This morning John is quite brief in setting the stage and the expectation for this arresting story. And he assumes a lot in the first sentences. Like, “it was almost time for the Jewish Passover…” He means that high festival at the warmth of Spring, when wildflowers bloom whole fields, and golden sun dapples everything, and pollen floats without a care on the breeze. One of a few times when every devout Jew was called to Temple. They flocked like birds flying south for winter – except up to Jerusalem. Jesus came too. Along with other pilgrims he walked the dusty roads and glimpsed it from afar, atop the city mount, the temple gold and white and gleaming. And once in Jerusalem, alive with that festival spirit, there would be a natural flow and a press through crowded streets toward that Temple gleam. It wouldn’t be hard to find. It was where everyone wanted to be.
Imagine it from Jesus’ perspective. By John’s telling, he is the Word of God made flesh, the Light of the world, the Lamb of God’s sacrifice for sin (all from ch.1!). That one approaches the Temple where God’s presence was, where worship was commanded, where sacrifices for sins were made. And, v14, “in the temple courts” that should be filled with praise, a very holy place of reverence and respect, the destination of many an ardent worshiper, some who had come at great cost from long distance, “[Jesus] found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money.”
In case our perception is more pedestrian, 21st century, Western – this is what John means… You expected the smell of burning sacrifice, a hint of incense for prayers as you walked through the temple gate. Instead, you found the stink of the pen – animals standing, hay, and a feculent funk. You were longing for the body together to sing the psalm and shout the acclamations, accompanied by string and horn. Instead, a chorus of doves calls out, and the soprano bleating of lambs over a bovine bass, with staccato shouts of sellers, and the percussion of coins in no real rhythm. You came for worship. Instead you found a market.
You don’t have to imagine the offense. Jesus brings it. Is it really any wonder that John says that, when he found this in the outer courts of God’s temple crowding over the spirit of worship, “he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle”? Or that he dumped out the coins and tipped over the tables and sent the bird-sellers packing, cages in hand?
It isn’t a wonder at all. As the disciples recalled, David had written in Psalm 69, “Zeal for your house will consume me…” And they saw it in Jesus. They saw zeal like God of old – the one who gave those 10 commandments at Sinai from a dark cloud and burning fire. They saw in Jesus what God demanded and what God represented, “Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous (zeal), is a jealous God.” (Exodus 34:14) Zeal is when God demands, commands, calls, and owns worship for himself alone. Zeal is love for the worship of God over everything else. The kind that demands everything – that consumes you. No wonder at all, about Jesus’ actions. In true righteousness and with authority, he rules over worship just like every other area of godly life by doing what was good and right to do: to perfectly honor God. He showed what it was and what it was not, just as he always perfectly did. And therefore, as we observe it, it is absolutely a wonder, as in something we don’t attain ourselves.
Jesus clearing the temple is so striking, perhaps, because when we are taken aback at his actions it points out that our zeal is not most often the same. It makes us ask, “Do I have that kind of zeal for God’s house?” When we’re in the house of God, our minds often are called elsewhere – not enough caffeine this morning, too much noise this morning, too late night before, too much to do this afternoon! I don’t always have focused attention, zealous hanging on what’s going on here. Seeing Jesus’ lead we might ask, “Do I share that zeal for God’s Word, that honor and reverence for his will?” Are we in God’s temple by being alone with his Word or is the market so overpoweringly present through our phones and tv’s our jobs and our fun that we never show up there? Or we show up for the wrong things. We should assess, “Is God’s Word and will my everything or am I consumed by so many other things?” The gods of the world are jealous too and they call for your worship. When God’s commands get in the way of an easy match with the world’s expectations, there’s a competition: which will consume our time and our attention and our actions? How often haven’t we given in and worshipped those other gods? How often doesn’t sin and guilt consume me? How shouldn’t God’s jealous judgment overtake me, especially when I compare with Jesus?
