[Texts: Exodus 20:1-7, Psalm 19, I Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22]
Did you give something up for Lent this year?
What was it?
Was it alcohol? Watching TV? Shopping?
It’s such a common question, isn’t it? “So, what did you give up for Lent?”
But is it the right question?
Does it really matter what we’ve decided we’re not doing for forty days?
Or have we– in our well-intended resolutions to not smoke or cuss or… whatever… for forty days– somehow managed to miss the point?
With those questions in the back of our mind, I want us to look at today’s Gospel story.
It’s kind of a surprising one, isn’t it? Jesus acts really, really differently from how we would normally expect– he gets mad and chases a bunch of folks out of the temple with a makeshift whip!
The natural question here is why? Why is Jesus having a little bit of a hissy fit here? What’s he so mad about?
Well, that depends on which Gospel writer you ask.
The four Gospels– Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John– tell us the story of Jesus’s life. However, upon closer inspection, they disagree about a number of things. There are reasons for this, and if I had time, I’d totally get into that. But, for the moment, my point is that the Gospels differ, sometimes greatly, not only in how they tell their respective stories, but also in which stories they each choose to include or leave out.
This is actually one of just a handful of stories– along with the resurrection narrative we’ll be telling in a few weeks– that shows up in all four Gospels. But it’s not told exactly the same way in all four Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke– we call those three, collectively, the synoptic Gospels– give pretty similar accounts of the temple cleansing, and they all place the story at least two-thirds of the way through their respective Gospels, framing it as sort of the “point of no return” event that finally ticks everybody off enough to get Jesus crucified. John, oh the other hand, tells the story differently, and he puts it at the beginning of his Gospel. (If you look at today’s reading, it’s from the middle of chapter two of the Gospel of John.)
Matthew, Mark, and Luke make it clear why Jesus is angry– the moneychangers in the temple, they tell us, aren’t just selling stuff. Jesus calls them robbers. (The Greek word used in all three accounts has a connotation of being someone who exploits the vulnerable.) Basically, they’re cheating people– more specifically, they’re taking advantage of pilgrims who have come to Jerusalem to celebrate Pesach– the Passover.
That’s why so many travelers were in Jerusalem. And certain enterprising folks saw this as an opportunity to make some money– perhaps in less-than-scrupulous ways.
The specific items the moneychangers are selling may seem a bit weird at first glance– cattle and birds and sheep are mentioned– but the reason for this is because the pilgrims are required to make a sacrifice in the temple, and for that, they need something to sacrifice. Hence the doves and such.
These pilgrims have come from all over, and are probably traveling pretty light–not to mention, many of them probably don’t have much money to begin with. So these moneychangers are selling something that isn’t exactly optional, with their target demographic being people who don’t have a lot of money in the first place, and they’re cheating them.
I’m sure you can see why that scenario might make Jesus, whose whole life and ministry were about the marginalized, liable to go all “hulk-smash” on these moneychangers– like good capitalists, they’re taking advantage of people who are without privilege in the first place for their own financial gain. It’s possible that that’s exactly what’s going on, and that Jesus (unsurprisingly) isn’t having any of it.
And that’ll definitely preach– you can never hear enough social justice sermons, right?– but let’s look at what John has to say, since his account is the one we read for today:
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.
Making 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.
He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
See, this is why having four Gospels is so cool– we get to hear different perspectives on the same events, and see different aspects of Jesus’s character.
I think it’s interesting how John doesn’t speak to the justice/oppression component of it, and simply has Jesus tell the moneychangers to hit the road.
The way John tells it, Jesus’s issue doesn’t seem to be with the manner in which these guys are conducting business in the temple, but rather, with the fact that they’re conducting business in the temple at all.
The problem, it seems, is with the fact that they’re using the temple– God’s house, to paraphrase Jesus– for the wrong purpose. So, naturally, Jesus had to get them out of there so that the space could be used for its intended purpose: as a place of worship.
Purpose– that word is an invitation to big-picture thinking, isn’t it?
What do you think our purpose is?
What do you think takes up space in your heart that God could be using to do something amazing?
As Christians, we proclaim that, with God, more is possible than any of us could ever begin to fathom. Healing is possible. Recovery is possible. Wholeness is possible. Restoration is possible. The Easter story tells us that even resurrection is possible.
Healing and reconciliation and resurrection are big, messy jobs that take up a lot of space. Is there room for God to do that kind of work in your life?
What might be in the way?
Lent invites us to ask these big questions.
Or rather, it gives us a different kind of opportunity to ask them.
I think the invitation is always there, but throughout the Church year, the liturgical calendar covers the whole range of the human experience– waiting and longing as well as fulfillment, death as well as resurrection, fasting as well as feasting, sorrow as well as joy– and validates that all of these things are real, and all of them are part of what it means to be human. As we live into each season, we’re provided with different ways of looking at the big questions of life.
Right now, we are in the season of Lent– forty days in the wilderness. Forty days of intimate communion with God as we join him on his journey through the desert. That’s what Lent is, really– a forty-day-long hiking trip with God.
Of course, Lent isn’t a self-contained experience.
Lent isn’t about what you decide not to do for forty days.
And the work you do during Lent isn’t just about changing something– eating better, or not smoking, or watching less TV– for forty days.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t quit smoking, or eat better, or waste less time– those are all good things. They’re great life choices, and I could certainly benefit from doing all three. Many of us could.
But Lent isn’t about choosing to better ourselves. It’s not about the changes we think we need to make. It’s not about our solutions.
It’s about choosing to let God in to do the work God needs to do. It’s ultimately about trusting God more deeply.
Do you remember what holiday I said Jesus and the rest of the Jewish world were getting ready to celebrate during our Gospel reading today? Passover, right?
The Feast of the Passover is a Jewish holiday on which the Jews commemorate God shielding their ancestors from the tenth plague in Egypt. (Remember how the Hebrews all painted their doorframes with blood, and the plague didn’t affect their firstborn children, because it passed over the houses whose doors were marked?) It also celebrates the ultimate result of that plague: Pharaoh finally let Moses and the Hebrews leave. The Exodus from Egypt is one of the most important stories in Jewish history, so Passover was– and still is– a really big deal as far as holidays go.
We know that we worship the same God who got the Jews out of Egypt, right? We know that the God who wants to come in and cleanse the temple in our lives is the same God who parted the Red Sea and then closed it up again. We know we serve the same God who made water spring forth from a rock, and who provided manna and quail in the wilderness. We know that, right? That’s the same God we’re walking through the wilderness with right now, as we speak.
Let’s take a lesson from the Hebrews– the reigning wilderness-wandering world champions of history– and get back into the sea-crossing business, the manna-eating business, and the God-trusting business.
We need to do more than halfheartedly give something up for forty days with no intention of being a different person once we’ve said the first a-word on Easter morning.
As we journey with God through the wilderness these forty days, we must be constantly asking ourselves not what we want to give up for Lent but what God wants to do in our lives during this season.
The invitation is there. Ask the big questions. Journey boldly. Let Lent change you– not just for forty days, but for life. Let it propel you forward into Easter, fully prepared to proclaim the resurrection, having walked through the wilderness and been fundamentally changed by the journey.
After all, what happens during Lent is not supposed to stay in Lent.