In John’s Gospel this story of the cleansing of the temple marks Jesus letting the world know that he is God’s son. We’ve had some clues about Jesus. There is the invitation he gives to his first disciples to come and see, there is the gift lavish gift of joy in the gifts of water turning into wine. But it seems like it is all leading to this particular moment and place.
The place is important – it is the temple mount in Jerusalem. Today it is home of the Wailing Wall where people from all over the world come and tuck their prayer requests into the wall. It is home of Al Aqsa mosque where the Prophet Mohamed was transported in a dream from Meca. It is a place considered holy by Christians as they retrace Jesus’ footsteps, to Jewish people who pray at the wall, and to Muslims who make pilgrimages to the mosque.
In legend it is connected to one of the rivers flowing through the Garden of Eden. It is home of Mount Moriah where Abraham bound Isaac. It is where David brought the ark of the Lord – God’s presence and where Salomon built the temple. It was the centre of faith until the Babylonians destroyed the temple and is later rebuilt. It is the place where earth and heaven meet.
Just before Passover, the celebration of God leading the people to freedom in the Promised Land, Jesus and his disciples go to Jerusalem. People from near and far were gathered for the Passover celebrations. When they arrive at the temple, the first thing that Jesus sees is the normal business of the temple. He’s probably seen it most years as comes for holy days at the temple. The money changers, the people selling animals for sacrifice. Something happens with Jesus. It is not clear what. He makes a whip, he drives them all out of the temple, turning over the tables and dumping the money of the ground as he cries out, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market place!” (John 2:17)
Then there is a strange reaction from the people watching. They don’t run and hide wondering what this person is doing. They don’t try to stop him. They ask him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” (John 2:18) Really? That is their reaction? And then to make it worse the answer Jesus gives is a strange statement that is nearly impossible to understand unless you know about Jesus’ death and crucifixion. Jesus says “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19) Is it any wonder the crowds starts muttering and saying things like, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, you will raise it up in three days?” (John 20) And they walk away shaking their heads in disbelief. What just happened here?
It is a hard story to make sense of – especially if you don’t know how the story ends. It is only after Jesus’ death and resurrection that the disciples remember that it is written, “Zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:17) and that the narrator can say “But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead the disciples remembered that he had aid this; and they belied the scripture and the word Jesus had spoken.” (John 2:21 – 22)
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke the cleansing of the temple happens at the end of the Gospel as though this is the culmination of Jesus’ frustration with the authorities. Not so in John. It is at the beginning only a few short verses after Jesus turns the water into wine. But in John it happens at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It is an introduction of who Jesus is – God’s son. It is a reminder that with Jesus everything is changed.
As the tables are turned and the animals used for temple worship are sent packing, Jesus is making a point about who he is and his ministry. It is like he is saying “something new is happening starting today and our relationship with God will never be the same.” In the place where earth and heaven meet, the place where God dwells, Jesus is makes it clear that God’s presence is with him. It is a complete shift in how people meet God. Once it was only in the temple. Now we meet God in Jesus and we are all invited to come and see what this means. The author Phyllis Tickle who wrote the book The Great Emergence argues that the church today is in a period of major transition. Not as major as the day Jesus clears the temple of vendors. She argues that this happens every 500 hundred or so years. Think of the Reformation as Martin Luther as he nailed his statements on the wall. She says it is like the church is having a giant rummage sale and is trying to pick what parts of our tradition to take with into the next period, what do needs to let go of, and what do needs to be reclaimed.
In some ways, that is what happened in the temple. It was a complete shift in how people are invited to meet God. We are in a shifting and changing time in our world today too. Our culture, our way of living, our faith are all in transition. We hear it on the news in movements like the Occupy movement and the Arab spring. We know it in our churches. So many people are spiritual but not religious or fall under the category of none when it comes to religion. We feel it on Sunday mornings with fewer people in the pews. As individual churches and a denomination we are having to make hard choices about how we will live our faith into the next generations.
It is a challenging time to be in the church. It is filled with so many uncertainties and challenges. But it is not a time without hope. No matter the challenges and changes we face we remember these words from Hebrews, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8) This time of challenge and change is an invitation from Jesus to go deeper into our faith. It is time to share our story and to boldly proclaim that as followers of Jesus we are given a gift that is truly priceless – grace. Grace is not earned. It is freely given. Every time we gather at Jesus table for gifts of bread and wine we are reminded of that grace. For in them we are given new life, a love that will not let us down and strength for the coming day. Amen.