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Newaygo United Methodist Church
Sunday, November 19, 2017
Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors

Overturning Tables

Overturning Tables

John 2:13-22

Background:  It was the dream of every Israelite to journey once in their lifetime to worship in the Temple in Jerusalem and offer animals for burnt offerings and to pay a Temple tax.  Some people came from distances, so did not bring animals with them or the ones they brought were often deemed inadequate to offer.  Some needed to buy the animals in the Temple.  They could not use secular coins to pay the Temple tax, because most coins of the time had images on them and were considered unclean.  Foreign coins had to be exchanged for the legal tender of the Temple.  The sale of animals and the exchange of coins were necessary in order for worship in the Temple to proceed.  Money changers were permitted to charge an extra fee for themselves, sometimes charging exorbitant fees, making profits.  Many pilgrims who could ill afford the exorbitant rates the money changers charged were at a disadvantage and may have been unable to pay the tax and fulfill their obligations.  If a pilgrim brought his own animal for sacrifice it had to be inspected and was often deemed unfit or imperfect for the sacrifice.  The Temple “inspectors” had control over which animals were acceptable and which were not.  An imperfect animal had to be exchanged at a much higher cost than outside the Temple.  People were caught in a bind if they wanted to sacrifice.  The exchanges of money and coins took place in the court of Gentiles, the only place of prayer.  This meant that the place was filled with constant noise and confusion.  Anyone coming to seek God was unlikely to encounter God in such a non-worshipful, non prayerful commotion.  Then comes Jesus and here is what happened:  (read John 2:13-22)

 

When I was young, I found a $10 bill on the front lawn of our house.  I picked it up and with the bill in my hand entered my house.  My mother spotted the money in my hand and immediately assumed I had stolen the money and demanded I confess who I had stolen it from.  In my mother’s thinking there was no other reason I could have that much money in my hand.  Even though I repeatedly claimed I had found it, I was not believed.  So my mother sat me in a chair and told me to sit there until I told her who I had stolen it from.  I sat in that chair feeling the anger rise because of the injustice that was taking place in my house.  I knew I was innocent and was being unfairly accused.  So I locked my mind into refusal to tell anything but the truth.  In complete silence and without moving a muscle I sat in that chair for hours.  I would not confess to something I had not done.  Supper came and went, but no confession.  I sat there knowing I was right and endured the sitting until bedtime, at which time my mother sent me to bed hungry, tired, sore from sitting, without the money, but victorious.  I had stuck to my story and knew my innocence.  I had also learned how to sit in a chair for a long time without moving.  But Joe will tell you I did not learn patience that day.

That was an early experience of injustice and it certainly was not the last in my life.  Unjust practices abound in our lives and it was no different in Jesus’ time.  When he walked into the Temple that day, he saw the unjust practices taking place.  The place that had been the place for people to encounter God had been turned into a place where God seemed absent and lost in the practices and the noise and confusion of the time.  Not only were the Temple personnel profiting in the name of their religion, they were probably making it prohibitive for those with little means to worship and sacrifice to God.  Religion in the Temple had become other than that which God intended.  Those same Temple personnel may have justified what they were doing and convinced themselves that what they were doing was making money for the Temple operations and it didn’t hurt to gain a little profit on the side.  Perhaps they felt they were deserving of what they got.  Religion was being used for profit and gain.

It is easy to focus on Jesus’ anger in this story, but what was Jesus really trying to do.  Jesus is not just confronting the abuses, he is confronting the whole system.  Jesus is challenging the authority of the Temple and its worship.  The system that had been in place for centuries had become antiquated and obsolete, no longer effective in establishing relationship with God.  Jesus was ushering in a new Temple, a new way of worshipping.  The new Temple was his body and the new worship practice was a mind, heart, and Spirit worship.  Animal sacrifices would not be needed, as the ultimate sacrifice for all our sins would be Jesus himself. 

we can turn this story back on ourselves and wonder if Jesus would do the same thing in our sanctuaries.  Would he find practices that actually turned people away from God or made it harder for people to get in touch with God?  Perhaps this passage calls us to take a look at our own practices in being church that can draw us closer to God or distance us from God.

