The Day After Jesus Cleared the Temple – The reality of church decline

John 2:13-22

He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (Read the whole passage here). 

Jesus has come a long way from the wilderness to here. We began Lent as Jesus went for 40 days in wilderness to do what God has always done… to search for God’s people in the desert. But this time we weren’t there. So Jesus returned to civilization to begin his preaching and teaching. Last week, Jesus began preparing his disciples for what was to come – death and resurrection. And Peter would have none of it. Peter’s fears got in the way of seeing what God was up to.

Today, Jesus strikes out for a place very opposite of the wilderness. Jesus heads straight to the heart of Jerusalem society – the temple, God’s dwelling place, God’s house. The temple was a bustling place of business. There were pilgrims coming and going from all over Jerusalem. Pharisees debating religious law. Priests performing sacrifices. And lots of people selling things. Selling animals for sacrifice. Kosher food and clothes. Selling whatever a religious person might need in order to access the temple appropriately.

For most Jews the temple was the experience of a lifetime. It was something that took time and money, and was not easily afforded. The temple was a place for rich folks to come and go from, for those in the middle to visit occasionally, and for those on the bottom, the poor had no hope of ever getting the chance to make it into the temple.

But it had not always been so. All the rules about sacrifice and ritual that the temple was based on were not about keeping people out when they were first given to the people of Israel. Instead, they were meant as means to talk about God in a communal and shared way. They were meant to facilitate the communal practices of worship and prayer. They were meant to make it easier for everyone to access God’s love and God’s forgiveness of sins. As people tried harder and harder to follow the letter of the law, to be faithful Jews, they created more and more barriers to God, rather than making access easier.

By the time Jesus comes to the temple, the cost and process for even getting into the temple, an enormous building surrounded by huge imposing walls meant to protect the holy of holies, was so cumbersome that only the rich and privileged had real ease of access.

It is not surprising that Jesus seems to lose his cool. Jesus running around with a whip, overturning tables and yelling is not the Jesus we are used to. Jesus declares, “Stop making my father’s house a marketplace”. These words are more profound than we imagine. In greek ,the word for household is oikos and from that comes the word oikonomos or in english: economy. Jesus’s words could be heard this way:

Stop making my father’s economy a marketplace

What had begun as a means for the people of Israel to access God, was now a money making machine. It was a place for entrepreneurship, for making money. And the exclusive product being sold was God.

So now… this is usually the point in the sermon where we would look at the parallels between story and us. And we don’t have to look very far in Christendom to see where God is being bought and sold. We can look to the prosperity preachers on Sunday morning TV, to the Christian book stores that promise to make our spiritual life grow, or places like FOX news who are using quasi-Christian beliefs to boost ratings.

But if we really look around ourselves here, or as Lutherans in Canada and the US, or as mainline Christians over all… I think we can safely say that Jesus wouldn’t have much cause to show up with a whip to overturn our tables.

If we are selling God here… we are not doing it very well.

We look a lot more like the day after Jesus has come through and upset the order of things. Now let’s not kid ourselves, the Jerusalem temple was certainly back to business as usual the day after Jesus overturned those tables. But the Jerusalem temple which had been built and rebuilt over the course of a 1000 years, would be destroyed for good within 40 years by the very same Romans that the Jews would soon be demanding to kill Jesus.

And after the Romans razed the temple for the last time, the Jewish people had to completely change the way they did religion.

Like the Jews after the destruction of the temple, our marketplace moment has come and gone. We were once the only show in town. We were once the centres of communities all over. Our religious leaders could phone prime ministers directly. Governments have mandated holidays on our holy-days. Public schools forced children to pray our prayers and read our holy books. On Sundays everything was closed and people couldn’t do anything but come to us. Lutherans, Anglicans and Catholics, we were planting churches and starting congregations left and right 40, 50, 60 years ago. We were the ones who controlled access to God.

In order to have people walk in our doors, all we had to do was build a building and raise the money to call a pastor. And Sunday Schools were bursting, confirmation classes full, choirs robust, Sunday worship was bustling.

Yet, like the people of the Jerusalem temple we began to lose sight of what our purpose was. In Jerusalem, providing access to God’s love and forgiveness was transformed into making the right sacrifices, being ritually clean and worshipping only in God’s holy temple. Forgiveness became a way to sell sacrificial animals, to earn money for maintaining the temple, to bring people from all over to Jerusalem.

For us, providing a place for the Body of Christ to hear the word and receive the sacraments has been transformed into maintaining structures and budgets. Sermons and worship have become selling features to pay for buildings and to fill offering plates. We have flipped the functions of our building and budgets with gathering for word and sacrament. Instead of buildings and budgets being tools that allow our faith communities to gather to hear God’s word, to be baptized and receive communion;  attractive, flashy worship becomes a tool we use to keep our budgets viable and buildings open.

But somewhere along in the past few years, Jesus showed up and declared,

Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”

And like the temple authorities who protest, we have lost sight of what our buildings and budgets are for in the first place.

Yet, Jesus has a curious answer for us.

“Destroy this temple and in three days, I will raise it up”

Jesus is not talking about the physical structure. Jesus is not going to be found in the walls here. Jesus is not hiding in our wallets waiting to be put into offering plates.

Jesus is reminding us who builds this church in the first place. Jesus reminds us whose faithfulness is building the Body of Christ.

Hint: it is not our faithfulness.

God is the one who is providing the means for forgiveness. God is the one who comes to us in word and sacrament. God’s faithfulness is the purpose of our gathering together, week after week. Buildings, temple walls, balanced budgets, ritually purified coins, programs that bring the people in, animal sacrifices… these are not the things that show us where God is.

God is in the person, the flesh of Jesus who comes and meets us in our misguided attempts to be faithful.

God is the One we meet in the Word, in the words of faith proclaimed here, over and over. Words like forgiven, mercy, grace. Like Gospel, baptism, communion. Like peace, love and welcome.

God is the One that we feel and encounter in water, bread and wine. Who we touch as we embrace our brothers and sisters in faith. Who we hear with words of eternal life, with words just for us.

Jesus is reminding that God can raise up the body of Christ without bricks or mortar, without budgets and programs. God can build churches just with people, with a book, with bread and a cup. None of us can do that, no matter how strong our faith. 

As faithful as we try to be by building holy places for people to meet God, as upside down as get things as we try to sell God to pay for our holy buildings, Jesus is coming out of the wilderness to meet us right in the heart of our marketplaces. Jesus is coming right to the middle of our bustling temples.

And Jesus, for a a while now, has been relieving us of the burdens of buildings and budgets. Jesus has been overturning our tables and whipping us back into shape. And it is Jesus that shows us that God’s temple, God’s church is not buildings and budgets, but people, the Body of Christ.

Jesus shows us that our overturned tables have not been turned upside down, but instead Jesus has turned them and us…

Right side up.

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