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"Holy Commotion"

We know that what John is asserting for his listeners is true: what we need is not a building, it is the body of Christ, the people of God. That is where we meet God.

[1] “Jesus in the Temple” by Bernadette Lopez
[1] “Jesus in the Temple” by Bernadette Lopez

John 2:13-22

March 3, 2024

Dr. Todd R. Wright

We began Lent with Mark as our guide. His sparse language and crackling urgency took us into the wilderness with Jesus. But today, and for most of the rest of Lent, we will walk with John … and he has a very different writing style:

If Mark was the first to try and record a gospel, John is the last. And while Matthew and Luke follow Mark’s lead, John seems to want to come at everything from a different angle – with lots of unique material, playing up irony and confusion in conversations with disciples and opponents alike. You will notice that with his account of Jesus’ actions in the Temple.

The other three gospel writers talk about this event as taking place after Jesus triumphally enters Jerusalem. His actions there are the final straw and lead directly to his arrest and the cross.

John moves the event to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

It’s not that his memory is bad or that he dropped his notes and they got shuffled. He is making a different point: he uses this scene to publicly reveal who Jesus is.

Keep that in mind as we review his account.


John writes for an audience that is suffering trauma. By the time he writes, Rome has destroyed the Temple, and it has broken the hearts of his congregation (and the whole nation).

The Temple was more than a building. It was the place where God dwelled; the place where people could draw close to their God; the place where God’s people went every year to celebrate Passover and remember how God had set them free!

In that holy place, God was close; and they were loved. The reality of sin and the burden of occupation could not change either of those facts!

But for John’s readers, that holy place was in ruins.

It had been so alive! One scholar describes how it once was: “Merchants bustle among their animals, moneychangers busily exchange coins, and pilgrims peruse the stalls, bartering with the tradespeople and seeking priests to complete sacrificial rituals. Moneychangers exchanged denarii into half-shekels so pilgrims could pay the temple-tax, while animals were offered in sacrifices for ritual purity from daily life so they could participate fully in the Passover.”[2]

John is crafting his gospel for people grieving that way of life; people unsure where to find God and how to practice their religion without the Temple.

In his gospel, Jesus steps forward and offers an answer.


In some ways, it is an answer that is hard for us to hear.

After 2000 years, we feel no tug to pray at all that remains of the Temple, wedging our prayers in the cracks of the wailing wall in Jerusalem.

As descendants of those people who had to make peace with that loss, we accepted rabbinic Judaism’s accommodation that God could be worshiped in the home.

As Presbyterians, we took it one step further and embraced the idea that God could, in fact, be worshipped anywhere. Our Book of Order puts it this way: “Because heaven and earth belong to God, we may worship any place. The Old Testament describes stone altars, tabernacles, temples, and other places where the people gathered and encountered God. The Gospels tell us that Jesus worshiped at the synagogue and temple, but he also worshiped in the wilderness, on hillsides, and at lakeshores demonstrating that God cannot be confined to any one place.” It goes on: “The first Christians worshiped at the temple and in synagogues, homes, catacombs and prisons. The important thing was not the place, but the gathering of Christ’s body – the people of God – and the presence of Christ among them in Word and Sacrament.”[3]


So, we have a hard time hearing Christ’s answer – the shock and wonder of it – because it has become our reality.

The people standing there that day – amidst the destruction and stunned silence wrought by Jesus – haven’t had time to absorb what he is asserting.

Unlike the other gospel writers, John’s Jesus is not just protesting corruption of the holy place or the shady business practices of the merchants, he is offering to replace the whole sacrificial system … with himself! He is offering to be the sacrificial lamb. He is offering his own body as a new place where people can encounter God!

We know this. We may get sloppy with our language and say that we felt God’s presence in this place, as if it was the strength of the walls that made us feel protected or the majesty of the organ that lifted our spirits or the stillness of the space that encouraged us to put words to our prayers, but it is not the building.

We’ve known that ever since we were taught that rhyme with hand motions – here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people!

We know that what John is asserting for his listeners is true: what we need is not a building, it is the body of Christ, the people of God. That is where we meet God. That is how God embraces us when we need a good hug that comforts us in our grief or reminds us that we are loved despite our sin. A building can’t do that; a body can.


Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying a building is worthless. (If I believed that, we wouldn’t be trying to raise funds to replace the sanctuary roof!)

What I am saying is that experiencing the presence of God in this place, or any spot set aside as holy, is never the goal. The goal is to prepare us to go out into the world.

David Lose puts it this way with the help of C. S. Lewis:

“In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the four children travel from war-torn London to Narnia and there meet the great lion (and Christ-figure), Aslan, and with his help defeat the White Witch who holds Narnia captive in a perpetual winter. In the second book, the children travel back to assist Prince Caspian in obtaining his rightful throne, and at the end of that book Aslan tells the two older children, Peter and Susan, that they will not return to Narnia. Then, at the end of the third book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan meets Lucy and Edmund at the edge of the Eastern Sea and tells them the same, that this will be their last trip to Narnia. Lucy is distraught at the prospect of not seeing the beloved lion again, but he reassures her that she will see him in her own world. When she is surprised that Aslan is present in her world, he tells her that the whole reason for bringing her to Narnia for a time was so that, coming to know him well [in Narnia], she would recognize him more easily [in her world].”[4]

Lose asks, “Isn’t that a great image for church? We come to church because in the proclamation of the Gospel and sharing of the sacraments we perceive God’s grace most clearly. But then we are sent out to look for God and, even more, to partner with God in our various roles and venues … to love and bless the people and world God loves so much.”


So don’t be alarmed by Jesus making a scene at the beginning of John. The gospel writer is just trying to reveal who Jesus is – the lamb of God, the thin place where heaven and earth meet, the one who will not let us forget who we are and whose we are!

And by revealing who Jesus is, John is pushing his congregation to remember the role they play in a world full of upheaval and uncertainty – they are the body of Christ, a sign of God’s love and the power of God’s forgiveness!

Go and be that church! Amen

[1] “Jesus in the Temple” by Bernadette Lopez
[2] From Alicia Myers’ reflections on the text for, 3/7/21
[3] From W-1.0203
[4] Here and following, from his reflection on the text, “Igniting Centrifugal Force”, 3/2/15

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