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The Incident at the Temple

Reading: John 2:13-25

Grace to you and peace in Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh. Amen.

We’re just getting started on this journey, as we follow the life of Jesus through the Gospel of John. Last week, we were in the little village of Cana, where Jesus and his mother were invited for a wedding. This week we find Jesus in a very different setting: the big city of Jerusalem, right before the Passover.

Now the Passover was one of three major pilgrimage festivals that Jewish people celebrated in Jesus day. So there would have been Jews coming from all over to be in Jerusalem for the Passover: to worship together at the Temple, to feast together, and to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.

As we follow John’s Gospel this year, you might feel a sense of disorientation, because John tells the story differently than the other three Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke only talk about one Passover: the one where Jesus travels to Jerusalem to be crucified. But there are three different Passovers mentioned in John’s Gospel, and Jesus travels to Jerusalem multiple times.

And what’s really kind of confusing is that the story that we hear about today – Jesus flipping tables in the Temple – happens at the end of the story in Matthew, Mark, and Luke – that is, just a few days before Jesus is crucified. But in John, this story comes near the beginning – almost right at the start of Jesus’ public ministry.

That seems like a big difference, doesn’t it? So which version is correct? Did Jesus cleanse the Temple at the end of his ministry, or at the beginning? Or maybe this is a reminder to us that the Spirit moved each of the four Gospel writers to tell the story in a different way, so that we could have four different perspectives on the life of Jesus Christ.

So Jesus goes to the Big City with his disciples. Imagine their excitement, their anticipation as they finally got to Jerusalem, and as they got closer to the Temple. I mean, this was the centre, the very heart of Jewish religious life! All sorts of songs were written about this one place… the Temple! Like Psalm 84: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD.” It’s where we get that song from:

Better is one day in your courts, better is one day in your house

Better is one day in your courts, than a thousand elsewhere. (Matt Redman)

So after a long journey, Jesus finally comes to the Temple. And what does he find? A marketplace! All sorts of people selling sheep and cattle and doves, and changing money. The courtyard of the Temple is full of mooing and bleating and clinking coins, and the sound of bartering. How can anyone pray in such a place?

Now maybe this seems weird to us, to think of people selling sheep and cows at a Temple. But this actually made a lot of sense. You see, Passover was an eight-day festival, and people came from hundreds of miles away to celebrate. And one of the most important parts of the festival were the sacrifices. So imagine you were a peasant from rural Galilee, and you’ve just walked a hundred miles to get here. Do you think you would have tried to bring your sheep and cow along with you for the sacrifice? No! You would have sold them at home, and taken the money – which is much more portable – and then found a place to buy an animal in Jerusalem for the sacrifice. So it was like having a giant ATM right there at the Temple. Much more convenient, right?

So imagine, hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps millions, all in Jerusalem for the Passover, all needing an animal to sacrifice. That’s a lot of livestock!

Now maybe if you were a devout Jew at Passover, you might think to yourself, “Look at all these people! Look at all the sacrifices! All for God’s glory! Surely God must be pleased!

But Jesus is not pleased. Instead, Jesus is angry!

In fact, Jesus is so angry that he drives them all out! All the sheep, all the cattle, all the merchants and the moneychangers! He flips over the tables, he spills all the coins on the ground! He even makes a whip…

(Note that the whip isn’t for the humans. It’s to help get the sheep and cattle moving.)

What a disruption!

Imagine, all these pilgrims, from all over the place, lined up to buy their animals so they can make a sacrifice for the Passover. And Jesus interrupts the whole affair! “Nope! Not today, people! The store’s closed!”

What is going on here?

The key is what Jesus says to the dove seller: “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”

This is the heart of it. The Temple is God’s house.

When I invite you into my house, that’s personal. When I invite you into my house, I’m inviting you to be in relationship with me.

The Temple was about relationship. Relationship between God and human beings. The Temple is about God saying to humans, “I want to dwell with you! I want this place to be a place where you can come and meet me!”

Jesus comes to his Father’s house, and he finds that humans have turned it into a marketplace.

Instead of a place of relationship, Jesus finds a place of transaction.

Jesus approaches the sanctuary, only to find an auction hall.

Jesus approaches the altar, only to find an ATM.

It’s a very human tendency, isn’t it? To take something that is supposed to be relational, and to make it transactional. I mean, relationships are messy; but transactions are straightforward. Here’s the price, here’s the goods.

That’s why, throughout history, humans have tried to take our relationship with God, and make it about transactions. That’s why the humans have often said, “Say this prayer, or make this donation, or buy this indulgence, or become a member here, and you will be saved. Do this, and you will be saved.”

Jesus says: Wait a minute…

If you’re looking for a transaction, go to the mall. If you think this is about the cost of your sin, or the price of your salvation, think again.

This is about relationship.

This is about God saying, “Come into my home. Have a seat at my table. I’m preparing a banquet, and you’re invited.”

“Not because of anything you’ve done; or anything you’ve sacrificed; or any price you think you’ve paid. You are invited because you are my child.”

The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.

The Word became flesh, because God wanted to be in a relationship with us.


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