13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 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. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After 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. 23 When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone. - John 2:13-25 (NRSV)
Sermon by Pastor Joshua Demi
It is a startling drama. In the first words of John we are introduced the revelation that the Word of Living God, through whom and for whom all things where made, became flesh, that God became incarnate to walk upon the earth as a mortal man. The wild prophet preparing the way for of The LORD, announces that the Incarnate One, God made flesh is also, mysteriously, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Then shortly thereafter, the Word Made Flesh goes to the temple, the center of religious life and the place where heaven meets earth, and turns the place on it’s head, chasing out the money changers and interrupting the whole system. But what does it mean? What is it all about?
When interpreting stories in scripture, when asking what the stories mean and what they tell us about God, it’s important to begin by looking to the narrative itself. How do the characters within the story react? Does the central figure of the entire Bible, God Himself, have react directly to the story, and if so, what does God have say about what happened? In the case of this startling story, there is an equally intriguing fall out. The religious leaders ask Jesus for a sign. Essentially, the ask him to justify himself, explain why he did that and what gives him the authority. Jesus’ answer is a cryptic prophecy in which he refers to himself as the temple. Before we dive right in, and talk about what this means and how this cryptic prophecy speaks to what the story of Jesus turning over the tables in the temple means, we need to back up and explain some context, both about the temple and about sign acts.
A sign act is a type of prophecy. Instead of standing up and giving a speech, the prophet does a symbolic action, that conveys a message from God. One of the most dramatic examples of this in the entire Bible is in Ezekiel 4, when Ezekiel prophecies that Jerusalem is going to come under siege. Perhaps you’ve seen Ezekiel 4:9 bread or cereal in the grocery store. It even has this little line on the label that says “As described in the scripture verse”, then it quotes Ezekiel 4:9. Any time I see that, I can’t help but chuckle a little bit, and am interested in your reactions when we read the whole passage in a second. Because my bet is that it’s going to be something like “I really hope that is not made exactly the like that passage says.” Here it is, Ezekiel 4:9-12:
9 And you, take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them into one vessel, and make bread for yourself. During the number of days that you lie on your side, three hundred ninety days, you shall eat it. 10 The food that you eat shall be twenty shekels a day by weight; at fixed times you shall eat it. 11 And you shall drink water by measure, one-sixth of a hin; at fixed times you shall drink. 12 You shall eat it as a barley-cake, baking it in their sight on human dung.”
– Ezekiel 4:9-12
Ezekiel 4:9 is not a description of the biblical way to make bread, but part of a sign act in which the prophet bakes bread in a way that violates the law of Moses on every level, to the point of baking it over a fire of human dung, in order to prophecy that the city was going to come under siege and show what it looks like to be a people under siege.
At times, the story of Jesus cleansing the temple is interpreted entirely in terms of Jesus as a moral example of zeal for the house of God. In fact, I’ve even encountered extreme versions of this interpretation, which not only treat the moral example as the totality of the story, but treat this particular moral example as essentially the totality of Jesus’ moral character. Essentially, the interpretation is that this shows that Jesus wasn’t humble or gentle at all, and therefore such things are not virtues. Yet, Jesus did many things, including turning over tables, turning the other cheek, forgiving people who betrayed him, and going to the cross. If one’s understanding of a strong person is someone who turns over tables, but not someone who turns the other cheek, forgives those who wrong them, and is willing to sacrifice and face humiliation for the sake of people in need, then one’s exemplar of strength isn’t Jesus, but someone else, because Jesus did all of those things. Jesus is both the lion and the lamb, and to be strong is to be both.
But, more to the point, the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, and Jesus cryptic prophecy concerning his resurrection cannot be separated; they are two halves of a whole. Jesus offers the prophecy as a justification of what he did in the temple. Turning over the tables in the temple was a sign act. While John does mention Jesus’ zeal for the house for God, so the moral example of Jesus is part of what is going on, but that is not the main focus of the story; the cleansing of the temple is most fundamentally a prophetic sign act. The temple was the place where God dwelt. The temple was where sacrifices where made, to cleanse and redeem, but where the glory of God rested. As N.T Wright put’s it “It was where heaven and earth met.”1 The point of the story is that the whole temple system that had become corrupt would soon come to and end, because God has come to us as lion and lamb, king and sacrifice.
There is no need for system of sacrifices, because Jesus has offered himself as the one final cleansing, redeeming sacrifice, for all time. And if it is possible for something to be better than that it is this: there is no need for a building in which heaven meets earth because God has come to us enfleshed. Heaven meets earth in a person; heaven meets earth in nail-scarred hands and arms ready to embrace the broken, the outcast, and dying. There is no need to try to reach God, because God has come to us. The Light of the World has come down into the dark to pull us out.
Heaven meets earth in nail-scarred hands and arms ready to embrace the broken, the outcast, and dying.
To you who have been cast aside, who feel unloved, rejected: God does not reject you; God loves you. The Light of the World came down into this darkness, to pull you out. That’s how much you mean to God.
To you who feel like like you are about to break, who feel the constant need to measure up, to be the best, and wonder if your best will ever be enough: you are enough. God sees you. God sees your struggle, God sees the tears you cry alone, or hold the deepest part of your heart. Heaven meets earth in nail-scarred hands and arms ready to embrace you.
To you who feel it is too late, to you in whose ears the darkness whispers that you are all ready too far gone: there is no hell into which heaven has not gone. Your debt has been paid. The cross was more than enough. Heaven meets earth in nail scarred hands that pick you up, and nail-scarred feet which walk beside you and lead your along the new life.
Heaven meets earth in a person; God has come to us enfleshed. The Immortal One, who took on mortality, died that we may live, and celebrate the day that The One Who Death Could Not Hold, broke free of death’s meager bonds, showing us what awaits us when, at the last, He makes all things new. Let that sink in.
- N.T. Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters. HarperOne. 2011.