The following sermon text is from a sermon I preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church on March 7, 2021 on the Gospel passage in John 2:13-22.
Prophets are always at their most popular when they are dead. Their challenging messages that disrupt the status quo have a way of softening in their absence as the original audience for the prophet’s message fades away.
We could describe Martin Luther King Jr. as a prophet who quoted scripture throughout his struggle in the American Civil Rights movement, advocating in part for voting rights, fair wages, just laws, and equality for all.
Ironically, politicians who have voted against what King stood for annually offer him social media tributes without fail on MLK Jr. Day. One former member of Congress with strong ties to white supremacy even had the gall to share one of the more inspirational King quotes that conveniently avoided any discussion of racial justice.
The Washington Post quoted King’s daughter Bernice on a recent MLK Jr. Day, “There will be an overflow of King quotes today… We can’t, with truth and consciousness, quote my father, while dehumanizing each other & sanctioning hate.”
We may also remember that Pope Francis spoke to Congress in 2015 and honored King, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Abraham Lincoln as “four representatives of the American people,” using their dreams of justice, equal rights, liberty and peace to make America a better place.
Yet, during their lifetimes, Merton and Day were often criticized, ostracized, silenced, and slandered for calling into question the buildup of nuclear weapons during the cold war. Merton and Day exchanged letters over their frustrations as exiles among the mainstream of Catholicism that approved of war.
Merton wrote to Day with his customary sarcasm,
“My peace writings have reached an abrupt halt. Told not to do any more on that subject. Dangerous, subversive, perilous, offensive to pious ears, and confusing to good Catholics who are all at peace in the nice idea that we ought to wipe Russia off the face of the earth. Why get people all stirred up?”
The Hidden Ground of Love, Page: 74
Merton later griped in his journal about not being able to write about nuclear war:
“I am still not permitted to say what Pope John said… [The] Reason: “That is not the job of a monk, it is for the Bishops.” [But] Certainly it has a basis in monastic tradition. [Quote] “The job of the monk is to weep, not to teach.” But with our cheese business and all the other “weeping” functions we have undertaken, it seems strange that a monk should be forbidden to stand up for the truth, particularly when the truth (in this case) is disastrously neglected.
Intimate Merton, Page: 215
It’s easy to honor a prophet when you’re not the immediate target of the prophet’s message.
At the time of Jesus he noted that his people wept at the tombs of the prophets whom their ancestors had killed. We shouldn’t be surprised to learn what happened to John the Baptist and Jesus when they took up the prophetic mantles of the likes of Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.
Our challenge today is to encounter the message of the prophets and to do our best to imagine ourselves in the same shoes as the prophet’s audience. We need to see how these messages, cutting through the pretenses in their original audience, can convict us as well. It’s not an easy or desirable position to be in!
If we can place ourselves alongside the original audience of the prophets, we may find that the prophets have messages for us about how to draw near to God and how to treat our neighbors with love, kindness and justice.
Today’s Gospel reading clearly presents Jesus as a prophet within the Jewish tradition. In order to better understand today’s reading, let’s begin with a brief look at what a prophet was and how a prophet functioned.
A prophet in the Judeo/Christian sense may be described as a person who conveys a message from God. Abraham J. Heschel writes about the canonical Hebrew prophets like this, “A prophet is… endowed with a mission, with the power of a word not his own that accounts for his greatness—but also with temperament, concern, character, and individuality… The word of God reverberated in the voice of a man.”
We should not view prophets as men and women who merely reveal the future. Prophets reveal God’s perspective. Some call prophets ambassadors for God, and so their revelation may be a message about what is coming in the future, but even that message about the future tends to be more wrapped up in God’s assessment of the present moment.
Jesus frequently imitated the prophetic ministry of Isaiah, Elisha, and Jeremiah with his miracles, messages, and actions. For his original audience that was steeped in these stories and traditions, the prophetic role of Jesus was beyond dispute. Taking a whip into the temple like he did in today’s story is exactly the kind of action we would expect from a prophet.
Jesus’ words in John and the other Gospels were drawn directly from the prophet Jeremiah, even as he hinted at the destruction of the temple:
We read in Jeremiah 7:11-14 NRSV
“11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord. 12 Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel… I will do to the house that is called by my name, in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your ancestors, just what I did to Shiloh. ”
In other words, a foreign invader will destroy the Jerusalem temple in the southern kingdom of Judah just like what happened to the holy place of Shiloh in the northern kingdom of Israel.
Much like the prophets before him, the words of Jesus are a little easier for us to read today since we aren’t the primary targets of his message. And since we lack any kind of modern equivalent for the Jewish temple, we’ll have to work especially hard to grasp the significance of what Jesus did and what he said.
Setting the Scene for the Cleansing of the Temple
The temple was the religious focal point for the Jewish people. At least three times each year, the Jewish people traveled en masse to the temple for major feasts and holy days. The Passover was among the most important, and we should imagine Jewish pilgrims arriving from not only throughout Palestine but from around the world. There are travelers of Jewish descent and also Greeks who have adopted the Jewish religion as the two cultures interacted together.
