Text: John 2:13-22
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Mar. 5, 2018
It would soon be Passover. With my little band of followers we made our way toward Jerusalem where we planned to celebrate this feast that kept alive in our memory the time when God had delivered our people from slavery in Egypt. We were in a mixed frame of mind. Most of my disciples shared with many the expectation that God would soon send his promised Messiah. He would deliver his people, freeing them from the Roman domination they were now under and restore independence to Israel. He would then rule like his forefather David. Passover always intensified this expectation. Maybe it would be this year.
My followers were absolutely sure that it would be this year for they were convinced that I was the Messiah. They were right, of course, for so I am. But I knew they were also in for a big disappointment, if not disillusionment, because their understanding of how the Messiah would come was completely mistaken. I had tried, oh so many times how I tried, to prepare them for what was about to take place. But they would not listen.
But my mind was on other things as well as we made that journey. I knew what I would be facing, of course, and did not look forward to it. I also knew that this was my destiny and so set my face resolutely for Jerusalem. But as we rounded the last curve in the road and came in sight of the city, I could not help but remember the first time I made this journey. I was a lad of 12 when my father and mother decided that it was time to make their Passover at the temple. As kid from the country, I was blown away at all the sights and sounds. Nothing in my experience had prepared me for this. There were so many people, and they must have come from everywhere because they were all speaking different languages, and many had strange clothes.
But what really held my attention was the temple. It stood in the center of the city at the top of a hill. I had never seen a building so big. It just boggled my mind. As we entered the outer court there was all kinds of activity going on. It was called the Court of the Gentiles, for they were allowed to enter this outer court. Many of them believed in our God but did not observe our Jewish practices. Although they did not make sacrifices to God, there were places in the outer court where they could go to pray.
There was other activity taking place in this outer court as well. Everyone who entered had to pay a temple tax. Of course, all the money we had was Roman coins with the face of Caesar. According to how our law, the Torah, was interpreted by the priests, however, we could not use this money to pay the tax because God demanded we not worship a graven image. They said paying the tax with this money broke the second commandment. They had a solution for this dilemma of course. The Roman government allowed Jewish currency to be used within the temple. Tables were set up in the outer court where you could make the exchange. The exchange rate was very high. Not only did the merchant get his cut, but the Roman Government and the Temple Authorities got a percentage too. This was on top of the tax we paid to get in!
And then there was the sale of animals for sacrifice. Most pilgrims, like my father and mother, didn’t bring animals with them to sacrifice. They purchased them upon arrival in Jerusalem. Most of this business also took place in the outer Gentile court of the temple and occupied most of the space. Worshipers were forced to pay a premium price for the animal. But that was not the end of it. Our Torah said that an animal to be sacrificed had to be without blemish. So after the purchase was made, the animal had to be taken to the Temple inspector. They almost always found some flaw that would prevent it from passing inspection. However, if the inspector’s palm were sufficiently greased, the problem would miraculously disappear. Even as a twelve-year-old I was greatly troubled by all these practices. But later, when I asked my father about it, he said that was the price we had to pay as a result of being under Roman occupation.
Well, that day, we made our sacrifice. While we were in the inner court where only Jews are allowed and the sacrifices take place, I happened to notice a small room where it appeared that several men were studying the Torah. I slipped away from my parents and entered the room. I was totally fascinated by their discussion. I too, had studied the Torah all my young life in our local synagogue. But I had so many questions and I often disagreed with my local rabbi’s answer. And when I gave what I thought to be the best answer to the questions I had raised, my rabbi would only shake his head, put his hands over his ears and say, “Jesus, you simply must accept my answer by faith.”
That response had never set too well with me. But there wasn’t much I could do about it except learn to hold my tongue. But here in Jerusalem, in this Bible study, the conversation taking place was at a totally different level. They raised all kinds of interesting questions and gave a whole range of answers. Then they would debate the responses before coming to consensus. Many of the questions they raised were similar to the ones I had asked in my local synagogue. I became so excited I couldn’t help myself. I spoke out giving them my answers. It wasn’t long until I had their complete attention. They began directing all their questions at me and seemed to like my responses. For some reason they thought I must be some kind of “wunderkind” to use a German expression.
