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March 8, 2015 - John 2.13-22

“Spring Cleaning”

John 2:13-22

March 8, 2015

 

13The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15Making 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. 16He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After 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.

 

I remember this dream I had long ago.  It was a Sunday. I arrived at about eight thirty or nine that morning, parked my car and walked up the way from the parking lot to the church. I didn’t usually walk that way, but I did in my dream. The sun was shining on the church steeple is a sight to behold.

But the sight I saw that morning was something else again.

I could hear some sort of commotion as I got within range. I could hear clatter and clamor, things crashing.

"No, you can't do that! Stop! Who do you think you are?" I was hearing the voice of our janitor.

I approached the door and was shocked, yes, even horrified, to see a couple of hymnals come flying out the door. The new hymnals that we bought only thirty years ago, the twenty-dollars-a-piece hymnals with the gold letters stamped on them, for two dollars extra! Those precious books were being thrown out the door by some raving lunatic.

Then came the big Bible the leather bound, genuine Moroccan, gold embossed lectern Bible that was given as a memorial. The two hundred dollar Bible! That one. Flying out the door, flopping half opened on the flagstones in front of the church.

What kind of nut would throw around the Word of God? Have the police been called?

Then came the furniture: a couple of pews, sailing out the door, ripped out of the floor where we had them carefully bolted down. The desk that holds the guest registry at the entrance to the church flew out the door, splintering into a hundred pieces on the sidewalk. How are we supposed to worship God without that desk? The computer, which keeps the church calendar, which holds all the records of everything bounced like it had sense and then died right there on the sidewalk. How are we supposed to police this place without that computer?

The pulpit! No, not our pulpit! We have to hire four football players to move that thing whenever we need it placed somewhere else. How on earth did that lunatic lift it? There it sailed out the door. The beautiful paraments and hangings too (hand embroidered, European hand embroidered, silk European hand embroidered), now crumpled in the yard.

I ducked just in time or the silver communion chalice would have cold conked me. Then the sterling engraved silver paten came flying out. Where are those police when you need them? Probably writing parking tickets while our place of worship is being ravished.

Then I saw the sound board fly. A large preacher shaped person came flying out by the seat of his pants, landing hard on the front steps in a very undignified heap; then the guy from the State Baptist Association, then one by one all of the deacons; the head of each committee; the entire SBC Executive Committee; the large vase in which we put the flowers on special Sundays all out the door.

The janitor came running out, his clothes half torn off, cuts and bruises on his face, screaming, "Jesus is in there cleaning house!" (Whip sound)

"Jesus?" I asked. "My Jesus, Jesus meek and mild? The compassionate Jesus? Our best friend and most loyal patron? Jesus?"

"Yep," said the attendant, "I saw him myself. Burst in this morning while we were praying. Boy, is he mad!" [1]

Spring Cleaning usually happens this time of year.  It when we clean those places in the house that we have put off all year.  The ceiling fan blades, etc. 

Jesus is cleaning house. To my knowledge this is the first time Jesus has been in the Temple since he was a kid. He was brought here, as I recall, as a babe in arms to be dedicated to God. Then he was here when he was about 12. Things didn't go that well on his last visit. He got into a big argument (the nerve of the kid!) with the biblical scholars, embarrassing them with his extensive knowledge of biblical exegesis.

That was about his last time in the Temple until today. It's spring, Passover time, time when Jews celebrate their deliverance from Egyptian slavery. It's a religious ritual that commemorates that time when once we had to bow down to the Pharaoh. Now we're free, thus the Passover.

Jesus comes in the temple, encounters the vendors selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and goes ballistic. Why? All of this is religious! The livestock are for the necessary, biblically prescribed temple sacrifice. You can't make a sacrifice to God, can't get your sins forgiven, can't get right with God without a sacrifice. The rich folk bought oxen to sacrifice. The upper middle class bought sheep, and the poorer folk bought doves. Take your sacrifice to the priest up at the altar and get tight with God.

