Third Sunday in Lent

 

Occasionally, someone will call the church and ask about barriers to access. By this question they mean: “Is the church wheelchair accessible?” We reply that we do have an elevator, which provides direct access to the sanctuary. That usually satisfies them, they thank us, and then hang up.

 

So, what about barriers to access? In our culture we are indignant when, for whatever reason, people are not allowed to participate in an institution or activity. Most of us are sensitive to the pain of social exclusion, especially if we bear our own scars. We are therefore concerned to remove barriers to access. We do not want people to be excluded.

 

In our gospel lesson there are people who are coming to the temple to worship God. It is the time of the Passover. This is one of three annual pilgrimage festivals for the Jewish people. That means that, regardless of where they lived, they had to go up to Jerusalem, the Holy City, to worship at the temple. A modern day parallel is the Hajj in Islam, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, which every adult Muslim is expected to make once in his lifetime. 

 

But Jesus is not a Muslim; he is a Jew. And so, he too has gone up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. But when he arrives at the temple, he does not like what he sees. There are people there selling cattle, sheep and doves. And there are money changers seated at their tables.

 

At first glance, we may ask: “what’s wrong with this picture? What in the world are they doing there? After all, this is a place of worship, not a 4 h fair!” But the vendors and the moneychangers in the courts of the temple are there to serve an important purpose. The people celebrate the Passover by bringing a lamb to temple for sacrifice. If they do not have one, they have to go to the vendor to buy one. And if they do not have Jewish shekels to pay for it, they have to go to the moneychangers to exchange their own currency for shekels.

 

And so, the vendors and the moneychangers are there for a legitimate reason. But if they serve a purpose, then why is Jesus is indignant? Indeed, he is more than indignant. He is so upset by what he sees that he makes a whip out of cords, overturns the tables, and drives them out.

 

The answer is that the vendors and moneychangers defrauded the people. If, for example, a family brought their own lamb to temple for sacrifice, they’d have to present it first to the temple authorities for inspection. Recall that the Passover ritual requires that the animal be a year-old lamb or goat, without blemish or defect. After inspecting it, the temple authorities would reject the animal, and direct the family to one of the vendors, from whom they could buy one suitable for sacrifice. Colluding together, the inspectors and the vendors had a good hustle going.

 

Now if the family could not afford one of the animals, the temple authorities would turn them away. But if the family happened to have money, only not in Jewish shekels, then they could go to the moneychangers. But there is a barrier here too. For the moneychanger set a high exchange rate to maximize profits. The moneychanger is the ancient equivalent of the attendant behind the currency exchange window at the airport. Both gouge the customer because they realize the customer needs the money now.

 

Marketing religion is a common feature of the contemporary American landscape, as we all know. Consider the televangelists who promise blessings in exchange for money. Let me tell you a true story. A pastor friend told me of his travel to a distant place. On the airplane, he sat next to a man in sales. The man eagerly told him about his business successes. He wanted to impress him with how much money he made as a shrewd salesman. Momentarily tired of talking about himself, he finally paused, turned to the pastor and asked him what he did for a living. The pastor replied that he was in Christian ministry. The salesman hesitated for a moment to take in what the minister said, and then replied: “Ministry, eh? Well, there’s money in that if you work it right.” 

 

The temple is the place of God’s presence. God’s desire is to reside with his people. “Make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell among you” (Ex. 25:8), God tells Israel through Moses. The temple is a place where the people can meet with God, worship God, and offer their prayers to God. But there are barriers to access, as we have been relating them. This is what upsets Jesus. More than anyone else, he wants people to be in God’s presence. Now we understand his reaction. “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house into a marketplace!” The disciples recalled a line from Psalm 69 and later applied it to Jesus: “Zeal for your house will consume me!”

 

The temple authorities may object: the temple needs funds for upkeep. The place of worship ought to receive care and honor. We maintain it with reverence and adorn it with beauty. That may be true. But the problem with relying on a market economy here to deliver religious services is expressed in an old joke: “Sure, like the Ritz Hotel, open to rich and poor alike.” Although all may be allowed to buy what they need, not everyone can afford to do so.

 

Jesus cannot tolerate that; he is troubled by what he sees. And so, he springs into action. The ensuing commotion startles us. It does not seem to be in keeping with Jesus’ character. Rather, it seems to be an outburst of uncontrolled, even violent anger.

