Lent 3B: House Zeal
Fred Rogers, or “Mister Rogers” as we all knew and loved him, made a name for himself and became famous over the years because of his gentle spirit, warm smile, and quiet effectiveness. According to family and friends, there was actually no distinction between the Mister Rogers on the PBS television show and the real-life Fred Rogers.
A while back I read an article written by a man who interviewed Rogers years ago. Following the interview at the TV station in Pittsburgh, Rogers offered to drive the interviewer back to his hotel. As they attempted to pull out of the studio parking lot onto a road clogged with rush hour traffic, Rogers sat at the steering wheel with utter patience, calmly waiting for a chance to turn left and quietly commenting that such traffic was typical for that time of day. “Don’t you ever get frustrated with anything?” the interviewer asked. Mister Rogers thought for a moment and then replied, “Sure. Yes. Sometimes. Sometimes I get frustrated. Don’t you?” It was classic Mister Rogers!
But although he became famous for this laid-back manner, Fred Rogers did not make headlines just by being himself. When Rogers gave commencement speeches, it was not news if he simply stayed consistent with who he was. But imagine what would have happened–and how it would have been splashed all over the media–if even just once Fred Rogers showed up somewhere and delivered an angry diatribe of a speech. Imagine the sensation that would have been created if just once a microphone had caught on tape Fred Rogers cursing after a speech, complaining loudly about what a stupid audience that had been. Such spectacles would have been so far out of character that they would have grabbed headlines for certain. If we think that we have a given person pretty well sized up, then we expect him or her to act accordingly. Out-of-character actions startle us.
Maybe that’s why Jesus’ driving out the moneychangers is one of the most famous stories in the gospels. All four gospels record this incident, although not all in the same way, as we’ll note more in a moment. But the fact is that you cannot read any gospel without sooner or later running across this incident. But this story unsettles and perplexes us because seen from a certain angle, this seems to be the rare occasion when we catch Jesus, of all people, in a non-Christlike act! With a whip in his hand and fire in his eyes, this Jesus seems a far cry from the man who was otherwise so gentle as to attract children to his side.
But precisely because we are talking about Jesus, the ways by which this story perplex us multiply. After all, had even Fred Rogers committed some public act that scandalized us, we might have been disappointed, but even still the bottom line of our assessment of this would have been, “Well, I guess even Mister Rogers is only human. ” But as orthodox Christians, we don’t want to say that about Jesus. We can’t chalk this up to a sinful lapse. So rather than let this story cause us to revise our opinion of Jesus, our tendency is to figure out how what we already know about Jesus can help us understand this story. Somehow this is consistent with who Jesus was. But how?
Before we answer that, however, let’s take note of other problems that surround this story. As you may already know, Matthew, Mark, and Luke each presents Jesus’ cleansing of the temple as happening right after his Palm Sunday Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. In all three of the synoptic gospels this story comes at the end of Jesus’ ministry. It is the deed that leads directly to his arrest. But as you can easily see based on where we are in John’s gospel, John shows Jesus doing this exact same action at the very beginning of his ministry.
There are two scholarly options to explain this difference. The most literalistic explanation is that Jesus cleansed the temple in Jerusalem not once but twice, first at the beginning of his public ministry and then a second time at the end of his ministry. Matthew, Mark, and Luke record the second cleansing but not the first while John records the first but not the second. But many commentators deem that to be an unlikely option and so believe that Jesus cleansed the temple just once and that it did happen at the end of Jesus’ ministry. But if so, then that means John changed the timing of this event. He moved it out of order.
Each explanation has difficulties. To say that Jesus did this exact same action at two different times seems odd. It would not be difficult to believe that Jesus preached the same sermon in more than one place and at different times. But driving out moneychangers from the temple is a different sort of event than a sermon. Then again, the second option has the difficulty of causing us to wonder why John would change the order of events.
If I had to choose, I would be comfortable with the second notion that John re-shaped this material to make a point. John’s gospel, after all, is the most theological of the four gospels. John makes no bones about the fact that his goal is to generate faith in the hearts of his readers and so he has selected and shaped various tidbits from Jesus’ life in order to achieve that holy aim of leading readers to faith. John did not invent stories that never happened nor was John unaware of when certain events took place.
