What tables is Jesus overturning in you?

(Here is my sermon from Sunday, March 7, 2021 in response to Exodus 20:1-17 and John 2:13-22. You can find the video version as well as the full worship service at www.ststephenlc.org)

Jurgen Moltmann, the great German theologian of the 20th century wrote “There is no threat to [a person] which arouses more hostility than to threaten [their] idols or those of [their] group.”

An idol, at its core, isn’t just about false gods. It is also about putting ourself in the place of God.  Reflecting who we are, what we care about, and what we want.  It’s about us dictating to God what is important and then creating something supposedly divine to endorse what we want.  

This isn’t new.  We’ve been trying to put ourselves in the place of God since the very beginning.  Remember the story of the Fall in Genesis 3?  “The serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of [the fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,” 

There are lots of idols in our society, we just don’t call them idols anymore.  We have other names for them.  More sophisticated names that allow us to believe that idolatry isn’t a problem anymore.  

But they have just as much pull and attraction today as literal physical hand-made idols did in the ancient world. 

In today’s Gospel, we hear about Jesus coming to the temple in Jerusalem.  He observes what is going on.  There are people selling animals and there are money changers.  But this is not anything out of the norm.  Selling animals in the temple was a regular feature of the temple.  It was providing animals for sacrifice.  And there were many sins that people had to offer sacrifice for.  

So why did this upset Jesus?  For one thing, money.  People would bring in their Roman currency into the temple and then exchange it for acceptable currency in the temple.  Roman currency was considered idolatrous – it depicted Caesar’s head on it.  And who did Caesar think he was?  A god, divine.  That doesn’t match up well with “you shall have no other gods besides me” and “you shall not make for yourself an idol.”  

Second, Rome was an empire.  Empires are a form of idolatry.  Rome, it was said, was eternal.  Rome was all powerful.  Rome had the strength to destroy enemies.  Rome was blessed by the gods.  Rome, as all empires before and after believed, was divine.  In reality, Rome, like all empires, exploited and oppressed people, including the Israelites.  

Third, the temple system and authorities attached themselves to this idol.  The high priest literally bought his position from Rome.  And when Rome didn’t like something a high priest did, they had him killed off, making room for the next one who could curry favor with the empire.  

The exchange was simple – The temple authorities would swear allegiance to Rome, offer tribute, and weed out possible trouble-makers who would challenge Rome’s power and authority.  And in exchange, these temple authorities would exploit their own people through various forms of religious taxation and payment for a variety of necessary sacrifices.  They would ignore the biblical prophets’ calls of justice for the people.  All right in the temple – the house of God. 

This is what causes Jesus to take action. We’re told that the disciples remembered what was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”  Jesus knows the commandments.  He’s watching what is happening right before his eyes.  He knows the corrupt bargain that the temple authorities have made with Rome, an idolatrous empire, that sees itself as god.  He’s heard the stories in Scripture about idolatry.  He’s heard the prophets.  They make it crystal clear.  Idolatry is equivalent to adultery – cheating on God when there is a covenant relationship.  It’s why the prophets use negative sexual imagery for idolatry, equating idolaters to prostitutes.  

Or as 17th century scientist and theologian Blaise Pascal wrote about our serious propensity towards idolatry when he said, “There is nothing so abominable in the eyes of God and of men as idolatry, whereby men render to the creature that honor which is due only to the Creator.”

And so Jesus overturns the tables of the money changers.  He poured out the coins.  He condemns those who are exploiting people for profit.  And he drives out the idols of money and empire.  He cleans out the temple from all things that are unholy.  

Jesus is still driving out idols from the temple.  Not the temple in Jerusalem, for that was destroyed.  Rather, a different temple.  In each one of us.  For we are temples of the Holy Spirit.  

There are money changers who have set up tables in each one of us.  Exploiting us, oppressing us, and we may not ever realize it, or want to acknowledge this uncomfortable reality.

Jennifer Slattery wrote an article in Dec. 2019 about 10 common idols in our lives.  Here’s her list.  

