"Turning the Tables"

March 2, 1997 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon John 2:13-22 and Exodus 32

As Jesus drove the animals out of the Temple and turned the tables of the money changers over, dumping all their coins on the ground, he cried, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a Shopping Mall!"... OK, so maybe he didn’t say "shopping mall." Those were, of course, the days before K-Marts and Wal-Marts, White Marsh Malls and Towsontowne Centres. Still, the focus of his anger seems pretty clear... or does it?

This portrait of our Lord may not be our first choice for that spot above the Living Room sofa. I know I prefer the compassionate open arms of the suffering servant, or the joyful smile of Jesus with children in his lap. I’m not sure of what to do with this table turning, whip brandishing, angry man. How about you?

This episode reminds me of another story told in the Old Testament, one which I (and maybe you, also) struggle to understand and accept. It happened in the days of Moses, when the children of Israel were gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses climbed to the heights where God spoke the 10 words, the commandments, etching them into two tablets, or tables. Upon that mountain a renewed Covenant was made, the Torah/the Law was given and received. Of course, as the story goes, back at the camp things were moving from bad to worse. The people’s insecurity got the best of them as they waited for Moses. It must have taken a long time on that mountain.

You know the story. One thing led to another, and soon there was this golden calf sitting there, which everyone was dancing around, worshiping it instead of the great "I am who I am." You know, the God who spoke out of the burning bush. Maybe those folks should’ve left all their gold back in Egypt. Seems a pretty useless commodity when you are backpacking through a wilderness area, wouldn’t you say?

I like the line Aaron used when Moses returned in a huff. You see, Aaron was left in charge. "Don’t get too angry," he said to Moses, "you know these people, if they have a choice between right and wrong, they usually lean toward the latter. They were all scared (what with you gone so long) and wanted something to hold onto, a god they could see instead of some smoke on the mountain. So, I told them to bring their gold to me and I put it in the fire and out came this calf." I’m not lying folks, that’s what Aaron said, "I threw it in the fire and out came this calf." I’ve heard that line before. Was it Mitchell who said almost the same thing last week? I must confess I’ve used that line a few times myself. How about you? "It just sort of happened." Probably akin to "the devil made me do it," which may not be all that far off the mark.

Now this scene is bracketed by anger. It begins with God’s wrath. The Almighty knows what’s happening down below, and says so to Moses. "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone so that my anger may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation" (Ex. 32:9-10). God was ready to start all over again, and begin with Moses alone. And then a funny thing happened. Moses sweet-talked God into changing his mind. Instead, he (Moses) walked down the mountain to talk some sense into the people. I imagine that with every step Moses took, his own anger grew.

As soon as he came near the camp, and saw that golden calf and the party going on, his anger reached a crescendo and he threw the tablets he was carrying and broke them. Not a pretty picture, at least not one we’d like hung above our sofa. Many homes may act out that scene in their family interactions, but it’s not a sight we want projected to visitors. However, there it is in the Bible, for the whole world to see. What erupts next in the story is a civil war. Moses called forth the sons of Levi and instructed them to take their swords and wipe out all the enemies of God in the Israelite camp, regardless of whether they were neighbor, friend, or brother. It says about 3,000 died that day. To be honest, I don’t have much stomach for this part of the story. I just receive it as is, hearing the wisdom of an elder brother who says, "that’s how it was in the days before Christ."

Speaking of which, let’s turn to the books of the New Covenant, the New Testament, and listen again to this episode in the Temple. It seems somewhat mild in comparison, doesn’t it? The whip Jesus picked up was used against the sheep and cattle, not human beings. The only casualties that day were the pride and pocketbooks of those doing business in the house of God. Even so, this episode lifts up a side of Jesus we don’t often see. He could get angry, especially when it came to the important stuff.

