First Reading: Exodus 20:1-17
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Gospel Reading: John 2:13-22
Sermon: “Passions Proper Place”
History recalls at least a few key details from the life of Nicholas of Myra, the early church leader. One of the most gripping stories occurred between 330 and 332 AD. Nicholas, then 70 years old, was serving as the Bishop of Myra (modern day Turkey). One day Nicholas received an urgent report that Eustathius, the governor of the region, was about to execute three innocent men. Nicholas set off at a brisk pace for the Praetorium, or palace, to speak with Eustathius. Nicholas suspected foul play as Eustathius was known to be corrupt and easily bribed. While en route, Nicholas was stopped and informed that the convicts had already been moved to “the place of the beheading” known as Byrra. The concerned bishop wheeled around and took off at dead run in the opposite direction.
He burst into the plaza of Byrra to find the condemned men on their knees, hands tied behind their backs, and faces covered with linen cloths. The men had given themselves up for dead. Nicholas forced his way through the crowd of wide-eyed gawkers, yanked the sword from the executioner, and threw it to the ground. Dramatically, he untied the prisoners’ hands and set them free. Then he marched off to find the governor, Eustathius, in order to chastise him for his miscarriage of justice—condemning innocent citizens without a proper trial. (At the time, as a local bishop of the church, Nicholas had the constitutional right to intervene in legal matters like this.)
Back at the Praetorium, Nicholas “broke down the door.” He burst inside, and a sentinel hurried off to inform the governor of his arrival. Eustathius, trying to maintain his composure, greeted Nicholas with deference and compliments. Bishop Nicholas was not amused; he stopped the governor in mid-sentence and accused him of being a “thief” and an “enemy of God,” calling him “sacrilegious and bloodthirsty and unjust.”
According to one historical account, Nicholas told Eustathius: And you even dare to come before me, you who do not fear God! You who had the cruel intention to kill innocent people! Since you committed this kind of wickedness I cannot have any respect for you. God is reserving for the unjust a tortured life …. He knows how your government works and how this province allows looting and killing men against the law and without trial for deadly greed and gain.
Eustathius wilted under the assault. He fell to his knees and begged for forgiveness. After Eustathius admitted his guilt, in the end, Nicholas prayed a long prayer and pardoned the guilty governor.
(Source: Adapted from Adam C. English, The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus (Baylor University Press, 2012), pp. 131-135)
That story just doesn’t sound like what we think about when we reflect on old Saint Nick now does it? For you see, Nicholas of Myra, is remembered by the church as Saint Nicholas, whom popular culture has gradually transformed into none other than Santa Claus. The reason I told you this story this morning is to invite us to reconsider what we think we know versus what scripture and history really teach us.
The story of Jesus cleansing the temple gives us just such an opportunity – for many, it just doesn’t sound like what we think about when we reflect on Jesus who says we are to love one another and would not let Simon Peter defend him in the Garden. A whip of cords!?! That doesn’t sound like Jesus we might well say. This incident is recorded in all 4 Gospel accounts. But the one in John stands apart for its greater and somewhat different details and its placement. The closely related accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke (which we refer to as the Synoptic gospels) all place this incident immediately after the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which we remember on Palm Sunday. They imply that the merchants in the temple were cheats, quoting Jeremiah in labeling it a den of robbers. Mark says that not only did Jesus overturn the tables of the money changers and those selling animals but also that he would not let anyone even carry merchandise through the temple courts.
John’s gospel doesn’t focus so much on a detailed historical sequence, but rather seeks to careful select key moments in Jesus’ ministry that show who he truly was – The Son of God – fully human and yet co-eternal with the Father – the Word made flesh. As John tells the incident, it was near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, just after he turned water used for ceremonial washing into the best wine the wedding steward had tasted yet. John emphasizes that in Jesus, God had revealed God’s own self in a way far different and much more intimately than through the cold limestone and ornate decoration of the temple. Jesus’ presence in the temple brings those two different ways of approaching God into sharp contrast, as Jesus literally brings the old to a standstill by his presence and his actions. Things have changed as his actions vividly say. God has chosen this time to fulfill the old and bring in the new.
Steve Garners-Holmes, is a retired Methodist minister writes a daily reflection on his blog page called Unfolding light. He is somewhat of a modern mystic and challenges my comfortable understandings at times. Each week, he uses the Revised common lectionary as his starting point, and so he had some interesting things to say about Jesus’ cleansing of the temple” this week. He writes:
“Let’s correct a few misconceptions from your Sunday School book pictures.
First, he doesn’t use the whip on people. He uses it to herd the animals out.
Second: he’s not mad. This isn’t an outburst. (It takes time and patience to braid a whip.) It’s carefully staged symbolic street theater: a protest.
Third: the moneychangers belong there. They exchange Jewish coins, acceptable for offerings or for buying sacrificial animals, for the “unclean” Roman money that people carry. It’s how you make a sacrifice. And they aren’t overcharging.
Jesus isn’t criticizing “commercialization.” He’s protesting sacrifice.
(Mark says he wouldn’t allow anyone to carry a vessel through the temple.)
A deep instinct tells us our brokenness before God can be fixed by transferring it elsewhere— making another creature (or person, or race)
suffer for us. A little saving violence. A scapegoat.
Jesus disrupts our “sacrifices.” (After all, we’re not making the sacrifice, the sheep is.)
He doesn’t use the whip to hurt people, it’s to rescue the sheep.
“Stop this,” he says, on behalf of God. “I will be the sheep.”
Our brokenness is accepted, as is.
God is the one who suffers. We break all ten commandments when we pretend otherwise.”
What commandments might Rev. Holmes be referring to? Worshipping only God – not buildings. Maybe bearing false witness about ourselves – that we can fix what’s wrong with us ourselves. We must not steal the glory and love of God and give it to institutions and traditions. You get the idea.
The merchants and money changers in the Temple were actually necessary for Temple sacrifice and worship to take place. Pilgrims traveling long distances to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem couldn’t always bring the required sacrificial animals along; Their ordinary coins were imprinted with the image of Caesar who claimed to be divine – they couldn’t be used to pay Temple taxes. There were good reasons why the practices of the temple had developed the way they did. Yes, there were definitely problems” they were likely noisy and distracting in the only area that Gentiles were allowed to come – and that was part of what Jesus was reacting to as well as he quotes Isaiah 56:7 ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.’ Merchants do make money from the exchanges and animals sales. They was likely some corruption as well. But if we stop there, we risk missing the main point.
Jesus’ actions bring all the religious activities to a full stop and when challenged Jesus offers us the explanation of his own body – John 2:19 “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” No, they didn’t understand – but we can.
Consider – might it be that Jesus came to replace the Temple because the Temple and the practices that took place there had become not a conduit to God but rather a barrier to truly knowing God and doing God’s will in the world. In fact that was a point that the prophets made several times, notably Isaiah, Amos, and Micah.
Sometimes I wonder whether our churches have done the same thing: do we risk constraining God, keeping God boxed up in the very houses we construct to honor God’s glory, and in which we come to worship? Do we love our buildings and our liturgies more than we love God? It’s something to ponder. Where does our true passion lie? Jesus was passionate that nothing get between the children of God and their heavenly Father.
Today, the table is set with the bread and wine – representing in the memorial feast his body and blood – given for us – the one holy and sufficient sacrifice, once for all time and all people. We are invited to come and commune with him – not because we say the right words – not because my hands or actions are in any way special, but because Jesus Christ has promised to be with us in this way. Its is his table and he is the host – Present, living and calling us to passionately follow after him and to accept no half measures or substitutes.