"The Day Worship Was Disrupted"
Scripture - John 2:13-22
Sermon Preached by Randall T. Clayton
Sunday, March 8, 2015

Whatever happened to sweet baby Jesus? I mean, it's been less than 3 months since he was lying in a manger, bathed in the warm glow of star light, and swaddled in soft cloths. And now less than 3 months after Christmas, we meet an active Jesus who is brandishing a whip, turning over the furniture in the sanctuary, and disrupting worship during the high holy days. Dorothy once said to Toto after a tornado, "I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." [Wizard of Oz] The same sentiment goes for today...I have a feeling we're not in Bethlehem anymore as we hear about Jesus disrupting worship in the temple.

The story about the day Jesus disrupted the service of worship in the temple is told by all 4 Gospel writers [Matthew 21:12-17, Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48]. But John's version of the story is different in at least a couple of ways than the other accounts. First of all, Matthew, Mark and Luke remember the temple disruption as happening during the last week of Jesus' life. His actions inside the holy place fan the flames of anger at Jesus and are part of what leads to his arrest. But in the Gospel of John, this incident happens at the very beginning of his ministry. Most scholars suggest that the chronology found in the other 3 Gospels is likely the correct timeline. But this doesn't diminish the story or John's account at all because John's purpose isn't to give us a biography of a man called Jesus or to provide us a history lesson; rather, John wants to teach us theology, to help us see what God was doing in Christ Jesus.

The second significant difference between John's account and that found in Matthew, Mark and Luke concerns Jesus' motivation for his actions in the temple. In the other 3 Gospels the motive for Jesus' disruptive actions is exploitation. The place of worship had become a "den of robbers" according to Jesus and he set out to rectify that. But in John's story there's no suggestion that Jesus believed anyone was being exploited; rather the root of the issue is that the temple had become the local shopping mall and the prayer and worship life of the people had become subservient to the interests of the merchants and the shoppers.

By the time that the incident in the temple occurs, sweet baby Jesus is all grown up. He's started his ministry, according to John, by turning water into wine at a wedding banquet and thereby demonstrating God's abundance and providing a sign of what God was doing in Jesus Christ. But then the mood, the feeling, changes quickly. It's as if we've been blown to the Land of Oz along with Dorothy and Toto as Jesus entered a temple that would have been exceedingly crowded in a politically charged atmosphere during some of the holiest days for the Hebrew people.

Devout Jews, like Jesus, made a point of going to the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Anyone arriving there for worship would have been immediately impressed with the temple structure itself. It was a huge, monumental building, a structure designed to impress and inspire awe.

Anyone entering the temple area would have soon encountered a shopping mall of sorts. This shopping mall was actually necessary for worship to occur. Temple worship, you see, included the sacrifice of animals - unblemished ones at that. Since it was difficult to travel to Jerusalem with unblemished sacrificial animals in tow, pilgrims needed to be able to purchase animals when they got to the temple if they were going to participate in worship. Because the currency they carried in their pockets had an image of the emperor on it, it couldn't be used to purchase animals for worship. So, worshipers had to exchange their Roman coins for tokens at the money changers tables before they could purchase their unblemished sacrificial animal. All of this means that money changers and animal sellers were absolutely necessary for temple worship to proceed.

When Jesus arrived at the temple on the first Passover of his ministry, something about that particular scene struck a nerve, moved him deeply, stoked some anger! He couldn't remain quiet. He had to act. And act he did. He made a whip, perhaps out of the cloth there used for bedding for the animals, and he used that whip to drive the cows and donkeys out of the temple. He commanded those who had birds in cages to get them out too. He turned over the tables of the money changers, dumping out every last coin. As he did these things, he proclaimed, "You've made my father's house a market place." "You've made my father's house a market place." A market place. With these actions, worship would have come to a sudden halt that day.

