Temple Tantrum 03/04/18 (Lent 3)

Temple Tantrum
Texts: Psalm 69; John 2:13-22
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
March 4, 2018 ~ Third Sunday of Lent


On a Friday morning in January several years ago, hundreds of people moved through a bustling Washington D.C. Metro station at the peak of rush hour. As they hurried to meet their trains or headed out to the street to make it to work on time, they passed by a man with an open violin case in front of him. As he played his fiddle for the passersby, he was mostly ignored. A couple of dozen people threw money into the violin case as they sped past. Perhaps half a dozen stayed for a minute or two before moving on. When the violinist ceased playing, he had collected a total of $32.17. [1]

All of those people had no idea: the violinist was world-renowned Joshua Bell. They didn’t recognize him, so they didn’t know that the guy playing the fiddle, dressed in a t-shirt and baseball cap, had played to a full Symphony Hall in Boston only three days earlier, where the “merely pretty good seats” cost $100 apiece. They didn’t know that the man standing there with a fiddle in his hand was one of the most acclaimed musicians of our time.

They didn’t know that the man who looked just like any other street musician was playing “one of the most difficult and intricate pieces ever composed for the violin, and he played it with not only the world-class skill that Mr. Bell possesses but he played it on a Stradivarius violin worth $3.5 million.” [2]

And if only they’d been able to quiet the distractions in their minds, the noise in their spirits, and raised their eyes; if only they’d opened their ears and paused for just a moment, they could have heard that exquisite piece of music played by an unmatched master on an exceptional instrument for the low, low cost of being a few minutes late to their next appointment.

What beauty, what surprises, what gifts do we miss as we move through our lives, caught up in the hustle and bustle or, alternatively, as we wander in a fog, numbed by routine and boredom?

What glory is available to us, if we but take a moment to notice?

The Temple in Jerusalem was a hive of activity on that day when Jesus and his disciples approached it. The Passover was about to begin, and faithful Jews had traveled from places near and far to observe the holy days in communal worship. Doves and pigeons squawked from their cages; cattle lowed and sheep bleated. Merchants shouted as they attempted to outsell one another; patrons raised their voices to barter for the best deals. Money changers quibbled over exchange rates. Children shouted and ran around; frazzled and tired pilgrims tried to keep track of them while they conducted their Temple business. Priests and temple authorities mixed with the throngs healthy young adults, feeble elders, boisterous children, infirm seekers, the resolutely pious and the quietly reverent.

It was, in a word, chaotic. It was also, in another word, normal.

This was simply what the Temple was like, especially during the Holy Festival of Passover. It’s hard for us to understand – and even harder for many of us to respect – a religion that required annual sacrifice as an integral part of worship. But in Jesus’ day, such things were just a routine part of a religiously-lived life. Since animals that were offered for sacrifice had to be perfect and without blemish, most pilgrims purchased animals once they arrived at the Temple. After all, any animal that had to travel long distances would look just as worn out and risk as many minor injuries as the humans with whom they traveled. Those who couldn’t afford the larger animals – the cattle or sheep – would purchase doves or pigeons; you may remember that we hear in the Gospel of Luke that Jesus’ parents made just such an avian sacrifice when he was dedicated at the Temple in his babyhood. The buying and selling of animals and birds was a necessary part of worship at the Temple; there was just no way around it.

The changing of money was also necessary. Worshipers had to pay a Temple tax, but it wasn’t as straightforward as throwing some money in the basket. The coins used in everyday life bore images of Caesar, but any coins given in a sacred setting had to be free of images. Pilgrims had to exchange their secular money, therefore, for what we might call “sacred money.”

But when Jesus walks into this chaotic and utterly normal scene, he throws what we might call a temple tantrum.

Making a whip of cords, he drives the sheep and the cattle out of the temple. He dumps out the baskets and bowls of money and overturns the tables of the moneychangers. He hollers at the people selling doves. If you look at the depictions of this scene that have been portrayed by artists throughout the centuries, such as this one [below] by the seventeenth-century Italian artist Bernardino Mei, you’ll find that Jesus is almost always frenzied-looking; his arm is drawn back with a whip ready to strike; tables are overturned and people are running or have fallen to the ground; animals stampede past; and Jesus is almost always wearing a red tunic: red, the color of rage.

