Sunday, March 8th, 2015 – Third Sunday in Lent
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: I Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22
Hymns: “God of Grace and God of Glory”, “God of This City”, “Beneath the Cross of Jesus”, “Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart”, “How Firm a Foundation”, “Here, O My Lord, I See Thee”, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah”
“Why Is There a Cow in the Sanctuary?
If there is one question that I do not want to ever, ever, EVER have to ask about a church that I am serving, it is, “Why is there a cow in the sanctuary?” And of course, I’ve come to embrace the reality that even if I serve churches and Naval stations ‘round the world until the day I die, if I do have to ever ask that question… it’s probably gonna be here.
I mean, let’s be real, this is the church where the property chair lit the Advent wreath with a blowtorch. I’m pretty sure that a cow in the sanctuary would be small potatoes next to that. And it’s not like it’d be too difficult – at the very least, the double doors downstairs would open wide enough to get a cow into the narthex.
Now, to be clear, I’m not trying to give anybody any ideas here. I’m just sayin’.
In reality, I don’t think I’m ever going to see a cow in this or any other sanctuary – and yes, I realize that I’m just inviting some joker to put a plush stuffed cow on the pulpit next week. But I’m pretty sure that I’m never going to see fifteen hundred mooing pounds of steak and milk walking around the sanctuary under its own power.
Jesus did, though.
In fact, Jesus probably saw it many, many times in his life. Every time he visited the temple in Jerusalem growing up, he would have seen the livestock salesman in the temple courts, selling cattle, sheep, goats, and various birds to people coming in, based on what they could afford to present as a sacrifice to God. And of course, based on the regulations of the temple, the better the sacrifice, the more the priests declared you forgiven, so the wealthy were looked upon as the most righteous, and the poor looked upon as the unrighteous and the cursed.
Now, we already know how Jesus felt about that particular paradigm. He made it very clear in the Sermon on the Mount that the righteousness of the poor far outweighed that of the wealthy. In Luke chapter six, he said, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” and in Luke eighteen, he told the rich young man to go and sell ALL his possessions and give the money away to the poor. He saw the widow who gave her last two pennies to the temple offering as being far more faithful than the wealthy who gave conspicuously out of their vast wealth, and he was crystal clear when he said that the first would be last and the last first.
And this wasn’t because Jesus believed that it was impossible for the wealthy to be righteous, not at all. Some of his followers were very wealthy people, people such as Joseph of Arimathea, the Pharisee in whose tomb Jesus would be buried. His purpose in uplifting the poor was to subvert a system that had seen them downtrodden for many years, regarded as unrighteous and worthless by a corrupt and twisted system. He wanted the society to understand that the impoverished were every bit as worthy to be children of God as were the wealthiest members of society.
But when it came to the temple, even though there were likely some motivations of justice behind Jesus’ actions – after all, the markup percentage on a pigeon was considerably higher than that on a cow, and the moneychangers who changed the “secular” money into “religious” money were more than happy to take more than their fair share as a service fee – at the end of the day, his primary motivation was to demonstrate that the old ways were coming to an end. His methods may have been a bit extreme – sending herds of livestock stampeding out of the temple and into the streets of Jerusalem was, perhaps, not the best of ideas – but it was a very clear signal that the days of essentially being “charged admission” to the temple were coming to an end.
And yes, charging admission is basically what was happening, for the rich and the poor alike. Nobody got into the temple without their sacrifice to God. Nobody got the sacrifice to God without having paid for it, because the animals being sold in the temple marketplace had been “blessed” by the priests. And nobody paid for those sacrifices without first changing the money issued to them by Rome or Athens into currency that was accepted only in Jerusalem. And all along the way, a cut went into the temple coffers, and a cut went to the priests.
To put it into perspective, that would be like if, when you walked into the sanctuary this morning, we had a deacon waiting to change your twenty dollar bill into a handful of Gower Bucks, and then the greeters were waiting to relieve you of your Gower Bucks before you could have a bulletin and enter the sanctuary. And while, yes, if we had 150 people enter the sanctuary, that would right there take care of the $3,000 a week I said we were going to need two weeks ago, it would also be beyond wrong. We do not hold exclusive access to God, and no person should have to pay a single cent to encounter and worship the Lord.
That’s what Jesus was trying to demonstrate when he drove out the moneychangers and the merchants from the temple. It was, indeed, the entire purpose of his ministry on earth – he came to remove the necessity of intercession between man and God. The presence of the Christ on earth was designed to make God directly accessible to each one of us.
Now, obviously, walking into the temple marketplace and putting on a show like an ‘80s professional wrestler was going to raise a few eyebrows, and indeed, the next part of the Gospel reading has some of the bystanders asking Jesus if he can perform a sign to demonstrate his authority to do what he just did in driving out the merchants and moneychangers. In the other gospels, when asked for a sign, Jesus would chastise those asking for a lack of faith, but here, he has but one thing to say: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
This is the point at which John DOES employ a narrative device common throughout the Gospels, where the listeners don’t understand what Jesus is trying to tell them: he’s not referring to the ACTUAL temple, which, as they pointed out, had been under construction since nearly twenty years before his birth, but rather, to the temple of his body. And John, some eighteen chapters before the resurrection, here foretells the death and resurrection of Christ, saying that the disciples would remember these words after he was raised from the dead.
At the same time, though Jesus was referring to his own physical body being struck down and raised again, he did indeed go to Israel to metaphorically take down their temple and raise up a new one in its place. He went to Israel to remove the requirements that stood between the people and God, and replace them with direct access to the divine. When he drove out the merchants and the moneychangers, he was tearing down the imagined temple of controlled access to God and building up a new temple where no person would have the authority to control how another worshiped the Lord.
And this is an issue that every modern church must continuously confront: what is our temple that we need to tear down? What are we doing that prevents people from accessing the Lord? What can we build up to allow all to come before God?
Too many churches refuse to confront their own metaphorical moneychangers and merchants. The refusal to open their eyes and insistence upon carrying on the way things have gone for many years is what leads to the deaths of churches. And I can think of no greater block standing between God and human beings than a church that not only has ceased to function, but has completely closed its doors.
There is no group of people to be blamed more than any other with regard to the way a church refuses to change. Sometimes, it’s an intractable pastor who refuses to change something because, well, that’s the way we’ve done it for years, and I say it works – even if it ceased to work years ago. Sometimes, it’s members of the congregation who refuse and resist a change to the structure of a building even though it would allow the church to be more flexible and would open things up to a greatly improved spirit of worship. Sometimes, it’s an administrative council that thinks that the answer is to pile on more and more programs, more and more infrastructure, until the church collapses under its own sheer weight.
And while I have no particular concerns about this congregation, it, like any other, has its own temples that could be torn down and built back up. Those are our metaphorical cow in the sanctuary, the thing that needs to be driven out to allow for each person in our family to have greater, freer access to God.
So over the next few weeks of Lent, I would invite each of you to ask yourself the question: what do you think is that metaphorical cow, and why is that cow in the sanctuary? Just as Christ drove the cows out of the sanctuary of his Father, let us too be consumed by zeal for the house of the Lord.
We are a house for all people of God, not just those who would come and do what we tell them to do. Let us remember that as we look toward the cross of Christ, and continue to journey toward the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord.