June 14, 2015 Second Sunday After Trinity
A Clean House
St. John 2:12-22
Marjorie and I have been watching a BBC series titled “Monarch of the Glen,” set in a place called “Glenbogle” or “Boondoggle” or something like that.
A well-titled and –landed Scottish family is down at the heels. Archie, the only surviving son, returns to discover that his father, Hector, the laird, has mismanaged the estate for decades and . . . well, desperate times require desperate measures.
Archie abandons his girlfriend and the thriving restaurant in which he shares ownership with her in London and returns to the Highlands to set things right. In the most recent episode, Lizzie, Archie’s sister, returns in a state of pregnancy I’d peg at eight months and 29 days . . . and without benefit of a husband.
Hector, who wears a tartan kilt and black bowtie for dinner every evening and has been essentially a ceremonial father, sending his wee ones off to boarding school, appears on the scene with his daughter on the edge of labor and a young man hovering, shuttling bags in from the car and bending every effort to make Lizzie comfortable.
Disappearing into the cellar, Hector produces a bottle of his finest vintage and pours a quaff for the “father.” As the dialogue progresses we learn that he is indeed a father, a happily married father of three. Hector is aghast.
And then we discover that this decent bloke is a cab driver from Glasgow whom Lizzie has engaged to drive her to the ancestral home to deliver the latest member of the MacDonald clan. Hector snatches back the glass of wine.
Lizzie’s contractions shorten and drive the narrative as the cabbie, who has some experience in these matters, delivers a wee lass and then gallantly declines the 173 pounds he is owed and motors off toward Glasgow.
While everyone else is rejoicing in the newest addition to the family, Hector sputters something about the honor of the MacDonald name, etc., and we learn that the father cannot marry Lizzie because he is married to someone else.
We have here an artful use by the script-writers of misunderstanding. The father isn’t the father at all but merely the cabbie. These writers might have taken lessons from St. John.
The evangelist is a master of misunderstanding. Last week, we listened in as Mary addressed her son at the most practical level: The wedding party is out of wine; can you do something about it?
Jesus responded in theological terms, “My time has not yet come,” leaving Mary and the rest of us scratching our heads until we probed deeper.
Today we arrive at the Jerusalem temple in time to find Jesus cleansing it. More misunderstanding is in store.
But we must first address the chronology. In the Synoptic gospels, the cleansing comes at the end of Jesus’ life, in the week culminating in His crucifixion. It is presented as a final straw that brings the wrath of the religious authorities down on His head.
In John, Jesus performs the cleansing at the beginning of His public ministry and we find no record of the leadership cracking down. It is possible, and v. 23 suggests this, that His mounting popularity has insulated Him for a time against their counter-measures.
Some commentators believe John pushed His account of the cleansing forward to advance His case, supported hereafter in his gospel, that Jesus is the new temple. It’s certainly true that John sometimes arranges material topically rather than chronologically, but then so do Matthew and Luke – to say nothing of most other authors ancient and modern.
Some suppose our Lord cleansed the temple twice. On this view, each author reported the event that worked within his narrative. What we may say for a certainty is that, early or late, an outburst such as this by a country bumpkin of a rabbi would have constituted an assault on the authority of the priestly caste in Jerusalem
It was shocking conduct. He must have thought He was God.
The oxen, sheep and doves were sacrificial animals to be slaughtered in the Passover worship. It was far more convenient to buy them on site for Jews traveling from all points of the Roman Empire than to cast about for animals to purchase.
In an earlier day, the animal merchants set up stalls on the other side of the Kidron Valley, on the Mount of Olives, but by the first century they had moved into the temple courts, no doubt the outermost one, the Court of the Gentiles.
Here we locate the first problem with this practice. Had God not said by His prophet Isaiah “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations” (56:7)? The builder of the first temple, Solomon, had begun his reign well, revealing the glory of the God of Israel to visiting dignitaries including the queen of Sheba.
He had included the Court of the Gentiles in his temple blueprint according to God’s instruction, and precisely so foreigners would have a place to worship Yahweh. The demented half-Jew Herod, who built the second temple after the Babylonians destroyed the first, had rendered a faithful reproduction.
Now the authorities in the temple and in Israel overall are giving over the one place gentiles were allowed to worship to a sort of flea market – doubtlessly with an abundance of fleas.
The money-changers provided a service similar to that of the animal traders. Travelers arrived with many kinds of coins but had to pay the temple tax in the coinage of Tyre, on the coast to the north in what is now Lebanon, because of its high silver content.
The tax was required of every male of 20 years or older. These money-changers set up for business only before and during the major feasts, such as Passover, and charged a commission, just as foreign currency exchanges do today. The temple authorities permitted and approved these practices.
In the Synoptics, Jesus labels these merchants a “den of thieves,” echoing Jeremiah, but John includes no such condemnation. Following his account, we have no reason to think any of those involved – animal merchants, money-changers or priests – are corrupt.
The Lord’s ire rises not because they are overcharging or conspiring to cheat visitors but because they are there at all. He drives them out with a whip of cords and overturns the tables because His Father’s house is to be a place of prayer – that word standing for the entire system of worship in the temple – and not of commerce.
Where He should have heard the soft murmur of prayer He finds bellowing and bleating. Quiet, respectful adoration of the Father has given way to clanging coins, to the untidy bustle of commerce.
The whip appears only in John’s telling – perhaps supporting the theory of two cleansings. Jesus produces a scourge to purify the temple. On His way to His final triumph on the cross, where the temple of His body will be destroyed, He will endure the scourge.
The church father Jerome reckoned that the raging figure of the Lord rendered the whip unnecessary: “A certain fiery and starry light shone from His eyes, and the majesty of the Godhead gleamed in His face.”
