, I confess my sin to God as an act of self-understanding. I confess my sin to God because I desire to change and the act of remembering how I have turned from God and God’s ways helps me change. The act of confession helps me cleanse my life.
Let me explain what I mean. We all know the story of King David and how he had an adulterous affair with Bathsheba. David broke the sixth commandment, “you shall not commit adultery” when he had an affair with Bathsheba and he broke the fifth commandment when he had her husband, Uriah, killed on the battlefield. Now when confronted with his sin by the prophet Nathan, David confessed and in doing so God forgave David. Now, as the story is told, we discover that David didn’t confess because he had to; no, he confessed because when confronted with the reality of what he had done, he truly regretted it and he desired to change and to live as God had commanded. His act of confession was an act of love toward God, not an act of fulfilling a legal requirement.
Now there is another thing that needs to be pointed out here. Yes, God forgave David, but David still had to suffer the consequences of his actions. David’s older sons hated him for his actions and he always had family issues because of his actions. Forgiveness doesn’t take away the consequences of our actions; it only cleanses us to move forward in peace.
So with that said, let’s get back to our story today. In this act of turning the tables and driving out the animals, Jesus challenges the leadership to “clean house” and go back to using the temple as a place of prophetic words being spoken to guide and shepherd the people. He challenges them to return it to a “Prophet Center” and not a “profit center.” And, we get that first glimpse of the ultimate sacrificial lamb, Jesus himself. Soon, very soon, there will be no need for cattle, sheep, or doves for sacrifices, because Jesus will offer himself as the ultimate sacrifice.
On that day in the temple when Jesus turned over those tables, Jesus challenged the people to see that this their legalistic ways of relating to God were finished. He wanted them to know that there was a new and a better way to connect with and experience God. Jesus wanted them, and us, to know God isn’t just available in the temple, or in this church building. God is available to us at any moment and in any place because as Jesus will tell us later in this same Gospel, God has sent his Spirit to be with us and in us (John 14:25-26). God does not want us to restrict our worship to one specific physical site, because God is available to us always and everywhere in spirit, and in truth, as Jesus will tell the Samaritan woman soon in this same Gospel (John 4:21-24).
Brothers and sisters, as we begin the month of March, we are reminded that spring is close and for many of us that means it will be time to do some “spring cleaning” in our homes and even here at Salem. But today, we are being reminded in the words of Jesus to cleanse ourselves and our actions, as well. As we journey to the cross we are challenged today to consider those things that we do, even those things that we do with good intentions, that keep us from truly worshiping God and allowing others to worship God and cleanse them from our lives. We are being challenged to see that God is not just in this building but God is in the world and God desires we join him there so that we might be the hands and feet of this God who continues to bring light to a darkened world. Amen.