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SERMON: Spring Cleaning
Jesus with a whip in his hand has always been an unsettling image for me. It strikes terror in me. Maybe that’s because I witnessed, on several occasions, my childhood friend Vince being beaten, whipped by his own father with a “cat-of-nine tails” (he called it), a device made up of nine strips of leather attached to a wooden handle. Today we’d call it child abuse, back then it was what Vince got if he came home late.
That’s a tough image to overcome. And now we’re faced with a passage of scripture that begins with Jesus making “a whip of cords.” Anyone else feeling a bit uncomfortable about the whole thing? Just what do we have here? Is our Messiah in need of some anger management? That seems to be the quick run-to these days. Was Jesus just angry or was it something more than that? I mean, is it even okay to be angry anymore? What about “righteous indignation”? Is that what Jesus was expressing?
Well, to be fair, the first thing that happens is not that Jesus makes a whip of cords. The first thing that happens is that we’re told the Passover was near and Jesus, along with thousands of others, was making his way up to Jerusalem which included a stop at the Temple. And it’s there at the Temple that Jesus goes off.
But here’s some more context that should help us better understand what’s going on. Let’s remember that we’re told Jesus did this near the feast of Passover, when lambs were slain to commemorate Israel’s deliverance from slavery and death in Egypt. But we also need to be aware of the even bigger context that includes the fact that Jesus would eventually be crucified at Passover as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John. 1:29).
It’s also helpful to know, to remember, why the outer court of the Temple was filled with all of these merchants. Believe it our not, such commerce was necessary. The system allowed only first-rate, unblemished animals to be sacrificed, and people who traveled long distances couldn’t bring such an animal with them. So animals were made available to the travelers at the Temple. The rich could buy buy a cow or a sheep; poor folks could purchase a dove. There was something for everyone. It was all a matter of convenience.
Much of the same is true with the money-changers. Travelers would bring different coins from a variety of places. But only one type of coin was acceptable at the Temple. There was a Temple tax to be paid and the only coinage permitted was Tyrian. Scholars argue about why the Tyrian coin was the one acceptable currency. But there’s no argument why Roman coins were unacceptable. Stamped on each Roman coin was a bust of the Emperor and an inscription declaring him to be divine. So for practical as well as theological reasons, Jewish travelers had to utilize the services of the money-changers in order to pay the Temple tax.
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Now just so we don’t get our stories confused, it’s good to point out that this story is in all four gospels. In the Synoptic gospels (Mt., Mk, Lk), Jesus is said to be angered because the money-changers and merchants had made his Father’s house a “den of thieves.” But here in the gospel of John there’s no mention of Jesus pointing a finger at the money-changers and merchants for unsavory business practices. No, what Jesus is angry about is the system that has turned His Father’s house into an “emporium.” That’s the Greek word for “marketplace.
Jesus is angry because the Temple has been turned into a mall. It’s become all about convenience. Anything you want — you could get there. The whole practice of worship and sacrifice had become more about providing all the amenities necessary to complete one’s dutiful obligation with ease and comfort. Temple worship had become more about doing what had to be done quickly and easily — than about heartfelt worship, thanksgiving, and praise.
So what does Jesus do? He makes a whip of cords, he drives all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. I’m still uncomfortable with the image, but I have found solace in discovering what’s really happening. Jesus did not fashion a “cat-of-nine-tails.” The “whip” he made was not made out of leather. Nor was it used to inflict punishment and pain. The Greek word “cords” refers to “rushes and reeds” Jesus would have found on the ground. By twisting them together Jesus made a device to shoo the animals out. Notice, and this important, Jesus didn’t use it on people, neither did he hurt the animals. That changes the image, doesn’t it? Jesus shoos cattle and sheep with a contraption made of rushes and reeds. He “cleanses” the temple by drawing attention to what was going on. Jesus turns over the tables of the money-changers as a way of saying, “This is not to be your focus!”
When Jesus declares that if the Temple were destroyed, in three days he would raise it up in three days,He’s pointing us to a faithful focus. The Temple had been under construction for 46 years and still was not complete, so Jesus’ proclamation really caught the attention of the leaders and the people.
But, we’re told, Jesus was not referring to the human-made bricks and mortar Temple, but to the Temple of his Body. Jesus’ words point us to his resurrection as a way of directing us to our to our faithful focus. The new temple will be Jesus’ resurrected Body. Jesus’ sacrifice will overturn the Temple sacrifice system. That system will no longer be necessary — Jesus’ sacrifice is once and for all, for the benefit of all.
Kind of makes you wonder what tables Jesus might turn over in our church, in our lives? What cattle and sheep he might shoo away because they’ve become a convenient distraction? What “systems” might Jesus turn upside down because we have we refused to challenge them, because we like their comfort and expediency? If Jesus were to come swinging in here this morning, full of righteous indignation, what would our response be? Would we throw him out, ignore him, or take what he has to say (and do) to heart?
Has our worship become more rote ritual than sincere act of praise and thanksgiving? Do we come here to get, more than we come here to give? What does it mean to be the Body of Christ? Is that just a convenient title we toss around, or does it mean we are now the dwelling place of Christ, the living Temple sent out into the world to share Good News, yes, but also to express righteous indignation whenever we come fact-to-face with injustice or convenience worship?
Is that who we are, or who should be?
What does it say about the Christian Church, the Body of Christ, to learn that some have put gifts shops and coffee shops in their church buildings and taken out pews only to replace them with theater style seating complete with cup holder? Can our worship sometimes be centered on us, on our convenience, on the things we do, rather than on the God who is present among us, forgiving us in Word and Sacrament? Do we sometimes think of God more as a vending machine — come to church, tally up our good needs, and present them to the Lord in exchange for a reward? Are we here out of a false sense of obligation and duty, or because we are genuinely thankful for the gift of God in our lives?
These questions are all a part of the Spring Cleaning Jesus is carrying out right now. I mean, questions like these may strike terror in our hearts, but when we make the move from terror to amazement, we come to accept as a necessity the gift of Jesus’ Spring Cleaning in our lives and in our church. We move from fear to joy when we re-direct our lives, when God in Christ again becomes our focus.
It’s been said that the number one cause of atheism is Christians. Those who proclaim Christ with their mouths but deny him with their lives is what an unbelieving world finds simply unbelievable. So what we’re talking about here is a life focus, not just a Sunday morning focus.
The Good News is that Christ is among us and that He is flipping some tables and shooing some distractions. The Good News is for those of us who have eyes to see and ears to hear, because the Good News calls for a conscious, intentional response. Something is always expected of us every time that we get together like this. No, we’re not called to mire ourselves in guilt and shame for not hitting the mark.
Quite the opposite, we’re called to accept God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ and to accept the fact that sometimes that divine forgiveness is enacted, made real, through holy righteous indignation; sometimes our world has to be turned upside down before we get it.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2012, Jeffrey K. London. Used by permission.