March 8, 2015
“When Jesus Got Angry”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” 20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
There has a debate on the internet about the color of a certain dress. Some people say that the dress is blue and black, and some people say that the dress is white and gold.
The New York Times article in the science section describes why this is so: “Our perception of color depends on interpreting the amount of light in a room or scene. When cues about the ambient light are missing, people may perceive the same color in different ways.”
Meaning that sometimes we can interpret the same scene in different ways depending on context.
So let’s take that idea and see if that can help us understand what is going on in our passage this morning.
We have no record of Jesus life from his early teens through his late twenties. But here’s what we know. We know that he was literate, he studied scripture with the teachers of the law.
We have this account of him in Luke’s gospel of when he was twelve years old, and we are told that every year his family made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.
Jesus gets left behind in Jerusalem after the festival is over and his panicked parents look for him for three days and finally find him in the temple, sitting among the teachers and asking them questions. When his parents questioned him, he says why were you anxious? Didn’t you know I would be in my father’s house?
Fast forward many years and Jesus has again returned to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival, as he would have done every year as a good Jew. But this time things are different. Something has changed. He has seen the money changers and the sellers of the animals before – he might have even used their services before. But this time he sees it differently.
It is helpful to know that the writer of the account, John, has placed this story of Jesus cleansing the temple at the very start of Jesus’ ministry. The other writers of the Jesus’ biographies place this event at the end, right before his arrest. In fact this is the event that tips the scales, that angers the religious leaders so much that they set out to arrest him and have him killed.
Not so with John, John tells us this story right after Jesus meets John the Baptist, and collects Peter and Andrew and Philip and Nathaniel. And directly after Jesus has performed his first miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana.
It is important to understand here that the writers of the gospels were writing to share about Jesus’ life not precisely as a history, though there is a lot of history in there, but as a statement of faith about Jesus Christ the savior of the world and God’s chosen one, the Messiah.
As a statement of faith, John is putting this account of the temple cleansing right at the beginning because he wants us, the reader, to understand how profoundly crucial this event was to Jesus’ understanding of who he was and what he was supposed to do. In John’s account it is not the temple cleansing that gets Jesus killed, it is raising Lazarus from the dead.
So if we understand that the temple cleansing is meant to tell us something truly important about Jesus’ identity then we need to look at it really carefully, and perhaps see the colors of it differently.
Jesus had been in the temple before, many times before, in fact, probably every year of his life. But this time, he knows his purpose. He walks into the temple, and it must have been grand. It doesn’t exist anymore. It was destroyed not long after Jesus’ death and resurrection, but it had been under construction for decades. It would have been massive to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who came into Jerusalem several times a year for the festivals.
What Jesus sees before him is the necessary means by which the pilgrims would have prepared for worshipping God.
The pilgrims would have traveled great distances and wouldn’t have brought with them the livestock needed for sacrifice, so they needed to purchase it when they arrived in Jerusalem.
The pilgrims would have come from all over, from regions that used different currencies, which would have need to be exchanged to pay the temple tax.
The animal sellers and money changers were essential parts of the temple worship.
It is very possible that the prices were inflated – that the system was unjust – that those who could not pay for sacrifices or who had no money for the tax could not worship in the temple.
Jesus sees all this with new eyes, because he knows now is the time, he knows what God intends for him and for the world. Jesus knows that because he is who he is, worship of God will completely change.
Change can be pretty dramatic, even terrifying. As terrifying as a man whipping men and beasts out of the temple, and over turning tables, scattering coins all over the floor.
Change like this looks like the temple veil, the cloth separating God from people being torn apart when Jesus is crucified. Change like this looks like God becoming a human being.
So was Jesus angry? The text doesn’t tell us but we can imagine him screaming and running and whipping and call that anger. But what if it was something different – the power and authority and strength of God setting the stage for monumental change.
C.S. Lewis aptly depicts Jesus as a lion in his fantasy series the Chronicles of Narnia – a lion who is king of the beasts and neither neat nor tame. When the children in the story ask if the lion Aslan is safe, they get the reply that of course he isn’t safe, but he is good.
So John would have us hear this story as a revolution. God isn’t just in this one place, and God isn’t only accessible to those who do the right things and who can afford it. Now we can get to God and God can get to us, and that is only because of Jesus Christ. This is the foundation of everything that Jesus will do. So we need to hear that too. God isn’t just right here, God is out there.
At the end of C. S. Lewis’ third book of his Narnia series, the Christ-figure Aslan the lion meets the children Lucy and Edmund at the edge of the Eastern Sea and tells them that this will be their last trip to Narnia. Lucy is distraught at the prospect of not seeing the beloved lion again, but he reassures her that she will see him in her own world.
When she is surprised that Aslan is present in her world, he tells her that the whole reason for bringing her to Narnia for a time was so that, coming to know him well here, she would recognize him more easily there, where he goes by a different name.
Jesus cleansing of the temple and the argument with the religious leaders that follows is essentially an argument about the location of God.
This is still what we need to hear. Where is God? Not just here. But out there. Not necessarily in one place, but everyplace in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the temple.
The point of the Christian faith is not to make you spend an hour in church on a Sunday morning. Here you experience God in worship and in spiritual friendships and in music and in scripture and sermon and in your Sunday school classes – so that, you recognize God out there. Sunday faith in your Monday world, and your Tuesday world, and your Wednesday world . . . . and on and on.