Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent
March 7, 2021
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts

Watch Here (TLC Worship Service – 03/07/2021)

In the name of Jesus. AMEN.

15 years ago I participated in the New England Synod’s Healing the Wounds of Racism community. My participation included two weekend retreats for pastors and leaders from around the New England Synod.  The weekends were intentionally designed to be challenging, and somewhat confrontational. I remember one of the leaders saying the discomfort was intended to serve as eye drops that would open our eyes to the issues of race, privilege, and racial hierarchy.

Interestingly, at the end of the retreat, was another shock and jolt. As we prepared to return home with our new found knowledge, we were told not to go marching off to try to end racism. We were advised against going back and putting into practice what we had learned because we might do more harm than good. Instead, what we were told to do, was to be in community with one another – to remain in conversation, dialogue, and study with one another, and from that place of community, together, we would heal the wounds of racism.

Is that what’s going on in today’s gospel story (John 2:13-22)? Is this story of Jesus driving out the animals and overturning the tables intended to challenge and confront us in our understanding of what it means to be in relationship with God? Is it designed to shock and jolt us into new relationship with God and new community with one another? 

As we consider those questions, let’s first reflect on just what exactly was going on in the temple.

Nothing illegal was happening! The activity was legal and was actually essential given the religious requirements of the day. Jesus, along with the crowds, assembled in Jerusalem for the Passover, and one of the requirements of the Passover celebration was the ritual sacrifice of animals in the temple. However, because the people traveled great distances and for many days to get to Jerusalem, they couldn’t be expected to bring their own animals from home on those long journeys. In response to this need, a market grew up where people, arriving in Jerusalem, could purchase animals to be sacrificed at the temple.

The money changers also played an important function. No coins that bore images could be used to pay the temple tax. The coins people used, especially those bearing the image of Caesar, could not be used in the temple, and so they had to be exchanged for temple-approved currency. The money changers were providing a way in which people could change their money into the proper money used for temple worship.

We might read this story and imagine that somehow this commerce was completely detached from worship, and had nothing to do with faith, but the truth is, the commerce arose in response to the temple requirements. Animals needed to be sacrificed. Common currency could not be offered. And so these businesses helped people fulfill their religious duties.

John, unlike the synoptic gospels, placed this story at the beginning of his gospel. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke (and it’s interesting that all four gospels include  this story) tell the story at the Passover at the end of Jesus’s life, John tells this story at a Passover at the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry.

In the synoptic gospels, the response of the offended religious leaders is to go squirming off into the night to begin their plot to get rid of Jesus. In John, however, the offended religious authorities confront Jesus. “Who do you think you are that you can just walk right in here and claim that you are the Son of God, and disrupt everything?” This confrontation, and their demand for a sign of the authority by which Jesus could make this audacious disruption to religious life by claiming he was the Son of God – gives Jesus, and the gospel writer at the beginning of the gospel, an opportunity to explain who Jesus is. 

Here at the beginning of John’s gospel, is the announcement of God’s new work in Jesus Christ that challenged and confronted how the people understood relationship with God.  The story in John’s gospel is not about Jesus’s anger at personal behaviors, in fact, John doesn’t say Jesus was angry, instead, that he was filled with zeal, he was filled with passion, and purpose and intensity. This was Jesus disrupting and overturning a whole paradigm about what it meant to be in relationship with God and in relationship with God’s people.  

One commentator, Mark Oldenburg, writes: “For John especially, the cleansing of the temple has less to do with opposition to profaning God’s house with commercialism than it does with opposition to the sacrificial system as a way of striking a bargain with God … Notice it is the animals Jesus drives out, not the money changers!

In driving out the animals, and overturning the tables, Jesus rejected the old sacrificial system, and also announced a new beginning. “Jesus makes a stunning claim,” writes Oldenburg, “the temple is no longer the place where God and humanity connect and reconcile; the temple has been replaced by the body of Jesus. In Jesus, not in the temple or sacrificial system, the divine and human come together and find peace.”

