A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on March 11, 2012
Third Sunday in Lent
Malachi 3:1-4; John 2:13-22
It doesn’t take long for traditions to become entrenched. We’ve certainly got our fair share around here. For example, what would the holiday season be without the Christmas Feast, replete with a stirring, if not often comical, rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”? When we host the Hillcrest area churches for our Lenten noonday service, which we did last week, everybody knows that baked potatoes, with all the fixings, will be served for the lunch that follows. If people like what we do, they want us to do it that way every year… and in the process, a tradition becomes implanted.
Some how, some time, between Jesus’ previous visit to Jerusalem and the temple, and his being there in the account we read from John’s gospel, things had changed. The tradition pendulum had swung and Jesus wasn’t happy about it. This is what I mean…
You’ve heard of Caiaphas, right? He was the Jewish chief priest who presided at the trial of Jesus. It was in the courtyard of his home that Simon Peter, while warming himself beside the fire, allowed himself to be intimidated by a servant girl and three times denied he knew his Master. Why did Jesus’ trial take place at the home of Caiaphas and not down at the court house? Well, there are at least a couple of possibilities. One is that by using his home Caiaiphas could include his housing allowance as a full tax deduction. The other, more likely, possibility is that they wanted to keep the proceedings as quiet as possible (which is why they held the proceedings at night), and since Jesus had proven to be so popular with the common people conducting the kangaroo court at his private residence would shield what they are doing from the public… at least as much as possible.
Caiaphas didn’t attain the rank of chief priest because he wasn’t shrewd. And generally, when we consider the word shrewd, politics is going to enter our thinking somewhere along the line. And yes, for his day and in his time, Caiphas was as shrewd a politician as they came. And lately, the temple has been at the center of all things political and not just religious.
There were several political layers to the Sanhedrin, composed of different points of view. Caiaphas, of late, had been squabbling with some of them. Imagine that: politics leading to squabbling. Generally, the Sanhedrin is in charge of all things religious and political. Wednesday night, I asked our assembled group to try and think of this situation, not through twenty-first century Western eyes but through the thought processes of those who lived in Jerusalem during the first century. People back then, and in that place, had no concept of separating politics from religion. They went hand-in-hand.
The group known as the Sanhedrin had risen to power on the basis of their political dealings, tossed in with just enough of the religious to give them access to the temple and all the temple stood for. In the days leading up to Jesus’ entrance into the Holy City, Caiaphas and the certain members of the Sanhedrin had been nipping at each others’ heels, barking at one another over this and over that. So Caiaphas, having charge of the temple and its administration, decided to show them a thing or two.
One of the decisions he made was to allow the vendors to move into the outer courtyard of the temple. This is where the idea of traditions comes into focus. If we didn’t know any better, we would think that the situation Jesus encountered that day was standard operating procedure, and had been that way for a long time. Actually, it was a fairly recent development; a new tradition, if you will. Before, vendors hawked their wares over in the Kidron Valley, removed quite some distance from the temple. It has only been lately that they were allowed to bring their animals and money tills into the temple.
Why would Caiaphas, who had the final say in temple matters, let them to do that? Because those who profited from the activities of the temple were in his political party, and in an act of political comeuppance he did it to curry favor with his constituents while thumbing his nose at his political enemies, the Sanhedrin. So you can be assured that Jesus was not the only one who was offended by all the extracurricular activity that was going on. He was just the only one who did anything about it.
All adult male Jews who lived within twenty miles of Jerusalem were required to attend Passover, the most important of all the Jewish festivals. And consider that during the Passover Feast religious pilgrims came from all over that part of the world. Jerusalem’s population would double, even triple. People were everywhere, shoulder-to-shoulder, elbow to elbow, Mardi Gras style. Prices were inflated to take advantage of the situation, so there would have been a great deal of haggling going on between the merchants and their customers.
According to John’s gospel, which has Jesus cleansing the temple early in his public ministry rather than at the end, we are told that this was the forty-sixth year of the temple’s construction, which was not yet completed. So in addition to the sounds of the vendors, there’s a very good chance you can hear hammers and saws and all kinds of constructions noises.