How many times do we get locked into our own perspective of how things should be, so much so that we are unable to allow any other possibility?  How many times have we gotten ourselves locked into positions on politics and automatically discount any other perspective?  And as we travel through life our perspectives can harden and become exclusive.  The temple personnel in Jesus’ time were locked into their way of doing and thinking religion, so much so that they were unable to look at the new thing Jesus was doing in a positive light.  They were threatened by Jesus.  Jesus was doing a new thing, showing a new way.  He was ushering in the kingdom of God and it passed them right on by because they could not hear or see it. 

Jesus was ushering in a kingdom of righteousness and peace, of love and adoration for God.  He envisioned a world filled with love and understanding and worship, a world not plagued by wars and sickness and death.  He was ushering in a world where little girls would not be unjustly punished for a crime they didn’t commit.  And, because of the leaders’ lack of ability to perceive something new, he had to make the ultimate sacrifice to usher it in. 

Now the big question is, have we created a church and worship practices that help or hinder our ability to perceive and experience God?  Have we reduced worship to a format that precludes any other way of doing worship?  Have we gotten into routines that eliminate other ideas about how to do worship?  Are we experiencing God on Sunday morning?  Are we experiencing God in our activities?  Are we experiencing God in our community?  Why or why not?  These are important questions to ask if we are to remain a vital, alive church.  It isn’t about being a perfect church, such a thing doesn’t exist.  It’s about worshipping and adoring a perfect God.  It’s about working imperfectly with this perfect God, about doing what God needs us to be doing.  If our heart is not in it for God, we stand a chance of becoming an institution, a social club, a place for people to come to commit themselves to rules.  We become another Temple where Jesus can and will overturn the tables, upset the system,

Sometimes the things we do to beautify our church are substitutes for true devotion.  If we focus on our building, focus on our procedures excluding the most important element of church, God, then we will become a dead, antiquated church.  Jesus pointed to a new way when he cleansed the Temple.  He gave us a new vision of what it means to be children of God.  And we catch that vision when we hold to our faith, focus our being on God, and believe that God is in all we do.  We can continue to worship God in all our perspectives and must do so in order for those perspectives to be alive and dynamic, not locked and unhearing.  We must find in our hearts what God is telling us to be as church and what God is telling us about the purpose and meaning of our lives here on earth as well as beyond this mortal way of living.

When we took our youth on a mission trip while I served at Dundee UMC, they quickly came up with a slogan for themselves.  We had to make a lot of changes in our way of planning for the trip to Tennessee, had to deal with an unexpected flat tire and lateness of one of our vehicles, and experienced other changes to our routine throughout the week.  So the motto became, “Be flexible!”   When we could be flexible we much more quickly adapted to the unexpected. 

It’s like that with church and with our own personal faith experiences.  When we remain flexible without giving up our core beliefs, we find ourselves more open to God’s leading.  What color we paint a sanctuary, what color of carpet, what songs we use, what paraments we use, what adornments we place on our altar, take a back seat to true worship of the God we love.  The important thing becomes our focus on God and where God is leading us.  It’s that type of worship that can take place no matter what the setting.  It’s that type of worship that shapes how we decorate a sanctuary to enhance our chances of experiencing God.  It’s that type of worship that strengthens our ability to experience God.  It’s not focusing on our practices, but focusing on God that counts.  What would it be like if Lois did not play music from her heart for God?  What would happen if Barb did not decorate the altar from her heart for God?  What would happen if we did not do missions from our heart for God?  What would happen if I did not preach from my heart for God?  We might find ourselves in a beautiful church, but wonder why God seemed absent.    

In one of my references I found this paragraph: “Why is it so difficult to kneel first before God and listen, then proceed from that perspective to build our altars and frame our liturgies?  Those who know that Christ is our sanctuary also know what the church building is and is not.”

So the big question is, “Is there anything in our church and our practices that keep us from finding God or keeps the seeking person out?

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