Monday, June 9, 2014

Peering Outside Our Walls: Clearing the Temple

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. (John 2:13-22 NRSV)
We are continuing our summer series “Peering Outside Our Walls.” Throughout this summer, we are going to be “peering outside our walls” to see how people outside the walls of faith interact with Jesus. All through the Gospel of John, Jesus comes in contact with people who are on the outside looking in. I want us to pay careful attention to these encounters. What questions do they have about faith? How do they respond to Jesus? How does Jesus respond to them? The goal of this series is to help us become better equipped to discover God’s mission beyond the walls of this building. But this text, at first glance, is a text we might want to hide from people outside this building!

Dan Kimball wrote a book in 2007 entitled They Like Jesus But Not the Church. The premise of the book is that the non-Christians of the world are kind of fed up with the church. They are turned off by our disunity, by the fact that we seem to be against so many things, by the church’s political agenda. But in spite of their disdain for church, the emerging world still loves Jesus! Because they view Jesus was the man of peace. Jesus was all about love. Jesus was about sacrifice and selflessness and equality! Taking all of this into consideration, it would seem appropriate for Christians to talk more about Jesus’ love and peace-making qualities. And then we run into this verse! Jesus turning over tables, making a whip and showing his anger, kicking people out of the temple, talking, in fact, about destroying the temple completely! This doesn't sound like the kind of Jesus that would be very attractive to non-Christians. If we are trying to be more conversant with people outside these walls, maybe we should just ignore this text and move on.

But if you take a closer look at these words…this might be one of the most attractive passages in the Bible for non-Christians!

My understanding of this story changed dramatically in February of this year. As you know, I traveled with a group to Israel. While we were there we were able to walk up onto the Temple Mount. Today, where the temple once stood is a huge mosque, “The Dome of the Rock.” You can walk up to the large area surrounding the mosque. It is an enormous area. Somewhere up there is where the temple once stood! Somewhere up there, at some point, the Ark of the Covenant sat. The very presence of God in the world, a Holy, Holy place, especially for Jewish people. Though it is controlled by Muslims, other groups are allowed to walk up onto the Temple Mount at certain times of the day, even Jews are allowed to go up there! While we were there, we saw several Jewish groups (escorted by police) walking on the Temple Mount. They were praying, all of them, and they were barefoot! We asked our guide: “Why are they barefoot?” He said: “They don’t know where the Holy of Holies was. They don't want to take the chance of walking on that spot with their shoes on.” Wow, now that is reverence!

So, here is my struggle. I see the reverence Jewish people still have today for the temple. They won't even walk on the Temple Mount with shoes on their feet! This has always been the holiest spot on earth for the Jews! So, why here in John 2 are they treating the temple with such contempt? Why are they treating it so casually? I cannot imagine a Jew setting up a market place next to the Holy of Holies! It just doesn't make sense. So, I began to dig deeper into this story and I noticed something I've never noticed before (I love it when that happens)! This text does not say the Jews were selling things in the temple. This text says the Jews were selling things in the temple courts, the area outside of the main temple. There are two different words in the Bible…one for “temple”, one for “temple courts.” They were selling sheep and oxen and pigeons in the outer courtyard. Try to imagine what was happening when Jesus arrived. It was the time of Passover, people were everywhere, and the temple courts were noisy and smelly and busy! We sometimes think of the temple as a nice, pristine church building, a cathedral, polished gold walls and pillars, priests with clean, white robes presiding, quiet and reverent. Think again! The Temple was more like a butcher shop than a church building. Worship consisted of slaughtering animals! The sounds of worship then were living and dying oxen. The smells of carcasses, the noise of animals and people, the stains of blood on priestly robes, and just outside the temple, merchants had set up tables to sell the animals so people would not have to bring animals with them from far away.

They could buy sheep and oxen and pigeons in the temple courts. But, here is what is so important for us to see. The outer courts were reserved for non-Jews. At the time of Jewish festivals, Jews from all over Israel came to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple. But non-Jews, called “God-fearers” also came to worship God during these festivals. But they could not go inside the temple. They had to stay outside in these outer courts, the Gentile areas. This was the only place they could worship God.

