Taking God seriously

John 2:13-22
Exodus 20:1-17
1 Corinthians 1:18-25

There’s a picture of Jesus throwing the traders and money changers out of the Temple, and cracking his whip, and someone has added a caption: “when anyone asks you what would Jesus do, remind them that getting angry, throwing the furniture, and attacking people is a possibility.”

This story of Jesus throwing out the traders and money changers is quite a striking one. Why did Jesus get so worked up about people doing their business in the Temple? And he certainly did get worked up, enough to cause a chaotic scene which has found its way into all four Gospels. It’s out of character, in many ways, to read of Jesus making a whip and using force to upturn tables and drive people out of the Temple. There’s something here which we have to take very seriously indeed.

The first question it raises for me is whether it was anything at all other than worship in the Temple which upset Jesus, or what was happening here. People often quote this passage when they want to object to admission charges at certain cathedrals, but the same people rarely object to being able to buy a cup of tea and piece of cake in the same cathedral! I suspect that what Jesus was objecting to was not the concept of people selling things, but that they were making an excessive profit, the trading had taken over the place, and it was all in culture of religion that had become about rules and ritual, not relationship.

The secular activities had become a denial of the spiritual, and that seems to have been the problem in Jerusalem. The worshippers were there to demonstrate their love of God with all their being, but they were also there to affirm their love of their neighbours – and what was going on in the Temple was the exploitation of neighbours. Amongst other things, this is a story reminding us to take God seriously.

Some of the worshippers needed animals for sacrifice, and there were traders ready to meet their need: at a price. You can always charge the last-minute shoppers more and get away with it. Other worshippers needed to change Roman money for Jewish money and again there were traders ready to help: at an inflated exchange rate. In other words, the Temple was being used by some to take advantage of others. That was what angered Jesus: the conflagration of God’s glory with human business. It needed a strong response, and it got it. A reminder to take God seriously.

You don’t cause that level of disturbance without being punished. During the peasant’s revolt the authorities came out, negotiated and agreed all manner of concessions, but Wat Tyler was killed the next day. Boris Nemtsov simply shot, rather than the more elaborate Eastern European assassination methods, but not allowed to get away with stirring things up. Just likewise, the Temple authorities and the Romans weren’t going to let Jesus get away with things for much longer. By now, they were looking for every opportunity to show Jesus up as an insurgent, a challenger to the legitimate authorities.

The writer of John’s Gospel doesn’t tell stories for their own sake. There’s a sub-text here. In particular the stories in the early part of John’s Gospel are all seen as signs of who Jesus was and what he had come to do. Whatever, whoever, you think Jesus was, this story points to Jesus as one who has an authority higher than that of any ordinary person, a God-given authority, indeed the authority of God in person. Yet this Jesus is going to be destroyed, just as he has destroyed the booths of the money changers, but it will be within God’s power to raise him from death after three days. That is the sub-text, and it gives an eternal message over and above the account of an incident in the Temple. Jesus is Lord, and nothing anyone can do will destroy him and his message. A reminder to take God seriously.

If the Gospel writer can tell a story with a sub-text, we can give it a similar sub-text for our time. We’re now in the season of Lent, an opportunity for some serious self-examination. So let us imagine that Jesus, instead of going into the Jerusalem Temple, is coming into our lives to see what he finds there. How will he respond? Will he find that our worship, our devotion, our sense of the divine is in good shape? Will he find that our life style, our relationships, our priorities are those of a good disciple? Or will there be some things that he will see that he will want to drive out? If nothing else, this is a reminder to take God seriously.

Whoever we are, wherever we find ourselves, whatever situations we encounter, whatever it is that we face, for good or ill, this passage reminds us to God very seriously. If we should think we can control God, put God into our shape of ideas, our kind of church, then we’re underestimating God. As Jesus came into the Temple and threw his weight around it was a wake-up call to take God seriously. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt us to have a wake-up call to God always take God very seriously.

Our next reading is also a reminder to take God seriously. It’s very easy to dismiss the Ten Commandments, for very good reasons. They were written in a particular time and culture, which is not ours. They were clearly written with property owning men in mind (so perhaps they aren’t irrelevant to all of us!), but above all they reinforce the quite erroneous impression that Christianity is all about rules and laws, not about freedom and God’s grace. However, rather than concentrate on all the difficulties with the Ten Commandments, and we have to admit there are many difficulties, if we were to see them as a reminder to God very seriously, I think there’s still something there for us, even today.

Our final reading, from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth also has something to say to us about this, but in a slightly different way. Of course, Paul was writing to a particular church at a particular time, in response to a latter they wrote to him. However, there might yet be something we can hear from God for us through that.

Paul was writing about wisdom and foolishness, saying that the cross appears to be foolish, but to people who understood what it really meant, it was the height of wisdom. In fact, it was God’s wisdom which showed up how foolish much supposed human wisdom was! Like our other readings, Paul is reminding his readers to take God seriously. However, there’s a bit more to it than that. As well as reminding us to take God seriously, it reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously, or we end up as human folly.

How much different would it have been in the Temple if the traders and money changers had stopped taking themselves seriously? How different would it have been in the wilderness, if the Israelites had stopped taking themselves too seriously? How different would it be in our lives, if we stopped taking ourselves too seriously and took God even more seriously? How different would it be in our church if we stopped taking ourselves too seriously, and took God even more seriously?

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