AT THE INTERSECTION OF HEAVEN AND EARTH1
A sermon on John 2:13-25
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
March 7, 2021
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Making a whip of cords, [Jesus] drove all of them out of the Temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the moneychangers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market place!”
SPACE!…This morning, we will begin our time together thinking about space. Not “space” as in “the final frontier, boldly going where no man has gone before.” Nor will be talking about the newly created branch of the armed services, the United States Space Force. Instead, we are going to think together about space here on earth and what space means. And we will think about space as it impacts the story contained in today’s text—the well-known story of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple.
For centuries, map makers have put their own interpretations of space in the maps that they have created. For those of us living in the United States, maps of the world usually put the North and South American continents in the center of the map, right? I confess that I never really noticed that or gave it any thought…until I went overseas. And I learned that not everyone sees the world the same way as we do.
As many of you know, I spent a couple of years as a missionary journeyman in Japan. While I was there, I would often visit a particular large bookstore located in Tokyo. Most of them featured not only books in Japanese, but also in English and a host of other languages. This bookstore that I frequented also carried a large selection of maps. On my very first visit to this store, I saw something that caught my attention right away…
On the wall near the section of the store that had maps, there was a large map of the world displayed. Now this map was different than any other map of the world that I had ever seen before. On this map, the Japanese islands were located at the center of the world. And they were highlighted by being given a bright red color to set it apart from everywhere else. The distinctive color also made Japan easy to find. For the citizens of that country, Japan held a special place. As far as they were concerned, Japan was the center of the world…
1 I am indebted to N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus—A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011) for some of the ideas in this sermon, especially chapter 11 “Space, Time, and Matter.”
P a g e | 2
That kind of thinking is not a recent development. You can see it through history. For example, in the 1st Century AD, Roman maps would have had, of course, the Italian peninsula in the center of the map. Jewish maps, however, would have placed Palestine in the center of their map. And in the very center of any Jewish map would be the city of Jerusalem, the home of the Temple. I guess that is only natural…
It is also true that people in the 1st Century AD thought about geography in another significant way than we do. Most people in our society see geography as simply places on a map. Street addresses. Buildings. We have little sense of “place”—let alone a sense of “sacred space.” For us, land is just real estate—nothing more. It is simply another commodity to be developed, exploited, bought and sold. But that was not true of Jesus and his contemporaries. For them, space carried with it the connotation of being “special” in a way that transcended ownership and cultural memory. There were truly spaces that were always regarded as “sacred,” no matter who owned them or what fate had befallen them.
That was true for Jesus and his contemporaries. And among all of the sacred spaces in the Holy Land, none was more sacred than the Temple in Jerusalem. Why?
Because it was the place where God had chosen to come and live in a very special sense. For the 1st Century Jew, the Temple was the holiest spot on earth. Throughout the Old Testament writings, the promise had been given that God would come to reclaim his creation…to bring justice and peace throughout the world…and to create all things new. That was the promise given even as far back as Genesis 3. It was the promise reaffirmed to Abraham in Genesis 11. The promise—or to use a Bible word “covenant”—continued through the Old Testament writings when God had promised to King David that he would build a house for David and that his descendents would rule forever. That same theme ran through the writings of the prophets. They predicted a time when swords would be beaten into plowshares and that the lion would lie down with the lamb. This was the reign of God in full flower upon the earth in a glorious age yet to come.
So in the Old Testament, the Temple was not conceived as a retreat from the world. It was more like a bridgehead established by God into the world. The Temple was the place from where the reign of God would come—a reign that would encompass the entire world as his kingdom would have no end. So Jerusalem—and more specifically the Temple—was a place where heaven and earth met in a way that was more profound than anywhere else. It was considered to be the intersection between heaven and earth—the starting point from which the kingdom of God would emanate and eventually envelop all of creation. It would be the place that would serve as the focal point of bringing all of creation, and all nations, and all people everywhere back into a right relationship with God.
But over the centuries, something happened. The Temple had been co-opted for a number of other uses and purposes that had little to do with the coming kingdom of God. God’s purposes for Israel had been turned inside out.
P a g e | 3
Instead of being a place for the healing of the nations, the Temple had become a symbol of violent revolution, a place that served as the epicenter of Israel’s nationalistic ambitions. Instead of being a light to the nations, “the city on the hill” had decided to hoard the Light all for itself. Israel tried to lay exclusive claim to the blessings of God. The Temple became a political symbol that carried Israel’s hope for self-rule and freedom from oppression through violence. It seemed as if practically every single revolutionary movement in Israel against the Babylonians, the Macedonians or the Romans—or whoever else was in charge at the time—had its beginnings—and sometimes its endings—in the Temple.
