"Temple Cleansing and Forgiveness" – 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 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.
I read a blurb in a recent issue of The Christian Century magazine that told a story about Nadia Bolz-Weber where, after a speech/lecture at the First Baptist Church in Madison Wisconsin, a woman in tears spoke up and explained that she was unable to forgive herself, because she had been told so many times how unforgiveable she was. Nadia Bolz-Weber – the current, coolest Pastor in the ELCA, known as much for her sound theology as she is for her many tattoos and her snarky potty mouth – responded, “Maybe for as many times as you’ve been told that, you need to hear that God is gracious, and merciful, and slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and loves you as you are.” And then Bolz-Weber proceeded to forgive her with something like the words we share every time we make our confession in worship. She said, “…as a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ, and by Christ’s authority, I declare to you the entire forgiveness of all of your sins.” And the people in attendance responded, “Amen.”
In addition to the fact that the First Baptist Church of Madison, Wisconsin, let Nadia Bolz-Weber have the microphone – with all of her tattoos and lady-parts (this is progress, people) – this seemed newsworthy to me, in light of today’s Gospel story.
Because Jesus doesn’t sound like any of those things in this bit from John, chapter two, does he? “Gracious and merciful?” “Slow to anger?” “Abounding in steadfast love?” Not when he’s “cleansing the temple,” anyway, turning over tables, pouring out coins, throwing his weight around, driving out the cattle, the sheep, and the doves, with a whip and raising his voice – if you believe the exclamation marks in the text, anyway.
So first, I want to put some of that into perspective.
One thing it’s helpful to know is that back in Jesus’ day, it was common for things to be sold in and around the Temple. And, because the celebration of Passover was right around the corner, Jews from all over the place were traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate their big holiday. Since it’s difficult to travel with animals and because animal sacrifice was such an important, necessary part of Jewish worship, those who came to Jerusalem often had to buy the animals they were expected to sacrifice, once they made it into the city. All of that is to explain why the Temple looks and sounds and probably smelled, if you can use your imagination, a lot like a barnyard in today’s Gospel story.
And all of that is to explain why Jesus was so fired up, because Jesus was trying to show how things were supposed to be changing for God’s people. See, all those animal sacrifices were old ways of showing devotion, of making confession, of seeking forgiveness, of offering worship to God for Jewish believers. Jesus was trying to show that these Jewish practices of sacrifice – all of this keeping with the old ways and the old laws – weren’t the way to worship anymore. With the arrival of Jesus, the kingdom had come in a new way and the Son of God was what worship was all about. Cattle, sheep and doves weren’t necessary and wouldn’t cut it anyway, anymore as far as sacrifices of repentance or confession or worship were concerned.
Jesus was letting the people of the Temple know they had lost their focus, that Jesus was (and is) the one and only thing on which they should focus their worship and attention. And, even though it’s hard to hear, even though it’s embarrassing to admit, even though it catches us by surprise a lot of the time, Jesus is forever reminding us that he is the one to whom we should direct our attention, still. Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is about Jesus very clearly, very deliberately, very loudly getting our attention and bringing it back to where it belongs.
Which brings me back to Nadia Bolz-Weber and that woman in Wisconsin. Remember, her struggle was that she couldn’t forgive herself, because so many people had told her so many times how unforgiveable she was. She, like so many of us, was looking in all the wrong places, in all the wrong ways for her forgiveness. She might as well have been buying and sacrificing cattle, sheep and doves and expecting to earn God’s forgiveness so she could feel better about herself.
But consider this: nowhere in the Bible is there talk of or encouragement to forgive ourselves. That’s the stuff of modern day psychology and self-help, really. But it’s not Biblical really. In other words, we can’t sacrifice enough cattle, sheep or doves to earn make our forgiveness happen. We can’t pray enough or worship enough or give enough money to justify ourselves. We can’t even feel sad or guilty or remorseful enough to merit our own redemption. And God knows – Jesus knew – that we might kill ourselves, sometimes figuratively, sometimes spiritually, sometimes literally kill ourselves because we couldn’t find the forgiveness we may long for.
Because the truth is, the only ones who can forgive us are the ones our sin offends, in the first place, or The One – God, in Jesus Christ – whose heart breaks whenever our sin does harm in the world around us. Forgiveness for our transgressions just isn’t something we can ever offer or extend to ourselves with any integrity, if we’re honest.
Because for some of us, forgiving ourselves might be too easy, right? We can deny or justify or ignore our sins in any number of ways and go about our lives without the least bit of concern or effort at making amends. Do you know anyone like that?
For others, like the poor woman in Wisconsin, our sins are too many and our shame is so deep, we can’t ever do enough of the hard work of retribution to feel reconciled in our heart of hearts. So to suggest that we need to – or are able to – “forgive ourselves” without including a second party, somehow, would always be incomplete, if not disingenuous and maybe even arrogant, to boot.
So God, in Jesus, offers to be the second party in the equation of our forgiveness. And Jesus shows up to say, “stop trying to do this yourselves. Stop trying to earn this grace. Stop trying to deserve this love. You cannot.” And he says, pretty dramatically in this Gospel story, that he’s done doing the math; that he’s done counting coins or cattle or sheep or doves as a way of doling out forgiveness and mercy and love; and that we should stop that sort of thing, too. And he promises that it must come, this grace and mercy and love and forgiveness – that it will come – that it has come – from God in Jesus Christ.
“Tear down this temple – destroy this body – crucify the very Son of God and you will see what I mean,” Jesus dares them. And because their minds were set on earthly things and on their own efforts in every way, those who were listening to Jesus thought he was talking, literally, about destroying the temple in Jerusalem, which they’d been building for 46 years or so. Of course, after some Monday morning quarterbacking they – and the rest of us – with our eyes set on heavenly things, instead of on earthly things, know Jesus was talking about his own destruction, his own demise, his own crucifixion that was on the way.
And we are to see now, in that temple’s re-building, by his rising from the dead, through his resurrection Jesus becomes the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. And through him, we see and receive and experience our forgiveness – not through ourselves and not from our Priest or our Pastor either. Our forgiveness comes from the God of our creation. It is complete. It is full. It is more than we can accomplish on our own. And it is enough.