In this way this morning, Jesus rules our worship. He takes charge. He declares what it is to be. He reminds us what God demands. And he shows us where we have sinned. He calls for our total attention, confession of our shortcomings, preparation to receive his gifts, and complete service to him. In fact, altogether, as you witness Jesus do these harsh striking things, boldly commanding what worship should be, understand that Jesus is in charge here.
But know what a comfort that is! The Jewish leaders weren’t comforted by that. As our second lesson said, characteristically, they asked for a miraculous sign of his authority to do all that stuff… They thought they were in charge. They thought they had marked out pretty well how temple operation should go. But they had missed real worship and where God’s gathered people look for hope. Jesus had come to call them to the truth. But they didn’t want to hear from Jesus and they didn’t like the answer he gave them. They were incredulous and they mocked him. But Jesus’ word to them and to us is, actually, everything. Jesus is in charge here; not them and not us. And it’s good, because he alone is our hope.
Note the answer Jesus gave. His sign and his authority to clear the temple and lead worship to where it should be was this: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” And note John’s explanation, “the temple he had spoken of was his body… because he later would be] raised from the dead”.
Now, I want you to consider: why is that Jesus’ authority? Isn’t it because everything else is just the noise of the market – action, reaction, buying and selling, fear and anticipation, and seeing and smelling, and finally death? But this… It is a product completely unique and astounding.
I mean, just think about our future temple for a minute here. In just about 12mos, we plan to break ground on a striking new building – a church. Just beginning are some of the sub-committee meetings and the details of what colors will be and what chancel space will look like and how big the windows. And those conversations are so wonderful! What our altar looks like is important. What symbols we include in worship will say something. How comfortable and safe and accessible this space will be – those are key questions. You, God’s people in this place, are shaping a building that will serve the next 50 years of worshiping people. That’s no small thing. And yet, our furnishings can be beautiful and well placed and the acoustics just right and we could still end up with a space that does nothing more than the Sharon Lynne Wilson center over there. We could end up with a space that is just The Majestic Theatre, Lutheran style. If we miss the authority of Jesus, this word that gives actual hope… in god’s temple here, we present something different than the rest of the market. Something that gives hope.
Jesus says, “Destroy this temple…his body…” And it provides hope, because here is the one who would be so consumed by God’s will that he would die for it – it would consume him completely. He makes his whole life doing God’s will in order to hand it over for our sins’ guilt, so that God’s judgment would swallow him whole in death at his cross. By his death he provides a wholly different thing. Not all the blood of beasts on Israel’s altars slain (or in temple courts procured) could give the guilty conscience peace or wipe away its stain. But Christ the heavenly Lamb, takes all our sins away… He says, “in three days I will raise [my body].” And he provides hope because he is in charge. The one, once dead, who would take up his life again. Which no one else can do. There is nothing on the market that will protect you and stave off death – not finally – except this. Here is “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:22-25) He works perfectly. He makes payment. He rises to life. And with his mighty power, he makes us alive – forgiven of our sins, death’s threat removed, the promise of life everlasting. Christ crucified and risen to life we preach, because he freely makes us alive to be righteous day by day and zealous for God’s house along with him. In Jesus’ authoritative word to the leaders is hope for us – the ability to rely on Jesus’ work instead of our own, and the freedom to serve with zeal because are God’s own through Jesus.
This account in John 2 is actually the first time Jesus cleared the temple. The second will be on Palm Sunday, after he enters Jerusalem authoritatively. Some say this first time was Jesus’ call to repentance to the people, the second a statement of judgment. Both were our Lord setting his Father’s house in order so that the people would see and do the same. So here… this morning we see that Jesus is in charge. He rules our worship and fulfills God’s will and supplies us with everlasting hope in his death at the cross and rising from the grave. May the work of the Word of God, Jesus Christ, turn us to God’s temple to hear the Word of God about Jesus Christ again and again, so that God’s ways and his will become more and more everything we are and every way we live. As we see our Lord set God’s house in order, and set us into God’s house by faith, and promise that we’ll be in God’s house forever, may zeal for God’s house consume us too. Amen.