Sunday, February 1, 2015

Chapter 2: Old an New, part 2
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 25, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 2: 13-22
2 Samuel 7: 1-11

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 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. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 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. [1]

As we continue our journey through the Gospel of John, this week we take a look at the second half of chapter 2, where we see Jesus clearing out the Temple, causing those people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and also those money changers who it says were seated at tables. It is interesting that it doesn't tell us where the sheep and the cattle, and the doves were. It doesn't say, where there were men selling sheep closely shorn, standing in the corner, and the cattle who were walking around in circles, and the doves who were above on the rafters cooing so softly and praying for peace. I mean really, where else would the money changers be but sitting at tables!?! But I guess the detail is important because he needs tables to flip over, and it would be possible that we wouldn't know where the tables came from unless they had been mentioned here first. The details of this story are all really vivid. . . but the big question that we have is not about sheep and doves, but about why does John have this story so early in his gospel, when the other gospels place this story in Jesus' final week of ministry. The other gospels include this temple clearing out episode in the passion week stuff, occurring right after Jesus' triumphant, palm Sunday, donkey riding, Hosanna parade, like here he comes, we love him, but then he turned the tables in the temple, challenging the Man, a little too much, and he had to go, like Jesus' ministry was all building, all funneling towards this one watershed moment, where everything changed, but John doesn't place it at the end like the others, instead places this all important scene here up front at the beginning.
I didn't know why going in, to tell the truth I hadn't put much thought into it at all, but after studying this chapter the last two weeks I really have an idea now that makes sense to me, and it is a powerful, important message for the rest of the Gospel and its overarching purpose about Believing and Receiving, which is really cool, as if the Gospel writer was creating a work of meaningful work of literature, all working to convey a single salvational purpose. Last week we talked about the famous Wedding at Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine. We talked about a lot of things, but the most important, I thought was the idea of this being the start of a new covenant. Here you have, at a wedding, Jesus beginning his ministry with the first of the signs. And he turns what was the Sacramental Wines for the Jewish Rites of Purification, in other words the water that they used in the rite where they purified themselves, washing them clean from their sin. . . .and Jesus is transforming that water, not just any water, but that water, into wine. And we talked about how that is symbolic of a new covenant being formed, in Jesus' blood, significant to us, certainly on a day like today where we celebrate communion, and it happened as it specifically states on the third day, which is certainly representatively symbolic in its own right, and that it all took place at a wedding where, a man and a woman were being joined in a new covenant, a relationship of love moving forward from this day forward. There is just so much here that points us in the direction of a very new idea coming forward in this person of Jesus, of whom we are supposed to believe and receive according to John in Chapter 1. . .
But that isn't all that he says of Jesus in chapter 1, and this also comes through as very significant, it is there that John the Baptist has been baptizing sinners telling them to repent, but then he gets to baptize Jesus, and when he does he comes to know who Jesus is, and so therefore says, "Behold the Lamb of God." Now it just so happens that the breaking up of the temple takes place during Passover. And again we have more Jewish, Old Testament symbolic imagery, of the Old becoming New, because Passover of course is the Jewish observing of the night where the 10th plague was unleashed on Egypt, where the Angel of Death came and was ending the lives of all the first born. . . except those who had sacrificed a young lamb. . . a lamb who was perfect in several categories. . . from the lamb blood was to be put over the door, a sign to show the Angel to pass over that house. And in such you have Jesus who is that lamb, has shown himself to be creating a new covenant, has turned the old sacrificial waters into wine, or his blood, now heads into the Temple on a new passover to further extend the new covenant, and to reclaim and realign the old one. And just like the after the tenth plague when the Pharaoh relents and lets the people go, this lamb of God has set us free as well, but free from what. . . ?
He goes into the temple and challenges the status quo. He finds there as we have seen, business being taken place, but it is not his father's business, instead it is the business of the power brokers, it is the business of the world, it is the business of money changers and animal peddlers. But not only that, he challenges the Temple itself. It is possible that this house of God that they had built had become something very far away from God, and not just because of the money changers inside, possibly, but because what the temple can or should mean. Though meant to be positive and faithful houses for God, built in all piety and faith, Temples can also have as human history shows, two issues associated with them. The first one seems to be what is going on here, and that is when there just is no reverence for it . It is only a public forum, where the business of life gets taken care of. It isn't special, it isn't sacred, it isn't holy. It becomes merely a place for people to meet, a social club, a place for business. . . it happens quite often really,  but the other danger that temples can have is that they can take on too much importance, and become idolatrous, in that they become houses for the worship that you can see. . . and in such trap God in a place, in a system, in a narrow definition, a safe definition, a definition that keeps those powers that be in place, that they can wield to keep their control. There is a sense that though these two issues of the temple seem like opposites of each other, too much sanctity and not enough. . . in actuality, in real life, they are quite the same and connected. It all stems from human power, human agency, and in such human idolatry. If God is confined in a temple then humans can do what they want, and if God is ignored then humans can do what they want. Jesus is all about restoring, resurrecting and bringing people and the institutions they belong to through their restoring back to life, with new purpose, new relationship, new possibilities, all again apart of this new covenant idea. . . sealed in Jesus' blood.
In so we are set free. . .set free to begin again in relationship with God. That God can live everywhere and can pierce the walls of even the coldest of human hearts. The Prophet Jeremiah claimed that there would be a new covenant, and that this new covenant would be written on the hearts of the people, and that it would mean something more to us. . . that it could be a part of us, could be intimate with us, personal to us, and therefore defining of us, rather than being defined by us. All of the other covenants that were made, through Abraham and Moses, through David, even through Noah, were very personal, but to them and their descendant, them and their people, but this one breaks through entering each and every human heart that would begin to believe and receive. So we get the idea that the receiving has to do with having this covenant written on your heart, and that it is written on  your heart in some way, that we will find out later, but when it is it does the work of purifying, cleansing away your sin, and wiping the slate clean so that real, full and total relationship can emerge. The Lamb of God does this for us. . . it protects us from harm, and shakes the foundations of power, just like it did Pharaoh, it does here in the Temple, and in a upside down, meek inheriting the Earth, swords into plowshares, last shall be first kind of way, it is a challenge to those who have been wielding the idolized version, the narrow version of God for themselves, and they don't like it. . . but even as God hardened the Pharaoh's heart, God used their anger for his own purposes, bringing this story full circle with the cross and three days later, in the fullness of time. . . the empty tomb.
Why do we make the idols? Why do those wielding the idols have such power over us? It is because we can't see God, so when the darkness looms, when we have trouble believing in something we can't see that our fears overcome us, and we trade the faith in the God who is, for the things we can see, the things that have given us comfort. The trouble is that these things, like the temple can take the place of God for us, and when they are taken away, or changed in some way, or destroyed we find ourselves lost. One of the real ideas that Jesus seems to be saying to us in this story is, “What are the things that give you comfort, that connect you to God? What are those things, now take them away, is God still there? He very much should be! Tear it down and God will still be there three days later.” In the last three days I've written two poems, and I think they tie these ideas together. The first is written in the bulletin: a sonnet called "The Temple"
The Temple
In need of something I can see, I seek
to build for you a home in which you'll live.
Free from your sight, no need for me to sneak,
I'll fill your home with what I choose to give.
And so control I'll have, with sated heart,
I've done it based on what I understood.
And satisfied with my completed part
I now can say that I am truly good. 
But locked away you just could never be.
You're much too great for four walls to enclose.
Your nature cannot live except for free
And so these lies you always do expose.
Help me to see beyond the seeing end
And kneel before the truth that does transcend.