But if this is such a normal scene, if this is exactly what is to be expected on any given day at the Temple, why is Jesus so furious? Why does he tell them to “stop making [his] Father’s house a marketplace” when a marketplace is precisely what is required for temple worship?

Jesus is not, as scholar Karoline Lewis has said, “quibbling about maleficence or mismanagement” (which is what he seems to be doing in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s accounts). Rather, Lewis says, in the Gospel of John “[Jesus] calls for a complete dismantling of the entire system. Underneath this critique lies also the intimation that the temple itself is not necessary.” [3] Or, in the words of another scholar:


[With] Jesus on the scene – the one who embodies abundance having just taken the waters of purification (also no longer needed) and turned them instead into the wine of celebration [at the wedding in Cana] – there is no need for changing money, for purchasing animals, for making sacrifice…at all or ever again.

Indeed, it may be that [Jesus, through the voice of] John the Evangelist is going so far as to say…that they do not need the Temple at all. Why? Because Jesus’ body – his physical incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and gift of the Holy Spirit – was sufficient and is sufficient to mediate God’s grace and mercy. Jesus is the one who introduces us to the parental heart of God, the one who makes the unknowable God knowable and approachable. Then…ever since…and still today. [4]

The Temple was, truly, glorious. Perhaps not quite as glorious as Solomon’s Temple had been, but grand and mind-boggling nonetheless. It was so easy to be distracted by its glory. But that glory is not the glory Jesus wants the disciples, the priests, the marketeers, and all the faithful to see.

Jesus wants them to see the glory of God. Jesus wants them to raise their eyes away from the chaotic scene before them and see God. He wants them to recognize that God was – that God is – all around them. And as Jesus wants it for those earliest disciples, so too does he want it for us. And yet, much as the commuters in that Washington D.C. Metro station were so consumed by their own agendas and business that they didn’t recognize a master musician in their midst, we often miss God.

Jesus so wants them to recognize God that he gives them sign upon sign. He offers them encounters with the Divine in the turning of water into wine…in the healing of the man born blind…in the raising of Lazarus…and even in a loaf of bread and a cup of wine.

This reminds me of a story from one of my other sacred texts: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which is the third book in the Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis.

If you remember, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the four Penvensie children travel from war-torn London to Narnia and there meet the great lion (and Christ-figure), Aslan, and with his help defeat the White Witch who holds Narnia captive in a perpetual winter. In the second book, the children travel back to assist Prince Caspian in obtaining his rightful throne, and at the end of that book Aslan tells the two older children, Peter and Susan, that they will not return to Narnia.

Now, at the end of the third book, Aslan meets Lucy and Edmund at the edge of the Eastern Sea and tells them the same, 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. [5]

We often think of church as a destination: we come here once a week to worship God, to find God in prayer and scripture and sermon, to hear God in anthems and songs, to sense God in the quiet spaces between the words and music. And all of that is, of course – and hopefully! – true. But that’s not all. Maybe, like the worshipers at the Temple, and maybe like Lucy in Narnia, Jesus would like to send us from the church and out into the world where we can encounter God in every moment of every day with all people in every place. Maybe Jesus would love for us to be so consumed by zeal for God that we can’t help but find God everywhere.

So let’s start here, at this Table. Let’s meet Jesus in the bread and cup. And when we leave this place, let’s keep recognizing God, glory upon glory, all around us.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Gene Weingarten, “Pearls Before Breakfast: Can one of the nation’s greatest musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour? Let’s find out.” The Washington Post, 8 April 2017.

[2] Scott Hoezee, “The Lectionary Gospel – John 2:13-22,” The Center for Excellence in Preaching, 2018. My thanks to Rev. Hoezee for this illustration.

[3] Karoline Lewis, “John 2:13-22,” at workingpreacher.org. 2015.

[4] David J. Lose, “Lent 3B: A Thin Place Every Place.” 2 March 2018.

[5] Summary as written by David J. Lose, “Lent 3B: Igniting Centrifugal Force.” 2 March 2015.

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