Christ the King, Palm Coast, FL ~ Pastor Jay Zahn ~ John 2:13-22 ~ Sunday, March 7, 2021
If you’re a college basketball fan, March is your favorite month of year. March Madness, the Division I college basketball championship series begins on Thursday, March 18. And every weekend until the big game, you can watch wall-to-wall college hoops!
In our television age, watching games from around the country is easy. Just turn on the tv and choose the right channel. To provide that kind of coverage, sports networks send their reporters, commentators, producers, and technicians to broadcast the action to you on the device of your preference. To do that, outside the arenas where the big games are being played you’ll find trucks like these, filled with all kinds of sophisticated television broadcasting equipment.
Due to COVID this year’s March Madness is going to be played almost entirely in Indianapolis. Imagine this with me. You’re walking in downtown Indianapolis by Lucas Oil Stadium and the national championship game is underway. As you walk alongside the stadium, you come across the line up of television broadcasting trucks, bundles of cables running from the trucks to the stadium, tractor trailer-sized generators, and television crews. But you notice something else, well, someone else. You see a guy with a giant pair of hedge trimmers, and with just minutes left in the last quarter of the national championship game, the teams trading baskets and the lead, this guy starts cutting the cables that power the stadium and electrify the broadcast equipment. The lights in the arena go out. The scoreboard goes black. The cameras stop filming. Can you imagine? What kind of reaction would there be? Confusion? Anger? Chaos?
That’s the kind of impact Jesus had on the Temple and its activities on this particular day. In the same way that you need electricity to play a game inside a basketball arena, you need cattle and sheep and doves and money changers to run the Jewish temple. Jesus brings the Temple to a standstill.
Why? I think it will be helpful to give you some background first to help you gain a clearer understanding. The temple breaks down into two major parts: (1) the temple itself and (2) the courtyard of the Gentiles. Only Jews could enter the temple court and building, offer their sacrifices and worship. Some Gentiles [non-Jews] also trusted in Jesus as Savior. They could come and worship too, but they were restricted to the courtyard surrounding the temple.
It’s nearing Passover in Israel at the time of today’s reading. Passover worshippers are pouring into Jerusalem. Some travel long distances. Instead of dragging your sacrificial sheep across miles and miles, you could purchase your appropriate sacrifice in Jerusalem. In addition to the sacrifice, God required paying a temple tax. Jewish people who were living outside of Israel would come to town with the currency of the Roman empire. Pressed into those coins is the image of the emperor—an emperor who claimed to be god. Such an arrogant boast stole glory from God. So, those entering the temple would exchange their Roman coins for Jewish coins. Then they could pay the required temple tax.
Selling animals and exchanging money were not wrong per se. But there are a couple of things that have gotten out of hand. (1) Where this business is conducted. Normally, you bought animals and exchanged money outside the Gentile courtyard of the Temple compound. Now, someone brought this business into the place where Gentiles worship! Imagine someone bringing barnyard animals into the worship area at Christ the King. As you pray, a bull bumps into you, signaling with a snort you’re in his way. You lift your eyes up to heaven in prayer and cannot help but notice a sheep unloading his bowels just a few feet away from you. The lemony-pine smell of your incense blends in with the swampy stench of sweaty cattle. You try to meditate, but you’re struggling to focus because you keep hearing shouts of: “Exchange your money here! We’re lowering our transaction fees for the next 10 clients!”
To be clear, Jesus isn’t taking issue with business or turning a profit. What has him upset is how trade is crowding out the higher purpose of the Temple. Additionally, Jesus is concerned about the way the merchants were taking advantage of their target market. You see, these merchants were not just selling animals as a helpful service to pilgrim worshipers at a fair price. They were what we today would call “price gouging.” Like opportunists following a hurricane who run up prices on necessary goods and services because they have the supply and there is extreme demand, so also the animal sellers and moneychangers in the Temple were leveraging a hefty premium for their goods and services on out-of-town worshipers who were required to offer sacrifices and pay the temple tax as part of their Passover ritual. Jesus’ own words clue us into how bad things had become, accusing the merchants of turning the temple a “den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13)
Maybe you’re thinking, “These details are all very interesting, but what does any of this have to do with us today? What does any of this have to say to worship at Christ the King in 2021? No one is selling sacrificial animals in the narthex. No one is running a currency exchange in the worship area because no one is required to pay a pew tax to worship here. Does this Gospel account really have anything to say to us?
