Jesus Has a Spiritual Clear Out
A sermon preached by the reverend Trevor Jamison for Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, March 7th 2021
What got Jesus so exercised by livestock sales and currency exchange?
We’re told that, ‘making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and cattle … poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables,’ telling them, ‘stop making my father’s house a marketplace!’ (John 2:15, 16)
Was it that laws were being broken, either Jewish religious laws in general, or the Ten Commandments in particular? Not at first sight. No idols were being made or on sale. It doesn’t say it was the sabbath day. It’s not as if money or livestock was being stolen; it’s not as if anyone was being killed. So why the fuss?
So what got Jesus so worked up? Was it that poor people were being exploited by merchants and money changers? This took place close to the time for the Passover festival, when Jews remember and give thanks to God for liberation from slavery from Egypt. There was and is a hope or expectation that at least once in their life every Jew will celebrate Passover in Jerusalem.
Those who made it there would sacrifice at the temple. They would purchase the creature for sacrifice right there, paying for it with special temple money, for which you would have to exchange your denarii or your shekels with moneychangers. I imagine that prices were high, and the exchange rate was poor. If you have ever been stuck in a tourist trap, paying a fortune for bottle of water or an ice cream you know what it’s like.
However annoying tourist trap prices may be, I’ve never seen anyone physically attack water sellers or take a whip to Mr Whippy. Maybe economic exploitation was part of it, but there was more to it than that. Jesus told them, ‘stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!’ (2:16) If you like, this word from Jesus was a commandment: ‘You shall not make God’s house a marketplace.’
As with other commandments which say, you shall not’, look behind the negative command to the positive situation that is implied and demanded. If God’s house, the Jerusalem temple, was not supposed to be a marketplace, what was it supposed to be? It was the place you should be able to meet and do business with God here on earth.
Jesus and his fellow Jews did not think God was absent from the rest of the earth. God was in the ever-burning fire Moses encountered in the desert; God accompanied the people all the way from Egypt to Canaan. At the same time, God could most certainly be encountered in Jerusalem, in the temple, in the area within it called the Holy of Holies. This is what brought a Passover-celebrating crowd of people to Jerusalem every year; to have an encounter with God, here on earth. The system of sacrifices and prayers were supposed to provide actions and language that enabled the encounter to take place.
The big problem was not the selling creatures for sacrifice, or providing currency with which to purchase them. The big problem was that this system, designed to enable encounter with God, had become the main thing itself: ‘stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.’
This situation, as described by John, tells us a couple of things; one about Jesus and one about ourselves. It tells us Jesus wanted the Temple to operate as a place where God and God’s people could come together. This was what Jesus’s own life and ministry was about. As the Apostle Paul puts it, ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself … and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.’ (2 Corinthians 5:19)
Make that the focus of the temple, however, you became the enemy of economic interests. Cause chaos, driving out those who maintained the current system, and you would make enemies among the temple leadership. Create uproar in the nation’s capital, and the Romans imperial authorities might feel threatened. Jesus’s deep desire to reconcile God and God’s people – to reconcile God and us – could get him killed.
Then there’s a lesson here for us, for the Church: keep the focus on God. Particularly, for a Christian Church, like Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, keep the focus on God, as God has been made known to us through Jesus Christ.
That doesn’t mean that we can’t have fun or enjoy ourselves because we are a church. Fund raising for the church has not been banned. Church activity, though, should flow from or enable encountering God, not distract from it. That’s important to bear in mind as we see the possibility of resuming the form of church life we enjoyed up until a year ago. It’s our reminder to prioritise on the basis of how what we do helps us, and helps others, have a meeting with God here on earth
To take a current example: Easter hearts are being knitted to festoon the railings of the church. Paper versions can be put up in the windows of our homes. That’s great, as long as it goes along with the message that we are displaying these hearts as a symbol of God’s love, because Easter marks the death and resurrection of Jesus, which is God’s great act of love for us and for the world. Leave the God and Jesus bit out, and making hearts would be reduced to an activity to pass the time, or make us feel good; not bad things in themselves, but then distracting us from the main purpose of being a church.
So, in this and all aspects of church life, let’s make sure that God doesn’t get pushed out of church, like Jesus thought God was being pushed out of God’s own house, the temple. Let’s make sure that the Jesus-story, which we believe is God’s story, is the main focus, reason and purpose for what we do and say as a church, today and in the days ahead. Amen.