Growing up Roman Catholic, my somewhat childish impressions of “church”, “sanctuary”, and sacred space still remain, to a degree, intact. The place where God meets God’s creation as in humanity, as in you and me was and still is a holy place, a place to be respected and honored. There were certain unwritten but well known rules about the appropriateness of dress when entering a church sanctuary or chapel. There seemed to be defined places where someone – not of the priestly order like myself – was excluded. There were actions and even a language, ancient Latin, which seemed to be the proper and exclusive language of a few but certainly not intended for the rest of us. Even if we learned how to say something in Latin, we didn’t really understand what it was we had said or its significance and in my childish mind, this seemed to be, well, intentional. We were kept in the dark because the place where God resided was not one to which the common man or woman or child should be allowed to enter.
Having said all that this passage from the gospel of John, from the life of Jesus is a puzzle. Jesus as an observant Jew knew the Torah. He knew the rules governing the Temple and its worship. And he also knew as he must that the moneychangers were doing what moneychangers had been doing since the earliest days of Temple worship, dating back to the animal and harvest sacrifices mentioned in the Old Testament books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Even then, the Law prohibited the free access to the Holy of Holies and to ignore this law was to risk death by stoning. There were many rules. Only the appropriate coins could be used and Roman coin was not appropriate. There had to be a process to exchange the coins, which would be offensive to the Lord making the moneychangers essential. Animals had to be without blemish so yes, there needed to be a stock of appropriate animals and there needed to be those who bred these animals and sold them to the waiting and willing worshipers. Without them, no sacrifices could be made and no appropriate worship could happen. So, what’s the problem?
Somehow in the midst of accommodating the needs proposed by the Law, the meaning behind the sacrifices, behind the relationship a worshiper might have with the One who is to be worshipped was lost. Pandemonium reigned. All the trappings were there but the heart of worship was lost.
It is no surprise to any that proper religious worship is too often defined by the world around us. Music changes, liturgy shifts, noise increases and those worshipping or trying to do so can’t hear the voice of God above the clamor. That’s not to say there is no room in our sanctuaries for Christian contemporary music, for videos and audio presentations, for large screens or new ways to chant our faith. It really isn’t the trappings of worship, which damage the meaning of worship. Rather it’s the failure of those worshipping to hold to a single, focal point…worship is about God, about Jesus, about the relationship we hold with our maker…always. It is never about the next, best thing. Never about the newest multimedia equipment. Never about the kind of music we offer, the kind of prayer we pray, or the kind of message we speak unless all of that – music, prayer, message points away from us and toward the One we seek to exalt. Gratitude and gift, blessing and hope, life now and the promised life, which is eternal.
I think Jesus was trying to share this with those who he scattered from the Temple but most importantly, Jesus wanted us…all his disciples…all those who were trying to find their way back to a relationship with God the creator, all of us who seek out the grace and love inherent in God’s Holy Spirit…that was message. And the message was clear, clearer perhaps for us who have witnessed by virtue of the shared gospel the knowledge that Christ is the resurrected savior. It may have taken 46 years to build a Temple of Stone and mortar but it takes only a whisper of faith to live as followers of Christ and be in sound relationship with the God who loved us enough to give a place in the coming Kingdom. It is an amazing gift, well worth our sincere prayers, presence, gifts, song, witness and faith. Amen.