Sermon: The 3rd Sunday in Lent Year B

Exodus 20:1-17

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

John 2:13-22

Psalm 19

The Collect

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen

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This story of Jesus in the temple, flipping tables and making a whip to drive out animals and people, it’s one of the more disturbing and distressing images of Jesus. Jesus is a healer and a teacher, but in this scene he is angry. He is violent. And he does not apologize, but almost seems to antagonize his opponents in the temple even more, speaking in riddles and prophecy. We are usually ok with righteous anger – anger directed at correcting injustice. But is that what is going on here?

There are different ways we can explain what’s going on. Maybe Jesus didn’t like that the Roman empire imposed blasphemous currency on the Jewish people, with images of pagan God emperors. This forced the temple to employ moneychangers to get people kosher money. Maybe Jesus didn’t like the vibe of some of the temple sellers, like they were bargaining and advertising something that was supposed to be worshipful. Maybe Jesus didn’t like people treating the temple like a financial and spiritual transaction. Buy animals for money, buy ritual purity with animal sacrifice.

Everyone in the temple scene thought they were doing what God wanted them to do. 

The sacrificial animals were commanded by law. And people did not want to risk traveling to the temple with an animal that might be injured and made unfit for sacrifice, so they bought the proper animals at the temple. Joseph and Mary bought doves at the presentation of Jesus in the temple just like those that Jesus yells at in these scene.

The money changers were there so that the blasphemous Roman imperial coins would not be used for temple things. No other Gods and no graven images were two of the very first commandments! Surely the money changers were doing what God wanted?

How do we know what God wants us to do?

In the story of the Exodus, the Hebrew people have escaped slavery and plague in Egypt, and now they are wandering around in the wilderness, perhaps wondering what they are supposed to do now. Perhaps wondering what God wants them to do. Jewish Hebrew Bible scholar Joel Baden says that the story of the ten commandments is used as like evidence or corroboration for what Moses hears from God. Moses heard from God and led God’s people out of Egypt. It was Moses who directly talked to God. It was Moses who received the majority of the law on Mount Sinai. But these 10 commandments, perhaps a sort of summary of the law, are received by the people directly. If Moses then tells them what he hears from God, they have something to compare it to, a direct message from God. We know what God wants us to do because God tells us directly. 

The 10 commandments passage from Exodus is a familiar one. There was a time when the ten commandments were read during every church service. They can still be found in our prayer book today at the introduction to the Eucharist service. It is a reminder of God’s law and a call to ask God’s forgiveness for how we have failed to keep to what God wants us to do. It’s not that the 10 commandments are the path to salvation themselves. But they show us the way to live more closely in God’s ways. 

The 10 commandments tell us that God wants every part of us. Our time. Our art. Our family. Our worship. Our very desires should be pointed towards God. 

Every time a week goes by, we keep the Sabbath holy. Even if that means the email is not sent this week. God’s kingdom will not fall if we set aside the lists of things to be done, and not expect anyone else to do them either. In fact, God’s kingdom will flourish if we keep the rhythms of work and rest. 

Every time you have an opportunity to mislead people and lie about some one, we remember that God’s word is true and faithful and so ours must be as well. Bearing false witness is saying something false about another of God’s image bearers. It’s saying something false about God.

Every time we see something a neighbor has – a nicer church building, a flashy children’s curriculum, a church coffee shop – we must draw our desires back to God. Salvation for the church won’t come from those things. Our desires much be pointed towards God, and God’s abundance must be sufficient for us. 

I could go through all 10 of these commandments, and the law of Moses does go through them, expanding the Sabbath laws, and all the others, in order to draw us closer into God’s presence and God’s will. 

We know what God wants us to do because God gave us the law to show us how our entire lives can be directed towards God.

So what’s going on in the gospel? Jesus is flipping tables. obviously something here is not right. Each person in the scene is doing what they think God wants, but all together, the scene is not right. It has turned from the Father’s house into a marketplace. But how are the people supposed to know what God wants them to do? They thought they were following God’s law. 

Jesus is trying to show them a different way. A way of doing what God wants, not to the letter of the law, but following a deeper spirit – following the law with your entire self. God doesn’t want sacrifices to mark the birth of a firstborn son because God needs blood to be satisfied. God told the people those laws so that their entire lives would be directed towards God – marking birth and death and everything in between. Not so they could turn a relationship with God into a checklist to be achieved. 

Maybe we are guilty of the same thing. Not necessarily literally buying and selling in the church, but a marketplace mentality. Thinking that if we sing the right songs at the right time, we will achieve a true religious experience. Or if I wear the right clothes and say the right words perfectly, I will achieve some special holiness.  Is that really what God wants from us?

Jesus gets so angry because people have turned the opportunity for a relationship with God Almighty into a quest or a recipe. Do this, and you’ll fulfill the law. But God doesn’t want just that. God wants our entire being. God doesn’t want to just be present to us in the culmination of a religious rite performed according to the rules. God wants to be present with us always. 

Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine says that perhaps what Jesus got so angry about, with the buying and selling, was that people were trying to contain all the holiness of God in the temple, as if the only place where God’s presence could be, the only holy place in the world, was the temple. She says that one thing that the Pharisees and Jesus had in common was this idea that holiness should be extended into every part of life – not just in the temple. 

God doesn’t want just part of us – God wants us in our entirety. And that’s exactly what Jesus invites us into. He flips over the tables and drives away the transactional, marketplace way of meeting God. 

And Jesus invites us into his own body. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The temple, not the temple of Jerusalem, but the temple of Jesus’ body. In the Eucharist, we enact the sacrifice that Jesus made of his own body. We don’t have to buy a dove or a lamb as a sacrifice to fulfill the law. We don’t have to travel to the temple in Jerusalem to make the required sacrifice. We are invited into the temple that is the body of christ, ever present and eternal.

God doesn’t want us to buy our way to holiness. God doesn’t want sacrifices like that. God wants us to be united in Christ. God wants us to be made holy, to be sanctified, not by the blood of animal sacrifice, but by sharing in the one body and blood of Christ. God wants our entire beings to be not only directed towards God, but to become unified with God in Christ. That is what the law is pointing toward. What does God want us to do? God wants us to fully, entirely, united in the holiness of the body of Christ.

Amen.

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