Interestingly, there doesn't appear to have been a mad rush to stop Jesus as he disrupted worship. No one tried to wrestle Jesus to the ground; no police with tazers, guns or handcuffs were called. Instead, when the animals are all out on the street and the birds in their cages are sitting on the sidewalks, and the money changers are scrambling to pick up their coins from the floor, those in charge asked Jesus, "What sign can you show us for doing this?" What miracle can you perform that would let us know you have the authority to stop worship in its tracks?

Jesus replied by saying, "Destroy the temple and in three days it will be raised." Of course, he was talking about his own death and resurrection, that was clear to his disciples in retrospect after Easter; but that day in the temple, no one quite understood Jesus. Certainly not those in power. They thought he must be talking about the bricks and mortar and marble of the building in which they were worshipping, and they knew that there was no way a building that had been under construction for 46 years at that point could be rebuilt in three days.

When Jesus got to the temple that day he saw a magnificent building, crowds getting ready to worship, friends who hadn't seen each other for a long time getting reacquainted, and dealers of animals and exchangers of money. There would have been nothing about that scene that was a surprise...and yet...and yet...when Jesus encountered the temple's shopping mall that day, he came face-to-face with the reality that on that day, merchandising had taken on a life of its own, and in the process the people had lost sight of the purpose of the temple.

Someone recently pointed out, "For those of us accustomed to walking into temples and finding them quiet, clean, and awe-inspiring, the brawling scene Jesus confronts - the caterwauling of the sacrificial beasts, their waste, the chaos of the exchanges between buyers and sellers-would be beyond distressing. Most of us live far from the barnyard today, but if you have ever spent time around oxen, you know that these big animals, while docile, are hardly prospective church members. Neither are bleating sheep, live Christmas pageants aside. This is a wild and clamorous scene. Prayer would seem to be the farthest thing from these people's minds; it would be for most of us. At least, that is what Jesus sees." (Gracia M. Grindal, Christian Century, March 4, 2015. pg 18)

What Jesus found that day in the temple was something more like Walmart on a Black Friday morning than it was a house of prayer. What he encountered that day were worshippers who were acting as if the purpose of the temple was to be a venue for livestock dealers, as if its prime purpose was to provide a place where you could get the best buy on beasts, a place where you got an exceptional exchange rate to trade your coins for tokens.

But that wasn't the purpose of the temple at all...the temple was to be a place of prayer, of worship, a place to encounter God, a place to see what new things God was doing. But those purposes were completely drowned out by loudspeakers announcing, "Blue Light" specials over in Stall 10 and "Buy One Ewe Get One Free" special over at the "Little Lambs R Us" booth. Discovering God, encountering the divine, discerning a calling...all of those that day played second, or maybe third or fourth or even fifth fiddle to the merchandising, selling and buying of commodities necessary for worship.

Although I once worshiped regularly in a church in which you were invited to bring your well-behaved dogs and cats to worship, as a general rule we don't find too many animals in our sanctuaries. And, I haven't encountered a church anywhere in my lifetime in which you were offered the opportunity to purchase livestock on Sunday mornings. But I wonder if perhaps it's possible, that like those temple goers and merchants and money changers, we sometimes lose sight of the real purpose of the church too? I wonder if perhaps it's possible that good and necessary parts of our lives as a community of faith might occasionally get in the way of our accomplishing our God given purpose? I wonder if sometimes good and necessary things that are intended to help us accomplish our purpose might actually hijack our purpose?

The purpose of the church, for instance, isn't to run programs. While programs are vitally important, and our programs hopefully serve our purpose, they are not our purpose. We don't exist for choirs, though we'd miss you terribly if you weren't here and our worship would be far less wonderful without you. Likewise, we don't exist to run youth programs either, but they are essential if our youth are to grow in faith. We don't exist for our committee structure, though it would be really hard to operate without the amazingly committed people who serve on them. We don't exist to preserve buildings either, though falling down buildings do little to insure the ability to worship. We don't exist to have a balanced budget, although too many years with deficit spending could imperil the health of a congregation's ministry. As scandalous as it may sound, our purpose isn't even to grow this congregation. Don't get me wrong, it's generally a good thing when a church grows, but becoming a church of 1500 or 2000 members is not our purpose.

