Third Sunday in the Midst of Lent (Year B)

TEXT:  John 2:13-22

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 market-place!” (John 2:13-16)

Theodore Roosevelt … anybody remember him? If you do, you’re really old, because he died in 1919!

“Teddy” Roosevelt was the 26th President of the United States, and—as an adult—he was known for his toughness and courage. In fact, on one occasion—after he had been shot in the chest by a would-be assassin—he refused to visit the hospital until he finished delivering the 90-minute speech he had prepared.*

“I do not care a rap about being shot,” Roosevelt said. “Not a rap!” 

However, he wasn’t always that brave. It seems that, as a young boy growing up in New York City, Teddy Roosevelt became absolutely terrified of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church—which was where his family attended worship.

Now, some of you reading this may not be surprised by that. As I understand it, many people have been terrified of the Presbyterian Church.

But young Teddy had a very specific reason for his fear. When his mother asked him about it, all Teddy could say was he didn’t want the “zeal” to get him—like it said in the Bible.

Further inquiry led Mrs. Roosevelt to the Scripture recently quoted by the pastor, from the King James Version, where Jesus says: “And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up” (John 2:17).

Little Teddy figured that—under some pew, or perhaps behind the pulpit—the man-eating “zeal monster” was hiding, lying in wait to grab its next victim.

As we consider this morning’s gospel lesson—which in our modern translation reads, “Zeal for your house will consume me”—we might wonder whether this “zeal” thing is some kind of monster.

Consider what it drove Jesus to do.

“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 …” (John 2:14-15a)

Now, that’s not something most of us can easily picture: Jesus with a whip.

Lots of churches have framed pictures of Jesus on their walls. Some people even have them in their homes. And the scenes they portray are fairly predictable: Jesus as an infant in the arms of his mother; Jesus surrounded by children; Jesus with a lamb draped over his shoulders; Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.

But I’ve never seen anyone hang a picture on their wall of Jesus with a whip!  It’s not a very popular theme. But that’s how Jesus is depicted in today’s reading from the second chapter of John’s Gospel.

What a scene! And it took place in the temple—the great temple of God in Jerusalem. Well, not actually inside the temple building itself, but in the temple precincts—the area around the temple where there was plenty of open space for everything from animal traders to a whip-cracking preacher.

Before we go any further, let’s make one thing clear: Jesus loved the temple. Of that, there is no doubt.

When he was 40 days old, his parents took him to the temple, and there they made the appropriate sacrifices prescribed by the Law of Moses for a first-born son. When Jesus was 12 years old, having traveled to Jerusalem with his parents for the Passover, he stayed behind in the temple.

Remember that story? He loved the temple so much he could not bear to leave it when the rest of his family began their journey back home to Nazareth. When Mary and Joseph discovered he was missing, they searched for three long days until they found him there in the temple.

Remember what he said to them? He said, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49)

The temple was his Father’s house. So, yes—of course Jesus loved the temple. He was zealous for the temple. He worshipped there and taught there. And when Jesus, now grown into a man, arrived in Jerusalem for yet another Passover, he went to the temple and cleansed it. That’s what he was doing. That’s what Christian tradition has called the story which we heard today: the “cleansing of the temple.” The temple had been defiled, so Jesus cleansed it.

He purified it. That’s how zealous for the temple he was. That’s how much he loved it.

But Jesus also knew that something greater than the temple had come, and that he himself was that greater thing. “Destroy this temple,” he said, “and in three days I will raise it up.”

Although Jesus did speak of the destruction of the temple elsewhere—the one of brick and stone—on this particular occasion, he was referring to the temple of his body. When he says, “in three days I will raise it up”—he’s talking about his own death and resurrection. But, about that, Jesus was misunderstood—as he always was, whenever he spoke about his death and rising.

People just didn’t get it. “What’s the point of that?” they wondered. “What would that accomplish?” But Jesus, cracking that whip in the temple, was trying to clue them in.

Did you notice how, in today’s gospel reading, when Jesus cleanses the temple, he targets the animals? “Making a whip of cords,” we’re told, “he drove them all out of the temple.” Not just the money-changers and those who sold pigeons, but the pigeons themselves; the sheep and oxen, too—he drove them all out. It must have been quite a commotion—the pigeons flapping their wings in panic, the sheep bleating, the oxen … well, making whatever noise oxen make.

So what were the animals doing there in the first place? We don’t usually bring our animals into church. Why was there a menagerie in the temple?

The animals were there for the sacrifices, of course: the sacrifices prescribed by the Law of Moses. Jews would come from all over the world to the temple to offer up their sacrifices to God.

Rather than bring their own goats or lambs with them over the long and perilous journey, they’d buy them when they got to the temple—which is why the vendors and money-changers were there. It was all for the sake of convenience so that the proper sacrifices could be made. And they had to be made.

To atone for sin the animals were offered up, to restore the communion with God which sin had disrupted.

But wait a minute. Can the sacrifice of animals really atone for sin and restore communion with God?

It’s hard to see how they could. And indeed, they cannot. As the author of the book of Hebrews says, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Heb. 10:4)

For what purpose, then, were the animal sacrifices in the temple established?

Today, in retrospect, we can see that they anticipated the blood that would be spilled—the blood that could take away sins: the blood of Christ, which he shed for us upon the cross. Now that he had come, the animals had to go—which is why Jesus made a whip of cords and drove them out of the temple.

“Take these things out of here!” he said, for he—and he alone—would be the atonement for our sins.

Fittingly enough, I suppose, what Jesus did when he cleansed the temple led directly to the sentence of death being pronounced upon him. At Jesus’ trial, muddled witnesses testified:

“We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another …’” (Mark 14:58).

Of course, those witnesses didn’t get it quite right, for Jesus, you remember, was speaking about the temple of his body. But theirs was the testimony that led the high priest to ask Jesus who he thought he was: “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” To which Jesus answered, “I am.”

Hearing that, the high priest tore his garments and said to the Council before whom Jesus was being tried, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?”

Then all of them—together—condemned Jesus to die.

So it was that the One who drove the lambs from the temple carried his cross to Golgotha like a being lamb led to the slaughter. And the precious blood that Jesus shed there accomplished—once and for all—what the blood of bulls and goats and pigeons could never do.

Jesus made full atonement for sin—and, through faith—communion with God was restored to sinners. Yes, to sinners! That would be you. That would be me. That would, in fact, be each one of us. Thanks be to God for so great a salvation.


*On October 14, 1912, an unemployed saloonkeeper shot former president and Progressive Party candidate Theodore Roosevelt outside a Milwaukee hotel. The bullet merely annoyed him.


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