The temple, understood as the place where God and humanity meet, was no longer to be found in a building where sacrifices were offered to God to earn God’s favor, but the place where God and humanity meet is the very body of Christ sacrificed on the cross to proclaim God’s favor to the world!  

So, how do we respond today to this gospel story?

One commentator suggests, this story can lead us to reflect on the ways “we make our churches marketplaces for our desires, agendas, competitions, and controversies.” Indeed, through the Lenten disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving we might imagine what Jesus would drive out and overturn in our life together.  That’s worth considering. I think more important than that, however, this gospel story challenges the very nature of our relationship with God and our expectations of faith.

Last week in my sermon, I reflected on the difference between transactional and  relational relationships. I suggested a transactional view of faith sees faith as a transaction – an exchange: live a good life and be rewarded by God. And while we may not offer animal sacrifices today, we often are guided by a transactional view of faith.  I have seen that when things go wrong in people’s lives people have asked: “Have I done something wrong to deserve this? Am I being punished?” As if a reward for a good life is protection from the bad things of life.  Or as we approach death, “Well, I’ve lived a good life, I’m sure that must count for something.”

Especially as Lutherans, we should understand this is not what faith is about. Martin Luther’s teaching in the Reformation against indulgences, was not only a rejection of the abuses of the church of his day, but also a rejection of any and all notions that we purchase our way into God’s favor, either with indulgences or with good works. We can understand that heart of the Reformation teaching as another example of  Jesus cleansing temple and overturning the tables of the money changers – drawing the people out of a sacrifice giving system and into relationship with God.  

We understand faith as relational – faith as the promise of God, announced in Jesus Christ, to be in relationship with us, despite our sin and failings. Faith does not begin with what we give to God. Rather, faith begins with who God has first given us: Jesus Christ. And it is in the crucified and resurrected Jesus that we experience the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of God.

Our response to this reading today, is to reject the transactional view of relationship with God, in order to embrace the relational view. With a relational view of God, and listening to Jesus’s own teachings, we understand the temple, the place where we experience God, not as physical building of brick and mortar, of walls and ceilings, but as the living body of the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ!

We enter the temple of Jesus Christ’s body, wherever the Word is preached, the promises of baptism are proclaimed, and where the bread and wine are given for all. We enter the temple of Christ’s crucified and resurrected body as we live in relationship with one another. When we feed the hungry, cloth the naked, visit the prisoner, care for the sick, and welcome the stranger – there we meet and experience Christ – there we enter God’s holy temple.

In our Second Reading today the Apostle Paul called this foolishness. Indeed, he called this foolishness that is our salvation.  The foolishness of salvation to believe that life is found in a rabbi who ended up getting himself killed on a cross. We are called to believe that God doesn’t want our sacrifices, but that God wants our faith, wants us to meet God in the crucified and resurrected body of Jesus Christ. We are called to faith to believe that the crucified and resurrected body of Christ today is the church, and that you and me are vital members of that body, and that our life together, is the salvation God brings into the world today!

The shocking conclusion to the Healing the Wounds of Racism retreats all those years ago, after spending a whole weekend talking about racism, was that we weren’t supposed to go home and take action against racism in our congregations or communities. Instead, we were encouraged to form community and live in relationship with other members of the Healing the Wound community. We were called to trust that the community of reflection, dialogue, and awareness we would form, would itself, be our response to racist structures, would be the way we would reject and renounce the sin of racism.  

In response to this shocking gospel story this morning, we are called into renewed  relationship with one another as the body of Christ. We are called this morning to see that faith is not about what we need to do for God in exchange for God’s blessings. Rather, we are called to live in the Good News of what God has first done for us in Jesus Christ. In faith, we are invited to enter into the temple of Jesus Christ, and there, living in Christ along with the people of God, who knows the smashing announcements and shocking jolts, that we as the body of Christ will spring forth in the world, as we live in Christ with ZEAL as a people of justice, healing, and love! 

Indeed may it be so!