Reflection: The Messiah, the Market, and the Sanctuary January 21, 2018
Psalm 69:9-12; John 2:13-25
A few years back, we had a conversation at Council about the appropriateness of selling items as part of our church`s ministry. This comes up surprisingly often in churches. Should we sell advertising space in our church bulletin to bring in revenue? Should we allow for-profit organizations to use our space? Should we support congregation members who wish to sell items they have produced or promote them during worships services or at church? Are raffles okay? What about bingo? What about auctions, dinners and bazaars? How do we decide what is appropriate and what isn’t? Where are the lines? Why are some things okay and not others? These are the kinds of conversations that give church leaders headaches and often leave congregants upset as they agree or disagree with decisions that are made.
On a larger scale, there are debates about how much money a person should be paid to do the work of ministry, with some denominations having volunteer lay people doing all the things we paid ministers do, and others allowing pastors to take home millions of dollars of revenue in a year. The world’s ten highest paid preachers earn from $10 million to $150 million a year! You might be shocked to know that Billy Graham brings home $25 million per year. As you can imagine, this sparks a sense of outrage on the part of many believers who remember distinctly Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the poor”.
All these discussions reflect the uneasy relationship between the church and commercial enterprise. It’s a relationship that SHOULD be uneasy. Our building is dedicated to the ministry of Jesus Christ; anything that compromises or blurs that dedication needs to be considered very carefully. If you’re not convinced of that, perhaps the story from John’s gospel today will change your mind.
The story of Jesus’ attack on the temple Market appears in all four Gospels, which is testimony to its importance for the early church. In Matthew, Mark and Luke this story appears toward the end of the Gospels; it is the precipitating incident for the plot to arrest and kill Jesus. His outright challenge to the system of exchange present in the temple was enough to convince the leaders of his people that he was just too controversial to be allowed to continue his ministry. But in John’s Gospel, this is his second major act as Messiah and Son of God, just a few days into his ministry. His first was semi-private, witnessed only by a few people at a family wedding. This action couldn’t get more public!
The difficulties Jesus’ actions cause aren’t just about public safety, unwanted disruption or even the challenge to the commercialization of religion – though that’s all there in the story. The buying and selling in the marketplace was a necessary part of the system of purity laws and sacrifice central to temple worship practice. People travelling to the temple could not necessarily bring their animal sacrifices with them; they would need to purchase them when they arrived. The Roman coins that were in common usage were considered idolatrous, and had to be exchanged for temple currency – thus the moneychangers. All of this was going on in the outer courts of the temple, not in the inner sanctuary, which was considered the seat of God on earth.
Jesus’ challenge to the system of buying and selling was genuine, and very much in line with the challenges other prophets made to this system of worship. Take for example, the words of the prophet Amos:
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (5:21-24)
There is a deeper challenge in this action according to John. When asked what sign he will give to prove he has the authority to challenge the system that has been in place for decades, Jesus responds: “Destroy this sanctuary, and I will rebuild it in three days”. Those of us “in the know” can see the hint that is here –and John spells it out for us. Three days – the days between Good Friday and Easter, the days between resurrection and ascension. Jesus is talking about his body as the holy place where God dwells. In other words, where Jesus is, God is. The authority Jesus wields is the authority of the one who speaks with God’s voice.
Not only that, but in claiming that he himself is the place where God resides, Jesus is exploding that whole system of sacrifice and purity laws, who’s in and who’s out, who belongs and who doesn’t, and that whole transactional understanding of what our relationship with God should look like. Like Amos, he is reminding people that what God wants is you and I living in God’s way. God asks no more and no less of us than that. To live in God’s way is to follow Jesus – to claim him and be claimed by him as Master and Friend.
It’s important to note that Jesus is not challenging all of Judaism itself. Jesus is a Jew, a Torah-loving rabbi of the people of God who speaks wisdom that is well within the tradition of prophetic and rabbinic Judaism. What is unique is John’s claim that in knowing Jesus, we know God; in challenging or opposing him, we oppose God. Many prophets speak on God’s behalf, and with authority given by God. For John, Jesus is more; he is One with God, and if we know him, we know God. If we are with Jesus, we are with God. Nothing else is needed: no temple coins, no doves or lambs or bulls bleeding on an altar, no ritual cleansing, food laws or rules about those with whom we can or cannot associate. All of that is unnecessary, because we know Jesus.
I wonder how often we try to replace a relationship with Jesus with outward signs or actions? I wonder if the reason we create religious rules and observances is because they’re easier to follow, at least at first, than actually seeking the will of God through prayer, sitting with Jesus and asking for his guidance? Do we hang on to them, too, because they’re an easy way of identifying who’s “one of us” and who isn’t?
When the Torah, the package of Laws and teachings that make up the Jewish purity codes, was first given to the people of Israel, it was seen as a gift – as a way of aiding the people in keeping their relationship with God on the right track. But eventually, over the centuries, the Torah was added to, and even those long lists of rules and regulations found in Leviticus and Numbers were not seen as enough to keep the people on track. More and more were added until people found themselves unable to observe them all, and by virtue of their failure, they were told they no longer had a good relationship with God. They were outside, in the cold and the dark, and the only way to come back in was to get back into good favour through the system of offerings and sacrifices made in the temple.
Are there religious rules or observances in our own churches that have become too heavy for people to carry? Are there things that were once good and helpful and supportive in our walk of faith, that have become stumbling blocks on our path? I wonder. Some of us can remember a time when there were a lot more rules associated with being a Christian than there are now. I certainly don’t miss those days!
Some of us can remember the hurt of being denied communion because we were too young, or not a member, or were divorced, or for some other reason seen to be unworthy. Some of us have been told the church would not marry us, or baptize our children, or include us in certain events or discussions. I’m so glad that for the most part, that is behind us.
I think it’s important, though, to stay vigilant, and stay questioning, and not let anything get in the way of being a part of the community following Jesus, whether it’s an over-commercialism of the ministry we share, or whether it’s legalism or practices that deny people their way to God. I know churches who no longer take up an offering in worship; congregations that make no distinction between member and adherent at all; ministers who do not use the traditional words for communion because they feel they are incomprehensible and exclusive of people who are new to faith; and many other changes, all in the light of the need to keep the way to Jesus open to all. Some of those choices I wouldn’t make, but there may be things we need to consider that haven’t even crossed our minds before!
When we look at the story of the Messiah, the Market and the Sanctuary, we can see that for John, it’s all about knowing Jesus. To know him, to follow him, is the most important thing. If anything gets in the way of our relationship with Jesus, John tells us, we need to dispense with it – EVEN if what is getting in the way is the practices of our religion itself! Hear the challenge of today’s Gospel, and let it touch your minds and hearts. Amen.