I lost track of time. We talked far into the night. Finally, they decided it was time to go home and asked me where I lived. In Nazareth, I said. I came with my parents to celebrate Passover. Where are your parents staying they asked? Suddenly I was seized with guilt. We were to leave for home that afternoon. One of the men said I could stay with him for the night and we could come back the next day to continue our discussion. “I’m sure your parents will look for you here in the temple,” he said.
And that was what happened. We had traveled with a group of pilgrims and planned to return with them. My parents had assumed that I was with other children in the group. It was only when they prepared to camp for the night that they realized I was missing. They returned to the city to search for me the next day. Needless to say, they were not too happy when they found me. I was a typical youth in protesting my innocence: “Don’t you know that I must be about my father’s business?” I protested. They were totally unimpressed. Fr. Bill told me he tried that same line on his parents when he was a teenager. He had taken a young lady to a youth service and afterward talked with her about the pastor’s message far into the night. His parents were worried and upset when he got home after midnight. My line didn’t work for him either.
These were the things that were going through my mind as I saw the city come into view. We stopped and stayed the night in the little village of Bethany just a couple miles outside the city walls. The next morning, I instructed one of my disciples to go to a friend’s home in the village and borrow a donkey. My disciples had secretly sent word ahead the that the Messiah was coming. Crowds gathered along the roadside waving palm branches. You would have thought I was in Florida! They recognized me as their Messiah and I was welcomed with open arms. All that was about to change.
I rode straight to the temple in the center of the city. I strode purposefully into the outer court of the Gentiles. I found some thin cords to be used for halters for the animals being sold. I quickly braded three of them into a thick rope which I used as a whip. No longer the innocent wide-eyed child of twelve, I called out in a prophetic voice quoting from Isaiah and Jerimiah, “My house shall be a place of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers” With that I took my whip and turned over the tables of the money changers. I loosened the ropes of the sacrificial animals and drove them out to the street.
Of course, I didn’t get away with it. The temple authorities were summoned and demanded what right I had to do what I had just done. Show us a sign that you have such authority. I answered them, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will restored it.” They howled in derision. “It took us forty-six years to build it, and you would restore in in three days? They thought I was a nut case and left me alone. But of course, I wasn’t speaking of the temple, but of my body which they would soon destroy and in three days, My Father in Heaven would raise back to life. That was sign I would give them and not them alone but all of humankind who would follow.
Scholars throughout the centuries that followed have debated why I cleansed the temple. Some have thought I was a mistaken tragic figure. They thought I believed that my Heavenly Father would unleash His angels, vindicate my message and restore the kingdom to Israel. They believe that instead I merely unleashed the wrath of the Roman and Jewish authorities and I became a victim of circumstances dying a disillusioned and broken man. I am here today to tell you that I was not mistaken. I knew exactly what I was doing. And events played out exactly as I had anticipated. I was not so much confronting the Jewish authorities or even the Roman Empire. I was confronting Satan on his home turf – and I won!
The gospel you have heard today is usually read on Tuesday of Holy Week. You may have wondered why it was read today, the Third Sunday in Lent. I think there is good reason why those who constructed your lectionar0y place this reading here. Your namesake, St. Paul rightly wrote that each of you who were baptized into my death and raised to new life are now the temple where God dwells. You have been called to participate with me in building my kingdom. But while my new creation is coming into being it is not yet here in its fullness. You still are living in this world and it can wear you down.
Fr. Bill tells me that when he was growing up, each year about this time, his mother would wash the windows inside and out, she would pull out furniture to vacuum, and dust every inch of their how. She would pull out little used dishes and rewash them. Often she would ask his father to repaint some rooms. She called this spring cleaning.
During Lent that is my call to you. I call you to come to a quiet place, away from the busyness of your life. There in reflection, allow me to cleanse the temple where I now dwell. I will cleanse the dross that has accumulated during the past year even as you recommit your vow to take up your cross and follow me.