If you read all four gospels carefully, you begin to see that they tell the story of Jesus in similar, but distinct ways.
Some stories appear in one gospel but not another. And we’re not just talking minor things: the gospel of Mark does not even include much of a resurrection story. In Mark, the women go to the tomb of Jesus, see it’s empty, and run away terrified. The end.
But this morning’s story about turning over the tables of the money changers in the Temple occurs in all four gospels.
Clearly, this was an important story for the early church–a story that told them something very important about Jesus.
Most of them connect it closely to the final week of Jesus’ life. In fact, most suggest that his angry denunciation of the moneychangers in the Temple is the very first thing Jesus does after arriving in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday–his first stop on his last journey.
And that has the ring of truth, of course. Because if it’s true, then no wonder…no wonder that the Temple authorities and the Romans would have been looking for a way to arrest and silence him. Such public displays of defiance were not to be tolerated, particularly at Passover, when the city was full of pilgrims, and the underlying theme of the religious holiday itself was about God’s liberation from cruel, foreign oppression.
It didn’t take a genius to see that when the Jewish people were celebrating liberation from slavery in Egypt, they were dreaming of liberation from Rome.
So you can see why, in the eyes of the Romans, some rabble-rousing preacher from Galilee was trouble–and that if he started to win over the crowd, maybe even big trouble.
According to the brutal hand of Roman imperial justice, no wonder that the hands that flipped over the tables in the temple were nailed to the cross just five days later.
It makes a great deal of sense to tell the story in that way.
So it’s interesting to note that John’s gospel, which is the one we’ve heard this morning, puts the story in a very different place.
According to John, the scene of Jesus and the moneychangers in the Temple occurs at the very beginning–in Chapter 2 of the story, just after Jesus performs his first miracle, changing water into wine at a wedding in Cana.
To hear John tell it, it’s almost as if Jesus catches a late ride back to a friend’s house, then is up early again the next morning for a quick trip into the city, where he does this peculiar, and seemingly out-of-the-blue thing at the Temple.
As John describes it, It’s a full two years before the arrest and death of Jesus.
And maybe part of the point was simply that the handwriting was always on the wall…that what was to come should have been obvious for anyone who was paying attention.
But I am just struck by the idea that the first two acts of public ministry Jesus performs are a joyful miracle at a wedding and an angry demonstration at the heart of the capital.
Because I get the joy. I suspect most of us do. When the churches fill at Christmas and Easter, it’s because people are so hungry for it.
They’re right to come looking for it in the churches all over the world.
The je ne sais quoi of Christian joy that people experience in our great festival services is impossible to explain, yet impossible to deny.
Those who come may not believe a word of what we say. They may not know the tunes of what may be the most familiar hymns we sing all year. But even if it’s only for an hour twice a year, they do come, and they feel…something…even if they can’t quite say what it is.
Maybe they believe, or maybe they don’t…but they most certainly believe that we believe, because they feel the joy of those occasions so deeply, and if you only come now and again, it must seem as if that’s what it’s like if you really believe: that for those who believe, every day is like Easter Sunday, or Christmas…except maybe there’s better parking.
And so they come and they go, perhaps resolving that once they’ve learned to feel the way that we all so clearly do, each and every day, then they can come back on some other kind of day and apply for membership.
A place that is clearly such a haven for saints could not possibly serve as a hospital for sinners…or guide post for seekers.
And that’s why the mission of the Church is more than just teaching people to look upward to heaven, with folded hands and mysterious, Mona Lisa smiles on our faces.
It isn’t just about looking up. It’s also about looking around.
And it’s not just about cultivating joy and serenity. It’s also about living out a passionate engagement with the world, and a deep honesty about the challenges of being alive, even for we who believe.
That can run to extremes of its own, of course.
Imagine the person who came to church only on the Sunday after Easter, when we typically tell the story of doubting Thomas, or on the Sunday when we tell the story of the man who comes to Jesus and says, “Lord, I believe. Forgive my unbelief.”
Or if they came only on those days when Scripture offers marching orders to go out and fix things in the name of God. Any student of history can tell you that the line between righteousness and self-righteousness can be dangerously hard to draw.
That’s why I think John tells this story so early in his gospel, and glues it next to the story about the wedding at Cana. It’s because he wants us to understand that Jesus is about them both.
Joy is wonderful but can be a little passive; anger can be consuming but, wow, it gets things moving.
And so Christians are called to look upward, and we are called to look around, too, and the life we are invited to pursue as faithful people is a life in which those two things remain in tension.
Looking around this morning, I have little doubt that, God willing and the creek don’t rise, I will see you on Easter. And next Christmas.
But why are you here today?
I think you’re here because you are trying to live into the tension presented by John: as Christians, we are on the lookout for water into wine miracles, but we also know that Jesus calls us to overturn some tables. Christianity lived fully is about celebrating God’s unexpected work in our lives–and also going out and doing some of the tough work ourselves. And that in fact, in doing that work, we are doing God’s work. Even if we get into some trouble with the Roman authorities.
It isn’t inherently noble to be forever joyful, any more than it is inherently more noble to live perpetually on the edge of righteous outrage.
We need to seek the fullness of faith–and that is a well-balanced diet.
Throughout the pulpits of America this morning, I’m absolutely sure that there are any number of preachers with sermons titled “Spring Cleaning.”
As I think about it, I think I’ve preached that sermon before, myself.
It’s a natural connection to make, because the story of Jesus and the moneylenders is all about that kind of starting fresh, about reestablishing the right order of things, about putting away what needs putting away and making space for what is needed now.
But to me, John is making a deeper point about what it is to engage in “good housekeeping.”
And he’s suggesting that it’s a lot more nuanced than some sort of “out with the old; in with the new” kind of approach.
Because Jesus is inviting us to something deeper.
To the person who runs and runs and runs, he asks is standing still a luxury you just can’t afford, or an emptiness you just can’t acknowledge?
To the person who feels cruelly misunderstood, he asks what it might be about others in their own situations that needs understanding.
To the person who thinks heaven is the goal of a spiritual life, he asks what it might be to work for the Kingdom of God breaking forth in our midst.
To the speechifiers, he asks what it might be to listen.
To the righteous, he asks what it might be to befriend the imperfect, and to learn to love them for who they are already, and not for who it is you hope that they will learn to become.
To the brokenhearted, he asks if there are joys in life that might yet be found, and claimed, and a life rebuilt around them.
To the joyful, he asks if we know and love the world around us enough to let it break our hearts from time to time.
This morning, Jesus models a faith that turns the tables on each one of us.
He invites us to seek out that undiscovered country in our faith, and in our lives, confident in his purposes, and knowing that it may be especially there that he waits to be found.