There is hardly a united front of Jewish leaders at this time. There are factions and divisions along religious and political lines at the very least. Caiaphas the high priest and the religious leaders in the Sanhedrin have arguments and feuds, and among them is the location where sacrificial animals for the temple and money changers for the temple tax will be located. Historically, these merchants and money changers were located outside the temple grounds in the nearby Kidron Valley, but allegedly, a Jewish Midrash reports that a feud among Caiaphas and other religious leaders in 30 AD resulted in select merchants and money changers receiving a prime position within the temple.
We may imagine that this was likely not popular with the Jews of Greek descent who now had to pray while mingling with nearby animals and merchants. In addition, the entire atmosphere of the temple would have been altered significantly. Perhaps the typical pilgrim was annoyed but also resigned to accept whatever the most powerful religious leaders demanded.
We shouldn’t be surprised to know that Jesus soon earned himself a number of powerful enemies when he drove out the animals and money changers. He likely expressed the opinions of many Greek Jews and of many pilgrims who were likely shocked by this change at the temple grounds.
Nevertheless, Jesus still appeared to be attacking the most important religious institution of his people. First, he attacked the money changers and drove the animals out of the temple who made its functions run smoothly. Even if they had to relocate, there was surely a disruption to the day’s religious practices.
Second, Jesus predicted that the temple would be destroyed. We simply don’t have a comparable institution to the temple that embodied religious and national identity like the Jewish temple. To predict its destruction, even in a prophetic tradition, touched a nerve among the Jewish people. In fact, the paranoia of the Romans coming to destroy the temple was a part of what drove the conspiracy to kill Jesus.
What Does This Prophetic Act Mean for Us Today?
We could spend a lot of time asking what this passage means for us today and focusing on what Jesus may drive out of our own churches and sanctuaries. Are we abusing or misusing our sacred spaces? Are we too focused on our own self-preservation and not on the ministry of prayer and worship?
That isn’t a wrong line of application here, but it’s certainly the low hanging fruit. This is the easy application that frankly doesn’t ask too much of us. Perhaps we’ll uncover some issues that we need to address, but there’s something deeper and far more challenging in this story that we can experience and apply if we’re willing to follow Jesus into the fog of his mystical ministry.
At the climax of this story, Jesus made a shocking, confounding, and ultimately tragic statement about destroying the temple and then “raising it up” in three days. He used a verb, raising up, that applies to both construction and resurrection. John directs our understanding of this statement, saying it refers to Jesus’ death and Resurrection. While commentators have speculated about the many different meanings and possibilities here, I think we can find a lot to ponder if we take John at his word.
What if Jesus wasn’t just challenging the corruption of the temple? What if he was challenging the very centrality of the temple for his people?
His authority to cleanse the temple comes from his place as the new meeting ground between God and humanity. He will unite God with humanity through his death and Resurrection, and that connection to the Father made him the definitive voice on worshipping God.
Now, it’s not a shock to think that Jesus was more or less reimagining the role of the temple around his own body and the significance of the Resurrection. Consider in John 4 that Jesus explicitly predicts the replacement of the temple as the center of worship.
In John 4 Jesus spoke to the woman at the well.
21 “Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
If we take the whole of John’s Gospel about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the significance of Jesus himself becoming a new “temple” or center of worship after his resurrection, then this passage challenges us to go beyond the simple interpretation that only looks at our own buildings and traditions for a point of application.
This is a passage that draws us into the mystical ministry of Jesus where we are united with Jesus through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Yes, we benefit from having a sacred space for worship together, but Jesus doesn’t want us to get lost in the details of where we worship. Our sacred space for worship is within our own bodies since God is present with us. The Spirit is resting within each of us, and so the dwelling of God is with humanity.
Worship is now in Spirit and in Truth, not within stones and wood. Jesus prophetically told his listeners that the temple is irrelevant in comparison to the new Resurrection life he will bring to the world. When the Holy Spirit of God comes, the pilgrimage is now complete. God has made the pilgrimage to each of us, and so the “where” of worship is no longer a central issue.
We could spend our time fighting over the details of sacred space, and we may need to make changes in order to ensure our sacred spaces are houses of prayer that allow people to focus on God the Father. Yet, we’ll miss the bigger part of Jesus’ mission if we only look at buildings.
We need to look into the fog of his shocking message. We need to step into the void where our knowledge and concrete experiences fail us.
And perhaps entering into this mystery will help us ask new questions about what prevents us from praying, what interferes with our awareness of the Holy Spirit? What fills our minds or undermines our ability to be present for a God who is dwelling within us even right now?
Do we need to drive something out of our lives? Do we need to flip some things over? Do we need to let the hard message of Jesus today shock us into a new awareness of God among us?
I won’t say that our sacred spaces aren’t important. Yet, for the audience of Jesus, their resistance to his message was rooted in part in their attachment to the familiar stones and sacrifices they had used for years. They couldn’t enter into the mystical unknown of a God who didn’t actually require temples or sacrifices or temple taxes. When offered freedom to worship God in whatever space they came from, far too many of them retreated to the system that, although corrupt and broken in many ways, felt familiar and safe.
Jesus is offering an invitation to join him in the mystical fog, to trust that the Holy Spirit has been given to all who trust him, believe in him, and follow him. That Spirit is present for you as you pray, as you worship, and as you study. We surely see many benefits from gathering together to pray in sacred spaces together, but we’ll miss out on the great liberation and freedom of Jesus if we reject his prophetic invitation to follow the wild winds of his indwelling Spirit into the places of worship that are as close to us as they are unfamiliar.