It does. Here’s why: there other ways that we may be tempted to bring into the house of God similar sorts of things that Jesus wants to drive out. Like what? For starters, there is the temptation to exert market forces on ministry choices. A crude example: “I give a lot of money around here, and I’m seriously considering going elsewhere and taking my offerings with me unless you start this ministry program or change this church policy.”
Some other more refined ways come to mind too. Ministry is turned into a marketplace when worshipers see themselves merely as consumers of religious goods and spiritual services. What’s the danger in that? A popular thought in the retail world is: “The customer is always right.” If people believe that and worshipers are spiritual “customers” what does that mantra mean for the message of this ministry? It needs to flexible so it can please every customer, all the time, every time? Is that a good idea? A wise idea? A spiritually-healthy attitude? If church goers are essentially religious consumers, what happens to the desire to serve the body of Christ? You would have about as much motivation to volunteer your time, effort, and ability to help out at Christ the King as you do when you go to the store! When is the last time you volunteered at the grocery story, the hardware store, or a restaurant? Similar things happen to our attitude toward our offerings, rather than a response of thanksgiving to God for his provision to us, they become a representation of the price we’re willing to pay for the religious goods and spiritual services that the paid professionals are peddling here. Additionally, if worshipers really are nothing more than religious consumers, then the need for coming to this place is reduced to when you feel a need. You don’t go to Publix when your pantry is full, so why would you go to church if things in your life are just fine? And if worshipers really are just spiritual shoppers, then choosing a church centers around finding a place that will give you what you want. It certainly wouldn’t be about connecting with and committing to and being accountable to a group of people who will tell me what God wants me to hear (whether I like it or not), right?
Is any of this hitting close to home? Because when Jesus drives the merchants out of the Temple, he is doing more than upsetting their tables - Jesus is upending the marketplace mindset toward God’s house in us too. And that is uncomfortable. Like the merchants in the Temple, are you shocked and upset with Jesus for his audacity to forcefully drive out something you were thinking, flipping over the expectations you’ve set up in your heart? How uncomfortable is Jesus making you right now? Would you prefer to go back a few verses in John 2 and hear about gentle and kind Jesus who makes 180 gallons of water into really great wine for a wedding reception? Or skip ahead into John 3, where Jesus talks about birth into the Kingdom of God through water and the Spirit and talking about how he has not come into the world to condemn it but to save it? That Jesus is easy to like. But the Jesus we see today is intense and intimidating.
That image of Jesus doesn’t fit in to the type of Jesus most people like to hear about or talk about. More than one person has thought this story does not belong in the Bible. More than a few have wondered if Jesus looked back on this incident and regretted what he did - as if the sinless Son of God had let his temper rage out of control like you and I sometimes do. How uncomfortable are you with this Jesus as he forces you, forces us to see that maybe deep down we’re not all that different than those merchants and moneychangers whom Jesus drove out of the Temple?
If I were to tell you that even intense and intimidating Jesus is acting out of love for you and me, how would you react? Think of it this way: A father's yell upsets his daughter while she is peacefully playing outside. She does not know her father was not so much yelling at her, but at the strange dog that was threatening her safety. Or maybe more to the point: you go to the doctor for a check-up and you’re feeling fine. But after a battery of tests, the doctor discovers something wrong. You may not want to hear the news, but is the doctor truly helping you by pretending everything is fine? One must know what is wrong in order to figure out how to make it right. Yes Jesus is zealous about driving out what’s wrong within you because he is passionate for you and your soul’s health and safety.
