Scripture: John 2:13–25
John 2:13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. 23 When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.
Well, this text is always a difficult one for preachers and in light of the events at the synagogue in Texas yesterday [January 15, 2022], where a man interrupted a shabbat service and held 4 people hostage for 11 hours makes it even more challenging. Thankfully, none of the hostages were physically hurt, but a man did die and the Jewish community is rattled once again with violence and threats, wondering if it is safe for them to worship in public.
Yes, this text is very tricky. If something like this happened today, Jesus would have been arrested and words like ‘terrorist’ or ‘hate-crime’ could easily been attached to him. However, this did not happen in modern times, it happened 2,000 years ago in a very different setting. And Jesus’ actions did not come from hate or wanting to sow fear in others. Jesus’ actions came from a deep respect and love for God and Judaism. As Jesus drove out animals and overturned tables, Jesus was trying to bring the focus of the Temple back to God, his father. Jesus was trying to expose abuses and make Temple practices more honoring to God. And so, what Jesus did in this text is nothing like the vandalism and violence synagogues are experiencing in this country today, and I want to clearly condemn any anti-semetic actions because unfortunately, Christians in the past have used texts like this one to justify anti-semetic actions. Now, having said all of this, let’s pray and then dive into our text.
God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob… [prayer]
To start to understand this story, first we need to understand the function of the Temple marketplace. The Temple in Jerusalem was a holy site of pilgrimage for the Jews. Jews would come from near and far to Jerusalem. One thing they would do while in Jerusalem was give an animal sacrifice at the Temple, and some people needed to buy an animal once they arrived. While at the Temple, Jews would also pay a Temple tax, but money with human images on it would not be accepted, so money changers were needed to get the appropriate currency for the Temple tax. Animal sales and money changing were necessary for the Temple to operate.
So why would Jesus, a faithful Jew, disrupt a system that was necessary at the Temple? What was he hoping to achieve when he knew after the demonstration, the marketplace would quickly return to business as usual? In this clearing of the Temple, Jesus was following a long tradition of prophetic demonstration, where God commanded people to do something to make a symbolic statement to convey a message to the people of God. These acts, while odd, were done out of respect and love for God and God’s people.
The prophet Hosea married a woman whom he knew would be unfaithful to him, which symbolized how Israel was not being faithful to God. Ezekiel cooked food over manure, to symbolize the unclean food the Israelites would eat in exile. And Isaiah walked around naked for 3 years as a warning that the Israelites would be taken naked into exile.
The question now is, what message is Jesus giving to the Jews through his prophetic demonstration in the Temple. I believe the answer is multifaceted. One of the most obvious answers is that Jesus is calling attention to the abuse and extortion taking place at the temple—it is likely that perfectly good animals were often deemed unworthy for sacrifice, so people were forced to buy an animal at the Temple, at probably an increased price, for their sacrifice. When the money changers exchanged money for the Temple tax, many probably charged an exchange fee to keep their pockets full. These people were taking advantage of holy rituals to make money. For others, the marketplace may have become the focus of the Temple activity. Instead of coming to the Temple to commune with God, the excitement was in the marketplace. Worldly values of money and market forces had slowly seeped into Temple life and were now fully in display. When Jesus saw this, he knew he needed to speak out against this. Jesus needed to bring attention to how experiencing the presence of God was being commodified and that people were extorting money from others in the names of holy rituals. The Temple was not being treated as the house of God, but as another marketplace.
But John is saying even more than this. In John’s version of the story, Jesus has a conversation following his demonstration. Some Jews ask Jesus for a sign to justify his behavior. They wanted to know how Jesus had the authority to do and say such things. In typical John fashion, Jesus says, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up .” Now, everyone there knew the Temple had been under construction for decades, 46 years to be exact. Rebuilding the temple in 3 days was clearly impossible. But, since we know the rest of the story, it becomes apparent that Jesus was foreshadowing his death and resurrection, and John names that for us. John isn’t making a statement about the abuses taking place in the Temple, John is making a theological statement about who Jesus is. When Jesus says, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” Jesus is saying he is the temple. As Jesus has disrupted the sacrificial system for a day, Jesus will soon make animal sacrifices unnecessary. Unlike the other gospels, John puts this event at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as a theological statement about what Jesus’ ministry will look like—Jesus will be changing things, Jesus will disrupt the status quo. John is showing that Jesus is God, and that religion cannot regulate how and when one can experience God’s presence.
