Lent 3B

March 05, 2012

  • The Lectionary Gospel

    John 2:13-22

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Comments and Observations

    In my March 11, 2012 / Third Sunday in Lent sermon starter article for Exodus 20:1-17 (available on the “This Week in Preaching” page) I noted that we often pick up on the wrong things when we read the familiar story of God’s giving out his Law at Mount Sinai.  Our tendency is to focus on what Hollywood would focus on if they were to try to recreate the event (a la Cecil B. DeMille): namely, we focus on the sound-and-light show, on the spectacle of it all, on what the Industrial Light & Magic folks could recreate with CGI special effects and with THX SurroundSound.   Hollywood would want to render it 3-D but would fail to recognize that the real wonder of this story is that it’s really in 4-D and it’s that fourth dimension that is the key.    The true grandeur of Exodus 20 is in the sheer weight of the holiness of God that is encountering the Israelites in ways that unhinge them in every sense.

    There was no missing that grandeur in Exodus 20.    But there was every chance to miss it in John 2, the Gospel text paired with Exodus 20 in the Year B Lectionary.   However, if there is one thing Exodus 20 and John 2 share in common it is this: we tend to be impressed with all the wrong things.   In John 2 everyone was impressed with the physical Temple.  It had been undergoing construction for over four decades already and was not even finished.   It reminds me of the Ken Follett novel The Pillars of the Earth that narrates the construction of a European cathedral that literally stretches across generations of construction workers and craftsmen.  Some projects in days gone by were so grand, the person who laid the first brick just knew that if one day the final brick got laid high up on the spire of a bell tower, it might very well be his great-great-great-great grandson who put on that finishing touch.

    How could one fail to be impressed with such a grand undertaking?   And in John 2 and in Jesus’ day, how could one fail to be impressed with Herod’s Temple?  It maybe did not quite hold a candle to the original splendor of Solomon’s Temple but since that building was long gone, one takes what one can get, and Herod’s edifice was quite something to behold.  (In another passage elsewhere in the Gospels the disciples have their own jaw-dropping moment upon seeing the Temple in Jerusalem, too).

    In John 2 Jesus makes room again in the Temple for the truly spiritual business of the place to take place in ways that had not been possible once commerce and a flea market had taken over.  What Jesus did literally shook things up and so the leaders asked Jesus to produce some credentials to authorize the bold and brazen thing he had just done.   Jesus said “Destory this Temple and I’ll raise it back up in three days.”

    A ludicrous claim, of course.   Granted, if someone were able to raze the entirety of the Temple edifice only to have Jesus wave a magic wand over the ruins and restore the whole shebang in a scant three days, that would have been beyond impressive.   If a person could pull off such an architectural and engineering feat, that powerful action would be more than enough to validate any power or authority he might claim for himself.

    But no one took the claim seriously.  It would have been like someone’s approaching “The Pile” that was the wreckage of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center at Ground Zero after 9/11 only to say “Give me three days and I’ll have them back up again.”  It took the better part of a year just to haul away the debris.   Today, just over ten years later, there still is no new shining edifice rising up from that site—the construction of the new buildings is slated to take years.  No one would bother, then, with a claim to instant restoration.  Who could believe such a thing?

    Typical of John, of course, we get a theological aside—a holy parenthetical—to inform us that the “Temple” in question was Jesus’ own body.  The very Son of the Living God was standing right in front of these people but they were far more impressed with brick-and-mortar than they were with flesh-and-blood.    Even if they had understood the reference to his own body, though, you get the feeling they would have been unbelieving and unimpressed by also that claim.

    Unless of course it was true.  Yes, it would have been ludicrous to hear someone claim to be able to restore the decimated World Trade Center site in three days’ time.   But what would be more impressive: claiming you could raise back up the buildings or claiming that you could (and would) reassemble the body of every last victim who had been pulverized, vaporized, and torn to shreds in that great terrorist cataclysm?

    That would surely be the grand miracle because that would not be something we could do at Ground Zero or anywhere else.  Yes, we can re-build the physical structures.  It just takes years to do.   But we could take every second that has passed in the 13.7 billion-year history of the physical cosmos and it would still not be time sufficient to reconstruct a single human being who ever lived or raise someone up from the dust.  We cannot engineer that.

    Jesus does that.    It happened to him first so that all may follow.  That is the One who stood in the midst of that allegedly “impressive” Temple that day in Jerusalem.   No one saw him for who he was.  No one recognized him nor what he was really saying.   But one day we will all see him for who he is.  The message of Lent and Easter assures us of this.   And as the Apostle Paul will later tell us, when we see him, we shall be made like him.

    Thanks be to God!

    Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address

    Whatever Jesus saw that set him off that day in Jerusalem, there is one little detail we should notice because it might just give us a clue as to what this should mean for us even yet today. The telling detail is John's insertion in verse 17 of Psalm 69:9, "Zeal for your house consumes me."

    If you look back at Psalm 69, you will find that it is a psalm of lament, a heartfelt cry to God on the part of the psalmist. The reason the psalmist cried out was because he was being looked down on and poked fun of on account of his faith. So the original context of the verse quoted in John 2:17 is someone who is zealous for the house of God but who is suffering because of that enthusiasm. If I tell you that I have great zeal for the ministry and the purpose of First Church, you might take that to mean that I am devoted to that church, that I am dedicated to making sure that unholy activities are kept well away from First Church.  Zeal for God's house, we think, means protecting it.

