In the season of Advent we anxiously awaited the arrival of Jesus. Remember? The world was full of shopping and excitement – we were, too – as we tried to be ready for Christmas and for Jesus, as if they were two separate things. We pushed aside what we could and came together after nightfall on Christmas Eve. Ahh. Baby Jesus was here. We adored that baby in the manger. The world, hushed in anticipation, welcomed a living, baby Savior. Silent night, holy night.
Epiphany brought us a visit from some wise men. We know that the season of light is here. Jesus is revealed as the light of the world. Oh, how we have been waiting for that light!
We celebrate and hear stories of Jesus as the light of the world, and then Lent sort of slams into our consciousness. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We thought about our death, and maybe about our creation.
But in this journey of the church and of Jesus’ life, we are not prepared for the temple. We are not prepared for a Jesus who just a few weeks ago said “Get behind me, Satan!” We are not prepared for a Jesus who makes a whip out of cords and who turns over the tables in the temple. The scene is already noisy, chaotic maybe, and … what happened?
What happened to precious baby Jesus, to “silent night, holy night?”
The temple and the temple system grew out of a deep and obedient faith. The Israelites built a temple in which to worship God. The temple in Jerusalem was the center of life for Jewish people all over the ancient world. People met in local synagogues on a regular basis, “but only in Jerusalem’s Temple could faithful people offer the sacrifices commanded in the Law of Moses. In the act of sacrifice the covenant with God was affirmed and renewed. Believers could return to their far away homes assured that they were right with God.” (Pastor Heather Hammond, Bishop’s Associate, MN, from “textweek.com,” March, 2009)
Faithful people came to the Temple to offer their sacrifices. The poorest of families would sacrifice a dove; wealthier families a sheep or a goat. Instead of bringing an animal to sacrifice, people could purchase a certified animal at the temple. However, animals used for sacrifice could not be purchased with Roman coins. Coins of the Roman Empire had the image of an emperor on them, which violated the commandment against revering anything other than God. Money was changed at the temple into special coins used for temple purchases.
This Temple system was meant to be a blessing. Making sacrificial animals and money readily available was meant to facilitate receiving God’s grace. Even the poor did not have to carry animals throughout the Empire in order to give their sacrifice to God. Everything was available in one place.
Over time the temple system became corrupt. The monetary exchange rate was exorbitant. The animals were expensive. Those selling animals for sacrifice and changing money had a monopoly in that marketplace, and they took full advantage of it. By giving in to greed and selfish desires, the moneychangers and livestock sellers exploited God’s faithful people.
“My house shall be called a house prayer for all nations. But you have made it a den of robbers.” The words of the prophet Isaiah have come true; they are spoken this time by Jesus as he overturns both the tables and temple life.
Again we say, “what happened?”
Some of what happened has been there all along. Our “silent night, holy night” was already fraught with danger. Herod sought Jesus in order to kill this threat to his throne. In our time with baby Jesus, we tend to ignore the death that surrounds him. We cover the wise men in mystery and royal garments while we celebrate their arrival. We look past the fact that they “went home by another road,” and did not reveal Jesus’ location to Herod.
We skip right over the night now called “Holy Innocents,” in which a few thousand babies were slaughtered in order to try to kill the baby Jesus. Slaughter does not fit into our version of Jesus. Some of what happened at the temple surprises us because WE have tried to “clean up” the gospels. We have focused on the miracles and not the threats. We focus on the restoration of order, and not on the depth and the danger that comes with the life of Jesus.
But the gospels, my friends, are not just stories. They are real, and as much as we try to make them over into something that we understand, believe, and can handle, the gospel is not something that will ever fit into our hands. The gospel message is not one that we can manipulate or soften. The gospels are much more serious than that.
A Roman Catholic theologian named Gil Bailie writes that this is where “the gospels are much more serious than we realize. Jesus didn’t come and say, ‘The temple is finished. Thank you and goodbye.’ He said ‘The temple is finished and I will take its place.’ That’s an outrageous claim.”
The worship system that we built from the time of Moses is gone. In its place is not a system of order and structure that we can build on paper: the coins, the physical building, the exchange system, the animals – maybe everything except the journey is gone.
And the life that we built for Jesus is not the life that ever was.
The seriousness of the gospels and the complete overturning of the temple system lets us know that what is left is Jesus. The temple is finished, and what is supposed to be built is another way of life. The other road home, perhaps the very one that the wise men took, is to fall in love with Jesus. THAT is the seriousness of the gospels. We are supposed to fall in love.
To fall in love with someone so real that we stop remaking his life into something we can handle. It is a love so real that we follow Jesus not out of obligation but because we must. It is a love so real that we give up what is corrupt in our lives, in ourselves, and long to be cleansed of everything that keeps us from God. It is in the end a love that perhaps we cannot imagine, but one that we live anyway.
Our gospel lives are lives overturned by falling in love with love itself, Jesus. How could we have thought that we already knew him?