Texts: Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
According to John’s gospel, it’s nearly Passover—one of the biggest holidays on the Jewish calendar. At Passover, the law dictates that certain sacrifices must be made. The people do this because, at the first Passover, God (through Moses) told everyone that this is how they should observe this festival every year. I just want to reiterate that: they are doing this because God told them to.
In order for this system to work, people need access to livestock. 1000 years earlier, when many people still kept a few sheep or goats or chickens around, this meant taking what they already had; but now, things are different. People living in a city or town where they make a living as servants, laborers, craftsmen, merchants, traders or something similar still have to get their sacrificial animals somewhere. It’s not that different from today: how many of you have livestock that you could sacrifice?
Additionally, there is a law (the second commandment, in fact) that forbids graven images. All the Roman coins had the graven image of Caesar proclaiming him a god on them, so they could not be used in the temple. So, the money had to be changed. Again, this is something that God has told them not to do. Somebody has to do this.
The point I’m making is that the business set up in the temple courts is not a racket: it is the necessary mechanism for fulfilling the laws that God gave the people. Without the livestock sellers and money changers, Passover doesn’t happen. In fact, nothing happens. No sacrifices, no priestly duties, no worship. When Jesus comes in with his whip, he is not cleansing the temple: he is destroying it, as surely as if he were pulling the walls down. Now you can see why the authorities got so upset and asked on what authority he was shutting down the legitimate, proper, divinely ordained functioning of God’s house.
Jesus did this not because business around the worship was corrupt, but because the worship itself—based on the laws given by God to Moses—was corrupt. What God intended to be a way to tend and maintain a relationship with God’s people had become simply another economic transaction, regardless of whether or not any money changed hands. Worship of God had itself become a tax, something that people had to do. God had been reduced to a cosmic vending machine: put in a quarter, get a piece of candy; put in the blood of a lamb, get some forgiveness.
None of this is to say that Jewish worship was or is misguided or wrong. This system as it was originally intended was, after all, instituted by God. The problem that Jesus is trying to point out is that as times change, so do laws. Laws become obsolete—including God’s laws. The laws given to Israel in the wilderness were nothing short of a gift from God; a gift that gave a refugee people wandering homeless in the wilderness a structure and an identity, and a purpose. Those laws helped form them into the people they are. As Protestant Christians, we don't get what that gift means. We never wandered the wilderness alone and afraid. We tend to view the law as a burden, but Jews do not adhere to those laws not out of obligation; they keep the law out of joy and love. Keeping the law is a spiritual discipline like prayer or fasting. The point of the story is that, like prayer or fasting, the law alone cannot put us in right relationship with God. It is a mistake to think that Jesus’ action in the temple is a criticism only of Jews or Jewish worship—it is a criticism of all human worship. Just as at the temple in Jerusalem, we so often end up worshiping the gifts rather than the giver.
When Jesus challenges the authorities to destroy the temple so he can raise it up, he is talking about both the physical building as well as his own body. He is making it known that God does not live in a house of rules, but here among us. Rules, like the people that make them and the people that follow them, are mortal; eventually the time comes for them to die. God is greater than rules or guidelines or principles, and so, as helpful as those things might be, we need to understand that we cannot legislate our way to God. There can be no set of rules that is complete enough to bring us to God.
For us as rational people, that is really hard to accept. We like things that make sense, and rules make sense. If I know exactly what is required of me, I can do it. As much as we may wish to deny it, we are people who prefer the simplicity of the 5-step sinner’s prayer to the complexity of the gospel because at least we know what we need to do.
Paul writes, “In God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom.” In other words, we can’t reason or legislate our way to God. Neither our “inexplicably complex” biological structures nor the existence of a conscience or of “natural laws” that are common across different cultures are evidence of God’s existence or nonexistence. Paul continues, “Because of that, God decided to save people not through wisdom, but through trust; trust, of all things, in the foolishness of the what we preach: the gospel.”
The gospel doesn’t make any sense. It says that God’s salvation is for the whole world, not just a handful of deserving people, or the small segment of the global population that happens to believe the “correct” thing about God. If we can bring ourselves to trust against all better judgment in the idiocy of God’s stupid, irrational, prodigal love, then we will begin to understand what salvation really is.
The law is good for what the law is good for. Law keeps order, gives us direction, keeps us from killing one another, intentionally or unintentionally. But law cannot bring us closer to God. Laws cannot make us better people; morality cannot be achieved through legislation. Only God can help us be better than we are. Where we might expect or wish for God to show God’s power and strength by eradicating evil desires from human hearts once and for all, God instead does the stupid and loving thing by instead dying on a cross. God instead shows us how to overcome the evil within ourselves by dying and demonstrating once and for all that God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
Like laws, temple, worship, and piety are good for what they are good for; but if we ever fall into the trap of thinking that they make us closer or further from God, we are missing the boat. God does not live in those things, but in Jesus, the crucified and resurrected. God is most present among us in our weakest, most vulnerable moments, not in our strength, not in our wisdom, not in our victory. God shows up on the cross: in defeat. Jesus bears witness to the idiocy and feebleness of God, crucified by the very people whom God loves, and yet through which God’s brilliance and power shine forth.
We gather here to feast on the lunacy of God, to drink our fill of God’s frailty. In this meal, we consume God’s biggest blunder—the incarnate body of Jesus—and we taste and see that even God’s biggest blunder is still God’s greatest victory. This is a God who cannot be bought off by legalism and obedience, but instead loves us rampantly even in our active rebellion, to the point of dying for us. We can’t buy God off because what we want from God, God already freely gives us.
God knows that we like logic and reason, but God also knows we are not nearly as good at it as we think we are. God knows we like shows of force and displays of power, but God also knows that there’s always somebody with a bigger gun. And so, God chooses to be present with us not in wisdom and power, but in weakness and foolishness because those things are universal, and so that is where God meets us. God knows that this way, we can never be separated from God. We follow and proclaim Christ crucified and resurrected: weakness to the strong, nonsense to the rational; but to those of us who have been called—those of us who have met Jesus on the cross—it is Christ the power of God and Christ the brilliance of God.