Lent 3: Even in the rubble

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making 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. He told those who were selling the doves, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for your house will consume me." The Jews then said to him, "What sign can you show us for doing this?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The Jews then said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?" But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After 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.(John 2:13-22)
Every preschool class has one. That kid who takes a certain amount of glee in destruction. That kid who sits quietly, patiently, waiting for others to construct precious towers out of building blocks, and once they have finished, comes over to kick them or tip them over or crash them down. His close cousin is the kid on the beach who smashes your sand castle when your back is turned, and his adolescent counterpart is that kid every Halloween who smashes the jack-o-lantern that you worked so hard to carve.

At first glance, Jesus seems to be “that kid” in today’s gospel. All of the qualities that we usually associate with Jesus – peace, compassion, forgiveness, humility – all fly out the window as we watch him turn over tables and scatter money, tipping over animal cages and shouting at people while swinging a whip.

Instead of calm, collected “love your neighbor” Jesus, we get angry Jesus on an impassioned march through the temple courtyard. Like the crowds of bystanders who undoubtedly cleared themselves out of the area, this gospel leaves us backing away to observe the scene from a safe distance.

From this safe distance, we watch as the last tables fall over and the last coins roll across the ground and the last dove or two flutter away. Shock and quiet begin to replace the chaos, the religious leaders murmur amongst themselves about who will be the first to question Jesus about what on earth just happened, and as the dust settles, we see Jesus, standing tall in the midst of overturned tables and litter and rubble, his shoulders relaxing and his whip of cords laying down beside him as it drops to the ground. As the air clears, we see Jesus with greater and greater focus, standing in such a way as to cast a long shadow across the temple wall. In the midst of the courtyard rubble, Jesus stands alone and all eyes are on him.

This account of Jesus turning over tables in the courtyard shows up in all of our gospels. In three of the gospel accounts – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – this incident in the courtyard happens near the end of Jesus’ ministry, after he has entered Jerusalem heralded by palms and waving crowds.

But John, in his gospel, puts this table-turning incident near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. And so in John’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t clear the temple courtyard because of corrupt merchants or dishonest business practices. It’s not a matter of what should or shouldn’t be happening in the temple courtyard, or about the right and wrong way to sell people animals for their temple sacrifices.

In John’s gospel, Jesus turns over tables to make the explicit point that he is the new temple, the new center of worship and reconciliation with the God who had both given them the law and had promised them salvation. John puts this event at the beginning of his story to make the theological point that Jesus is the heart of God’s grace and salvation, and that no temple of human construct can compare to the uninhibited love and power of Jesus Christ, the Word-made-flesh, the Son of God.

We’re missing the point if we read today’s gospel and find there only an angry bully Jesus knocking over sand castles outside the temple. Because the gospel isn’t about whether Jesus did or didn’t, should or shouldn’t have knocked over all the tables. It’s about Jesus, standing strong, even after all of the tables have been turned over.

We all know how easy it is to construct temples and build up bustling courtyards in our lives. Our temples and our courtyards are the plans that we make and the expectations that we have about how our lives should unfold. It is part of the yearnings of our human souls to want safety and security, stable routines and hopeful futures, well-planned dreams and smooth roads for ourselves and our families. And when life is going well, it is easy to see that God is here, among us, happy to dwell in our own temples and courtyards.

But what, then, when the tables start to tip over and the temple walls start to crack?
In the last weeks, we’ve mourned school shootings in Ohio and continued violence in Syria. We have watched storms and tornadoes reduce communities to rubble. We have seen people shaken by shock and fear and tragic loss. Where is God when our sense of security is shaken?

During these first weeks of March, we have celebrated the World Day of Prayer and International Women’s Day. These days asked us to pray about injustice, oppression, and need across the globe. Where is God when the foundations of human dignity are trembling?

If you have ever used the phrase “my world came crashing down around me” or the expression “my life is in shambles,” then you too know what it is like to stand in the aftermath of the temple courtyard, when everything has been knocked over and torn down and scattered at your feet. And where is God when your hopes and expectations and plans have crumbled or fallen to the ground?

John’s gospel tells us the good news: when all of our tables have been turned over, Jesus is standing right there in the middle of it. He is strength in our weakness and wisdom in our folly and comfort in our distress.

Two Thursdays ago, our confirmation students pondered the question “Why did Jesus go to hell?” in order to explore more deeply the line in the Apostles’ Creed that says, “he was crucified, died and was buried; he descended to the dead.” A significant message from that lesson was the idea that Jesus entered so fully into our human existence that he didn’t just experience the good parts of human life, but also the horrible, terrible, hellish parts of human life. And he did this so that we might never be left alone or think that God is absent even in the rubble of our lives.

They made posters that night, collages of newspaper clippings that bore stories of bad news. After the glue had dried, they looked through those stories to identify where God could be found, even in the midst of tragedy or disaster. They circled and underlined places where they saw God at work.

Then, they turned to the back of their workbooks (“Anti-Workbooks,” actually!) where they found an entire page of stickers shaped like arrows. Each arrow was printed with the words, “God is here.” They stuck these stickers on the news stories on their posters as a visible reminder of the way that God sticks with us, even through the worst of the worst parts of life.

If you had a page of “God is here” stickers, where might you stick them? On an overwhelming page of medical bills? On a rejection letter from your top-choice college or your dream job? On a foreclosure notice? On the mirror in your bedroom where you look at yourself and believe that you don’t measure up? On the gravestone of a loved one? Or even on your shirt, right over your own doubting or breaking heart?

God is present to us when good stuff happens, certainly, but God is no less present to us when our world is falling down around us.

Hear the good news, my friends: No matter where your world might be crumbling, God is there. No matter what pain you bear, Christ has gone to the cross that your pain might yet be redeemed. No matter what dust covers your soul, God has washed you in the waters of baptism and brought you over from death to life.

So wherever your temple walls seem secure, rejoice, and praise God for all of his blessings. But wherever your temple walls seem weak or crumbly, take heart. For even in the ruins, Jesus stands as our new and living temple, stretching out his hand through the dust, reaching out to you with hope and saying to you, “God is here, even in the mess, for I promise that I will be with you, even now, even later, even to the end of the age.”

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