Jesus is angered by our trivialising of religion that inoculates us against the claims of a holy God, and calls us to clean out the crassness and commercialism and approach God on God’s terms.
The old cliched image of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” takes a bit of a battering in tonight’s gospel reading, doesn’t it? The story of Jesus doing his block in the temple appears in all four gospels. In the other three it comes right near the end, the week before Jesus is crucified, but here in John’s gospel, it is at the start, in only the second chapter. It is one of the first pictures of Jesus that John gives us. Right here up front, before Jesus has run into any trouble with the religious or civil authorities, while he is still popular with everyone who has encountered him, he flies into a screaming rage and trashes the forecourt of the Jerusalem temple.
And the hard part of this for me to face up to, for us to face up to, is what it is that Jesus attacks. If he’d come in raging about the ten commandments, we might have coped. If he’d attacked the thieves for their stealing, the adulterers for their adultery, it would be okay. Even the Pharisees for their legalism, the Sadducees for their snobbishness, the soldiers for their violence. But in the temple that day he didn’t mention any of those things. He attacks worshippers for their worship. He denounces the religious for their religion. This is not an attack on the pagans in the casino boardroom, this is an attack on the righteous here in the church.
The temple was the place where people went to worship, to meet with God. And this event took place at Passover, which was the most important occasion on which everyone sought to make it to the temple to celebrate what God had done for them. Like us, they turn up to meet with God, to praise God. And priests and pastors and preachers are here to help you meet with God. That’s what we’re paid for, to help you meet with God. We even get described as members of the “helping professions” sometimes.
And the reason that scares me is because that is exactly what those merchants were doing in the temple - helping people to meet with God - providing a much needed service for the worshippers. You couldn’t put Roman coins in the temple offering box, it had to be Jerusalem shekels, so when you came in from out of town to worship you needed to deal with the money changers. So as a service to worshippers the money changers set up in the temple forecourt. If you wanted to offer God an unblemished lamb or bullock or even pigeon, as the scripture required, you had to buy one, and so the livestock traders set up at the temple as a service to the worshippers. Sure they may have charged a little extra, but it could all be justified as necessary to cover the additional overheads of coming to the customer. Providing a service. Helping people to meet with God and to worship appropriately.
Ouch! That table Jesus is turning over is my table. This is not somebody else’s problem. This is us. This is Jesus barging in here, kicking the pulpit over, flinging the offering bag to the floor, and hurling the overhead projector through the window. Jesus is spitting chips over the extent to which we domesticate the awesome Holy God who thunders from the mountain top; over the way we turn meeting with God into another item on our shopping lists between getting the car serviced and booking in for a relaxation class.
We continually trivialise our approach to God. The God who caused people to fall on their faces thinking they were going to die, is tamed by us to the level of a business transaction. An vending machine religion - put your money in here and we’ll dispense a little dose of the divine.
Everybody has spiritual needs, a need to connect rightly with God and themselves, a need to find meaning in life and live accordingly. And Christianity offers one set of responses to that sense of need. But what do we do with those responses? For the most part, we package them as available commodities on the shelves of the supermarket of spirituality. And we select from them as seems to fit our needs for any given occasion, have them scanned at the checkout and go on our way with our hunger for God appeased back to a bearable level.
The church becomes a service centre. We come in empty on Sunday and get topped up with enough energy and inspiration to make it through the week. And I’m here as a dispenser of product, a sort of spiritual department store spruiker, hawking the wares, trying to keep up the market share for my particular brand while offering you something that at least resembles what you’re looking for.
We all do it. I’m not trying to run you down here. I’m in the sights at least as much. I sense my hunger for encounter with the Holy Awesome God of the Universe, but when the rubber hits the road I would much rather settle for a three point technique that reduces my hunger pangs than risk confronting the demands of such a God. I saw a magazine article once that described something as “the perfect way to touch base with your spirituality.” That’s what we want - to touch base with our spirituality. Not to plunge headlong into it, or to abandon ourselves to the God of the burning bush, or to take sides with the one who bursts into the church, whip in hand, overturning tables and driving confused bullocks down the carpeted aisle.
It’s far too frightening to follow a God like that. Almost every bone of my body wants to hang on to the easy ways out rather than follow Jesus on the way of the cross. Our petty polite domestication of his good news just makes him mad. Our nice, trite, feel good spiritualities with their simple steps to inner healing and renewal of relationships drives him berserk. It is a violation of the holiness and integrity of God, and he will not tolerate it.
God’s commands were not given to us simply because they are a more reliable means of getting what we want. They are not techniques for achieving our selfish desires. They are the means of exposing our selfish and petty desires and remaking us into God’s people, people who are being conformed to God’s desires, instead of people who seek to move God to meet their own desires.
We blithely think we come to worship to find the commodity that will fill the little “God-shaped” hole in our meaning and fulfilment systems. And instead the doors are kicked open and we discover a righteous demanding God, whose standards are not our standards, whose demands override our easy complacency and overturn tables, setting the livestock loose and spilling the money all over the floor.
If you want nice, acceptable feel-good religion don’t come looking to Jesus. Don’t come to this book, to this table. Walk into any bookshop, and the self-help shelves are full of self realisation religions and touch-base-with-your-spirituality techniques. If, however, you want to hand yourself over, body and soul, to the God of the Universe, to the often frightening and all-consuming God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, then you are welcome to approach this table.
This table is to be approached with reverence and awe, not with a mere nod of familiarity. Do you realise what we are saying when we hold up this bread and sing “Holy! Holy! Holy!” and ask that God will pour out the Holy Spirit on it and on us so that it and we may be the body of Christ? Have we any idea what we are asking? Or do we just mouth it without seriously believing a word of it? Because if that actually happens, if the Holy Spirit of God really falls on us with all-consuming fire and drives us out to be Christ in the world, there’s no going back.
As you pass this bread from one to the other, you might as well be passing a live hand grenade, because if it really becomes the body and blood of Christ in you, you can kiss goodbye forever your icing-on-the-cake religion, your sensible career path and your model family. Look at your hands for a moment. When you take this bread in your hands and offer it to the person next to you, your hands are the hands of Christ, your hands hold in their grasp the most volatile and mysterious power in the universe. And you can’t take that lightly because if your hands become the hands of Christ they could find themselves with nails through them next as you follow Christ in offering your brokenness up for the life of the world.
So if you’re ready to approach the table of the God who offers everything for you, but who will crash the tables over rather than accept anything less in return, here it is. If you’re ready to place your whole life in the hands of the God whose broken body is given to you, the table is set, and all who are still willing to come are welcomed. Put on your crash helmets and strap on your safety harnesses for we are approaching the one and only uncontrollable God.