January 21, 2018 Sermon
A Kingdom of Radical Change
First Scripture Reading: John 2:13-17
13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
Second Scripture Reading: John 2:18-25
18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
23 When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.
“A Kingdom of Radical Change”
I want you to imagine something for a few minutes. Imagine that you get up one Sunday morning, you start anticipating worship however it is that you anticipate worship. Maybe you select something to wear that you would like to wear for God. Maybe you read the Bible to prepare for an encounter with God. Maybe you have a conversation with your spouse about what’s happening in the congregation – maybe a conversation about the visioning process or the most recent Bible Study you attended or the most recent CWF gathering or Men’s Breakfast. Somehow, some way, you do something to prepare to come here for worship, anticipating what might happen here, likely anticipating that what happens here on that Sunday will be very much like what’s happened here every Sunday for as long as you can remember:
- The building looks the same way it’s always looked – your usual parking space is available;
- Upon entering the building, the Fellowship Hall and Sanctuary are pretty much the way they’ve always been and filled with pretty much the same people as every week in recent memory;
- Before or after worship – whichever you’re accustomed to – you sit at a table and enjoy snacks and coffee and conversation;
- During worship, we do the same things we almost always do:
- Sing some;
- Pray some;
- Read Scripture;
- Hear a sermon;
- Gather around the Lord’s Table for Offering and Communion;
You expect this Sunday will be no different. You complete your preparations at home, whatever they may be, and then you drive up to the church building for worship, only to discover:
- The parking lot has been ripped up, replaced by a lot full of dirt and mud and weeds;
- Or…the walls of the building have somehow been removed, so that all the sounds and weather and smells from the outside world invade the fellowship and worship spaces of the building;
- Or…it’s 20 degrees outside, but all the thermostats have been ripped from the walls, so you must fellowship and study and worship in a bone-chilling cold;
- Or the screen has been removed from the front of the sanctuary, so in order to sing the songs, you’ve got to grab a hymnal, only they’ve all been removed as well…which isn’t nearly as disturbing as the dawning realization that the keyboard and speakers are gone, so you couldn’t possibly sing along to the music even if you knew the words…because there will be no musical accompaniment;
- Or maybe you walk in here to the sanctuary, but all the chairs are gone…there’s just a big empty space with nowhere at all to sit;
- Or maybe, just maybe, all the bread and juice in the building has been removed, along with the trays and chalices and plates to hold them;
- Or maybe you discover not just one of these changes, not just a few of these changes, but ALL of them, at once.
Y’all, imagine walking in here one Sunday morning to discover without warning that something, maybe EVERYthing, you need to worship the way you have always worshipped and the way you ANTICIPATED worshipping on that day has been removed, somehow the environment has been changed so radically that you couldn’t possibly DO what you believe you’re supposed to DO when you gather at this place on Sunday morning. And then, to top it all off, imagine that you discover it was JESUS who made the changes.
NOW…I think you’re ready to understand what the people felt who showed up to worship at the temple on the day described during our reading for this morning.
As modern Christians, we have a tendency to read the story and think something like, “Well, of COURSE Jesus cleared the temple courts of the animals the vendors had been selling. Of COURSE Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers and scattered their coins. Of COURSE Jesus did these things. The only wonder is that some good follower of God hadn’t done so sooner!”
We imagine such things because we know the story, but we forget what it would have been like to be there. Because the money changers and the cattle, sheep and doves were in the temple courts for a reason…a reason that had EVERYTHING to do with what God’s people at the time understood their normal worship at the time to be about, every but as much to do with THEIR regular worship as the things so dear to us in our regular worship.
As the Passover approached, Jews from all over the known world – and they were scattered pretty far and wide – were required by God’s commandments in the scriptures to gather at Jerusalem. And each family needed a lamb to sacrifice once in Jerusalem. And it couldn’t be just any lamb – it had to be unblemished. Can you imagine the difficulties involved with traveling on foot for days or weeks through the desert wilderness with an unblemished lamb and then arriving at Jerusalem with the lamb STILL unblemished? Given the logistical difficulties involved, a natural practice arose – instead of animals for the offerings, Jews brought money with them to Jerusalem and converted that money into lambs and whatever animals they needed for the other sacrifices. Makes sense, right? And it even makes sense that they would do so at the temple – since that was the place you could get a lamb and have the greatest chance of the lamb still being unblemished when you took it to the altar of the temple.
Oh – and what about the money changers? When all those Jews who gathered at Jerusalem made their way to the inner portions of the temple, they were required to pay a Temple Tax, but only one particular type of coin was allowed for paying the tax, and it wasn’t a coin that was part of the common currency of the Roman Empire…so the Jews required the help of money changers to pay this tax.
Y’all, the existence of the animal vendors and even the money changers makes perfect, logical sense. This marketplace aspect of the temple HELPED the Jews perform their scripturally instituted acts of worship at the temple.
I suspect that any Jews who witnessed the events of our scripture reading this morning would have been appalled, flabbergasted…every bit as much as you would be if you arrived at worship on Sunday morning and everything had changed. They would have wondered, probably even exclaimed rather loudly, questions about what was WRONG with this radical agitator. “Why is he disrupting our worship that had been ordained by God and handed down in the commandments through Moses?” they likely asked. I’d be absolutely shocked if there weren’t shouts of “stone him” coming from the crowds. The gospel writer John records the questions of the crowd in such a nice way – “What sign can you show us for doing this?” – but I suspect John was simply retelling the most benign of the questions asked and demands made of Jesus during this incident. (And even these seemingly “nice” words have undercurrents of hostility; there’s an implied threat of what will happen if Jesus cannot produce an adequate sign for what he’s done.)