 

But the reaction of the temple authorities suggests otherwise. They ask him: what proof can you give us that you authorized to do this? This reaction makes no sense unless we understand the religious world of the ancient Jewish people. They are asking Jesus whether he is a prophet. In the Old Testament, prophets often relied on what Bible students call “sign-acts” to communicate a difficult message that the people might otherwise ignore. Author Gary V. Smith tells us that the sign-act aims to teach the central point of the prophet’s message in an attention-getting, interesting, or even shocking way.

 

If Jesus is a prophet, then what he has done in making a whip of cords, overturning the tables and driving out the animals for sacrifice is a sign-act. No doubt the temple authorities could recall the prophecy in Zechariah 14:21: “No longer shall there be a trader in the house of the Lord on that day.” Jesus is fulfilling this prophecy. But the temple authorities want authentication. What proof then can he give to them that he is a prophet? 

 

The reply Jesus gives is remarkable. “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it in again in three days.” Of course, as is the pattern in John’s Gospel, the opponents of Jesus misunderstand him. He speaks to them of spiritual realities, to which they are blind. They understand only material realities. They do not make the connection. They think that he is referring to the physical temple. Herod the Great began the reconstruction of the temple in 19 BC. Ongoing construction continued through Jesus’ day, even up to the time it was demolished in the sack of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. No prophet, regardless of how great he is, could do in three days what it has taken 46 years to accomplish.

 

But Jesus is referring to his own body. He is the temple. That is to say, he is the living habitation of God on earth. He is the place where God resides. This is the theme we explored during Christmastide. Then we learned that the Word of God became flesh and made his dwelling among us. Bible students point out that the word translated “made his dwelling” is related to the word “tabernacle.” The tabernacle was the portable temple that accompanied Israel during her wilderness sojourn.

 

Jesus is more than a prophet. He is the very presence of God with his people. Through him people can go to meet with God, worship God, and offer their prayers to God. Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that he is the way to God, that all who come to the Father may and must go through him. 

 

In this regard, Jesus embodies the invitation of God to the needy in Isaiah 55: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you without money, come, buy, and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost!” These are images of the salvation that God freely offers. 

 

The temple authorities contradicted this message. In effect, they rescinded this invitation. The temple authorities thereby misrepresent God to the people. They imposed a burden on the people that suffocated them and forbade them to live in the dignity that God bestowed on them as God’s own people. They made God out to be distant, accessible only to the rich and the privileged, instead of a God to be trusted, a God to whom one could turn and open oneself. The corrupt practices by which they maintained the temple cult maligned God, whom Jesus called Father and taught people to approach him as children do their father. 

 

What does this lesson have to teach us? Do we make it hard for the poor and the needy and the excluded to approach God? How do we regard our church? Do we focus on the upkeep and adornment of our sanctuary more than on those whom God invites to worship there? The church building is always a means to an end. We ought always to see the church as a place where we can nurture community, so that we may go out and build community around us, and so that we can serve our closest neighbor. The church is a gathering place, where we are refreshed in spirit, so that we may refresh others.

 

Or how do we regard those who come to visit the church to worship? Do we expect them to present themselves without blemish or defect? Or do we make it uncomfortable for them to be with us, because we imagine that we are without blemish or defect? We ought to realize that church people can alienate those who are genuinely searching for God. Let us be sure that our lives do not constitute a barrier to access to God. Our lesson teaches us nothing if not that religion can be the worst enemy of faith.  

 

In our epistle lesson, the Apostle Paul addresses those who are sensitive to class distinctions. Later in this chapter, he refers to those who are wise and influential and of noble birth among them. He tells them not to be intimidated by them. To God there is no distinction. No one should presume that their social status, wealth, education, or professional success set them apart from others. Before God, all stand on level ground. That is why Paul’s message is the same, regardless of who he is addressing. He preaches Christ, and him crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the gentiles. 

 

Jesus anticipates his crucifixion in his interaction with the temple authorities. “Destroy this temple” is precisely what they are going to do. He constitutes a threat. He is going to abolish temple worship and thereby deprive them of their livelihood. They cannot stand this and will have to get rid of him. But they will not succeed. Because in three days, he will be raised up. Crucified in weakness, raised in power. This is our Easter hope as we continue in our Lenten journey together. Amen.   

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