Sermon for 3 Lent Yr B, 23/03/2003
Based on Jn 2:13-22
Grace Lutheran Church, Medicine Hat, Alberta
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
The restoration of First Community Church had been completed. The 150-year-old house of worship with its fresh paint and newly-installed multi-coloured stained-glass windows seemed to glow under the warm April sun. Inside the sanctuary, the old hand-made pews had been carefully refinished and heavily lacquered. Bright red cushions adorned the pews and pulpit furnishings and were matched by thick, wall-to-wall carpeting. New paraments covered the pulpit, lectern and altar, and a large white metal cross had been attached to the high wall behind the new choir pews, just above a magnificent window depicting Christ standing on a hilltop preaching to the multitudes.
Pastor John surveyed the sanctuary with great pride as he stood before a shiny lectern and opened the church’s first business meeting in the remodelled building.
“I think our first item of business should be the discussion of brass nameplates for the new windows,” said George Hendriks.
“I agree!” Harold Wickenham jumped to his feet. “I would like the large one in front, the one with Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount.”
“No!” shouted Harriet Munford, “That window is mine!” I was chairperson of the stained-glass window committee, and I think I should have first choice!”
“That’s ridiculous!” Percy Winville stood, waving his arms for attention. “Nobody has given as much as I have for this restoration. And besides, my great-great grandfather was an original founder of this church! I want his name under that window!”
“Please—please!” begged Pastor John. “This is not the way to decide the issue! Anyway, I assumed that the names of all the church’s pastors would be placed under that window!”
“I will not stand for this!” Henrietta Anvil stepped heavily on Harry Johnson’s toes as she struggled out of a pew and positioned herself directly in front of Pastor John. “I give more money to this church than Percy Winville, and if anybody gets a name under that window it will…”
She was interrupted by a loud tearing noise as the top of the large, metal cross separated from the wall. The church members watched in shocked silence as the top of the cross fell, swinging down to crash loudly into the massive stained-glass window. The window shattered completely as small pieces of coloured glass flew through the air, causing Pastor John and Henrietta Anvil to fall on the floor, scrambling under a front pew for cover. From the safety of their refuge, they stared at the upside-down cross which dangled in the empty space of the window that was once filled by the image of Christ. 1
In today’s gospel, we encounter a different kind of Jesus. A Jesus whom we likely feel rather uncomfortable with. This Jesus IS ANGRY. Angry enough to use a whip made of cords to cleanse the temple. When we see Jesus at work, expressing his anger by driving out cattle, sheep, and doves and overturning the tables of the temple money changers; maybe we, like the audience of that day, are rather surprised and even shocked. After all, Jesus was meek and mild, soft-spoken, kind and gentle—wasn’t he? He was the one who taught us to turn the other cheek, and love even our enemies. How could he become so angry and do what he did?
This was a holy time of year, it was the Passover; and people in the temple courts were only doing what was required of them to do under Jewish law. They were buying and selling animals for the purpose of offering God a sacrifice in the temple. It was inconvenient for them to bring their own animal sacrifices, as they were pilgrims who travelled some distance to Jerusalem for the Passover. The money changers were necessary because the people couldn’t use the Roman money, which had the inscription of the emperor on it. They needed to exchange Roman money for the Jewish shekel, which was used to support the temple priests as well as the maintenance of the temple with a temple tax. Moreover, could one expect the money changers to do their work without gaining some profit? So, then, the question still remains: WHY WAS JESUS SO ANGRY AND WHY DID HE CLEANSE THE TEMPLE?
I believe he was angry and did what he did for at least two reasons. First of all, Jesus cleansed the temple BECAUSE THE PEOPLE HAD LOST THE ORIGINAL SENSE OF WHAT THE TEMPLE WAS FOR. They had turned it into a marketplace for the convenience of everyone. A religion of convenience. Now there’s no doubt about it, a religion of convenience is attractive to most people, because it does not expect much of them. It is a religion that intends to cater to, to help maintain everyone’s comfort level. Its main purpose is to keep the practice of religion easy and fun. A religion of convenience is designed to entertain people. Its centre focus is selfish gain, self aggrandizement—as we learned in the story of First Community Church. The trouble is, a religion of convenience loses sight of our true purpose—namely, to love and serve God and neighbour above all else. Jesus saw how such a religion of convenience was destroying the true purpose of worship in the temple.
A religion so focussed on the sacrificial system lost touch with the grace of God. People buying and selling and sacrificing were turned in on themselves. They had forgotten the best of their own tradition, which taught them that GOD HAD NO DELIGHT IN SACRIFICE; IF I WERE TO GIVE A BURNT OFFERING YOU WOULD NOT BE PLEASED. THE SACRIFICE ACCEPTABLE TO GOD IS A BROKEN SPIRIT; A BROKEN AND CONTRITE HEART, OF GOD, YOU WILL NOT DESPISE. (Ps. 51:16-17) In other words true worship involves living in a loving, respectful relationship with God and with one another.
The second reason I believe Jesus, in his righteous anger cleansed the temple WAS THAT HE WANTED IT TO BE A PLACE FOR EVERYONE, JEWS AND NON-JEWS ALIKE. The area in which the buying and selling took place was the court of the Gentiles. This was the only area of the temple that the Gentiles were allowed to gather, the other areas were for Jews only. A Gentile who entered other areas of the temple forbidden to them did so at the risk of death.
Therefore, Jesus cleansed the temple to make room for the Gentiles. He came to welcome all people into God’s family. His prophetic action points ahead into the future at the end of his life, when he would make a New Covenant, not based on animal sacrifices; not dependent on one holy building; rather, a New Covenant made effective through Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection for all humankind. This is God’s way of inviting, welcoming and accepting you, me, and all people into his family.
Today, as we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion, we are once again invited, welcomed, and accepted to be in the very presence of our Lord; to eat and drink of his body and blood for the forgiveness of sin; to come with humble and grateful hearts and souls, realising the tremendous price God in the person of Jesus paid for our salvation; to be strengthened in our faith journey as we honour the temple of our body both as individuals and as a congregation and as members of Christ’s Church of every time and place; to eat and drink the only food that can satisfy our deepest longings in this life; to look also into the future and realise that this Holy Meal is a foretaste of the Great Heavenly Feast of God; where everyone will celebrate in joy without end!
1 Cited from: Charles W. Byrd, “The Weight Of The Cross,” in 56 Lectionary Stories For Preaching (Lima, OH: The CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 1993), pp. 43-44.