In order to understand the message of Jesus’ actions, we need to try to understand why Jesus did what Jesus did. Certainly, Jesus could NOT have been upset with Jews trying to gain access to the lambs they needed for the Passover. Certainly, Jesus could NOT have been upset with Jews trying to get the cattle and doves needed for the required sacrifices. Certainly, Jesus could NOT have been upset with Jews trying to get the correct coins needed to pay the Temple Tax. So, what’s going on?
Decades and maybe even centuries of commentaries about this topic have suggested Jesus was upset because these things were taking place in the Court of Gentiles, and so it is most likely that the Gentile vendors were exploiting the Jews, charging excessive prices for the sacrificial animals and exorbitant fees for the money changing. These charges fit well the scene near the END of Jesus’ ministry that is reported in the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In that instance, Jesus charged the animal vendors and money changers with making the temple a “den of robbers.” Sounds to me like he was accusing them of doing their business unfairly at the expense of the Jews. But that’s not the charge Jesus makes in this instance at the BEGINNING of his ministry and recorded only in John’s gospel. Jesus’ charge – “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” is a bit different. In fact, it would apply even if the vendors were charging fair prices, even LOW prices.
In this instance, Jesus’ charge seems to be that the vendors and money changers were doing something that turned God’s house of worship into something OTHER than a house of worship. Indeed, it seems to be a charge that these support activities to the primary purpose of the temple – worshipping God – were DISTRACTING from the primary purpose of the temple. With animal vendors and money changers clamoring for space, the Court of the Gentiles could no longer BE what it was supposed to BE: a place for non-Jews to gather to pray and begin to learn something about God. Instead, the Court of the Gentiles had become a place where non-Jews came to work and conduct business – not at ALL what God had in mind.
I hope you see how Jesus’ actions and words in our scripture reading pointed to a kingdom of radical change. Somehow, over the centuries, the ways of the kingdom of the world had come to invade the temple and even distract from what that place was supposed to be about. Jesus was radical in that he advocated for a kingdom devoted entirely, 100%, to God. Kingdom of the world stuff that in any way, shape, or form DISTRACTED from the kingdom of God had no place in God’s kingdom Jesus came to usher in. Which means that even activities that seemingly supported temple worship but still distracted from the temple’s purpose had NO…PLACE…IN…GOD’S…KINGDOM. That’s pretty radical. And a kingdom devoted 100% to God’s purposes and 0% to humanity’s purposes, that’s pretty radical.
But, what do WE do with this point, this teaching from Jesus? What do we do with this message? Surely, there is nothing at all that we do in our church building, in our house of worship and praying and teaching that DISTRACTS from God’s purpose for it, even a tiny bit, is there?
Y’all, as followers of Jesus, if we want to get this RIGHT, we’ve got to consider everything we do in this building – our equivalent of the 1st century temple – and ask ourselves if what we do distracts from God’s purpose for this place, EVEN as these activities support what we think worship is supposed to be like. And that’s a tough task. Clearly, average, everyday 1st century Jews would not have been happy if the priests had come to shut down the animal vendors and money changers in the 1st century. It would have made their lives more difficult. They weren’t even happy when Jesus did it. But just because the regular worshippers wouldn’t have LIKED such a change doesn’t mean the change was wrong. It just means the change was radical, that the change represented God’s kingdom of radical change. So, please keep an open mind as I jump-start this conversation and ask all of you to continue it throughout the week.
- Is there ANYTHING we do that distracts from God’s purpose for this place, even as we feel like it supports God’s purpose?
- Anything we do DURING the worship service?
- Anything we do BEFORE or AFTER the worship service?
- Anything we do during the week?
Notice – I’m not mentioning specifics and asking about them. I’ll leave that to you. I just want to get the conversation started.
Where I WILL mention specifics is in the application of this principle to the rest of our lives…what we do OUTSIDE this church building. I mean, we’re supposed to be ushering in the kingdom of God everywhere we go, not just here, right? So what kinds of things might be distracting from that purpose outside this building, even just a bit? What kinds of things keep us, you, from being 100% devoted to God’s purpose for you and for the world?
- When we say unkind things about others, people who are our sisters and brothers in Christ AND even people who are not? Is it possible that saying mean things about people is something other than living 100% in accordance with God’s desires?
- How about gossipping? Is it possible that gossiping is something other than living 100% in accordance with God’s desires?
- Or trying to gather as much stuff for yourself as possible? Does maintaining your STUFF help you fulfill God’s purpose and desire for your life? Is it possible that acquiring STUFF is something other than living 100% in accordance with God’s desires?
- Or how about using and abusing whatever power you have to oppress people…even in the smallest of ways? Is it possible that using power over people to harm them, even just a little, is something other than living 100% in accordance with God’s desires?
In Jesus’ act of driving the animals from the temple courts and overturning the money changers’ tables described in our scripture reading this morning, Jesus pointed out something God’s people had been MISSING. Somehow, some way, God’s people allowed the kingdom of this world to invade the most sacred of places, God’s holy temple, and at least a little bit displace God’s kingdom in the ONE place that was supposed to be safe from the kingdom of this world.
If it could happen to God’s people 2,000 years ago, you better believe it could happen to us. So…we’ve got a task ahead. Instead of accepting the status quo as good, right, just, and even ordained by God, if we want to follow the example of Jesus, we’ve got to be willing to radically CHANGE our assumptions about everything, what happens in this place AND even what happens in the seemingly mundane actions of life. Because it’s very likely we’ve become accustomed to the ways of the world’s kingdom, so accustomed to the ways of the world’s kingdom that we’re going to have to be open to some RADICAL CHANGE if we want continue Jesus’ ministry of ushering in a different kingdom, God’s kingdom, a kingdom devoted 100% to God’s desires with NO DISTRACTIONS, here on earth. Amen.