March 7, 2021 “Nothing Short of a Miracle”
“Nothing Short of a Miracle”
Have you ever wondered about the expression “to pull out all the stops”? If we used this phrase today, we would mean something like to give it all you’ve got, to throw everything at it but the kitchen sink, or spare no expense. “Local law enforcement has pulled out all the stops to catch the perpetrator of this heinous crime,” might be an example. But did you know that this familiar phrase comes from the mechanics of the early pipe organ? In those days, there was a series of knobs or levers that the organist used to control the amount of air that went into each set of pipes, called stops. Push the stop in and no air could get through; pull it out and things got loud. It was a rare occasion that the organist “pulled out all the stops”, but when they did it was an occasion that folks did not soon forget.
Now, I bring this up because that’s been my impression of the scriptures we are reading today – we’re pulling out all the stops. We have heard Moses reading the 10 Commandments, we’ve listened to the beautiful poetry of the 19th Psalm which is a favorite of many; we’ve chuckled at Paul’s description of “the foolishness of preaching,” and then finally studied upon John’s version of Jesus at the temple courtyard chasing off animals with a whip and flipping tables. As much as I’d like to give each of these passages their due, it is the Gospel of John that speaks loud and clear to where we are as a church body today. But first, a little background.
The story of Jesus at the temple court is told in all four of the Gospels, but the telling in John is unique. In Mathew, Mark, and Luke this moment of mayhem happens soon after Jesus has made the triumphant entry into Jerusalem that we celebrate as Palm Sunday. The name Jesus of Nazareth has become a household word. Everyone has either heard the stories or seen for themselves the miraculous things this man could do. Not so in the Gospel of John. According to John, this is one of the first acts that Jesus performed when he started his ministry. In other words, when he strolled into the crowds and chased them all off, he was a nobody. They didn’t even know his name. And viewed in that context, I have to understand the cleansing of the temple as nothing short of a miracle.
Now, I’d like to paint a picture, if I could, of what the Passover looked like at the time of Christ. First of all, as best we can figure, the city of Jerusalem in normal times had between 100 and 300 thousand people; we don’t know for sure. Think of a town about the size of Salem or Eugene. But during the Passover, it swelled up to over a million. Now try to imagine that: over a million people, all with donkeys and carts and kids and who knows what else. Many of them brought their own animals to sacrifice at the temple – that was the deal. But most knew that there was a good chance that your sheep or cow or pigeon would get rejected by the chief priests which would force you to buy from the vendors who were more than willing to charge an inflated price for this service. Add to that the fact that this purchase had to be paid in the coin of Jerusalem. If you showed up with foreign money, it had to be exchanged and there was a rake involved in that transaction as well. The Feast of the Passover, the biggest celebration of the Jewish people who had traveled miles to honor the God who had set them free from bondage in Egypt, had become a sham.
I try to imagine what that might have been like. Between the hundreds of thousands of people and even more animals jammed in shoulder to shoulder, I imagine the smell was indescribable. (continued)
But wait, there’s more. According to custom, the animal sacrifice must occur between 3 and 6:00 on the eve of the Passover. I’m sure that this time frame got hedged a bit because according the ancient historian, Josephus, upwards onto 250,000 animals were slaughtered during that time on that day. So now we have a smell that’s a combination of dirty laundry, a stockyard, and a slaughter house before refrigeration. I don’t mean to be so graphic here, but it’s important that we understand the scope of this event. It was huge, it was monstrous, and it was messy. It was also corrupt. In the words of John MacArthur, “Jesus sees all this – selling sacrificial animals, money changing – and he sees that they have totally polluted his Father’s house… Their hearts are irreverent. What should have been a place of repentance, a place of reverence, a place of humility, a place of worship, a place of praise, had become a chaotic marketplace.” MacArthur goes on to say, “Abusive commerce and corruption marked that place.”
At this point, you might say, “Yea, we know all this. So what else is new? Those in positions of power and authority will always manipulate the rules in order to make a buck. It’s just the way it is.” And you’d be right. Jesus understood that. Jesus spoke out against injustice and the abuse of power over and over through his teachings and parables and by example. But these were expressed with love. His anger was reserved for one thing and one thing only – hypocritical worship. This was worship without reverence; this was worship for financial gain; this was worship that was not worship at all. I wanted to paint you the picture of that scene so long ago to give you an idea what kind of anger it took to drive the money changers out of the temple court. There weren’t just a handful of folks there with their animals for sale and money tables. There were thousands. The entire temple grounds can be measured in acres, yet it was jam-packed. Some 300 temple guards were on duty, along with Roman soldiers, to keep the peace. Yet here stood a man that no one knew, according to John; who hadn’t yet healed the sick and gave sight to the blind. Here stood one man in the midst of the multitudes who was not yet known far and wide as one who spoke with authority. Here stood one man, a total stranger, and he cleared the place out. Holy anger; divine fury. Like I said, this was nothing short of a miracle.
Back in the real world, at least our world today, most of us are anxious to get back to “normal;” at least that’s what I keep hearing folks say. I have to admit, it was a bit of a gut-punch when I realized a year had passed since our buildings were closed due to the threat of the Covid 19 virus. It seems hard to believe, I know. The way we have handled this time of isolation as individuals, as a church body, and as a nation has ranged from total denial to paralyzing fear, with everything in between. But for most of us, one thing is for certain: our need for worship has never faded. We need a time together to remind us of the importance of repentance and reverence. We ache for moments where humility is sacred and praise is divine. We need worship, and for all the right reasons. But before we go scrambling to get things exactly as they were before, let’s consider where we’ve been in the last year spiritually. Because I believe we have all changed over this time. We have seen injustice and we have watched as our institutions were put to the test. We’ve all experienced anger over the last 12 months. What do we do with that? Do we hang onto it like a prized possession? Or do we sort it out and then – and this is my hope – as the church, as the body of Christ, we rise up and do what Jesus would have us to do. We might be a bunch of nobodies that no one knows, yet with the power of the Spirit we can do God’s will in this crazy world. Nothing short of a miracle, but true worship is like that, isn’t it? Amen & Shalom