Rev. Teri Peterson
19 January 2014, NL 4-20
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. 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. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 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.
When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.
As many of you know, this fall we began using the Narrative Lectionary. That means that we read, essentially in order, through the broad arc of the scripture story throughout the year. We started with Genesis in September, and moved through some major Old Testament characters, then into the prophets, and now we find ourselves in the New Testament. This year we read from the gospel according to John, in order, until Easter.
There are lots of things that make John a different gospel than the other three. Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell lots of the same stories and record the same sayings of Jesus, while John’s perspective is different. In John, we get no Christmas story, no sermon on the mount, no Last Supper, no praying in the garden of Gethsemane, no thieves on the cross next door. In John, we hear Jesus say things not mentioned before, like “I am the Good Shepherd” and “I am the resurrection and the life” and “I give you a new commandment—that you love one another as I have loved you.” In John, we meet all kinds of characters no one else mentions—the woman at the well, Lazarus, the disciple Nathaniel, Nicodemus, and the unnamed beloved disciple. And in John, the order of things is different. So while Matthew, Mark, and Luke write Jesus’ active ministry into one year, culminating in the trip to Jerusalem for Passover that led to his death, John writes of three years that Jesus and the disciples traveled, learned, taught, and ministered together. Which means that when we hear the words “The Passover was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” today, we have to remind ourselves that this is not the Passover of Holy Week, but rather the Passover two years before.
It’s weird to read this story of Jesus’ Temple Tantrum, as I like to call it, at the very beginning of his ministry. So far we’ve seen him gather a few disciples and turn water into wine. In many ways, this is the first very public thing he does, as opposed to how the other gospel writers place it as one of the last things he does.
You might be wondering what difference this all makes? Well, for one thing, it means that our journey through this season of Epiphany and the season of Lent will be different, because we’ll be reading the gospel in order rather than pulling pieces from here and there and moving them around to fit the season. But for another thing, it’s important for John to place this story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, because John is all about revealing who Jesus is—and the difficulty that arises because we cannot see.
So Jesus bursts on the scene, quite literally. And he does know how to make an entrance. In the midst of the bustling holiday season, when everyone understands the tradition and really wants it to go just so, when sacred animal specialists and currency exchange officers do their most robust business, Jesus comes in and disrupts the flow and ruins everything. Imagine if someone showed up the day before Christmas and shredded all the wrapping paper and poured out the eggnog. Or if someone went around and unplugged all the car batteries during Thanksgiving dinner, forcing us to stay home rather than go shopping.
Basically, Jesus walks into the center of religious reality, and disrupts everything with God’s reality instead. He looks around and sees that we’ve lost the point in the midst of all the trappings. Rather than experiencing God’s transforming power through the Temple rituals, we were insisting on the rules of the rituals. Rather than seeing our part in the story God has been telling since the beginning of time, we trapped the story in the Sunday School hour. Rather than coming together as the body of Christ to praise God, we focus on our individual connection with God, keeping others literally at arms length as we spread around the sanctuary sitting where we always have. Rather than wondering what pleases God in worship, or even what might help someone else in the room see God, we complain about what we don’t like. And so Jesus says: “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” These words make no sense, because of course this is how things are. What on earth can he possibly be talking about? This Temple has taken 46 years and we’re not done yet, and how do you think we pay for that? Anyway, this procedure has been in place since before you were born, so of course we’re going to keep doing it. If you want to say otherwise, do a miracle right now and prove we should listen to you.
One of my favorite sayings is that the seven last words of the church are “we’ve never done it that way before.” Or sometimes “we’ve always done it that way before.”
Don’t get me wrong—tradition is important. Telling our story matters. Knowing who we are and where we’ve been matters. But that is important because it gives us a clue about who we will be and where we are going. We’re part of a trajectory, and if we stop that trajectory in the days we liked best, we’ll miss the days that God has planned.
It seems to be human nature to construct systems that work for us, to set up rules and boundaries designed to control every detail. We like to feel in control, and that’s one way we do it—by naming who’s in and out, what’s good and bad, what matters and doesn’t matter. We do it by having committees and boards, because that’s the way things are done. We do it by insisting that our preferences are the right way, whether it’s music in worship or the way meeting agendas are organized. It can be hard to see outside our reality, whether that’s looking at another culture, or another family, or a holy disruption like the one Jesus brings.
And make no mistake—he does disrupt what we think is real. Every time. Because, as John will show us throughout the gospel, God’s reality made visible in Jesus is so much bigger, so much more beautiful, so much more inclusive, so much more radical than anything we can really live with. The holy disruption may not always be as drastic as driving the animals out of the Temple and turning over tables and pews. But this is what John tells us right at the beginning of the gospel: something’s coming. Keep your eyes open, and you just might see God walk in. But be ready, because for all we say we want to experience God’s presence, it’s entirely possible we might not like it when it happens.
So often we expect that having a God-moment will be comforting, peaceful, hopeful, nice and light. And that does happen. But what about when the God-moment turns everything upside down, speaks in cryptic quadruple entendre, and leaves us angry and confused? What about the God-moment that disrupts everything we thought we knew? What about the God moments we can see in people like Martin Luther King Jr, or the other people who rallied for civil rights against popular opinion? What about the prophets, both biblical and modern, who make us squirm as they point out how our privileged place in the system we have set up blinds us to the ways we hurt others? What about when God whispers a call we don’t want to hear?
In other words, what about when Jesus waltzes into the middle of everything we hold dear, and says “hey, look over here!” Because that’s what this is about: where we look. That’s why John puts this episode at the beginning of the gospel: because right off the bat, he’s breaking open our blinders and asking us to look—really look—at Jesus. Not at all the things we want Jesus to be, not at the ways we have insisted people interact with religion, not at ourselves and our desires, but at Jesus. In him we see Light. In him we see Truth. In him we see Love. In him we see what is Real, not what we have set up as real. In him we see God.
May we look, and may we see, even if it makes us uncomfortable.