A banal overturning of tables

Week of March Sunday 8 – Lent 3
Gospel: John 2:13-25

13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. 15Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ 17His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’18The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’19Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ 20The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After 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.

23 When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. 24But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people25and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written,
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
   and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ 
20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’

Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ John's straw Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?' Like Nicodemus (3:2) they are travelling in the dark. They don't get it. They don't see that God does not reside in a building, in something we have constructed. The living God is more than this. God is embodied in the person of Jesus.

So we, secure in our Christian insight which is greater than the Jews', think we are in the right place. But John's gospel, despite its lamentable stereotyping of Jewish people, has a way of coming back to bite us when we relax into our Christian superiority. Already, by the time John is writing, the Temple has been destroyed. The very people John scorns have already learned that God was not restricted to the temple and its cult. For they are still Jews, still worshipping God, still meeting God— and still here!

But we Christians, knowing we are right— and we are— in Jesus we meet God— have gone about building our own theology, our own temples, blind to the fact that God is not bound or restricted to that which we build. We sometimes sit in our Sunday Temples every bit as trapped and blind as those who did not recognise the sign of God come into their midst when he overturned the tables.

In the drama of the other three Gospels, this event in the temple is perhaps the final trigger for Jesus' arrest and execution. In John it is placed at the beginning; it sets the scene. In Mark we have seen the build up to the last verses of Chapter 8 where it is definitively stated that he is Messiah, and then the long learning of what it means to be Messiah, and to follow him, begins. But in John we are told at the beginning,

God’s temple will be no more. Instead we will have Jesus as the one in whom we find God. [John] 4:19-26 effectively says the same thing: only one sacred site: Jesus. (Bill Loader)

Jesus is not quibbling about maleficence or mismanagement but calls for a complete dismantling of the entire system. Underneath this critique lies also the intimation that the temple itself is not necessary. At the center of such theological statements is the fundamental question of God’s location, which will be confirmed in the dialogue between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. (Karoline Lewis)

Everything is new wine. Everything we read is to be read in light of the end of sacred sites. God will be found in Jesus.

Read the whole of Nancy Rockwell's article, The Things We Do for Love.  Here is a little of it as she explores people's interpretations of the temple incident.

Left out of these considerations is Jesus’ frustration with public piety, and especially with the pious rituals of worship.  He tells the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee at worship as a clear illustration of his objections:  in the Pharisee the rituals of worship are ingrained... the tax collector, ignorant and unpracticed, (sic) pours out his heart earnestly …

At the Temple, the atmosphere is entirely devoted to ritual observances, and not at all to ‘rending your heart and not your garments’, not at all to profound repentance and rededication of heart and mind to God.  The substitutionary offering of an animal (small or large depended on your income, not your sins) and the obligatory gifts of money were, for the thousands who came on these holidays, the heart and the whole of their participation, except for singing and listening and saying Amen…

She is wrong of course. Many came rending hearts and not garments. But the stereotype is that John presents to us. And it bites us— it is a rhetorical sting operation— because

High or low church, our habits tend to be ritualistic, and we solicit ceremonial money just as they did in the ancient Temple.   Yes, we receive the sacrament that comes from God at the Table, not a sacrifice of our own making.  But the table also holds our offerings:  money, pledges, prayer shawls, Third Grade Bibles, memorial flowers, food for pantries, Christmas gifts for the needy, so many things we believe will please God and for which we want to be given recognition.

And money does change hands in our parish halls in ways that support our ritual life:  Fairs, suppers, SERRV goods, Fair Trade coffee, are hallmarks of churches everywhere... (my italics)

How are we different from the Jews in the temple that day? Dare we think that because we use the name "Christian" that we are any less vulnerable to not recognising the sign of God come into our midst? Where is the Christ in our Christ-ian church? Are we recognising him?

In my congregation we are deep in a struggle to survive. We have plans and strategies under development. They are well thought out. They are based in good sense, in good theology, and are drawn from the wisdom of churches who have survived similar crises; they appeal to our God-grown compassion; we pray over them.

On paper these strategies are wise, and they will work. Except that they are a Temple. They are our wisdom about God rather than God's "come among us." Unless we allow Jesus to enter the new temple we have drawn up and turn over its tables and point us to where he is standing at the moment, our new temple will be no more house of God than the one in which we currently worship.

In our current rituals there is deep love of God. There is heart rending dedication to God, and to the service of God, and to the love of all God's people on earth. But there is something unbending about them which we cannot see, for all our trying; something to which we are blind. Like the Jerusalem temple which was compromised by Rome, and by rote ritual, and was being abandoned by the Essenes and others, there is something in what we do, or how we do, that means the people around us do not see God among us. We need our tables turned over.

Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed—a table turning of the worst kind— but faithful meeting and serving of God went on in Judaism, and in Christianity, without the Temple. That same faithful meeting and serving of God could also go on without our little building and our little congregation. Yet this is only inevitable if we insist on our own wisdom, and insist of our current way of doing things. It is only inevitable if we insist that we build the temple.

What am I feeling my way towards? (Understand this is all exploration, and not at all a preaching from experience!)

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written,
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
   and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ 
20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

How stupid to think, how foolish to believe, that an ancient crucified Jew could bring us the wisdom of God, or could bring us a new way of being church, which would speak to our time and to our suburb. How foolish to think that we who are habituated over many decades— half a century all of us— could be changed so that the power of God was shown in us in a new way which spoke to the people around us. How foolish— how stupid!—to think that a way of being, based around compassion and service and being gentle, instead of hardnosed getting ahead, would be full of power and could be a reflection of the basis of the universe. Yet this is what Paul witnesses to us.

Perhaps by the time you read this, Andrew Chan will have been executed. But "After six years of study, and even more time tending to the drug addicted and damaged, Chan's ordination took place just days after he received an official letter confirming his plea for clemency had been rejected by Indonesian president Joko Widodo." What foolishness.

And how banal! Tending to the drug addicted and damaged in a prison… mopping up vomit and listening to the same old excuses… where he is a prisoner under a death sentence, and a pawn in the tit for tat power politics and prideful posturings between Indonesia and Australia. Yet the same article says

Several current and former inmates of Kerobokan have offered to replace Chan and face the firing squad, such is the depth of feeling for his work running drug counselling courses and comforting the sick.

Christ the presence of God!

If we are still here in five years' time it will most likely be because of a foolish, banal wisdom; the acceptance of a table turning upheaval of our current way of being, in which by ordinary simple actions— often banal— we recognise Jesus in our midst when hope is apparently lost.

I do not know what these actions will be. I am sure that unless we let the tables be overturned, unless we seek a completely new way of being us, they will not happen.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.




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