By porthkerryandrhoose, May 9 2017 10:26AM
If I asked you to describe Jesus, I wonder what words you would use? What’s your image of him? I hear a lot of talk about approaching situations in the way Jesus would, but often they seem to be based on a very limited view of him: the Sunday school ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild.’ And he ends up being a bit like a cross between a jolly grandfather and Santa Claus: benign, smiling indulgently no matter what his children get up to. It’s a comforting picture, but one which ultimately lacks any power or authority at all. Is this really the Jesus we see in scripture? Even a quick look into these starting chapters of John’s gospel shows us that it couldn’t be further from the truth.
The last time we were in John’s gospel, we saw Jesus behaving with generosity and kindness towards a couple whose wedding was going disastrously wrong. They had run out of wine and Jesus stepped in to turn gallons of water into the very best wine. It was an exciting and memorable day. But straight away, John tells us a very different story. We know that he has deliberately moved this event to the beginning of his gospel as the other 3 gospel writers very firmly place it during holy week. Why has he done it? Let’s look at the passage together.
It was Passover time and Jerusalem would have been buzzing with visitors. Everyone wanted to be in the city for the festival and to make their sacrifices in the temple. Jesus went too, but when he stepped into the temple he was horrified at the sight which met his eyes. Instead of people having time and space to worship God, the temple courtyard was filled with people and oxen and sheep and pigeons. Money changers were sitting at their stalls, and the whole area looked like a busy market place. Jesus was angry. So angry in fact that he made a whip out of cords and drove them out of the temple. He upturned the tables and scattered the coins of the money lenders. It was a dramatic scene. Can you imagine the noise? Shouting, bleating, squarking, clattering. And Jesus said to those who sold the pigeons “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” This is no mild, accepting, ‘let’s talk about it’ Jesus. Jesus was angry. Now at some level we do understand righteous anger. When something terrible happens, like refugee children being sold into the sex trade or their bodies harvested for organs, we get angry. And if someone we know isn’t angry about it, we begin to wonder if something is wrong with them, if they have a heart for others at all. It is right to be angry about wrong doing, though of course we have to be very careful about how we deal with that anger. If it’s right for us, how much more is it right for God to be angry about the wrong things in the world. What sort of a God would he be if he just carried on smiling kindly while bad people terrorised others? Not the sort of God I would be interested in following, anyway. Jesus was angry. But the big shock in this passage is that Jesus didn’t direct his anger towards the ‘sinners’ in the big bad world outside. He directed it towards the religious people. What was going on?
From the days of Moses, God had always had a special place where he would meet with his people. In the desert it was the tabernacle, in the city the temple. Though he was so holy that only the high priest got to go into the area closest to him, the holy of holies, the rest was set aside for the priests and then the ordinary men and women to draw close to him. It was a special place where the presence of God rested. It was a place for sacrifice, for worship, for simply being with the God who had made them. But religion had taken over. Animals which had to be perfect to be offered to God were only deemed perfect if they were sold by one of the temple suppliers. The money for offerings couldn’t have caesar’s head on it, as it was a graven image, so the people had to pay their dues in temple money exchanged at a price. So rather than a humble meeting with God, the temple became a place of spiritual and financial transaction. People couldn’t come and worship God unless they were able to pay and had jumped through the priests’ hoops. It was a terrible twisting of God’s laws which shut people off from him. No wonder Jesus was angry.
As the disciples watched the events, they remembered the words of a psalm “Zeal for your house will consume me”. It’s Psalm 69, a psalm of David. It was one of the psalms which pointed forward to the Messiah, the king whom God would send. And they made the connection. This cleansing of the temple as we call it, was a prophetic act by God’s own king.
But it was more than that too. The clue is in what happened next.
“18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body.”
The disciples weren’t the only ones who knew that Jesus wasn’t some crazed madman on a rampage. “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” The Messiah would have a way of proving who he was. Jesus’ answer was perplexing “Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.” Unsurprisingly, the Jewish leaders replied “It has taken 46 years to build this temple, how could you build it in 3 days?”. I’m with them: it’s taken us over a year to try and get St Curig’s limewashed even! But of course he wasn’t talking about the physical temple. Jesus was telling them something far more profound. John, with the benefit of hindsight and the Holy Spirit’s guidance explains it to us “But the temple he was speaking of was his body”. Jesus’ dramatic act in the temple did more than shake up the corrupt practices in the temple; it pointed to a far more important truth: Jesus was going to be the new temple. Instead of going to a physical place to meet with God, after the cross and resurrection, people need only go to Jesus to meet with God. He is the mediator and advocate, the Word made flesh. Right at the start of his gospel, with two dramatic events, John is showing us two important truths about Jesus: he is the new wine of the kingdom, bringing in the Messianic age and he is the new temple, the new place to meet with God.
This was so monumental, that the Jewish leaders didn’t get it and the disciples only understood after Jesus’ life and ministry had unfolded. But we have the benefit of their understanding, and it changes everything. No longer do we have to worry about which bits of the church are ‘holy’ or whether it’s right to have teas and coffees in church. The house of God is Jesus, and that gives us a far more important challenge. How do we respond to him? The disciples believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken (v21), but others had a far more superficial response. They saw his signs and believed, but the faith only lasted as long as the exciting signs continued. Jesus wouldn’t entrust himself to them because he knew what was really in their hearts. What is in your heart? Are you trusting in Jesus as the word made flesh, the place to meet with God, or do you only trust him while he’s reassuring you with signs?
So a dramatic and challenging reading from John this morning, but one which acts as a vital corrective to us. Wrongdoing and sin makes Jesus angry, especially if it’s happening within the church, and stopping people from meeting with him is particularly serious. This same Jesus has the authority to speak on these matters because he isn’t just a teacher or a prophet, he is the Word made flesh, the new temple, the place where we meet with God. Not gentle Jesus meek and mild, but someone far more important. How do you respond to him?