This sermon is part 3 of a sermon series titled Drawing in, driving out.
Let us pray: Come Holy Spirit. Amen.
Throughout Lent we’re exploring the theme of Drawing in, driving out. In the first week we talked about the cosmic battle between God and Satan, between good and evil that plays out not only in history, but in the life of Jesus and in our life, too. Last week, we talked about the ways in which Jesus draws us into a relationship through the road to Golgotha and casts out the sin and death that come on the road to Caesarea Philippi. Today, I want to talk more about the act of “Driving out,” but not, perhaps, in the way you might think.
If we’re exploring the theme of how Jesus draws all people to himself, then today’s gospel reading seems a poor choice. In the second chapter of John, Jesus commits his first public act of ministry, which is to go rushing into the temple with a whip in his hand, flipping over tables, driving out animals, and shouting at people: “Stop making my father’s house an emporium!” Well, at least the theme of “Driving out” seems pretty clear!
Now, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s telling of the story, Jesus drives people out of the temple because he sees the buying and selling of animals in the temple as highway robbery, corruption, and greed, the abuse of the poor for the sake of the rich. Jesus actually pushes people out of the temple. We could probably make the case that just as Jesus drives these sinful people out of the temple, so Jesus drives sinful behavior out of us and out of society. But we’re not reading Matthew, Mark, or Luke. We’re reading John. And John sees it quite differently.
The most important difference in John is that Jesus gives an explanation for his actions. A group of religious leaders approach Jesus after he has caused his mayhem and they ask him, essentially, “What gives you the right to do what you just did?” And Jesus replies with an enigmatic answer, as he so often does in John. He says, referring to this own body, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
What exactly is going on here? Well, in the ancient world, many believed that God’s main residence was the temple. Sure God was everywhere, but if you really wanted to experience God, you went to the temple and offered an animal sacrifice.
People would come from far and wide to experience God at the temple. But they couldn’t travel hundreds of miles with a sacrificial ox, so locals set up businesses to sell sacrificial animals right there in the temple for the out-of-towners. The temple merchants were actually in the business of helping people worship God. So why would Jesus disrupt their business?
Unlike in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s gospels, John’s Jesus is not making a moral statement, he’s making a theological one. He’s essentially saying that all this temple stuff isn’t necessary anymore because God has come to reside, not in some stone temple, but in the very body of Jesus and soon, in the bodies of all people.
You might have noticed in John’s version that no one is actually thrown out of the temple. Did you catch that? John writes that, “Making a whip of cords, [Jesus] drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle” (emphasis mine). While in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus pushes people out of the temple, in John, Jesus only kicks out the animals. The reason for this is that Jesus does not want to push anyone away from a relationship with God. He wants the people to stay, he just wants to eliminate the distracting animals. All that sacrificial stuff isn’t necessary anymore. All that’s necessary is a relationship with Jesus.
There’s an old parable that goes like this: “There was once a wise teacher who would go to the temple every evening to pray with his disciples. By the temple there was a stray cat who would wander in every evening and disturb these prayers and disturb the peace. So, each evening before prayers the teacher would tie the cat to a tree outside before entering. The teacher was old and passed away a few years later. His disciples continued to tie the cat to the tree each evening before prayers.
“Eventually the cat died and so some of the disciples purchased a new cat so that they could continue the ritual. After a hundred years the tree died and a new one was quickly planted so that the cat (by now the 18th generation cat!) could be tied to it. Over the centuries learned scholars began to write books on the symbolic meaning of the act.”
There are a whole host of things that can get in the way of our relationship with Jesus. This old parable warns us of the real possibility of such distractions. The act of tying up an annoying stray cat over time morphs into a spiritual requirement. The wise teacher ties up the cat so as not to be distracted during prayer, but soon the tying up of the cat becomes, in and of itself, a distraction from prayer. We in the church are quite guilty of this same folly.
My worship professor in seminary told me the following two stories:
He once visited a church who began their service with the choir processing in down the left and right aisles of the church, between the pews and the wall. As they choir members each reached the half-way point down the aisle, they would bow deeply for a few steps, and then rise up for the rest of the procession.