  1. Self – Luther defined sin as turning inward on oneself.  If we are facing inward on ourselves, then how can we face Jesus, how are we bowing down to Jesus, listening to Jesus, following Jesus?
  2. Security – which is an over emphasis on protecting what we have.  We don’t trust that God takes care of us, so we have to do it ourselves instead.  It’s a matter of trust.  
  3. Approval – are we more interested in other’s opinions than we are God’s?  Who are we listening to?  Who are we following?
  4. Relationships – who is the center of our attention?  Other people, even people we love deeply, or God?
  5. Success – I earned it, so I’m in charge.  Do I really need God if I am successful?  Are we called to worldly success or following Jesus?
  6. Money – Money gives us the false idea that we are in charge of life and can get whatever we want – kind of like having the power of a god.  But money can be a cruel task masker that leaves us empty and always searching for more.  Because there is never enough.  
  7. Health – Good health is a good thing.  But this shifts to idolatry when we spend more time, energy, and attention on our health rather than our relationship with God. 
  8. Food – Again, it’s essential to life.  As the author states, “Unfortunately, our hearts are fickle and easily swayed so that we trade intimacy with our Savior for the momentary rush of a sugar high.”  Or we turn to food for consolation, or for something to do, instead of turning to Jesus. 
  9. Intellect – Intelligence is a good thing.  The question is this – are we seeking intelligence apart from God so that we can point to how smart we are?
  10. Comfort – Does our comfort get in the way of being a follower of Jesus?  Do we avoid being uncomfortable?  Why?  What exactly are we afraid of when it comes to holy discomfort?  Following Jesus isn’t comfortable.  

There are other idols of course that have set up tables in our temple.  We could easily add partisan political identity and nationality.  These idols have a firm grip on so many people.  The core question is this, where do we get our identity from, our sense of purpose and who we belong to, and the future that we are heading towards – from politicians and political parties, news channels and ideologies, nations, their symbols and their interests, or from Jesus and the kingdom of God?  Who do we swear our allegiance to first and foremost?  

We could just as easily point out plenty of other idols – language, race, violence, work, and yes, even church can be an idol.  Does church save people, or does Jesus?  Do we equate God with a building, or is God bigger than that?  Do we serve to feel good about ourselves, or because we are responding to Christ’s love?  

The 19th Century Canadian preacher A.B. Simpson summarized it well when he said, “As long as you want anything very much, especially more than you want God, it is an idol.” 

I would add that whatever we pay attention to the most is our idol.  Whatever we turn to in times of need, when we seek out affirmation and meaning, whatever we go to for wisdom and a sense of direction – those things have the potential to be our idols.  All of these things have set up tables in our temple.  

What tables are we visiting?  What is it that the money changers in us are trying to get us to exchange?  To what idols do they want us to sacrifice?  

Why do we want to sit at these tables?  The very tables that Jesus is coming to and overturning within us.  Why do we aspire to be money changers who think we can work the idols and systems that exploit and oppress?  Why do we think we benefit from unjust systems – we don’t.  When we think we do, we’re no different than the temple authorities – subject to unjust false gods and abusive systems that will dispose of us when we are no longer useful or sufficiently loyal enough.  No one benefits from these things.  No one.  Which is why Jesus drives them out – out of the temple, out of us.  Overturning their tables as he does.  

This is the table in the temple we are called to.  This is Jesus’ table.  And he is in charge of this table.  Not as a money changer intent on profiting from an abusive and exploitive system, but rather a table that welcomes all people, heals people, frees us from these systems and idols and all they represent.  

Jesus invites us to his table.  Where all who hunger are fed.  Don’t we hunger?  Hunger in body, mind, and spirit?  What do you hunger for?  Justice, peace, right relationship, and ending of violence and abuse, an end to poverty and homelessness, and end to the pandemic, for better health, for reconciliation among peoples, for an end to exploitation of creation and people?  

This table frees us from the idols of this world.  This table reminds us that we are the created and that God is the creator.  Which means, that our attention, our focus is turned towards Jesus.  This table doesn’t demand more and more from us, exhausting us – taking everything we have and then discarding us when we are no longer useful.  This table offers us everything we need.  And Jesus takes the place of the unjust money-changers.  He doesn’t offer us an unfair exchange rate where we come away with less.  No, he offers us a wonderful exchange.  

Martin Luther described it this way:

“That is the mystery which is rich in divine grace to sinners: wherein by a wonderful exchange our sins are no longer ours but Christ’s and the righteousness of Christ not Christ’s but ours. He has emptied Himself of His righteousness that He might clothe us with it, and fill us with it.

And He has taken our evils upon Himself that He might deliver us from them… in the same manner as He grieved and suffered in our sins, and was confounded, in the same manner we rejoice and glory in His righteousness.”

This is the table we are called to.  It resides in a temple – here in this church, but more importantly within each of us.  We are temples of the Holy Spirit.  And Jesus drives idols out of our temples, out of our hearts, our bodies, our minds, our spirits.  He frees us from unjust systems and from abuse.  He invites us to his table and offers us the wonderful exchange.  We come with nothing but our sins and brokenness and hand them over to him.  And in exchange he offers us salvation.  He offers us healing.  He offers us forgiveness.  He offers us grace and mercy.  He offers us identity and meaning and purpose.  He sets us free from having to be gods, so that we can follow God.  He offers us to follow him and his way.  

Come to this table. It’s the best exchange you’ll ever receive.  

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