A Sermon on John 2

Grace and peace to you! Thanks for your warm welcome this morning. As a member of the bishop’s staff, Sunday mornings are special because, I get to see the great gospel work our congregations are doing. We thank God for you.

I think we all know what’s happening later on this Sunday afternoon. It will probably involve prayer, too! I still can’t get over the last 10 seconds of last Sunday’s game, can you? This was the first football game I’ve watched in like, five years. I’m going to watch my second one later today. 😊

Here’s what stands out to me from last week: There are more than 60,000 screaming fans. They’re all wearing purple and gold. Some have faces painted. Grown men wear helmets with long yellow braids. No one is seated…too much adrenaline for that… So they stand and jump and imagine that they can help control what happens in the next 10 seconds by their decibel level and fervent prayers. The prayer goes like this, “Please, please, please, please….”

As amazing as that is, it goes beyond those who are in the stadium. The hopes and dreams of a million other people in front of their TVs rest on what happens next.

The focus rests on two people: The quarterback and the wide receiver. There are very large, incredibly strong human beings scrambling on the field who want to stop you—even hurt you –but the quarterback and wide receiver aren’t distracted – they have super-human, single-minded focus on something else…simply passing the ball and catching it.  If they allowed themselves to be distracted by the noise, or the burning hopes of an entire state, it would be paralyzing.

Now, let’s travel in our minds to ancient Jerusalem. The Passover was coming up, and it was a really big deal. Jesus and throngs of others, are making their way to the temple to remember how God rescued their people from slavery in Egypt. They’re getting ready to re-visit the great story of the 10 plagues, and the last one in particular — when God passed over the homes that had the blood of a lamb painted over the door – and visited horror upon homes that did not. This Pass-Over was the very thing that made it possible for the Hebrew people to flee their bondage and cross over the Red Sea into freedom.

We’ll remember the last 10 seconds of last week’s game for a long time, but God’s people have been remembering how God rescued them by celebrating Passover for thousands of years.

People from all over Israel are making their way to the temple in Jerusalem to. It’s hard for us to imagine having to travel to just one house of worship, when we have churches every few blocks. But there was one temple. And inside this one temple, deep inside the inner sanctuary, behind a heavy curtain, was the holy of holies, where the presence of God chose to dwell. One God, in one place. If you want to be near the presence of God, you go to the temple.

The people at the temple have everything ready. It would have been impossible for out-of-towers to bring their own animals for sacrifice, so conveniently, there were people there ready to sell cattle, and sheep and doves. This was also a time for God’s people to pay their temple tax. But it would be bad form to pay the temple tax with a Roman coin that bore the image of Caesar. So, conveniently, there were money changers who would gladly exchange your Roman coin for temple-approved currency, and of course, make a little profit in the process.

This was a massive, finely tuned system to help God’s people participate in the religious rituals of sacrifice. You sacrifice an animal or a dove to atone for your sins and seek God’s favor. This system had gone on for centuries.

 

So, one day, right before Passover, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem. He arrives at the temple and sees all the people selling all the things. Imagine the scene: Crowds of people, and cattle and sheep in stalls, and doves in cages, and people seated at tables, ready to change your money. The massive, finely tuned sacrificial system at work, just as it has been for as long as anyone can remember.

And Jesus gets mad.

He makes a whip out of cords and drives the sheep and the cattle out of the temple, and they go running off in all directions. He marches up to the tables of the money-changers and pours out the coins, turning them into rushing metallic rivers as they fall to the ground.

What’s going on? These people are here to help God’s people – be religious. To do the acts of sacrifice needed to make things right with God. Why in the world is Jesus angry? And I wonder: If Jesus came to our churches today, would he be angry at the things we’re doing and the things we assume are good? Even moreso, can we even handle the idea of a Jesus who gets angry?

I was with some good people at a church in Edina this week, and one man said, “I don’t think Jesus was angry. Look at the word zeal in verse 17. I think he was filled with zeal, not anger.” All over Facebook this week, pastors from around the country are fussing with this idea that Jesus was enraged. There’s this idea that anger is somehow – not nice.

Here’s what I’m thinking about this week: What if anger is a result of fierce love?

Jesus came to us with an incredible, single-minded focus. To show us God’s love. And for that to happen, my brothers and sisters, he needs to confront systems. Lots of them. Starting with the system of sacrifice. Here’s the thing. In today’s story, Jesus isn’t just turning over tables, he’s turning over the system of how we relate to God. Over are the days when we need to make a sacrifice on an altar to get into a right relationship with God. If you listen to the prophets, maybe those days never existed in the first place. The prophet Micah asked, “With what will I come before the Lord? And bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?” Then he reminds us: “God has told you, O mortal, what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God?”

Waving a whip made of cords, and pouring out bags full of coins, and turning tables upside down, Jesus is replacing the atoning sacrifice system with a new one: A system of liberating love. Love system that frees us from needing to try to earn God’s approval, and instead starts out by declaring that you are a beloved child of God. Period. Now that you don’t have to worry about making God happy, you can worry about the happiness of your neighbor. Which sometimes means questioning systems. Sometimes means paying attention to what makes you angry and doing something about it.

Because if you love someone, don’t you get angry when systems are set up against them? Don’t you get angry when kids at the school down the street get hungry on the weekends? Don’t you get angry when human resources rejects the resume for Demontre, but calls Danny for an interview? Don’t you get angry when 63 percent of women have to endure harassment at work? Don’t you get angry when hundreds of thousands of refugees are blocked from finding a new life in a new land?

Because if Jesus has shown us anything about God our holy parent, it’s that God has a single-minded focus: Love and justice for all of God’s children. All of them. It wouldn’t be love and justice if God just shrugged her shoulders and said, “Well, I guess that’s how the system works.”

Nope. Jesus has turned the tables and shown us a radically upside-down way of looking at the world. Hang onto your seat. Who knows where following Jesus will take us next?

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The Rev. Deb Stehlin began her career in corporate public relations, and was Director of Communications for International Dairy Queen. She discovered grace when a friend invited her to Oak Grove Lutheran Church, Richfield, where she eventually served as Christian education director. That led her to Luther Seminary, where she received her M. Div. degree in 2003. Her first call was to Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, Apple Valley, where she concentrated her efforts on social justice and confirmation ministry. In 2007, Shepherd of the Valley sent her out to start a new mission church, Light of the World Lutheran Church, Farmington. As Director of Evangelical Mission, Deb works with new and renewing congregations and is a resource to all congregations who seek to learn new ways of being in mission.

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