Instead, I think our purpose here in the church has something to do with making disciples. Yes, with making disciples. And, it also has to do with the proclamation of the good news of the Gospel. Our purpose also includes the promotion of a world in which the poor have what they need, the hurting find comfort, the lonely know community; building a world in which racism gives way to respect, war gives way to peace, and all manner of death-dealing, hope killing acts give way to life.

We're not in Kansas or the Land of Oz, though perhaps it feels like that when we encounter Jesus wielding a whip in the temple. We are not in Bethlehem at the manger or in Jerusalem in the temple either. There are no livestock dealers in the Rodney Chapel or money changers in the narthex - at least there weren't the last time I checked before this service began. But I think Jesus disrupting temple worship may serve as an invitation during the rest of Lent for us to examine our life together as a church and consider anew what our purpose is, and if perhaps there is anything-even good, necessary things-which get in the way of us fulfilling those purposes. If there is anything that hinders our faithful fulfillment of God's purposes, then let us trust in the power of God's love and ask God to help us disrupt those things so that we might see and be a part of whatever new thing God is doing in our midst. Amen.

Prayers of the People ~ Gregory Knox Jones

Gracious God, as Jesus called Peter and James, and Mary and Martha to follow him when he walked this earth, we know that you urge us to follow his way today. Yet we confess that we are not as quick to respond as his first disciples did. What holds us back from the life you want us to live?

Could it be that the clatter of our culture drowns out your whispers in our heart? Perhaps our calendar is so crammed that we fail to even consider the path you commend to us. Maybe, we are so committed to our own agendas that we refuse to consider a new script written by Christ.

God, deepen our desire to pursue the adventures you have in mind for us. If we are anxious that we are not up to your challenge, fill us with courage. If we believe we will prove inadequate, fill us with confidence. If we doubt that we lack the necessary resolve, fill us with determination. If we fear that we will surrender to despair when faced with set-backs, fill us with hope. If we are hesitant to step beyond our routine and attempt something new, remind us of the joy that comes from meeting new people and experiencing new ventures.

Everlasting God, we pray that in following Christ, you will fill us with your passion for justice and your compassion for others, so that we may respond to the needs we encounter with a Christ-like spirit. Inspire us to be a friend to someone who is lonely. Empower us to share the weight of one who is suffering. Prompt us to be forgiving to one who has wronged us. Embolden us to resist prejudice and words that demeans others. Prod us to be generous in supporting the work of your church. Help us to improve conditions for hungry and homeless men, women and children. Motivate us to preserve your creation for those who come after us.

Mighty God, we know that following Jesus includes praying for those who suffer, and so we pray for people who are facing immense hardship and misery. We pray for the people of Iraq and Syria where the brutal army of ISIL spreads extremism through deadly force. May the nations of the world unite in stopping their reign of terror, and may new leaders emerge who are committed to ending the violence. We pray for moderate Muslim voices to win the hearts and minds of their people and may the political leaders of our world find just solutions to the economic suffering that produces fertile ground for desperate actions. We pray for people around our planet who are kept in poverty by greed, bigotry, lust for power, sexism and neglect. Grant them strength, perseverance and hope to endure their suffering, and help us discover ways to alleviate their affliction.

Loving God, when we faithfully follow the way of Jesus, we take part in transforming the world. Break down our resistance and build up our desire to go where you want us to go and to do what you want us to do during our brief life spans. We are on this earth a short while, help us to know that when we live as you call us to live, the world is enriched and we truly come alive. O God, the prayer Jesus taught us, shows us the way, may we embrace each word as we pray together, saying, "Our Father ...