Add to the human mix the raucous sounds and offensive odors of the animals, those being sold and those whose fate is being worked out on the sacrificial altars, and you begin to realize what a wild scene it must have been. Loud voices, noisy construction, the wails of the animals, the stench… all of this, taking place in the temple of the Lord.
The temple, a place of worship and prayer, had been turned into a marketplace and slaughterhouse. That which was intended to bring the people closer to God instead gave emphasis to bizarre cultic behavior. Worship was replaced by raw, smelly commerce. It was a complete contradiction of Jesus’ understanding of what God’s people were supposed to be about and what they were supposed to do in response to God’s great favor upon them. It is no wonder he did what he did.
Jesus may have entered the temple to teach, but he quickly began to torment. Still, what’s he got to be so upset about? I mean, just look around you. Any church would be grateful to have that kind of activity going on. In the temple every pew is full, there is incessant activity, and the facilities are used every day. That’s more than you can say about us. To use a word that has become rather in vogue these days, at least in religious circles, the people are engaged in what is going on. Isn’t that what you want?
By all appearances, the religious life of Jerusalem is going quite well. There are sacrifices, just like the Law requires. People are mingling and talking, no doubt discussing and arguing the current events of the day and how they come into play in regard to their religious well-being. Surely God is pleased with what is going on in his house. Isn’t that what you want?
No, not if you’re Jesus.
I am tempted at this point to make the commentary that we tend to think that because a church attracts large crowds and has a reputation for being the best congregation in town and is busy at doing this or doing that, that it must be blessed beyond all others and is favored more by God than others. I am further tempted to remind you that size and activity and large buildings are not necessarily the appropriate measure of a church’s greatness. But I won’t comment on that because it might come across as sour grapes. And I don’t want that to happen just because we hardly fill our pews around here, and my complaints might come across sounding like an excuse. But I am tempted…
However, something ticked Jesus off during the Passover of the forty-sixth year of the temple’s construction, and we need to try and figure out what it was because his motivation for doing so is important to our understanding of the One to whom we have devoted our lives.
We could excuse Jesus for simply being on edge. He knows the authorities are after him. He is aware that his presence in Jerusalem is stirring up the kind of activity that is going to lead to a situation that will not go well for him. He has had reports that one of his very own, at that very moment, is considering betrayal. Jesus has a lot of pressure on him at that moment and maybe he just snapped, was sent over the edge by that final straw, what he thought was inappropriate temple behavior.
Do you think that might have been what caused him to do what he did? No, I don’t either, if for no other reason than he took the time to fashion a whip from cord so as to drive out the moneychangers and the animals and their keepers. This was a deliberate, calculated act on his part.
It is not often we see Jesus angry. When we do, we should take notice. Do you sense the irony of it, that when we find Jesus at his angriest it is in his Father’s house of worship? It makes me wonder that if Jesus showed up today in this place would it be with a scowl on his face and a whip in his hands.
I think what really chapped Jesus was that there was no obvious difference between the parking lot and the temple, between the mall and the church. The house of God is supposed to be a place where people can come and pray… and be changed. It is when we leave God’s house that we go out to make a difference in the marketplace and not the other way around.
And too often we’ve got it backwards. Our attitude, the way we live and move and have our being, is more heavily influenced by the marketplace than it is by our ministry. By all appearances, we’re doing what God wants, that which would make Jesus happy. But we need to be aware of, and careful of, the possibility that appearances can be deceiving.
There are many different functions of the church. We worship God and proclaim the gospel, we help mend broken hearts and we help rebuild communities, both of mortar and of flesh. But one thing we cannot afford to do is to sell our soul to the highest bidder. According to Jesus, the only thing that will keep us from doing so is making sure that, if nothing else, the one activity seen on a regular basis in God’s house is prayer and worship.
Being people of prayer may not keep us out of trouble. In fact, it might just get us into trouble. However, when Jesus pays a visit, it might also keep the whip out of his hands. And who knows, perhaps it would even bring a smile to his face.
Lord, be present to us. Our prayer is that when you do, you would find us on our knees and not at the cash register. In Jesus’ powerful name we pray, Amen.