And that is not all. By the time of the 1st Century, the Temple had fallen into the wrong hands. For the people of the city, it came to symbolize everything that was wrong with their society. We know through contemporary writings that the Temple had become the center of the banking system in Israel. It is where the records of debts were kept. All the debts of ordinary people in Jerusalem were recorded at the Temple, and while ordinary people often scraped just to get by, the chief priests, who ran the system, lived in their fine houses in the nice part of town and could afford the finest of clothes and food. One could not but help noticing the disparity. It was no wonder that the chief priests were often despised by the common folk in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day…To sum it up, the Temple had become an example of religion that had gone horribly wrong…
So, after he arrived in the city of Jerusalem, is it any wonder that Jesus was incensed by the actions of the merchants and moneychangers? At one time, the Temple had been a signpost pointing forward to another reality—the reality of the coming Kingdom of God. But it was a reality that had lain unnoticed and ignored for generations. And during those years, the Temple itself had been corrupted and made into just another institution of oppression. It was certainly NOT seen as the fountain from which the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into the world would flow like a river of life. Instead, it had become a poisoned well that had to be cleared out before its health-giving waters could freely flow unimpeded…
So when Jesus saw what was going on, he blew his stack. John tells us that Jesus made himself a whip and, with it, drove out all those who were making money selling sacrificial animals to be used in worship. And he also overturned the tables of those who would exchange foreign money for the coinage of the Temple, in order that the coffers of the Temple—and of the chief priests—would be full. In the telling of the tale, it is obvious from the text that Jesus had no mercy on them…
A couple of observations…this story appears in all four of the gospels.2 In all four of the accounts, I find it interesting that it is only Jesus who is said to have been the active participant in running the merchants and moneychangers out. There is no indication that any of the disciples followed his lead in clearing the Temple. It makes me wonder what was happening with the disciples during the uproar. Surely it would have been futile to try to ignore what Jesus was doing. So what did they do? Did they just idly stand around with their hands in their pockets? Were they aghast—maybe even
2 Parallels are Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, and Luke 19:45-46.
P a g e | 4
horrified—at what they were seeing Jesus do? Or perhaps they were afraid, warily looking around the whole time and planning to make themselves scarce should the Temple police or some soldiers from the nearby Roman garrison arrive to quell the disturbance.
We don’t know what the disciples were thinking. None of the texts tell us or even give us any clues. But I think that, at a minimum, they were shocked by what they saw. After all, this was the same Jesus who had taken children into his arms and blessed them saying, “The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” The same One who looked on an invalid with love and said, “Take up your bed and walk.” The same Jesus who tenderly spoke to a woman guilty of adultery, saying, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” But now this Jesus had fire in his eyes and a whip in his hand. None of this “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” stuff here. For the disciples, it must have completely jarred their senses. It was a side of Jesus that they had never seen before…3
Another observation: Jesus apparently singled out those who sold doves to be the special recipient of his wrath. While the text indicates that he was enraged at all of the merchants, verse 16 implies that he singled out those who sold doves. Why do you think that was? Why would they be a particular target of Jesus’ ire?
The Old Testament gave a lot of detailed instructions on how worship was to be conducted. And animal sacrifice was a part of the ritual. These were offerings to be given on behalf of the nation—and of the individual—for various offenses and situations. Sacrifices were offered in times of celebration…times of mourning…times of confession.
There were five kinds of animals that were deemed to be acceptable for sacrifice: oxen, sheep, goats, doves, and pigeons. Which animal was to be sacrificed depended on the particular festival or occasion. The sacrifice to be offered also depended upon the financial situation of the one making the offering. The richest people were to sacrifice expensive animals like oxen and sheep. The poor were allowed to make much more modest sacrifices. Doves were among the least expensive of the allowed sacrifices and that was what they offered in their worship.
Furthermore, Luke 2:24 tells us that Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, offered two doves at the Temple on the day that he was presented when he was eight days old. This would indicate that Jesus’ family was not wealthy. If they had been, then they would have offered a more expensive sacrifice.
This leads me to believe that Jesus was especially harsh with those who were selling doves because they were exploiting the poor—like his family. In the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, Jesus railed against those who would take advantage of the poor and enrich themselves at their expense. And those who sold doves in the Temple courtyard were no doubt doing just that. They were
3 Or maybe it wasn’t. This is the only time in the gospels that Jesus’ anger is depicted as boiling over like this. One wonders if the disciples had witnessed some other times when Jesus encountered injustice and that he became just as angry, but it didn’t get recorded. No one knows for sure, but I would not be surprised if it did.
P a g e | 5
financially abusing the most vulnerable in the community. Watching those activities go on in the Temple surely stirred up his anger until it reached the boiling point…
So what are we to make of this striking story from the life of our Lord Jesus? What does it mean? How are we to understand it? What difference does it make?
For centuries among the people of Israel, there was a sacred space—a place—that was the intersection between heaven and earth. In the early days of the people of Israel, beginning with their escape from slavery in the land of Egypt, through the wanderings in the Wilderness, the entry into the Promised Land and on into the first years of the kingdom of Israel, that place had been the Tabernacle. That was the place where God and the people would meet. Then after David had established the city of Jerusalem and his son Solomon built the magnificent Temple there, THE TEMPLE became the place where heaven and earth met.
But now Jesus, God’s Son, was on the scene. Consequently the Temple was no longer the focus—the intersection—of where heaven and earth meet and from which the blessings of God would flow as God creates a new heaven and a new earth. That intersection is no longer defined by a special place or building. No—Christ himself declared that HE is now at the center of the intersection between heaven and earth. He is not only the center of that intersection—he IS that intersection. He is now the place where God and people can meet. It is in him that heaven and earth intersect.
This is something that we talk about during every Christmas season. It has become so familiar to us that I wonder if we still grasp its significance. We read and consider the passage in Matthew 1 where it says that Jesus will be called “Emmanuel”—“God with us.” God with us—that is the place where heaven and earth meet. The place where God meets us is no longer a place. It is no longer a building. It is a person. And that person is Jesus. The Apostle Paul concisely expresses this when he writes in 2 Corinthians 5, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ…God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.”
The point is this: if you want to know God, the starting point is Jesus. That is because he is at the very center of the intersection between heaven and earth. Jesus himself made this clear when he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John14:6) If you want to know God, then you start with Jesus…
So where are you today in your spiritual journey? Are you longing to seek after God and to get to know God better? Do you desire to have him be a part of your life? The place to start is with Jesus—Emmanuel—God with us—the one who is the intersection between heaven and earth.
To God alone be the glory! Amen.