    But that is not quite what the writer of Psalm 69 meant. His point was that because he was zealous about the house of God, his neighbors made fun of him, insulted him, told him he was a backward-thinking idiot for finding so much meaning in something as silly as a temple. Psalm 69 is about suffering for your faith. It's about how the world sneers at us for claiming that a worship service is more valuable than anything that could ever happen in the citadels of worldly power. It takes faith to believe that what we do in worship on a Sunday morning matters in an eternal sense. It takes faith to believe that what a preacher conveys in a biblically true sermon is vastly more vital than anything that could ever emerge from the U.N. or from the office of any president, king, or prime minister. The writer of Psalm 69 believed that the ancient temple of Israel was the center of the universe, the house of God, the dwelling place of the cosmic Creator. And his neighbors saw this zeal for God's house and they laughed out loud. How could he believe such an outlandish, silly thing?

    That is the verse John throws into this story. And it tips us off that what this is all about is how sharp our spiritual vision is. Do we know what matters in life and what doesn't, and are we willing to put up with the world's scorn rather than give up on our faith? So maybe Jesus threw out the moneychangers because their ever-expanding emporium was eclipsing the real meaning of the temple. Maybe the temple had started to look like just any old Jerusalem flea market, and so people were forgetting that to have faith was to believe that God's house is most definitely not just any old place. Maybe Jesus wanted to shake people up so they could remember that to have faith is a radical thing that should make us radically different from those who do not have faith.

    Jesus’ fellow Jews had the wrong focus.  They no longer had the radical faith of Psalm 69. The psalmist endured insult and injury because of his outrageous belief that the living God actually dwellt in the temple. But some of the Jews in Jesus' day had forgotten. They saw it as their own accomplishment in which they could do whatever they wanted because it was, after all, their place.  They had built it and it was theirs.

    Jesus reminded them that it was God's place, or was supposed to be, and if they didn't perceive the presence of the living God there, then there was nothing distinctive about the temple at all.   Jesus was a little more sensitive to such things than the average person in Jerusalem. Maybe others could walk past kiosks, cash registers, and blue light specials in the narthex of God's house and not bat an eye, but as the very Son of God who himself would soon become the living, walking, breathing temple of God, Jesus took the affront of all this personally.

    Textual Points

    As most all pastors and scholars know, Matthew, Mark, and Luke each presents Jesus' cleansing of the temple as happening right after his Palm Sunday “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. In all three of the synoptic gospels this story comes at the end of Jesus' ministry. It is the deed that leads directly to his arrest. But as you can easily see based on where we are in John's gospel, John shows Jesus doing this exact same action at the very beginning of his ministry, long before the final week of his life.

    There are two scholarly options to explain this difference. The most literalistic explanation is that Jesus cleansed the temple in Jerusalem not once but twice: first at the beginning of his public ministry and then a second time at the end of his ministry. Matthew, Mark, and Luke record the second cleansing but not the first while John records the first but not the second. But many commentators deem that to be an unlikely option and so believe that Jesus cleansed the temple just once and that it did happen at the end of Jesus' ministry. But if so, then that means John changed the timing of this event. He moved it out of order.

    But it appears the more likely option is that John re-shaped this material to make a point. John's gospel, after all, is the most theological of the four gospels. John makes no bones about the fact that his goal is to generate faith in the hearts of his readers and so he has selected and shaped various tidbits from Jesus' life in order to achieve that holy aim of leading readers to faith. John did not invent stories that never happened nor was John unaware of when certain events took place.  In other words, John was not out to trick anybody nor was he such a clumsy historian that he made huge mistakes. But John was writing a gospel, a piece of proclamation, and not a history book or diary. In order to help us understand who Jesus is, John interpreted things as he went along and, here and there, moved events around a bit to help bring Jesus into focus. In this case, he chose to put the temple cleansing early in his gospel and he did it to help us, early on, begin to get very serious about who Jesus is as the very living, breathing, walking, talking Temple of God in our midst.

    Illustration Idea

    My colleague John Rottman recently called my attention to a story from 2007.   It seems that one day in a busy Washington D.C. Metro station, a man with an open violin case in front of him played his fiddle for the passersby.   Quite a few children and young people stopped and stared but were soon enough hustled off by their parents.   About half a dozen people stayed for a minute or two before moving on to catch their train.  A couple of dozen people threw money into the open violin case.    After a while the violinist had collected a total of $32.17. 

    But the musician in question was no less than Joshua Bell.  Three weeks earlier he had played to a packed house in Boston where tickets for the good seats went for $100 a pop (and even the cheap seats cost more than Bell collected in the subway station that day).   Unbeknownst to the distracted passersby, Bell was playing one of the most difficult and intricate pieces ever composed for the violin, and he played it with not only the world-class skill that Mr. Bell possesses but he played it on a Stradivarius violin worth $3.5 million.    The whole stunt had been orchestrated by The Washington Post to see if anyone would notice.   No one truly did, save perhaps for a few children who sensed something was up.

    Too often in life we don’t realize what is standing right in front of us.    Rather like what we read about in John 2.

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Exodus 20:1-17

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 19

    Author: Doug Bratt