"Take these things out of here!" he cried. "Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!" Now, perhaps you remember Jesus speaking of a "den of thieves" instead of a marketplace. Well, that’s from how Matthew, Mark, and Luke recall this episode - the Temple has become a "hideout for crooks" rather than what it should be: a "House of prayer." The gospel of John often recollects events in a different (some might say "maverick") way. Whereas the other three gospels place this Temple confrontation at the end of Jesus’ ministry, during the days leading up to his crucifixion, John put it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Notice, this is only the second of twenty-one chapters. One might say that John saw the work of our Lord as that of turning the tables over, cleaning out the Temple, and refocusing the attention of God’s people upon the true Holy of Holies. Everything else is just business as usual.

And "business" it was. The profits from these exchanges were the bread and butter of the Temple. It was this marketplace that kept the bills paid. No doubt it was a racket, much of the cash lining the pockets of everyone up the ladder to the high priest, thus the image of a "den of thieves." But John won’t let us grab onto the crime issue and point our fingers at somebody else’s sin. The tables that are turned over belong to us, and how we connect Temple and Marketplace.

Perry Pascarella, in his recent book, The Ten Commandments of the Workplace and How to Break Them Every Day (Zondervan, 1996), lists the following assumptions we bring with us into our workaday world:

1. Thou shalt hang up thy beliefs at the plant gate.

2. Thou shalt be cool and calculating.

3. Thou shalt not be emotionally involved.

4. I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt not expect me to be hanging around places of business.

5. Remember, some have it and some don’t.

6. Thou shalt not let teamwork to cause thee to forget that thou art in this for thyself.

7. Thou shalt accept thy job without question.

8. Honor the majority view that thy opinions may be like those of others.

9. Thou shalt strive to be seen as a nice guy.

10. Thou shalt look for grand solutions.

Now, whether we buy these as the assumptions which underlie our everyday work, the question is, to what extent do we allow the values of the marketplace to color what happens in the Temple? Shouldn’t it really be the other way around? The values of the Kingdom of God should color what happens in our marketplaces, at least as far as we have any hand in it. As disciples of Christ, maybe we need to be about the breaking of the "ten commandments of the workplace," beginning in the Temple. Isn’t that what Jesus did?

Like Moses, there needs to be a tearing down of the golden calves. You know what he did with that sacred cow, don’t you? It says he took and "burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it." Yuck! (Does gold have any medicinal value? If it does, somehow, I don’t think Moses had that in mind, though the spiritual health of God’s people was uppermost on his mind, even as angry as he was.)

Having said what I just did about the marketplace, let me mess it up a bit, by borrowing from the business world. There’s a popular book out now that’s making the rounds of management, Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers (Robert Kriegel & David Brandt, Warner Books, 1996). The title alone gives pause to think. Almost sounds like a bit of the Temple is influencing the marketplace. The authors’ previous book was If it Aint Broke, Break It (1991). The authors define a sacred cow as "an outmoded belief, assumption, practice, policy, or strategy, generally invisible, that inhibits change and prevents responsiveness to new opportunities." Of course, the proof is in the pudding, as they say, and I will wait and see what the business world does with this new methodology. Many of us felt the brunt of what happened with the concept of "downsizing," the last management fad.

One could say, though, that both Moses and Jesus were dealing with religious sacred cows that inhibited change and prevented God’s people from responding to God’s new opportunities. Don’t believe for a minute, my friends, that those sacred cows no longer exist. Anytime we place something in front of or instead of God, we are encountering a sacred cow. When that happens, tables need to be turned over. Just like Jesus did.

It’s interesting how John’s gospel gets to the heart of the matter. After this table turning episode he remembers people asking Jesus for a sign. He responds by saying, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." Now, everyone was so focused upon their sacred cows that they couldn’t see the wisdom of his words. All they could take in were the stones of the structure which had been under construction for forty-six years. But our Lord wasn’t referring to that Temple, was he? In forty more years it would be destroyed and never rebuilt. The wailing wall in Jerusalem is all that remains today. No, Jesus wasn’t referring to that Temple. He was speaking of himself. At the end of the gospel story, the earthly Temple of his Spirit, his body, was crucified. But on the third day, he arose.

Let’s turn the table over, not only in relation to how we see Jesus, but also in how we see ourselves. After all, what is the Temple today? Is it this building? No. Scripture says the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit - your body and mine, as well as this body we call the church. God’s Spirit dwells in you, in us.

1997Peter L. Haynes

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