Jesus’ Inaugural Move (Third Sunday in Lent)

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Driving back from Colorado is a long, tiring and often boring trip.  And one of the most boring parts is driving through Kansas.  But it was there, in the middle of Kansas a couple of weeks ago, that my phone rang.  It came from a number I didn’t recognize, and so I ignored it.  But they left me a message, so I checked it when Phoenix and I made our next stop.

It was from the Montgomery County Fire Department, and they were calling me because my number was on the list of people to call if the fire alarm goes off at the church.  They wanted me to know that water was dripping from the smoke detector in the Youth Center and setting off the alarm.

I checked in with Jon and Bill, and by that point both of them had been in contact with both the fire department and the fire alarm monitoring company. The alarm was temporarily disabled, and there was a bucket catching the drips from the smoke detector.  We figured that there was yet another small leak that our roofing contractor would need to fix (because the roof is still under warranty from last year!), and then we’d be back in business.

But the next day, the water had grown from a drip to a torrent.  The ceiling drywall came down, the carpet was soaked, water was running down the walls, and Servepro spent days cleaning it all up.  The roofer came out and re-did the patch.  And we figured we were on the road to recovery.  But it leaked again.

So, they fixed the patch again.  It rained again.  And this time, it was like they installed a shower head instead of a patch…!

And while people like Jon and Tom and Bill and Cherie, who have been much more involved in dealing with this than I have, have remained really calm, I’m totally feeling “Jesus like” – in that I’m ready to make a whip of chords and turn over some tables!

After all, usually as we read this story of Jesus “cleansing the Temple”, it seems like Jesus also was tired and cranky after a long trip.  During that time, he had been harassed by people who didn’t like him.  He was the subject of plots by the authorities.  And finally, he had arrived in Jerusalem and knew he was about to be betrayed and killed.  And so, as a final act, he kicked butt all over the place on the Temple Mount!

And indeed, that is how the story is set up in Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Jesus “cleanses the Temple” after a long, hard and tiring journey and as a final act of defiance against the authorities who are out to get him.  Jesus is tried, cranky and pushed to his limit.  We’ve all been there.  And it can be reassuring to know that Jesus understands.

Except, this is NOT how John tells the story.  You may have noticed that what I read is just the 2nd chapter of John’s Gospel.  This story is at the very beginning.  Just before this story, Jesus has been at the wedding at Cana where he’s turned over one hundred gallons of water into wine!  Then, he’s had a few days to rest up after the party before he heads to Jerusalem with just a few disciples to celebrate Passover (but NOT the Passover at which he’s betrayed.)

He hasn’t been on a particularly hard journey.  No one’s been giving him a hard time.  Indeed, nobody really even knows who he is, including the Temple authorities.

In John’s Gospel, this story is part of the introduction to Jesus’ ministry, not part of the conclusion.  And so rather than simply reading this as a story of “Jesus is tired, cranky and irritable”, it’s good for us to consider the story from John’s perspective.  And indeed, that means looking fresh at what this story means by considering it from the perspective of:

  • Jesus – that is, this is Jesus’ inaugural move in Jerusalem, not his last.  And he begins by doing something that many prophets had done – going up to the Temple Mount and causing a commotion!  And what he does is to call attention to the fact that that what should be a spiritual experience for people has become a routine … people actually did need to buy animals for sacrifice and change money; but those things weren’t the center of what it was all about…
  • The Temple authorities – when John talks about “the Jews”, he’s usually referring to the people in charge; and interestingly here, they don’t seem all that upset; they simply go up to Jesus and say, essentially, “OK wise guy, what sign are you going to give us to show us that you’re actually from God and not just another attention seeker?  Now sometimes in the Bible, asking for a sign can get you in trouble.  But here, Jesus tells them the sign that they’re going to get.  They don’t take it seriously, but at least they ask…
  • The disciples – who say nothing here at all!  You get the sense that they stood there with their mouths hanging open and wondering what they’ve just gotten themselves into.  And yet, they listen to what Jesus says.  And while they don’t actually ask him what he means by this “sign”, they remember it.  They think about it.  And they’re patient enough to wait until the time when it comes together and they realize, “oh, that’s what we were supposed to learn”…

And so perhaps John presents this story at the beginning of his Gospel so that we look at it in a different way.  And maybe what John asks us to consider in this story is whether we are willing to:

  • Let Jesus mess with stuff in our lives which, while maybe needing some change, is basically going OK.  Honestly, many of the Temple Authorities probably would have agreed that Jesus had a point – some of the selling and money changing were getting out of hand.  But by and large, they would have thought it wasn’t as bad the Roman occupation, the corruption in Herod’s court or the plight of poor people in the community.  Why mess with this now?  And honestly, while I’m irritated with the water damage in the Youth Center, the carpet was already shot; most of it hadn’t been painted in 20 years; and we’ve know for a long time that stuff needed to be cleaned out and re-configured for the ways we now use that space.  But I’d much rather focus on solar panels and Lenten worship.  Really Jesus (and I don’t blame Jesus for this!), we don’t need to mess with this right now…!  And yet, I know in my life, and probably in yours, too, there are plenty of things that seem to be sort of OK, and we’ll get around to fixing them later.  But sometimes, God calls our attention to things that we’d rather not deal with right now.  That’s one of the things Jesus was doing.  Are we willing to listen….?
  • Ask for a sign – OK, maybe not literally the way the Temple Authorities did.  But sometimes, asking “for a sign” is as simple as entertaining the possibility that God wants us to learn something through a situation or an event which God did NOT cause to happen, but which nevertheless might be  a teachable moment for us.  That is, is this just a “bad day” or is it a bad day which God can use to point me in a different direction.  And am I willing to listen and look for that direction, or do I just want to keep complaining to God about how bad things are (or, like the Temple Authorities, point out the impossibility of what God may be asking me to see….)
  • Be patient and wait for an answer – the disciples in this story don’t ask what Jesus means, and maybe they should have.  But they also don’t dismiss what the see and what’s going on around them.  They think about it; they remember it; and they wait for a time when things will be clearer.  As we follow Jesus, are we willing to do the same?  Sometimes, I want to know right now what matters and why.  And if I can’t figure it out, I want to move on to the next thing.  But sometimes for me and for you, Jesus calls us to remember; to think about stuff that doesn’t make sense right now; and to be patient and wait for the deeper understanding we may be asking for…

So, I should also let you know that after the last patch on the roof earlier this week, there was no leak in the Youth Center after Wednesday night’s monsoon, so that’s at least a good sign!  And maybe I won’t feel so “Jesus like” this coming week!

But maybe the turning over of tables and the whip of chords really isn’t the point anyway.  Maybe the real message in today’s Gospel is that Jesus, from the very beginning, is calling us to look at things that may need changing in our lives, even and perhaps especially when it’s not on our agenda right now.  Maybe the real message in today’s Gospel is that we should always be willing to ask Jesus what we should look for and learn, especially when things are chaotic.  And maybe the real message in today’s Gospel is that part of following Jesus isn’t getting quick and easy answers, but learning to watch and listen and be patient in order to live into the future to which Jesus calls us.