Look, people need a little help when they worship. Sure, you can meet God walking in the woods or sitting quietly at home, but in this beautiful building, with the piano, and the hymnals, the video projector and everything else, well, it's just better this way. Easier. We need the oxen, doves, hymnals, bread, and juice to help us do business with God and to help God do business with us.

You ask if we need such a nice building, all this musical setup, and the other stuff, in order to worship God? Well, you get what you pay for, right? We do quality Christian worship here and quality costs. "Give of your best to the Master," "take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold."  It's in the hymnal.

And what is Jesus’ response to all this?  Jesus makes a whip, kicks over the tables, destroys the birdcages, stampedes the cows, dumps out the cash drawers of the moneychangers, and throws the rest of them out the door.

"Stop making my Father's house into a Mega Mall!" he screamed to them as he popped that whip on their backsides.

 

There was this thing called the Temple tax.  If people brought there own animals to be sacrificed, those animals were subject to inspection, and if those animals did not meet the “standards” of the Temple, they could not be used.  This is why there were dove vendors and such.  But if the people were poor, they couldn’t afford the Temple animals or the temple tax.  Of course, the Temple animals were exorbitantly priced.  Think of movie theater popcorn, and you get the idea.  So lots of people made a pilgrimage to the Temple, only to be told they could not worship or have their sins forgiven because the doves they brought had dirty beaks.

 Jesus’ judgment is clear.  What they are doing constitutes an abuse.  The Temple money exchange grossly out of whack, and buying the temple doves was kind of like buying candy at a movie theater – the prices were unreasonable.  The sin here is that the vendors had set up obstacles for the Spiritual Seekers that hindered them from getting to God.    That is what enraged Jesus, not that there was a Temple tax, or that money was taken up, but that these men and their little money making operation were actually keeping people from God.  What was supposed to be a system that brought people to God was keeping them away.  How DARE they?

 

We all love our church buildings.  We all love our cherished traditions.  But let us never forget that they exist ONLY to bring people to Jesus.  The minute they cease to do that, they become expendable.  We are to NEVER turn away someone who is trying to come to God – for ANY reason.

 

Fred Craddock writes: “I went to the dedication service of a beautiful building at the University of Oklahoma. It had a tall tower, great facilities, all kinds of marvelous things. I was there for the dedication. And the young man, the campus minister, had a very brief prayer." "Lord, burn down this building and scatter these people for the sake for the gospel." [2]

Wow.  In other words, if the building can’t be an asset in bringing people to God, the get rid of it.

 

Susan Johnson (of the UMC) writes about a situation in which the rituals of the church became obstacles to God’s grace: 

"Four groups met to prepare children with disabilities for confirmation. The pastor and parents agreed on a date and decided to request the presence of the bishop. The pastor tried unsuccessfully to contact the bishop to tell him how the liturgy would be simplified. The pastor asked the bishop to come early to meet the members of the group, and encouraged him to move through the service slowly so that each candidate could come forward with his or her family and not be confused.

But the bishop didn't arrive until just before the celebration. He seemed uncomfortable. His homily was addressed to the parents, encouraging them to bear the cross God had given them. He seemed pressed for time and created a major traffic problem in trying to hurry things. The confirmands were distraught and angered by the actions of the bishop. The service was not what they had hoped it would be.”[3]

In other words, the Bishop blew it.  Instead of bringing those kids to God, he became an obstacle for them getting closer to God. 

 

In just a few years, the beloved temple would be in ruins, thanks to the Romans. And if you couldn't get right with God by buying a dove or a sheep, how could you get to God? If the sheep and the rites and rituals, the prayer books and the praise choruses and the bread and the juice are not the way that we get to God (and God gets to us) then how are we supposed to do that? Where is the temple now?

Jesus told them, "Your temple is not such a big deal. Destroy this temple. In three days, I will build it back."

Get it? Who is the temple now?

 

Steven Curtis Chapman sings about this trend in his song, “The Change”:

Well I got myself this T-shirt that says what I believe

I got letters on my bracelet to serve as my ID

I got the necklace and the keychain

and almost everything a good Christian needs, yeah

I got the little Bible magnets on my refrigerator door

And a welcome mat to greet you before you walk across my floor

I got a Jesus bumper sticker

And the outline of a fish stuck on my car

And even though this stuff's all well and good

I cannot help but ask myself

 

What about the change?