Zechariah had prophesied of such a scene. He wrote:
“And every pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be holy to the LORD of hosts, so that all who sacrifice may come and take of them and boil the meat of the sacrifice in them. And there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the LORD of hosts on that day” (14:21 ESV).
In His righteous wrath, God the Son is displaying His jealousy for His Father’s majesty. Is this how one enters the presence of the King of kings and the Lord of lords? Here is a prophetic denunciation of contaminated worship.
And it is more. It is the prelude to the declaration that this temple with its bloody offerings and corrupted worship must give way to a new “Temple” and another sacrifice.
Before that, however, the evangelist has recourse to the Old Testament once more, this time to Psalm 69(:9): “Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up.” The Psalmist, David, is lamenting the opposition he faces because of his passion for the purity of the temple as the place of meeting with God.
But John – and not he alone among New Testament authors – brings David’s words forward and applies them to “great David’s greater Son.” Jesus will be “eaten up,” as it were, on the cross because of His zeal for the purity of worship in His Father’s house.
The God-man cannot abide impurity in the place of meeting between God and man. John may be telling us that it was not then but after His death that His disciples recalled the Psalmist’s words.
Now – for the first time in John’s account but hardly the last -- Jesus has the attention of “the Jews,” whether the temple authorities or members of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council. In either case, they have the duly constituted authority to challenge one who causes a disruption on their turf . . . but their reaction is surpassing strange.
They demand that He justify Himself by performing a “sign,” or miracle. If they had fingered Him for a thug, simply out to make trouble, they would hardly have asked Him to provide such a sign.
No, they either suspect Him to be a true prophet of God or they hope their challenge will expose Him as one who is not. Their response reflects their true concern – not that the God of the Jews should receive undefiled worship from His covenant people but that their system not be upended.
If Jesus were to perform such a sign, alas, they would have succeeded in taming God. He would have acceded to their will to prove His credentials and win their adulation, which would be worthless when accomplished by a magic trick.
In fact, He had already provided a sign in the cleansing of the temple . . . and now He outflanks them by promising another, wherein we find our misunderstanding du jour. If they would be so kind as to knock down that temple He will reassemble it in three days. Flummoxed, they can only reply to His words taken literally.
It has taken 46 years to build the temple; what sort of bizarre claim is this, that He can rebuild it in three days?
Had they been a bit more reflective, these leaders just might have registered the thought that One who has the power to erect the temple has the right as well to determine what is and is not proper conduct within its precincts.
In the Synoptics, we find that in Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin witnesses accuse Him of promising to destroy a place of worship, a capital offense in the ancient world. He did not, in fact, but rather suggested that if the Jewish authorities leveled it He would rebuild it. And now comes the kicker: “But He was speaking of the temple of His body.”
This is the body in which the Word became flesh, the body in which the Father is made manifest in the Son. In this body God dwells on earth. Would you know the Father? Know the Son. In this temple will the final offering for sin, the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, be made.
In this temple do God and man meet and dwell in perfect unity. In this temple do worship in spirit and truth coalesce. Destroy it and, yes, in three days He will indeed rebuild it.
In Him are those flawed Old Testament persons and institutions fulfilled and perfected. The bloody sacrifices will be no more after the Lamb of God spills His blood as a satisfaction for sin. The Mosaic laws will give way to the worshiper’s obedience freely given from an uncorrupted heart.
Priestly mediation between God and man will take on a different coloring under the great High Priest as worshipers offer not animals but “ourselves, our souls and bodies” on the altar. The Davidic kingdom will yield to the eternal realm of glory under the royal authority of the King of kings.
Having cleansed the temple, the apostle would have us see, in His very next act Jesus proclaims His replacement of the temple as the nexus of worship. Its purposes are all realized in Him.
The Jewish leaders are not the only ones befuddled by Jesus’ words. John makes no pretense that the disciples grasped their meaning on the spot. It was only “when He had risen from the dead” that they saw the Light – and not even then, initially, but when the Holy Spirit had come and recalled His words to their minds and opened their understanding of them.
The evangelist told us in his prologue that Jesus was the Light and this Light is the life of men, but . . . “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.” In our present passage we find the beginning of illustrations that buttress that claim.
Much more awaits us, not least two magnificent misunderstandings in the next two chapters. In chapter 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born again and Nicodemus asks, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (v. 4)
And in chapter 4, Jesus tells the woman at the well He will give her living water. She says, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw” (v. 15).
Bruce Milne observed on the cleansing, “The temple will pass into oblivion, not only because it is physically razed, but because it is spiritually obsolete. Jesus’ body, offered up in sacrifice and raised up in power, will be the new temple where God and humanity, Creator and created, meet face to face.”
The evangelist offers us in this episode a snapshot of Jesus’ earthly ministry of three-plus years. His mission is to make His Father manifest to men and to reveal on earth the beauty and reverence of worship in heaven. He will brook no thing that contaminates His Father’s house.
Our Lord does not castigate those who adorn that house but those who profane it. Milne adds, “Modern-day worship which is irreverent, superficial, distraction-filled, cold, lifeless, sloppy, self-indulgent, hypocritical, ill-prepared or theologically inappropriate will likewise receive (Jesus’) censure, as will worship which detracts from the honour and glory of the living God through a concern for performance and self-display on the part of those leading it.
“It is a serious question whether the church in the western world has become so encased in the cocoon of material self-indulgence that the honour of God’s name among the nations has become a matter of indifference, with the result that the burning ‘violent’ zeal of Jesus, (Paul and the Psalmist) strike us as something of an embarrassment.”
Beloved, let there be no misunderstanding among us. Our worship is only our God’s due, and we will offer it according to His design and not our desires. Amen.