That’s it right, we build those temples that limit God because we want to feel safe, but they end up making God too safe for us, and limit God’s real impact. How can we do better? Because it is hard to see beyond the seeing end, especially when the rain is coming down, and pouring down and it seems like there is no hope in sight. . . . We've been praying for my niece for a few weeks now, and as she has many times, she created artwork and her work inspired my words. . . this poem "A Rainbow Never Runs" works to show how important a covenant written on our heart can be for our faith:
God's Rainbow Never Runs
Inspired by Gabrielle Jackson's "Rainy Day Blues"

In olden times, in Noah's day
When God did wash the world away
Forty days of rain and then when done
The clouds subsided for the sun.

And then upon the sky he laid
His bow of peace, a sign displayed
The colorful symbol of covenant love
A promise made from heaven above.

That though the rains do pour and fall
Never will a storm consume us all
Instead the spectrum does remind us
That God's light can always find us.

So in my heart I know no rainbows come
Until after all the rain is done
But it lately seems the opposite is true
No matter what I say or do

It's like the rain in its constant flow
Has drenched and soaked God's rainbow
And the varied colors have leaked and run
Until they've melded into one.

And wiped the brightness clean away
Leaving only darkish, purplish, gray,
Seeming like no light could ever sever
Through the darkness, no never ever.

On days like these it's hard to hope,
Not to mention, deal, persevere, or cope.
In this darkness I must admit
That I would rather give in and quit.

The light that makes the colors bright
Has always put up quite the fight
But the battle just proved to be too much
For Faith and Hope and Love and such.

And so as these dreary colors rain
I'll open my umbrella again
To try to stay dry until the flood
Covers my life in muck and mud.

And just as I thought my life was done,
There arose the morning sun,
Shining through the clouds to dry
And once again light up the sky.

But before each drop of rain was gone,
There in the shining light of dawn,
A rainbow, once again was lay
Knocking me to my knees to pray:

"O God, in the midst of all my fear,
When your voice I can't hear clear,
Give me faith that you'll never depart
And write this vision upon my heart."

In that poem we can see it. . . we can see the darkness and we can see the rain, and we can feel the panic, the idea that may be God is not in control, that maybe all this is way too hard, that maybe I should just quit and give up. . . I’ve put up the good fight, and so has God, but we’ve both lost. But then the rainbow comes again, the light comes again, Jesus is raised again, and this covenant, the one that Christ writes on our hearts can never be destroyed, it can’t be taken away, we can’t be convince otherwise, and dissuaded, proved wrong. . . it is there it is in our hearts and it is built from within. . . because our hearts do not work like temple walls, it’s walls expand outwards, and with God in our hearts, that love, that promise, that power, just expands outward for the world to see, not defined, but free. . . what temples have you in your life that need to be destroyed, just to see that God is still very much there despite them. Something for churches today to remember. May it be so. Amen.

Gabrielle’s picture:

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 2:13-22). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.