The story of Jesus cleansing the Temple appears in all four gospels. John’s version appears in the Revised Common Lectionary on the Third Sunday in Lent, Year B. Here is a sermon on this text that imagines what Jesus might do and say if he came in and cracked the whip in our congregations and higher governing bodies of the church today.
No More Business As Usual!
A Sermon on John2:13-22 and 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Unlike the tax collectors at their tables, the temple sacrifice sellers and the moneychangers could feel good about what they were doing. They were a service industry. The law of God decreed that people were to worship God by offering animal sacrifices, and not just any old runt of the litter. Animals for worship had to be the appropriate species, whole and unblemished. If you came to Jerusalem from far away, what a tremendous help it was not to have to transport these animals! You could purchase just what you needed right there. And not only that, if your coins were inappropriate for the house of God—if they had graven images of Caesar on them, for example—you could change them before you went in. Then you could put money in the offering with a clear conscience.
The tables of the animal sellers and moneychangers were a welcome sight. Their proprietors helped pilgrims keep God’s law. This was especially true at Passover time when crowds of people from all over the world came to worship at the temple. It did people’s hearts good to see so many worshipers, to see business booming, you might say.
What a contrast it was to what went on at the tax collectors’ tables: outright fraud! Gouging the poor! That was a disgrace! Somebody ought to do something about that.
Like every Jewish man, Jesus regularly worshiped at the temple. It began in babyhood when Mary and Joseph took him there to dedicate him to God, making their sacrifice according to the law. At twelve years old, Jesus was already discussing scripture with the teachers there. Jesus was thoroughly familiar with life in the temple.
On that fateful day when he entered the temple courtyard, Jesus stood there a moment observing it all. But he was not pleased. He saw crowds of people participating in the routines and rituals, but little genuine, deep-in-the heart worship of God. What he saw there was not so much underhandedness (although some of that might have been going on) as it was spiritual emptiness. The temple was supposed to be the place to encounter God. But the people, and especially the religious leaders, the professional servants of God, had gotten so caught up in business as usual that they had drifted away from God. The spiritual core of their worship was gone. Nobody expected God to say anything new. Nobody, or almost nobody, was listening.
In his telling of this story, Baptist preacher and humorist Grady Nutt pictures a quiet couple off in a corner trying to pray while all the temple programs went on around them. (Nutt’s version of the story can be found in The Gospel According to Norton, Broadman, 1974. )
As far as Jesus was concerned, this whole busy enterprise needed to be overhauled, to be born again of God’s Spirit.
With deliberation, Jesus took off his belt, and fashioned it into a whip. Then he erupted into action in the style of Jeremiah and Ezekiel who regularly proclaimed God’s word using symbolic—and often not very nice—actions.
Jesus drove all the sellers and moneychangers out of the courtyard. He poured out all the money and exclaimed to the dove sellers, “Get these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Stop buying and selling religion!
What a sensation this caused! Shouldn’t Jesus be pushing over the tax collector’s tables? Shouldn’t he be cleaning up the tax system, corruption and immorality? Shouldn’t he be cleaning up the sinful world around the temple?
Yet there Jesus was, in the church—yes, in the church!—spilling his anger on the respectable people doing their duty. Jesus was definitely not being nice!
It’s not hard to see why the authorities decided they had to stop Jesus. Imagine how we would feel if he came into our church and started turning over our tables and spoke to us in an angry voice and ordered us to stop what we’re doing!
We could ignore this story and conclude that it only applied to church people then, or that it’s only in scripture to show why Jesus was crucified. But the gospel writers won’t let us ignore it. All four gospel writers saw it as crucial. It applies to every church in every age. What is Jesus seeing this Sunday morning as he visits his worshipping churches now?
He sees churches with flourishing programs, where much good is being done with impressive numbers of people. Jesus sees churches that have made exciting comprehensive plans for their future, for more reaching out and growth. That sounds good. What Jesus wants to know, however, is this: are these people still listening to God? Or have these programs and plans become ends in themselves? Jesus’ eye is keen. He is never fooled. He knows what’s really in the heart. He knows who’s listening to God and who isn’t.
Jesus’ eye falls on Presbyteries like ours that go on planting new churches where they’re sure to be a numerical and financial success instead of planting where there is pain and poverty. Is it the will of God for us to focus on reaching the affluent?
Jesus slips into the back of sanctuaries where people are wishing they had the programs and resources that other churches have. Maybe what the other churches do is good. Maybe it is God’s will to do some of the same things. Maybe not. Maybe not. Maybe God doesn’t want them to have all these things that might steer the congregation away from what God really wants it to do.
This day Jesus as Jesus observes his people at worship, he notes congregations that feel sure that what they always did is what God always wants them to do, rather like the people in the temple. Where business as usual means keep familiar routines going, make church life as easy as you can, non-demanding, where you don’t hear the words vision and mission much. Jesus sees preachers and sessions whose goal is to keep everybody happy as much of the time as possible, or at least not complaining. Not a one of these things is bad in itself. But what Jesus wants to know is, “Are you still listening to God?”
Imagine Jesus raising his whip, bursting into churches all across the land this morning, including ours, and declaring, “No more business as usual! Stop serving yourself! Start serving the weak, the sick and the poor.
“Stop perpetuating your comfortable routines without genuinely seeking the will of God. Stop seeking religious entertainment and start seeking the living God. Stop seeking success and start seeking mission. Stop operating according to the world’s wisdom and start seeking God’s wisdom. Stop talking about God and start listening to God.”
God’s wisdom is very different. It turns the world’s tables upside down. God says that the way to genuine communion with him is the way of pain, of struggle, of the cross. It is the way of Jesus. What Jesus did was foolishness in the eyes of most, but his love for God and for people was so deep, his passion for a true spiritual relationship with God was so powerful that he was willing to die on the cross to give that to us.
“What sign will you do to show us you have the authority to challenge us this way,” the authorities demanded. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
Nobody understood then, but later his disciples understood. Jesus Christ declared that he himself is the temple, the meeting place with God. And if that is the case, then we have to keep on seeking Christ, seeking Christ’s vision, Christ’s way. We must learn to expect Christ to turn the tables on us any time we substitute any program, any custom, any routine, any belief, any time we substitute ANYTHING for a genuine, living, spiritual relationship with God. No matter how good all these things can be, no matter how good our intentions are, nothing is more important than listening to God. God sets routines. He set the original temple routine. But he also changed it through Jesus Christ, the new temple and the sacrifice to end all others. This was very new, and it was very upsetting.
In his telling of the story, Grady Nutt pictures Jesus observing the quiet couple attempting genuine prayer in the midst of everything, and then Jesus swings into action. He turns things over, drives people and animals out, talks with those who want to know where he got the authorization to act this way. And then he returns to the quiet couple and says, “Now, let’s pray together.”
This very day Jesus calls his people back to deep, soul-searching, receptive and open-hearted prayer. This very day he stands in the midst of every congregation, and his word is NO MORE BUSINESS AS USUAL!