And so, by conducting their business in the temple courtyard, these Jews disrupted the worship of non-Jewish God-fearers. Thus, they obstructed the very purpose for which the temple existed. One of the reasons Jesus was so upset with these Jews, with their marketplace, and with their business was they were not giving these non-Jews a place to worship. They were so busy taking care of themselves; they completely disregarded the people “outside of their walls.” Maybe this text would not be as offensive to people outside our walls as we first imagined. It shows that Jesus was not only concerned with Jewish people, with “insiders.” Jesus was also extremely concerned with those who were “standing outside the church building.”

This scene in Jesus’ life is one of the few times we see him angry. The caricature of Jesus as a meek and mild precious moments figurine is thrown out the window with this text. Jesus is angry! What sets Him off is that His own people, the people inside the community of faith, were standing in between Him and the people outside their walls. They were blocking the way, creating a barrier. In other words, God notices how we treat and interact with people outside our walls. If we are hindering their path to Him, that really makes God angry.

So, my question for us is this: Are we making the path to God more difficult for people outside our walls?

You know, there are some things that we do in here, in this room, that might make it more difficult for our guests to encounter God. Most of us in this room are quite accustomed to worship. We know what to expect and we need little explanation about what is happening. But put yourselves in the shoes of someone who does not know God and who has spent little time in a church building. What do they think when we pass collection trays with little or no explanation? What goes through their minds when we pass trays with crackers and grape juice? What must they think when we have a baptism. One way we hinder the path to God for our guests is by failing to explain what all of this is about! Many times we just go through our routine without any explanation. We just assume everyone understands. Here is the interesting thing about environments. If you create an environment for insiders, where only insiders feel comfortable, where only insiders are considered in planning, then, before long, you have a room full of insiders! And people outside the walls come in less and less.

But more important than things we do inside these walls are the things we do outside these walls. Sometimes Christians build roadblocks between God and the rest of the world without even knowing it. When people outside these walls see the way Christians fight with each other, they have little desire to come inside. Sometimes, when we are outside these walls, we give people the impression that you have to support a certain political agenda to come inside. Can I just be honest for a minute? There are many wonderful things about the Republican Party. But the Republican Party platform is not completely analogous with the Christian worldview. There are faithful, godly, amazing Christian warriors who are Democrats and Independents. But sometimes, especially in our region, we are so pro-Republican that we make Democrats and others feel so much like outsiders that they just don't want to come in our doors. Sometimes in our zeal for righteousness, we make sinners feel unwelcome. I know people who struggle with same-sex attraction. I know women who have had abortions. I know people who have been arrested and who have been classified as sexual offenders. Sometimes our rhetoric is so loud, and sometimes our rallies are so antagonistic, sometimes our boycotts are so public we make sinners feel unwelcome.

Church, Jesus did not condone sin, but He did not make sinners feel unwelcome. Brothers and sisters, we need to be conscious of folks outside these walls. We do not need to build more barriers between them and God. The path to God is difficult enough in our world. Of all people, Christians do not need to add more obstacles. Instead, we need to build bridges, helping people find their way to God. Because only God can help people outside these walls find eternal life.

One of the magnificent 19th-century military expeditions conquered no new lands for Queen Victoria. You won't find it mentioned in history books. But because of the monumental logistics, military historians compare the landing in Ethiopia in 1868 to the Allies' invasion of France in 1944. For four years Emperor Theodore III of Ethiopia had held a group of 53 European captives, 30 adults and 23 children including some missionaries and a British consul. They were held in a remote 9,000-foot-high bastion deep in the interior. By letter, Queen Victoria pleaded in vain with Theodore to release the captives. Finally, the government ordered a full-scale military expedition from India to march into Ethiopia. Their goal was not to conquer the country and make it a British colony. Their goal was simply to rescue a tiny band of civilians. The invasion force was massive. It included 32,000 men, heavy artillery and 44 elephants to carry the guns. Engineers built landing piers, water treatment plants, a railroad, a telegraph line to the interior, and a lot of bridges. All of this to fight one decisive battle! After this decisive battle, the prisoners were released. Isn't it interesting that the British went through so much trouble to save a handful of captives?

Church, that is the urgency we must have to save people outside our walls. We must go all in! We must remove the obstacles. Maybe there are some obstacles you need to move. Let’s pray that God will give us eyes to see the obstacles and the courage to move them out of the way!

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