This sermon was preached at First Presbyterian Church in Howell, Michigan and is based on John 2:13-25. A recording is above, and the written text is below.
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 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. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 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.
When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.
When I was a very young kid — maybe about 4 years old — I used to sit on the floor of my family’s living room and watch Sesame Street. Did any of you grow up watching Sesame Street? Maybe some of our kids do now. Well, decades ago, when I was one of those kiddos, Sesame Street often featured a particular song. I bet some of you know it. Sesame Street would show four objects. Three of them would be the same — identical, in fact — but one would be different.
Maybe you remember that song?
One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things doesn’t belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others,
by the time we finish our song?
That song seems to apply this morning as we approach this story of Jesus entering the temple and driving out money changers. Now, of course, in an obvious sense, the scene is hardly comparable to Sesame Street. After all, Sesame Street involves adorable muppets who are learning and demonstrating how to get along. This scene, meanwhile, involves a mini stampede of animals and furious human beings who are driven out forcefully by an angry Jesus.
So what am I getting at here?
In one sense, the song does apply. Because this account of Jesus in the temple is the odd one out. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the first three gospels, tell it in a particular way, but this version in John is different. One of these things is not like the others, and this version is that thing.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ entry into the temple as part of the Holy Week narrative, toward the end of their gospels. Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, accompanied with loud shouts of Hosannas from the crowd. Soon after, he enters the temple and drives out the money changers.
But that’s not what happens here.
Notice the chapter number of this story. John, chapter 2, verses 13-25. This narrative is not embedded in the larger Holy Week story. In fact, this is a different Passover altogether. All of this takes place right at the beginning of John’s gospel. I wonder why that might be. . .?
Now every version of this story is forceful, no doubt. Jesus is angry about what he encounters in the temple. But admittedly, this version is more violent. In the other stories, Jesus overturns the tables and says, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations, but you have made it a den of robbers.” In this account, Jesus does more than overturn tables. He pours out the coins of the money changers and drives people out with a whip of cords. “Take these things out of here!” he says. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it is pretty clear that Jesus was angry about money changers and the ways they were extorting the people at the time. Here in John, Jesus decries the temple becoming a marketplace, but John also puts focus on a particular statement that the others do not include. John says, “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” And John quotes Jesus as saying, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Some of the people around him begin to mock him, saying, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” “But he was speaking of the temple of his body,” John says. These statements are unique to this version of the narrative.
One of these is not like the others.
I wonder how this narrative might speak to us in a particular way today.
Every Gospel writer was writing to an audience, and John was no exception. He was writing to a particular community, likely even, a particular church. And it appears that this church community had a shared song, though a song of greater depth and wonder than any song from Sesame Street. Do you remember the very first words of the Gospel according John? It’s possible that they come from an ancient, church hymn. Do you remember this beautiful text?
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
And the Word was God.
And that opening text goes on to say,
The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
The Word — Jesus — is embodied. Wonder of wonders. . . God is embodied in Jesus. With us. Together, we can say that Jesus is a dwelling place of God.
“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Some of the people around him began to mock him, saying, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” “But he was speaking of the temple of his body.”
Jesus is the dwelling place of God.
And not only that. God has been found to be among us. Wonder of wonders. . . we too are embodied, and God chooses to be present among us.
I like the translation that Eugene Peterson gives in The Message:
The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.
The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. With us. With human lives. With neighbors! Isn’t that what the neighborhood means? Jesus is the dwelling place of God, and our neighborhoods and our neighbors are the dwelling place of Jesus.
So is it any surprise really that John might place this story where he does, at the beginning?
Jesus loved the temple. He was an observant Jew, and it is important to remember tht. John says, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” But there was never a moment when Jesus walled himself off inside those walls. Jesus moved into the neighborhood and placed his focus on neighbors. He practiced love for the neighbors. . .
. . . uplifting the dignity of the poor and offering them bread,
. . . healing the ones who were cast out by society, in their bodies, in their relationships,
. . . defending those who were scapegoated and threatened with violence,
. . . welcoming the vulnerable, including children, and widows, and those especially marked by others as ‘sinners.’
Jesus is the dwelling place of God, and he chooses to dwell among the neighbors. This story — this odd-one-out version of the story — is a prelude for the Gospel itself. It moves toward the neighborhood.
Every Gospel writer writes to an audience, and John is no exception. We can’t know if he had others in mind. Perhaps he would have never imagined that these words would reach us today so distanced in culture and time. But how might they speak to us, particularly? How might they speak to First Presbyterian Church of Howell?
We know this much: We have never had a calling to wall ourselves off inside the walls of this church building. Sure, we value this building, and we care for it. But friends, hear this: These walls and this sanctuary have never been the Church. We are the Church — we. . . you and me. . . an embodied community. . . we are the Church.
And if we are going to follow Jesus, this dwelling place of God, this person of grace and truth, we must follow him into the neighborhood. We must place our focus on neighbors. We must practice love for the neighbors.
Do our neighbors experience us in this way? We hope so. But we can also be honest. So often, our neighbors see Christians doing everything we can to bolster the former institutional grandeur – of our buildings, our finances, our image, you name it. . . So often our neighbors see Christians working to bolster these institutional aspects of our collective life as we experience decline.
But why are we experiencing decline? It may not be just one thing, but perhaps our neighbors no longer believe that Christians love neighbors. Perhaps they see the Church at large trying to build itself — its buildings, its influence, maybe even its political power at the expense of protecting the lives of the vulnerable and scapegoated, rather than loving people where they are, loving people as the neighbors of Jesus, the neighbors of God.
So how might we remember our calling again? How might we hear it in a new way?
I don’t think it starts with anything abstract. I think it starts with the neighbors we know. I think it starts with the neighbors we know about. I think it involves an invitation to value those neighbors and learn from them.
It doesn’t start with anything abstract. It starts with God, but even God — the God we ponder with ideas, and big words, and theology; the God who in many ways is beyond our imagination — even God, this God, is not abstract. Because God has become enfleshed. Jesus is the dwelling place of God, and Jesus dwells among the neighbors.
So let’s start there, and let’s see what kind of story might unfold. Let’s see what kind of Gospel might unfold. Like this passage before us today, this invitation might also be a preview to what is to come — Gospel, a renewed vision, a renewed calling, and friends, a renewed following of Jesus, the dwelling place of God.