The Reverend George C. Wong's Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, 7 February 2021, Gospel of John 2:13-22.
Masterclass is a company which sells subscriptions for online lectures and tutorials taught by celebrities and experts on subjects like cooking, art, composing, acting and designing, writing and others. The classes are highly polished productions, and are mostly meant for the viewer to have fun and to be affirmed. But Master classes have been around a long time especially in the classical piano world.
I recently watched one such Master class, where the instructor was Daniel Barenboim, the world famous pianist and conductor, who is also known as one of the finest interpreters of Beethoven. He listened intently to Lang Lang, who has since become one of the world’s elite classical pianists, but was then a promising young conservatory student. With Barenboim sitting nearby, Lang Lang played the 1st movement of the Appassionata sonata, a very difficult sonata to play well.
Lang Lang played with great skill to the delight of the gathered. But their approval was a foregone conclusion. His eyes rose up to meet Barenboim’s, clearly seeking the approval of the master. Barenboim did not immediately respond and everyone held their breath.
Then he said: “really Lang Lang that was wonderful and had so much color.” Then he proceeded to offer critiques, and went measure by measure about ways in which Lang had missed the mark. To most people, Lang Lang played perfectly, like a virtuoso. To Barenboim’s ear, the playing was correct note-wise, but did not convey the intent of the composer and thus was incomplete as an interpretation.
Barenboim’s intent was to offer Lang Lang some clear assessments about his playing which was very good, but could not be considered sublime. This was because Lang Lang was not conveying meaning the composer had intended. He could only do so by hearing honest feedback about his where he missed the mark—shortcomings which most would overlook gladly. Lang Lang was already an up and coming star in the world of classical piano, yet, he sat at the feet of his teacher and took it all in—a sign of his humility and also to his great benefit—often only those willing to be torn down can build back up.
In today’s gospel, Jesus is running his own kind of Masterclass with his own brand of honesty, prophetic words. Jesus storms into the temple grounds and begins overturning the money changers tables. Incensed, he chases everyone out with an improvised whip of cords. Jesus was furious that the temple, his Father’s house, had been defiled and that the ground had degenerated into a seedy marketplace.
In principal, there was nothing wrong with money changing. Worshippers could not use Roman coins to buy sacrificial animals in the temple. Caesar’s face appeared on every coin, so to use coins to transact on the temple grounds would have been considered idolatrous. So the money changers served a needed function.
But the practice of money changing had taken a wrong turn under the watch of the temple leadership. The moneychangers had been taking advantage of their sanctioned monopolistic position to exploit the poor, those who had often traveled some distance to be observant worshipers and who were just trying to be faithful believers.
The holiest place on earth, the dwelling place of God, had been defiled.
The Father’s house was intended to be a place of prayer, a special form of prayer, sacrifice, that is taking the form of offering up one’s very best to God in a posture of thanks, humility and gratitude. Jesus knew his actions of cleansing the temple grounds would infuriate the temple establishment.
He knew that he would likely be a man marked for death from then on.
But of course Jesus knew that. It did not stop him because what he knew is that he himself would become the offering in the end. That is the reason Jesus makes reference to the temple being raised in three days. Jesus was not talking about the physical edifice of the temple building, he was talking about his body as the temple. Jesus would be crushed, his body lifeless, made a sacrifice but he would rise up in three days.
Jesus became the new temple, and we are invited to become the Body of Christ.
In today’s gospel, Jesus did not destroy the temple; he came to protest its current state, he came to speak the truth in order to save the temple. Jesus came to deepen our understanding of what it means to be in line with God, the creator. It was also a message worth dying for in order that we might have a chance to correct our course and turn back to God.
We have found that time and time again, the church, the body of Christ has had to find renewed direction and chart a course back to union with God.
By the time of the Reformation, the institutional church had become obsessed with its own power, wealth and influence. In effect, the temple was destroying itself, rife with corruption, hypocrisy and rot. Martin Luther came onto the scene with the 95 Theses. He meant to reform the Catholic church but along with other reformers ended up turning Christendom upside down.
And today, we are at a point where the mainline churches have been struggling and in decline for the last fifty years or so. We might ask ourselves—is something not right in the temple? What are we to do?
I don’t have a simple answer to the complex challenges of being church in a post-modern times, where truth is often the very first thing sacrificed when each person’s opinion hold sway and when everybody has access to a platform to speak their truth. All this certainty on the part of so many who know so much has not done away with the reality that there is much uncertainty about the fate of the world: how we will secure social justice for all, how we will care for the environment, and how to live in what is basically a small interconnected planet, where both good and bad can spread almost overnight and so on. Many things are uncertain as we go forward in faith. But it is 100% certain that Jesus shows us in today’s gospel that it is not enough to be correct or to do things by the letter of the law, or the way things have been done, just because.
What God most deeply desires of us is that we offer ourselves back to God and to the world with kindness, authenticity, humility and gratitude. We must put on the Spirit of God in Christ. How are we doing? Our natural preference and tendency is to think that we are doing well and that we are faithful. This type of thinking is typified by the thought that: “It will all be better when this or that happens. We don’t need to take any action.” But we all know that is not always the case. Sometimes we need some honest words even confrontational words spoken in righteous anger.
Jesus used a wide range of pedagogical approaches ranging from the indirect as in his use of parables, to the very direct. Whatever the particular method, Jesus was always 100% honest and authentic. Jesus did not so much hew to the slick online Master class approach, but often said what needed to be said for the sake of teaching for the sake of the salvation (the healing) of those he taught.
Think of his compassionate and probing conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well: “If you knew who asked you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
-Or, think of Jesus working inviting the crowd to reflect on their own souls, when he said to the people poised to stone the woman: “let anyone without sin cast the first stone”
-Or in the mode of chastisement when he said to Peter: “get behind me Satan”
In today’s gospel, Jesus goes all in in terms of being direct even disruptive by his expression of righteous anger.
Sometimes, an urgently needed wake-up call does not come in the prettiest or most polished way. I think we all know the feeling of having to hear something in the most honest, blunt and forceful way in order to hear a particular message.
The life changing and life giving prophetic word can have the force of being smacked with the ends of a whipcord. Sometimes, in order to grow, we need to have people turn over the tables we have set with a word or two of truth. I wonder:
What would Jesus have to say to us today as a community?
Where is it that we as a community need to hear the truth?
What is Jesus urging us to reconsider our thoughts, our ways and our habits and where are we called to change for the sake of the temple, the Body of Christ?