a sermon on John 2:13-22
It may be what you call an occupational hazard, but I go to a lot of churches. My work as Stated Clerk takes me to ten or so different Presbyterian churches around the city each year for our bimonthly presbytery meetings and other gatherings. On my vacations to England, Scotland, and Iceland over the last few years, I probably visited fifteen or more churches—and I actually worshiped in at least half of those! And even the chorus I sing in takes me to four more churches around New York City every year.
Many of the churches I visit, particularly beyond New York City, have a donation box for visitors to leave a contribution to help with the upkeep of the building, and a lot of them even charge admission to visit at times when there was no worship. Some even have gift shops for buying religious books, magnets, postcards, and other souvenirs. There was a lot of money changing hands in those churches, but based on the many appeals for money that I saw, all indications were that what they earn through these ventures is not even enough to keep these beautiful buildings open, let alone bring them up to modern standards. Nearly every one of the churches I go in is advertising some sort of campaign to fund more significant repairs that can’t be paid for out of their regular operating budget.
In this day and age, the expense of maintaining church buildings can easily consume the church’s time and attention—but I must wonder what Jesus would say about it all in light of his actions in our reading this morning from the gospel of John. In John’s telling of this incident that he places at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus ventures into the temple in Jerusalem and finds a first-century version of donation boxes and gift shops and embarks on what could be called some spring cleaning in God’s house. When he arrives in the outer court of the temple, he sees salesmen everywhere—some selling cattle and sheep for those who could afford a substantial sacrifice, others hawking doves as a more affordable option, and still others changing money for those who were preparing to enter the inner courts of the temple.
Now there were actually many good reasons for all these things to be sold in the court of the temple. The pilgrims who made their way to the temple from all around the empire could have brought animals to sacrifice from home, but there was a slim chance that they would make it all the way to the temple without a blemish that would make them worthless as offerings in the temple. Those who were preparing to enter the inner courts of the temple would have been expected to pay a fee, much like the admission charges of our own time, but Roman coins bearing the image of the emperor had to be exchanged somewhere for blank coins that could be used to pay the temple entry tax.
Even though all this commerce in the outer court may have been a necessary arrangement for conducting worship at the temple, Jesus was not happy about it and embarked on a bit of spring cleaning in God’s house. He made a whip of cords and drove the sheep and the cattle out of the temple. He poured out all the moneychangers’ coins and turned their tables upside down. And he ordered the dove hawkers to get their birds out of the temple. The result surely was quite a sight—sheep and cattle all mixed together, suddenly wandering the court and escaping into the streets that led up to the temple; unblemished sacrificial animals suddenly touched by the whip of this amateur cowboy Jesus; and coins of all denominations, for the temple tax and secular use, from all different moneychangers, mixed up beyond distinction in the chaotic courtyard. When Jesus was done, the temple courtyard looked nothing like it did before—his spring cleaning had done its job.
John’s telling of this story goes on to deal with the response of the religious leaders and Jesus’ subsequent proclamation, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” but I think there is plenty here for us to think about in our day and age without even getting into Jesus’ prediction of his crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus clearly had strong opinions about the way that religious life had evolved in first-century Jerusalem, and his actions in the temple on that day early in his ministry as recorded by John can speak to us in our own time, too, as we embark on the spring cleaning work that is our responsibility during these Lenten days.
On this day when we set apart new leaders for our congregation for the coming year, Jesus’ message from the temple can inspire us to think differently about this kind of leadership. In scattering the animals for sacrifice and overturning the tables of the moneychangers, Jesus criticized the ways in which the temple had shifted away from its spiritual focus. As we hear Jesus’ message for ourselves, we must keep our spiritual focus that is so very clear in the way that we will set our leaders apart for their service later today. While our leaders here certainly must do some of the same work as leaders in other community or nonprofit organizations, the spirituality that lies behind their work must shine through all their leadership, for they are ultimately not part of a board of directors but the spiritual leaders of our congregation. While we must manage our life together, particularly our money, staff, and property, with attention to civil law and best modern practices, we must not do these things to preserve our earthly wealth but rather to bear witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And while our leaders here have been elected by a democratic vote of the congregation and further approved for this service by the session, their call to serve comes not from any of these human voices but rather from the Holy Spirit.
Beyond this challenge for our leaders and all of us to keep a spiritual focus in all that we do, Jesus’ actions in cleansing the temple point us to the importance of looking at all we do with fresh eyes. The sales of cattle, sheep, and doves and the exchange of coins in the temple courts likely did not begin with the intention of spoiling the spiritual experience of those who gathered there and in fact were very likely intend to facilitate the spiritual practices of the faithful in this holy place. Yet by the time Jesus arrived in the temple courts, the trade there existed not to support the spiritual life but for its own sake, so by scattering the animals and overturning the tables, he called the religious leaders and the people to reexamine their belief and their practice to make sure that they were in alignment.
In the same way, when we hear this story, we are called to take a closer look at our own practices in our lives and in the church to see how they align with our beliefs and the blowing winds of the Spirit in our world. Are there things that we are doing in our church or our lives that need changing? Are we open to the kind of reformation and revolution that come with following a man who is not afraid to confront even faithful religious practice when it goes awry of its original intent? Where would Jesus step into the temples of our lives, shape a new whip, drive out the things that we have come to love more than him, and overturn the tables that we have so carefully set?
In this cleansing of the temple, we are called to remember the many ways in which God continues to guide and direct us to reassess and reform our religious life so that it might conform more to God’s own intentions. But as theologian Joseph Small rightly reminds us,
The reform of the church is not simply a cherished sixteenth-century memory, but neither is it a contemporary stream of managerial fixes to organizational woes or easy acquiescence to cultural trends. (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, p. 94)
Instead, in our Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, we have come to describe this continuing work through a seventeenth-century motto that translates,
“The church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God” in the power of the Spirit. (Foundations of Presbyterian Polity, F-2.02)
And so Jesus’ cleansing of the temple reminds us that we have some spring cleaning to do ourselves this Lent, that God’s house still needs a check of its practices every now and then, that everything is up for review and reconsideration based upon the Word of God in Christ Jesus and the blowing winds of the Holy Spirit so that we might be more faithful along this pathway to the cross.
So as we gather in a few moments to set these leaders apart for their special service in our church in the coming years, as we look around us for those places where Jesus might want to drive some things out and turn some tables over, and as we continue walking this road to the cross with Jesus, may God give us wisdom to see the places that need some spring cleaning, guidance to reshape and reform these things in a new and right direction, and hope for the renewal and resurrection of all things that is sealed for us in the resurrection that is before us on Easter Day. Lord, come quickly! Amen.