great site The Sunday Sermon – February 14, 2016
Beginning with Ourselves
The most common lectionary reading for the first Sunday in Lent is one of the “temptation of Jesus” narratives found in three of the four gospels, the synoptic gospels. This year the lectionary reading is found in the Gospel according to Luke, chapter four. But this year, we’re not reading the lectionary text in the Gospel according to Luke which narrates the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. I’ve messed Jenna up in her preparation of the children’s activity bags in the back and probably her children’s sermon, but she is a forgiving colleague, and to my knowledge, she’s not too mad at me.
Let’s pray together before she changes her mind …
So, the truth is, I felt a bit bored with the temptation narratives this year. That’s a terrible thing to say about any scripture, but as I was re-reading the scripture passage, reading some commentaries, and reviewing past sermons on the wilderness journey, I realized I have a decent amount of sermons on it already. And they mostly said the same thing. I found myself wanting something different this year. And then I remembered a thought at the end of last week’s sermon on the Transfiguration:
We are called by Christ to transfigure ourselves. And not just ourselves, but the world we live in; to bring the love of God to places and situations most in need of hope and joy and peace. Where are those places and situations? Perhaps that is what our Lenten journey this year is for: To find them. To find those places in our world and in our lives most in need of hope, and joy, and peace, and love, and to transfigure them; to bring the love of God to life.
And so I found myself reading from the second chapter of the Gospel of John. Listen for the Word of God … Read John 2:13-21 … The Word of the Lord …
The cleansing of the temple narrative. This story is found in all four Gospels: Matthew, chapter 21; Mark, chapter 11; Luke, chapter 19, and; John, chapter 2. In the first three Gospels this narrative comes late in Jesus’ story, the chapters I just mentioned are all toward the end of those writings. All three “synoptic” Gospels associate this act with Jesus’ passion, with his last week, his last days before betrayal, arrest, trial, punishment, crucifixion, and death.
The Gospel of John is the only one that places the temple cleansing near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It is highly unlikely that Jesus performed this “bold act” twice, so the two traditions – Mark, Matthew, and Luke’s, as well as John’s, probably narrate the same event. And because it’s difficult to see how the Jewish religious authorities would have tolerated such a confrontational act at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the place that the first three Gospels put this act in time, toward the end of Jesus’ life, is probably more accurate. John is not much interested in historical timelines, so he moves the temple scene to the beginning of his Gospel because it serves a symbolic function for him, and one for us as we begin our Lenten journey, again.
The passage that immediately precedes this one (John 2:1-12) is the first public appearance of Jesus. After the magnificent prologue of this fourth Gospel, John baptizes Jesus. On the next day, Jesus goes to Galilee and calls his first disciples. On the third day there was a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee … 2:1 This is the passage that immediately precedes the one we just read. You remember the wedding, I know: Big party, the wine runs out, Jesus turns the jars of water into wine, revealing his glory, and making believers out of his disciples. Well, the temple cleansing that is our reading for this morning completes John’s “symbolic introduction” of Jesus.
In the first eleven verses of the second chapter of John, the miracle at Cana, John reveals the grace and glory of Jesus and the abundant new life that he offers everyone – saving the best for last: Resurrection Life. In the concluding verses of this chapter, our reading for this morning, he highlights the challenge and the threat that this new life poses to the existing order of things – in the Temples of our world and in our own lives.
I’m going to read verses thirteen to sixteen a little bit different than what is written in your pew bibles:
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem, immediately entering the Temple where he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves with the money changers seated at their tables and making a whip out of cords, he drove them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle, pouring out the coins of the money changers and overturning their tables and yelling at those who were selling doves, saying, “Take these things out of here and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” John 2:13-16
Anyone notice anything different in that reading? I didn’t put in any periods or breaks. In the original, or at least the oldest Greek texts, Jesus’ actions in the Temple are narrated in one long complex sentence. The mood created is one of urgency and haste that underscores the intensity of Jesus’ actions. This “long complex sentence” suggests that Jesus didn’t walk into the Temple and notice something that made him angry, and his anger didn’t build the more he took in. He went up to the Temple knowing what he was going to see, and just as he never hesitates as he moves through the Temple, so, too, verses 13-16 never hesitate. John’s picture of Jesus in the Temple is large and dramatic, as Jesus herds animals and people out of the Temple court. There are no warnings, no explanations, no words.
In verse seventeen the focus shifts to the disciples for the first time as they watch Jesus. As and after he cleanses the Temple so rapidly and so thoroughly, you can just see them, standing off to the side, probably just going only so far as the doorway, they’re nudging each other, wide-eyed with their heads shaking: Zeal for my father’s house will consu-u-u-ume me … A wink and a nod to their own scripture – that’s out of Psalm 69, verse 10. And here’s where our sermon lesson takes a turn.
This whole story, the cleansing of the Temple in the Gospel of John, is not about the physical “house of God” Temple on earth, at all. It is about Jesus. It is about his zeal, his love for God’s true house … and his fate because of his love for humanity. His fate is our own when we choose to follow. And as Lent begins, we do have a choice to make. Maybe this year we will …
Verse twenty-one makes the second level of meaning clear. Jesus is speaking of “the temple of his body.” In Judaism the Temple is the “locus,” the center, of God’s presence on earth. Jesus’ proclamation that his body is now the locus of God challenges the temple system – it overturns its tables, driving our any sacrilegious practices, “cleansing” it, because it is the locus of God’s presence on earth. This verse interprets the dialogue between Jesus and the Jews for us so we can discern the full meaning of Jesus’ words for ourselves. This verse is designed to enable us to see the sign that those in this story miss and that we still miss. Two thousand years later, we still minimize the challenge and the threat that the new life Jesus offers poses to the existing order of things.
What Jesus is revealing to us in John’s gospel, is that we, too, you and I are, all of humanity is, the locus of God’s presence on earth. Not some Temple built of stone and mortar, but also not just someone else, alone. Our profession of this human Jesus as Lord and as Savior, as Christ, makes us the locus of God’s presence on earth.
And so as we begin again this Lent, we begin with ourselves. We are called by Christ to transfigure the world, to bring the love of God to the places and the situations most in need of hope and joy and peace. And we must begin with ourselves.
God, in Christ, challenges us, as a church and as individuals in “the church,” to let our zeal for God’s house consume us, to recognize our lives and all that we are called to do with them and through them as the very house of God. We begin with ourselves, cleansing the true temple so that we may offer ourselves, as Jesus did, to the world.
Jesus understood al this at some point in his life. Earlier perhaps, but surely by the time he turned his gaze to Jerusalem. That’s what our own Lenten journey should entail as well: Our own understanding of what our life is for. We place this cross in front of us in these weeks not only to remind us what Jesus died for, but to remind us of what we live for.
May our own zeal for your house cleanse us, O Lord.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / February 14, 2016