And so today, after reading this text, we may ask ourselves, “What tables (metaphorical or literal) would Jesus flip today? What changes would Jesus call out for in the church today? How would Jesus disrupt our status quo?” and that could be a powerful sermon, but it is not the sermon I am preaching today.
The past two years for most of us have felt like a rollercoaster that goes fast and slow, has steep hills, fast curves, and loopity-loops leaving you hanging upside down before going back through the ride backwards. So far 2022 has not given us any indications that the ride is almost over. Our world has already been flipped upside down. We know the answers to “What tables would Jesus flip today?” Answers will vary depending on our theological leanings, but I think we can all agree that the church and society are not perfect and that we could all name at least a couple of tables Jesus would flip. Because tables have been flipped, injustice has been revealed over and over again. Now, these aren’t tables that I believe God personally flipped over. Rather, the brokenness and sinfulness of the world flipped over these tables and God is using them to show us where there is injustice, where the world is hurting, so we can partner with God to create something new. As a church, we have talked about and named some of these tables, we have heard sermons on race and faith, on creation care, and on how we as a society continue to ignore or neglect the least of these. The tables have flipped.
But still problems remain because we have gotten really good at cleaning up flipped tables. Something happens that exposes injustice—a table flips—but we quickly bring in a public relations team to clean up the mess while making small changes to make it look like we have addressed the problem. But in fact, the exact same table has been set upright again, it just has a tablecloth on it. In our age of social media, these problems are refusing to stay covered up, so something else happens, the same injustice is apparent—the table flips. And again, we bring in the PR clean-up team, who sets the table back on its four legs, puts a new tablecloth on it, and this time a vase of flowers. And in time, more injustices will be exposed, the table will flip again, the tablecloth will fall off, the vase will shatter, and the original table will be revealed again. Clearly this isn’t working.
And so, I am proposing something different. When a table flips, when injustice is revealed to us, let’s not rush to clean it up. Instead, let’s sit in the mess and see what hard truths might be revealed. Now, this is by no means fun work, but I believe it is necessary work because before we can truly address problems, we have to name the problem and understand what truly is wrong. We need to sit and sort through our feelings, discern what is truth and what is lies, and examine our biases and actions.
As Mister Rogers says, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.” This has become an important spiritual practice in my life. When life feels overwhelming and out of control, I have learned to stop and sit with my thoughts and feelings.
For me, injustice was revealed, a table was flipped, on January 6th of last year when people attacked the capitol trying to subvert election results. As I shared last week in the children’s sermon, I struggled with the tension of the joy of Epiphany and the brokenness and hate of the world. And so I stopped. I sat on my couch for about two hours, lighting the Christ candle on my advent wreath one last time, as I read and prayed about the hatred in America and what people are trying to do to combat it, as I reflected on what it means that God entered into this world as a baby and lived among us. I let myself “feel all the feelings,” as a friend of mine says. Like untangling the mess of yarn at the bottom of my crochet bag, slowly, I sorted out anger, disappointment, sorrow, hope, and love. And then they were no longer a mix of emotions but ones I could name, think, and pray about individually. And after naming my emotions and thoughts, God was able to lead me to a place to renew my commitment to choosing love over hate and to think of a few practical, tangible actions I could take to further God’s kin-dom on earth. That is an example of what stopping and sitting in the mess of flipped tables looks like for me. This spiritual practice will look a little different for each person, but I think it is an important spiritual practice for these times because problems are not going away, tables are going to keep flipping.
Another table flipped yesterday, exposing once again hatred and anti-semitism in this world. And so we are going to sit with this flipped table for a few moments. Christy is going to play a song and I invite you to talk with God about what we are feeling, whether it is about yesterday’s events or something else that is on your heart during this time, and to pray for the Jewish community….
[Piano music plays during a time of reflection and prayer]
Thank you for taking some time to sit and pray at the feet of a flipped table.
For it is after we sit, listen, and reflect, we will be more ready to start pursuing what is needed for change. Instead of setting the table upright and putting a new tablecloth on, maybe we will realize some tables need to be dismantled and something new needs to be created. And who better than the carpenter, Jesus, to partner with us as we take apart what isn’t working and create something new. That is the good news of this story. John makes sure we know that the story does not end at flipped tables, that Jesus was there and remains with us in the face of injustice. We are not alone.