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March 19, 2006 (Lent III)—“Jesus, What on Earth Are You Thinking?”

Pastor David Barber

John 2:13–22; Exodus 20:1–17; I Corinthians 1:18–25

Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

What on earth was Jesus thinking? Here he was in the big city for the first time since he began his public ministry, on the most important religious festival of the year, and what does he do?

This country carpenter from Galilee attacks the very foundation upon which the religious institution had been established.

He’s lucky he didn’t commit this act of rebellion today. He would have been whisked away to some federal detention facility and left there to sit without representation until hell froze over. And for sure, he never would have made it through an airport without being hassled and body-searched before boarding a plane.

Who was this man’s political advisor? Here he was just starting his Messianic campaign, and this little outburst could have resulted in political suicide.

Of course, some folks are saying the same thing about Rep. Ed Case and his challenge to Senator Daniel Akaka and his Senate seat. He’s challenging the way business is done in Hawaii, but he, too, may be committing political suicide. Only time will tell.

All four of our Gospels carry the story about Jesus uprooting the moneychangers in the temple, but only John has it near the beginning of his Gospel. Matthew, Mark, and Luke place it after Jesus entered Jerusalem during the last week of his life.

For John, however, this was not a political or economic catalyst leading to his arrest. It stood at the heart and the core of who Jesus was and what he was about.

The story just before this might help us understand what’s at stake here and what John is trying to tell us. Jesus changed the water into wine at the wedding at Cana in Galilee so that the party could continue.

“Good move Jesus! Show them that you know how to have a good time! Besides, that’s almost as good as kissing little babies or having your picture taken with the right people.” After this event Jesus’ favorable rating in the polls went soaring only to plummet to the basement after he finished his little sortie in Jerusalem.

What do these two events have in common? Why are they contained in the same chapter? What is this writer trying to tell us?

At the wedding Jesus told the wine steward to fill six stone jars with water. That’s not a small amount. Then he told the steward to smell the bouquet, swirl it around in his mouth, and then taste the deep and fruity fragrance.

Ta-da! It was wine—the best wine that he had ever tasted.

The point is not that Jesus was in the wrong profession—that he should become a winemaker for Kendall-Jackson instead of traipsing around the country as a potential Messiah. The stone jars that Jesus used to produce this magnificent wine were used for the rite of purification.

He turned the purification water into wine! That’s a big deal!

By the time of Jesus, an elaborate system of purification had been developed. Some things were considered pure and others impure.

There was leprosy, uncleanness caused by bodily discharges, and impurity resulting from contact with the dead. There were also laws of uncleanness that addressed animals and food, and places and objects.

The list was long and oppressive, and the effect of this system was to create a world with sharp social boundaries.

In other words there would be no mission statement which began: “Welcoming to all...” but rather welcoming to all if you were clean and pure and fit into their system of purity.

Using the jars of purification then was not simply a coincidence or the only vessels available so that they could party on until dawn. It sent a message that barriers are being broken down. Through Jesus, the world and the presence of God in this world will be looked upon in a new way.

It’s also no accident that the next action takes place in the temple. Although in different locations, both scenes are a part of the same story. The temple was at the heart of the purity system, and this was the Passover—an event that celebrated the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery.

The pivotal event for the Israelite people was that God had liberated them, and now their task was to do the same for others.

Hundreds of years later, Jews from all over Israel were required to return to Jerusalem on the festival of Passover and be reminded of God’s covenant promise.

At this festival, animals were sold at the temple for sacrificial purposes, and these animals also had to be clean—without blemish. The problem was that poor people couldn’t afford to buy the best animals.

Moneychangers, too, were also an essential part of the system because it was considered idolatry to use Roman coins stamped with the emperor’s image to buy your sacrifice.

Thus they weren’t simply making change because the vendors would take no bills larger than a twenty. They were giving pure money or tokens in exchange for impure money. This, too, was also a part of the purity system and subject to great abuse against the poor.

John doesn’t discount the economic and political oppression of the poor, but he does put a greater spotlight on the scandal of the purity system and its affront to God and the covenant relationship.

The focus for Jesus is to remind all people—but especially the outcast and the unclean—of who they are and whose they are. They are God’s people—brought out of Egypt and delivered from the bondage of Pharaoh.

This is who you are. Your worth and your status is not measured in categories of clean and unclean or any other system we might devise to judge who’s in and who’s out. It’s measured by God’s liberating miracle when he delivered you out of bondage in Egypt and all that enslaves you at the present time.

Well, this could have been a little heavier than what you expected this morning, and if you’re still listening, thanks for hanging in there. And if you’re not, I hope you had a good nap!

Last week in a fine sermon Joshua talked about being sought out as a male model for Macy’s or Nordstrom’s because of his very discerning and unique talent for fashion. He had all the qualifications they were seeking—except one. He wanted to wear his cross, but they wouldn’t let him. They wanted to sell clothes—not religion.

What does it mean to wear the cross and to make this a fashion statement? It means to take on the life of Jesus Christ as Joshua mentioned. Just as we put on our clothes everyday—fashionable or not, frumpy or not—we put on the new clothes of our baptism each day, and we wear the mark of the cross upon our foreheads.

Remembering our baptism and this act of liberation by Jesus frees us from all the categories we also use to judge our worth and our value and the worth and the value of others.

It frees us so that we, too, can proclaim and be involved in acts of liberation wherever folks are bound and excluded in our churches and the systems in which we live. It frees us so that we can make life easier for others wherever they are bound by unnecessary restrictions. It frees us so that we can be involved in the work of compassion, mercy, and kindness for our neighbor.

It frees us to tear down barriers wherever they exist and wherever people are judged by a standard of purity or whatever system we use to destroy the heart and core of our neighbor.

Sometimes this passage has been used as a condemnation of church fund raising. After all we don’t want Jesus in here with a whip, overturning tables, scattering our raffle tickets and our bingo cards. Besides he might also discover that we sell parking to Punahou students, and then he might decide to trash some unsuspecting student’s Lexus or Mercedes.

When I grew up, we Lutherans didn’t engage in such activity. Yes, we had an annual lutefisk supper and smorgasbord. But nothing like those Roman Catholics and their weekly bingo sessions. How disgusting! We were more pure. We were more righteous and more faithful to Jesus.

This is not about church bazaars, bingo, and garage sales. It’s much more disruptive than that. It’s about the deep and radical compassion that God has for all people—and for the world.

It’s about love—our love for one another. It’s about tearing down boundaries and ridding ourselves of all those oppressive systems that label folks as pure or impure.

It’s not about protecting the church from getting dirty or unclean, but getting dirty and unclean for others, especially those on the boundaries—just as Jesus did for us.

It’s about loving and liberating and welcoming. It’s about bearing the cross of Jesus through our compassion, our kindness, and the mercy we demonstrate to others, to ourselves, and to all of life.

Jesus took this mercy and compassion for others all the way to the cross. With his body he shatters all the barriers that separate us from others and ourselves. He embraces us with such love and invites, encourages, and calls us to do the same.


I am indebted to Rev. Barbara K. Lundblad for her thoughts in a sermon, “Far More Than Bingo.”—Pastor David Barber

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