A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Lent 2 ~ John 2:13-22
Scripture passages like today’s are sometimes tricky because the story is really familiar for those of us who’ve been hanging around churches for a long time but the details really can change the way we might interpret it. In Mark, Matthew, and Luke Jesus enters Jerusalem at the start of what we now call Holy Week. The week that he is crucified in. The end of his physical ministry and life.
But the timeline in the gospel of John is dramatically different. In John, Jesus goes into Jerusalem, enters the temple, causes a major scene by wrecking the joint, and has an argument with the Jewish leaders. And this all happens in chapter 2 – at the very beginning of his ministry. Not the end.
Our standard interpretive take is that when Jesus clears the Temple of the money-changers it’s the last straw and leads directly to his arrest and execution. Indeed, if someone came in here some Sunday and started flipping over tables and chasing people around with a whip it would more than likely provoke an arrest! (hopefully not an execution!)
But in John it happens at the beginning. Very weird.
And that time change is really significant for us in shaping our interpretation. So it’s good that we might know the story – but don’t assume the story is precisely how you think you know it!
Let’s review the details.
John’s gospel starts with a cosmic nativity about how Jesus is the Word, then John the Baptizer does his thing, then John more or less sends his disciples to be Jesus’ disciples, then they all attend a wedding in Cana and Jesus does his water into wine thing as his first act of public ministry.
And then the very next thing that happens is the clearing of the Temple. It really is at the very beginning of his ministry according to John’s gospel.
Jesus enters the Temple, sees the marketplace, makes a whip, drives out the people, flips tables, pours coins on the floor, and singles out the dove sellers for some reason and tells them to stop turning his Father’s house into a marketplace (literally the word means emporium).
Well, as you can imagine, this made quite an impression on Jesus’ brand new disciples! Remember, they’d only been with him a couple of days according to John’s timeline! And here he is, first time in the Temple with them, the holiest place on earth for Jewish people, and Jesus goes ballistic! Can you imagine?!
But it’s their reaction that is utterly fascinating!
John 2:17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
Where was that written? It’s from Psalm 69:9. It’s a psalm about how living your faith with your whole heart and soul can bring challenges, and pushback, and insults, and mocking, and trouble.
If you live your faith out loud people will notice, and they might be put off if they don’t understand.
Zeal is a great word!
Zeal means eagerness, enthusiasm, passion.
The Hebrew word from the psalm literally means ‘hot enough to boil’.
Isn’t that awesome? To be so passionate that you’re boiling over with enthusiasm – and enthusiasm, by the way, means to be filled with God.
His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
So does that mean that Jesus’ zeal for God’s Temple will eat him up? – or might it mean that it will so impassion him that his spirituality and worship and prayer fills his every moment and empowers him to act justly? The latter sounds about right to me.
Then comes the pushback.
John 2:18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”
Such a weird line. As if they’d say this! Jesus has just wrecked the joint and they ask what sign, or miraculous indication, he has for doing it. It’s less strange when you remember that John’s gospel is all about signs and wonders designed to dazzle and persuade you.
So Jesus gives them a sign – well, it’s more of a mental image – and it blows their minds!
John 2:19-20 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
The Jews then said (in a colossal example of completely missing the point!), “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”
And then the narrator comes and does something remarkable. The narrator tells us the end of the story.
John 2:21-22 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
There’s a lot of really great stuff in here, but I only have time to dig into one part of it.
I invite you to try to hear this through the ears of John’s original audience in the 0090s.
Their Temple had been destroyed two decades ago.
There was no Temple anymore.
There was no sacrificial system anymore.
John was written by and for a Jewish community trying to figure out how to do faith without the Temple. So you could imagine that John’s audience would have heard it like this:
The Romans destroyed the Temple, but God raised up a new kind of temple – in 3 days!!!! – so it’s a reimagining of how worship and faith might be done differently.
v.22 – and after he was raised from the dead they remembered. The big reveal here is that the Resurrection is assumed and known from the beginning in John’s gospel. The story doesn’t unfold as a surprise to the reader. The reader/audience knows the ending from the start and is asked to clue in to all the signs, and comments, and pieces. So Jesus saying the temple will be raised in three days isn’t foreshadowing something we don’t yet know, it’s reminding us of something we already DO know. And we’re invited to see it all through Resurrection eyes.
Here we are a couple of thousand years later, fully ensconced in a new system that the followers of Jesus eventually set up, and we get to look at this passage through Resurrection eyes too.
We’re in Lent, but we know that Easter is just around the corner. The author of John’s gospel has just given us a direct resurrection reference – in chapter 2 verse 22 – so we probably shouldn’t be focusing on what this passage means to Jesus and his journey toward his cross – we should probably focus on what John is trying to tell us about Jesus and his way (which means our way) and what we might learn from what he did here and why he did it.
I’m saying that in John this story functions completely differently than in the other gospels, although it’s obviously related.
It’s not meant to set up Jesus’ end – it’s meant to show us Jesus’ character.
It’s meant to teach us about deep spiritual integrity.
Integrity means putting your money where your mouth is.
Integrity is practicing what you preach.
Standing up for your faith brings consequences. If you’re going to be a person of faith you’re going to have to have the courage of your convictions.
Jesus has zeal. He’s not tepid or lukewarm. He’s boiling over with passion for what’s right.
And he’s showing us that it’s not ok to sit on the sidelines and do nothing when you know something is wrong. That’s why the United Church speaks so often about justice issues. That’s why we find ourselves ahead of the curve sometimes because we’re championing a cause that the rest of the culture hasn’t tuned into or caught up to yet.
We ordained women decades before others did.
We embraced the full participation in the life and work of the church for LGBT people and were at the forefront of equal marriage.
We apologized for our part in colonialism and residential schools and are working hard at ongoing reconciliation with indigenous people.
All of these things are hard.
All of these things cost us.
All of these things require the courage of our convictions.
And all of these things are examples of the kind of integrity that being a follower of Jesus demands.
And maybe, hopefully, one day someone will look at us and say, “Zeal for their house consumed them.” – Their faith so impassioned them that their spirituality and worship and prayer filled their every moment, and moved them to live in love and justice and integrity.
What might your faith move you to do?