Intrigued, my professor asked some parishioners after the service why the choir did this. He received all kinds of answers: “It’s a show of respect to the members of the congregation.” “It’s a veneration of the altar as they process in.” “It’s an act of penitence to remind the choir members why they sing.” Those all sound like very deep and meaningful reasons. But the truth is less meaningful:
It turns out that there used to be big cast iron pipes that jutted out at head-height from the wall on either side of the church. The choir would duck under them as they processed in. Well, eventually the pipes were removed, yet the choir continued to duck—and few people, if any, could remember how the whole thing started in the first place.
Here’s another. My professor visited a congregation that had a truly peculiar ritual. Half-way through the service the people on the left side of the church would stand up and switch places with the people on right. Again, intrigued, he asked some parishioners after the service why the congregation did this big switch. Again, he got deep and meaningful answers, “Well it’s a sign of respect, we stand and offer our seats to our neighbor.” “Well, it’s so that no one gets territorial about ‘their’ pew.” Again, the truth ended up being far less meaningful.
Years ago there was a big stove in the middle of the church that emitted heat only in the direction of the left-hand pews. The congregation would stand up and switch places midway through the service so that the people on the right-hand side of the church could have a chance to get warm. Eventually the stove was removed, but the practice continued, with no one really able to remember why it started in the first place.
Have you ever stopped to wonder why we do what we do? Why do we put that funny little piece of cardboard over the chalice? Why do I wash my hands before communion? Why do we sometimes process to the middle of the sanctuary to read the gospel? Why are pulpits so high up? If I had to venture a guess, I would say that about 75% of the things we do in worship started for practical reasons and then had theological reasons added on later. In short, we needed to tie up the cat so it wouldn’t bother us.
We laugh at some of these silly church practices, but these kinds of things can cause a lot of trouble. There’s nothing inherently wrong with what we do in church. Hopefully, most of what we do is helpful and good; but our rituals can start to cause issues when they distracts us from our relationship with God. Instead of allowing our practices to serve us, we start serving our practices. The moment we feel like we can’t worship without one of our practices is the moment we know we’re in trouble. The whole point of today’s gospel reading is to show us that the only thing we need in order to have a relationship with Jesus is…Jesus. Worship is simply gathering with other people to praise God for what God has done for us. That’s it. Everything else is icing on the cake.
For all its awfulness, I think the pandemic has helped us to see this more clearly. Even though we could not meet in our sanctuary, even though we cannot not sing, even though we cannot not come up to communion in the normal manner, or process in and out, we have still worshipped God. Some of us have done it online, and others have joined with us in spirit. But your worship over the course of this pandemic has been no less valid or authentic because you weren’t here doing it in the “normal” way. If we think that we have to have a church building and a pulpit and hymnals and an organ and vestments and pews and flowers and a specific liturgy to worship God, then we are actually worshipping those things, not God.
Many of our neighboring congregations have fallen into this trap. How many churches do you know around here that still have a building but no longer have a pastor? Instead of teaming up with another congregation as a multi-point parish or closing their doors and becoming members somewhere else, many congregations struggle on, choosing their building as top priority. And why is that? Because like so many churches, they have made their building their god. They have chosen to worship their own independence instead of the God who gathers the whole church into community. Do we do that here?
Jesus drives the animals and the money out of the temple to make the point that those things are simply not necessary to worship God anymore. All that is necessary is to have a relationship with Jesus. Don’t get me wrong. These practices can still be very good and beneficial. Many Christians continued to offer sacrifice at the temple until the temple was destroyed in 70AD. But we have to check our loyalties—are we worshipping God? Or worshipping the ritual?
In driving the animals and the money out of the temple, Jesus is driving out the distractions. He’s creating a clear path between humanity and God. You don’t need all this other stuff to worship God. You simply need a willing heart, a willing voice, and community with which to gather. The where, when, and how of all that is just details, details that we cannot allow to become the main thing.
In addition to driving out the distractions, Jesus drives out one more thing in this passage: himself—which is to say, God. If the temple is supposedly the place where God resides, then in Jesus God has broken out of the temple. Later in the gospel, Jesus will say to the Father, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me” (John 17:22-23a). If God resides in Jesus, and Jesus resides in us, then God no longer lives in the Temple. God has been driven out and now God is on the loose—and this is good news, because now we can experience the living God any time and any place, right there, within ourselves and our neighbors.
God drives God’s self out of the temple so that God can be right with us at all times. There are no more distractions. There are no more barriers. God has driven those out too. The way to God lies within you and within your neighbor.
Everything else is just details.
 Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God