What about the difference?

What about the grace?

What about forgiveness?

What about a life that's showing

I'm undergoing the change, yeah

I'm undergoing the change

 

Well I've got this way of thinking that comes so naturally

Where I believe the whole world is revolving around me

And I got this way of living that I have to die to every single day

'Cause if God's Spirit lives inside of me, yeah

I'm gonna live life differently

 

There's now a new way to God. The altar of God has come down to us. The high altar has become a dinner table. The sacred sacrificial act has become everyday bread and juice. The Word of God has become flesh and dwelt among us.

All our beloved aids to worship, our church, our books, our ideas, our songs, our images and our sacred spaces, as helpful as they often are, pale in comparison with the new "temple," the one that was not built with human hands, not dependent upon human contributions. Sadly, these beloved means of worship, those ways we have to climb up to God, sometimes, in our hands, become “gods.” Idols. We invest too much of ourselves in them, expect too much from them, allow them to expect too little of us. Our freedom to worship becomes enslavement to false gods. Jesus sets us free. We pass over to worship in Spirit and in truth.

Just as sad, our beautiful places of worship that we have so lavishly, lovingly furnished become a barrier between us and the poor, a barrier to the poor who are beloved by God but don't know how to return that love in such an extravagant, beautifully adorned temple.

We all love our church buildings.  We all love our cherished traditions.  But let us never forget that they exist ONLY to bring people to Jesus.  The minute they cease to do that, they become expendable.

 

I remember a bit of trouble I got into at another church.  It was called the “fruit loop incident.”  We held a Lock-In for the youth of the church and somehow, some cereal was found on the floor of the sanctuary.  I have no idea how it got there, or even if it was from the lock-in, but the youth group got blamed for it and the deacons had to meet with me and question me about it.  Hmmm.  I found it very disheartening and discouraging that even though we had 50 kids at this Lock-In, 30 of which were visitors and heard the gospel that night, that such events were called into question for the sake of a clean carpet. 

If even the very House of God can become an idol (or the carpet in the house of God) and an obstacle for doing ministry, what else might we make our idol?  9This is why I LOVE the carpet downstairs and in my office – no one is going to care if someone spills red kool-aid on it.

 

Anything we do as a church that brings Christ to people is the work of God.  Anything that draws our attention away from that commission is an obstacle.  Anything that we do that would create a hoop for someone to jump through before they join us to worship is an obstacle.  How does Jesus treat obstacles?  He drives them away with a whip.  What will we do when we find an obstacle?

 

William Barclay writes in his commentary on this text:

Is there anything in our church life--a snobbishness, an exclusiveness, a coldness, a lack of welcome, a tendency to make the congregation into a closed club, an arrogance, a fastidiousness--which keeps the seeking stranger out?  Let us remember the wrath of Jesus against those who made it difficult and even impossible for the seeking stranger to make contact with God.[4]

 

Jesus has come among us to cleanse us of our sin, including the sin within our religion. He comes into our temples, our sanctified and holy shrines, and cleans house. Jesus is that fearless prophet who is so consumed by the righteousness of God that he is determined to do away with anything that would stand between us and confrontation with and service to a holy and righteous God.

 

We all love our religion.  We all love our cherished traditions.  But let us never forget that they exist ONLY to bring us into a closer relationship with Jesus.  The minute our religion ceases to do that, it should be expendable.

 

So this Sunday, amid the rubble of our religion, we pray: Lord Jesus, drive out our self-contrived demons, whip us into shape, clean us up, dust us off, until we are able to worship you in word and in deed, on Sunday and on Monday as we ought. Amen.

 

[1] Will Willimon. Pulpit Resource, Jan.-March, 2006, for March 26, 2006.

[2] Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, Mike Graves & Richard F. Ward, eds., St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001, p. 90.

[3] Susan B.W. Johnson, "Strength Revealed as Weakness," The Christian Century, January, 22, 1997, p. 75.

 

[4] Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible: John.