The other day Pastor Craig and I were talking about the Bible readings that we would be hearing this morning and I joked that God has a really good sense of humor. This morning we heard the words of the Gospel of John chapter 2 where Jesus enters into the great temple of Jerusalem, the temple dreamed by King David, built by King Solomon and rebuilt by Herod the Great…that temple. He goes into the temple and makes a whip (Indiana Jones style) and clears the house of all of money changers and sellers and yells, ”Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace,” is the same Sunday that to get into this sanctuary space, I’ve walked by two or three pagodas of commerce in our narthex. It’s the same Sunday that our sweet Girl scouts will be offering service during our 10:45 am worship…the same sweet Girl scouts who in their crafty ways got me to buy so many of their tasty cookies a month ago. They’re really good cookies by the way. Three years ago when I preached on this text in Ohio our youth group was hosting a fundraising meal following worship…for a small fee you could eat a plate load of home cookin’! Six years ago when I preached on this text I was down in Naples, Florida and our narthex was filled with beautifully crafted Olive Wood ornaments and figurines from the Holy Land—all on sale for a low price. So yes, I do think that God has a good sense of humor when it comes to timing of hearing our Holy Scripture and the life of our church.
There’s always this tenuous balance that we have with our physical space. Yes, this is a sacred space, a house of worship. And yes it’s also a space where we do a lot of ministry—and that means our lobby is filled with sandwich sales that helps give life and food to our Busoka Orphans in Tanzania. It means that the youth put on a meal and a show for our entertainment, but it also allows them to travel to far places like Detroit for the youth gathering. ( where they’ll have opportunities to grow in faith, serve the community and be a sign to the nation what it means to be a community leader.) It means that I’ll occasionally part with a few dollars here and there so that a young scout—girl or boy—may find opportunities of growth and service in their local community. But whenever this Gospel text comes I wonder if Jesus’ second coming may appear in the St. Peter’s lobby…and the question will be—will he turn over tables or purchase a sub sandwich…only God knows!
But what do we do with this Gospel text? Well, a few things first. Folks who really know their Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—may notice a bit of a difference here. All four Gospel writers tell of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, but only John tells this story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Matthew, Mark and Luke have Jesus enter Jerusalem for the final time—his triumphal entry, what we call Palm Sunday. And after entering through the gates he goes into the temple, kicks all the market folks and change makers out and calls them robbers. In doing this, he really upsets the apple cart and soon after that, the leaders are actively planning on how they may arrest Jesus and turn him over to be killed.
But the Gospel writer John places Jesus’ action at a very different point in his ministry. He’s setting the tone for who Jesus is as Savior. Now the Gospel writers were less concerned with exact dating and time stamping of events as we are today. When they noted an event it was less about the historical accuracy of the moment and more about the reason of the event. So what is the Gospel writer telling us about Jesus? Why was it important that he clear the temple at the very beginning of his ministry? And who were the folks who he kicked out?
Well, second question first. The people in the temple who were hawking their stuff…they weren’t selling lottery tickets or stolen watches…they were selling sheep and cows…which is when you should stop and say, “Why was it normal to bring livestock into a house of God?” Good question!! It was the rule. The rule of the temple and the law given to them by God demanded specific sacrifices for specific occasions. On any given day in Jesus’ time, the priests sacrificed a lamb in the morning and one in the evening, per year 1200 animals were sacrificed including bulls, oxen, rams and lambs. Why the animals? They were sacrificed to atone for sin, to offer a sacrifice for purity, to be given as a freewill offering.
The whole sacrificial system was to assure that God’s people still had some relationship with a God who they saw as angry, who was ready to punish them at any moment for their transgressions or for not being good enough, or smart enough or healthy enough or happy enough. And so every year God’s people would gather in Jerusalem to make burnt offerings and cereal offerings and peace offerings and purification offerings and reparation offerings and thank offerings. And so animals, grains and oils were bought and sold to people who longed to be reconnected to God. To restore relationship.
And in fact, when John places us in the midst of this story—the people—including Jesus—have gathered in Jerusalem for Passover—a celebration of joy when they could recall God’s liberating actions that freed them from bondage. And with that came sacrifices of animals for peace and thanksgiving. It was a time of celebration where the people would ask about the meaning of their calling and destiny. And Jesus kicked the marketers out. Did he not want them to know joy? Did he not give two hoots about their calling and vocation? No, on the contrary. Jesus, by kicking out the money changers and the marketers, was in effect saying “I am the only one you need to be reconnected to God.” You don’t need to give sacrifices. You don’t need to travel to some central temple or make a great pilgrimage to be in the presence of God. I am the temple, which may be destroyed but in three days will rise again.
It’s through me you will find joy. It is through me you will find your calling. It is through me you will discover your destiny.
And so this Gospel reading is less about what exists in our church entrance and is more about why we come to church, in the first place. In John’s account, Jesus is making it clear that God is not simply present in one place—that God is in all things, all places and all people. We don’t need to gather at 10 Delp Rd in order to meet God. God is present in your home—God blessed you and your cereal that you ate this morning. God will be with you later this afternoon when you realize that you have that project or homework assignment that still needs to be done! God is already waiting for you tomorrow; you just haven’t arrived there yet. St. Peter’s doesn’t have the corner market on God. Believe me; we can’t contain God in our walls. God is wherever God wants to be. And God certainly wants to be with you during that meeting that your anxious about, in the doctor’s office as you wait for your test results, at practice as you use the muscles that God gave you to perform.
So why do we come here to St. Peter’s? Why did you get your sleepy family up and dressed and hustled into the car to drive here this morning? God is everywhere, truly…but our community is here. When two or three of us are gathered in his name, the Lord is present…and not in some mystical way that we can’t hold or grasp, but in a very tangible way. Our Lord is present in the bread and wine of communion, our Lord is present as we lift up prayers for our ill and infirmed, for our community who seeks justice and care, for our worldwide partners who may be separated by oceans and continents, but in Christ are a heart’s beat away from us.
We come here to learn of God’s story in history and God’s story in our lives through education and training. Because we need to keep on training on what it means to be a disciple and Christ follower! We come here to seek a community of hands and hearts that can lift us up when our hearts are too heavy to feel and we lack the strength and vision to see above the muck of mundane. We come here to be refilled—because friends, you know this…we go out beyond these walls and so much can be demanded of us. The week can be one trial and temptation after another. The temptation to cut corners or cheat, the trial of how to protect the guy being bullied, the challenge of what it means to practice your faith, the discipline of taking time to pray, read God’s word and listen for God’s call. You know that all this can be challenging and draining and we find ourselves pouring out our time, our compassion, our mercy, our patience, our presence. And so we come here to be refilled by the one Christ. To be filled by the fruit of the Spirit. To be made whole once again.
And as a community we’re really asking the questions as to how we may be better filled for the work of God in the world beyond these doors. Our worship committee, which meets this Tuesday and would love your presence or input, is asking what are the pieces of worship that fills and restores? As a community, let us be the best we can be as the presence of God to each other. My prayer is that you are filled by the presence of Christ—here, right now, in this time and space, so that you may be God’s agent in the world out there tomorrow.