That’s what we heard Jesus doing with Peter in last Sunday’s sermon. “Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus rebukes Peter because Peter was trying to stop him from going to the cross, going to the place where he would secure salvation for human souls. Jesus rebuked Peter not because he hated Peter but because he wanted Peter to turn from his sin and live.
Jesus has that same goal in mind in the Temple too. Let me caution you, though, about reading this story just as Jesus driving out his enemies from the Temple for the sake of his people. He is operating for the sake of his people, his people including the merchants and the moneychangers! He wants them to turn from their sins and live too, before it is too late. He’s intense, but this isn’t hate. If Jesus wanted, he could have called lightning down from heaven to destroy them on the spot so that they will face the eternal judgment right that very moment. But he doesn’t. Instead he rebukes them to turn them back to him, that they might know that "now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation" (2 Corinthians 6:2).
Like the Jewish merchants, for many, the most shocking thing about this account is Jesus’ demonstration of anger. What gives him the right to do this? That’s what the Jewish merchants and Temple officials want to know. Maybe we wonder the same thing. We might also wonder: Has Jesus lost control here? Is he being too mean? Does he sin?
Jesus answers with a redirection: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” Like a lot of what Jesus says in John, this line from Jesus does not seem to follow from what precedes it. You hear it, and you think, “Huh? Who said anything about destroying the temple?” Even the people listening to Jesus are confused. They point out that the temple has been under construction for decades. “Really, Jesus, you’re going to rebuild it in three days?”
The narrator tries to help us all out. “He was speaking of the temple of his body,” John writes. Why does this matter? And how does it answer our questions? Think about it this way. The temple was the meeting place between the God of Israel and God’s people. Sacrifices were offered during religious festivals and at special times in people’s lives, at the birth of a baby or in thanksgiving for a harvest. The temple was a holy place. It was a place where human life and divine blessing met.
But God never intended to the Temple to be the focus of people’s worship, rather to turn their hearts to the one who would ultimately save them. In that way, the Temple building and activity was a foreshadowing of Jesus. In another part of his gospel, John writes: “The Word [Jesus] became flesh, and lived among us.” When the eternal Son of God was conceived in the womb of Virgin Mary, with the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem, God didn’t just come near to humanity. God became human. In Jesus, divine blessings are given in the form of human flesh and blood, offered as the ultimate sacrifice to pay in full for our sins. And that same God-man returns three days later, risen in victory over sin’s consequence of death!
That’s why Jesus came to this earth. Yet when he came to the Temple this day, people weren’t seeing him for who he was and what he had come to do for them. They were too distracted by everything else that was going on around them. Jesus was zealous to see that change! Jesus is just as zealous to bring about that change today too! If the Lord’s house ceases to be a place where the saving Gospel is the prime focus – humanity loses, we’re the ones left wanting. If our hearts cease to be a place where he dwells with his grace and mercy, we are the ones who are left to pay the price that none of us can afford. That’s why Jesus is so fired up, because so much is at stake! His zeal is a zeal for you, to meet with you, to be with you! His zeal drives us to ask ourselves the deeper questions: What in my heart needs to be driven out so that I’m not distracted or consumed by lesser-important things from seeing and worshiping and connecting with the truly important One?! What will I upend in my life so I can be in God’s Word more regularly and more often? What do I need to drive out of my heart and life so I can connect with fellow believers more frequently, becoming more transparent and open with them about what is really going on in my heart, my life, my mind? What changes is Jesus’ zeal for me driving me to make so I keep my focus on what truly matters now and throughout my life? These are disruptive questions, yes. But they’re coming from a heart that genuinely cares, the heart of One who didn’t consider leaving heaven to come to this earth as too much to give up, who didn’t think it too much to spend 33+ years on earth, nor did he feel it was too big a sacrifice to offer his own life on the cross to save you for eternity. That’s who asks you these disruptive questions, and he does it, because that’s why he came, to accomplish the changes he desires for you, in you! Amen.