In other words, John was not out to trick anybody nor was he such a clumsy historian that he made huge mistakes. But John was writing a gospel, a piece of proclamation, and not a history book or diary. In order to help us understand who Jesus is, John interpreted things as he went along and, here and there, moved events around a bit to help bring Jesus into focus. In this case, he chose to put the temple cleansing early in his gospel and he did it to help us, early on, begin to get very serious about who Jesus is.
By presenting this story where and how he does, John wants to teach us something vital. What might that be? In the past when we have examined this story from one of the other gospels, you may recall my making a big point out of the idea that Jesus’ goal was to make room in the temple for all people. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it looks as though what upset Jesus was the fact that this little flea market was taking up all the space in the Gentile Courts. That was the portion of the temple where non-Jews could come to pray. And so by pushing the merchants out of that space, Jesus was declaring that God’s love was for everyone. That is probably why in the synoptic accounts, Jesus quotes that verse, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
But in John 2 Jesus does not quote that verse nor any others. Instead he simply barks out the command that the merchants get out so that his Father’s house will not be turned into a market (the Greek word there is emporiou, from which we get the English word “emporium”). But what is it in John 2 that upset Jesus so much? What’s the point of this?
Well, to begin we can note the obvious point that before this story is finished, Jesus will make clear that ultimately the true temple will be nothing other than his own body. Jesus will become the “temple” because it will be the sacrifice, and then the resurrection, of his body that will fully, finally, and once and for all accomplish what had been the goal of the temple all along; namely, the forgiveness of sins and so the reunion of God and his people. The temple in ancient Israel was the place where you sacrificed animals as an atonement for sin. “Atonement” refers to that which makes God and humanity “at one.” But in the case of Jesus, his own body will become simultaneously the temple and the sacrifice. Because of that, Jesus will eliminate the need for any temple with ongoing sacrifices.
That is a key lesson here and we will come back to this in a moment. But it still doesn’t tell us just why Jesus did this dramatic deed to begin with. And maybe we cannot discover the precise reason. But whatever Jesus’ motivation was, whatever he saw that set him off that day, there is one little detail we should notice because it might just give us a clue as to what this should mean for us even yet today. The telling detail is John’s insertion in verse 17 of Psalm 69:9, “zeal for your house consumes me.”
If you look back at Psalm 69, you will find that it is a psalm of lament, a heartfelt cry to God on the part of the psalmist. The reason he cried out was because he was being looked down on and poked fun of on account of his faith. So the original context of the verse quoted in John 2:17 is someone who is zealous for the house of God but who is suffering because of that enthusiasm. If I tell you that I have great zeal for the ministry and the purpose of this church, you might take that to mean that I am devoted to this church, that I am dedicated to making sure that we keep unholy activities away from here. Zeal for God’s house, we think, means protecting it.
But that is not quite what the writer of Psalm 69 meant. His point was that because he was zealous about the house of God, his neighbors made fun of him, insulted him, told him he was a backward-thinking idiot for finding so much meaning in something as silly as a temple. Psalm 69 is about suffering for your faith. It’s about how the world sneers at us for claiming that a worship service is more valuable than anything that could ever happen in the citadels of worldly power. It takes faith to believe that what we do here in worship on a Sunday morning matters in an eternal sense.
It takes faith to believe that what a preacher conveys in a biblically true sermon is vastly more vital than anything that could ever emerge from the U.N. or from the office of any president, king, or prime minister. The writer of Psalm 69 believed that the ancient temple of Israel was the center of the universe, the house of God, the dwelling place of the cosmic Creator. And his neighbors saw this zeal for God’s house and they laughed out loud. How could he believe such an outlandish, silly thing?
That is the verse John throws into this story. And it tips us off that what this is all about is how sharp our spiritual vision is. Do we know what matters in life and what doesn’t, and are we willing to put up with the world’s scorn rather than give up on our faith? So maybe Jesus threw out the moneychangers because their ever-expanding emporium was eclipsing the real meaning of the temple. Maybe the temple had started to look like just any old Jerusalem flea market, and so people were forgetting that to have faith was to believe that God’s house is most definitely not just any old place. Maybe Jesus wanted to shake people up so they could remember that to have faith is a radical thing that should make us radically different from those who do not have faith.
Maybe that is also why Jesus intentionally confused the Jews when they asked for an explanation. “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again.” Given that Jesus was standing smack in the middle of a literal, brick-and-mortar temple at the time he said this, it seemed merely obvious that Jesus meant the physical building. And so everyone who heard him responded the same way, “It has taken us forty-six years just to get this far, and even so the construction project isn’t finished yet! Now you tell us you could do the whole thing from scratch in under a week!? Right!” According to John, Jesus does not reply to this and even the disciples didn’t understand it until years later after Jesus rose again from the dead. Only then did they connect the dots.
But although he doesn’t say it directly, maybe Jesus wanted them to have the wrong idea here as a subtle, yet poignant, way to demonstrate that just generally they had the wrong idea. They had the wrong focus. They were obsessed with brick and mortar. Their mention of how long it had taken them to build the temple was a sign that they had lost their way. They no longer had the radical faith of Psalm 69. The psalmist endured insult and injury because of his outrageous belief that the living God actually dwelled in the temple. But some of the Jews in Jesus’ day had forgotten. They saw it as their own accomplishment in which they could do whatever they wanted because it was, after all, their place.
Jesus reminded them that it was God’s place, or was supposed to be, and if they didn’t perceive the presence of the living God there, then there was nothing distinctive about the temple at all. Maybe this helps us to understand the odd words we read in verses 23-25. Following this incident we are told that many people became interested in Jesus because they saw him doing miracles. But this made no impression on Jesus. He didn’t trust these people. They were still being seduced by outward things only and were missing the inner core of it all. They were just like the folks who went to the temple not because they thought God was there but because the architecture was impressive and the emporium was exciting and it was a spiritually “happening” kind of place. It was the wrong focus. Jesus needed to remind people that the presence of the living God was the main event. And over time, he had to teach them that he himself was the living God in flesh. Jesus was the temple. Jesus was the temple because in Jesus, God was there.
That’s what we believe now as Christians. The living presence of Jesus is all that matters now. His body is our temple and, what’s more, his body is present wherever to this very day the Spirit of the Living God falls fresh on us and so seals to us the living Christ of God. The Spirit of Christ transforms us from an ordinary gathering of folks into the extraordinary reality of being the Body of Christ. We are the Body of Christ now, his holy temple, built not by hands but by the power of God’s Spirit through Word and sacrament.
Lent is a time that reminds us, painfully, that the temple of Jesus’ body was torn down. But because God really was present in the temple of Jesus’ body, that temple was raised back up in three days. That sacred temple of Christ’s Body lives still and we are members of it right this very moment. Are we able to sense the terrible truth of that?
It is a question worth pondering. We would not have a church had it not been for the awful sacrifice, and then the shattering resurrection, of Jesus. Yet how casual we can be in saying to even a non-Christian person with whom we work, “Well, I’m off to church!” We tell others about going to church with about the same amount of seriousness as telling someone we’re buzzing out to the mall or we’re off to see a movie. We are quite different from the psalmist whose zeal for God’s house caused others to revile him. We don’t take our going off to church all that seriously ourselves. Why would anyone else around us take it seriously enough to make us a target of derision?
Jesus was a little more sensitive to such things. Maybe others could walk past kiosks, cash registers, and blue light specials in the narthex of God’s house and not bat an eye, but as the very Son of God who himself would soon become the living, walking, breathing temple of God, Jesus took the affront of all this personally.
At the outset, we said that actions we perceive to be radically out of character for a given person grab our attention. We tend to think that Jesus was so mild and gentle that his taking up a whip was a queer, out-of-step thing for him to do. But once you realize how snugly Jesus identified with the house of God, then you realize that Jesus reacted this way for the same reason he later cried out when the soldiers drove spikes through his hands–it hurt! This business at the temple was personal because it touched his very body. If we are now members of Christ’s Body, his living temple of faith, then it is because Jesus went so far as to die for us. If we understand how the church came about and what it really means to be a member of it right now, then zeal for God’s house will consume also us in ways that may well be radical indeed. Amen.
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