The first to fail in our passage are the moneychangers.
Many judge the moneychangers harshly, and lots of them probably did cynically exploit people’s piety to enrich themselves. But surely not all the moneychangers were knowingly corrupt. At least some of them must have thought they were doing God’s will. After all, the majority of their customers were good and faithful people who had come to Jerusalem on a religious pilgrimage for the purpose of offering sacrifice in the temple. Money changing helped to make that possible.
But if the moneychangers and their customers thought they were doing God’s will, they were wrong. Intentionally or not, they corrupted and perverted an originally holy institution by treating God’s temple as a marketplace, and Jesus will not have it. I mean really not have it. This is the only time we ever see Jesus get violent.
The moneychangers and their customers fundamentally misunderstood their obligations as God’s people. But what they were doing, the wrong thing they were doing, was the normal practice of their day.
And that raises an important question for us. Is it possible that some of the normal practices of our day are similarly wrong-headed?
John calls the second group to fail in our gospel reading the “Jews.” Of course, virtually everyone at the temple was Jewish, including Jesus and his followers. What John must mean by “the Jews” is the ordinary people, not priests, and not followers of Jesus; just the folks who were at the temple that day.
These folks want to know what gives Jesus the authority to disrupt the normal business of the temple. It’s a fair question. Jesus answers, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Naturally they assume that Jesus means the temple they are standing in and talking about. That is just common sense.
But common sense was wrong. Jesus didn’t mean the temple building. Jesus meant his own body. This was a prediction of his death and resurrection, not a reference to the temple building at all. They totally missed that.
And that, too, raises a question for us. Might we be misunderstanding things that seem like common sense? Are we missing deeper truths lying beneath the surface of some of the things that we believe?
Our gospel reading is a warning to everyone who tries to follow Jesus, that what we take to be normal, that what we consider common sense, may miss the point entirely.
That is what Paul means when he tells us that the message of the cross can seem like foolishness, that the message of the cross can be a stumbling block for people, that the wisdom of the world can sometimes stand in direct opposition to the wisdom of God. It’s an important reminder for all of us, and especially for anyone who stands up front to talk to people about Jesus!
There is one more group that misunderstands Jesus in our gospel reading, but this group shows us a way forward. I am talking about Jesus’ disciples.
Now, Jesus’ disciples don’t understand Jesus’ reference to his death and resurrection any more than the ordinary people around them, at least not right away. Only after Jesus was raised from the dead did they remember this exchange and believe both the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
With the disciples, we see once again the potential for missing the point. But with the disciples we also see the possibility of coming to a proper understanding over time. That is the good news of this passage. We may sin when we think we are doing the right thing. We may misunderstand Jesus when we use our common sense. But we can learn better.
The rest of John’s Gospel shows us how. The disciples walk with Jesus, day in and day out. They hear what Jesus says, and they witness what Jesus does. They experience the horror of the crucifixion. They experience the glory of the resurrection. And that, at last, is when it all makes sense. That is when they understand the foolishness of God that turns out to be wiser than the wisdom of the world. That is when they realize that God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
That is our task too: to live the Christian life; to walk with Jesus day in and day out; to learn from Jesus’ message and ministry; to carry our cross, as Jesus said in our reading last week; to encounter our risen Lord in word and sacrament, in each other and in the world around us.
Then, and only then, can we truly understand the wisdom and the strength of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
The disciples are an example for us, and so is Paul. But last Thursday was the feast day for Saint David, so I want to use him as a model for how Christians learn to know God.
Saint David lived in a dramatic time. Pagan tribes from Germany had invaded the British Isles and pushed the Christian community out of England back into the remoter areas like Wales. In the meantime, Christians were battling among themselves about exactly what Christians were supposed to believe.
David participated in all of that. In one story, he defended orthodox doctrine before a crowd. But people couldn’t hear him. We have that problem too, and we are addressing it by improving our sound system. That wasn’t an option in the sixth century, so God raised a hill underneath Saint David that enabled everyone to hear him better. I don’t know that we should take that story literally, but it is why we have a hill on our banner. And we know that David help to shape the public debates about Christian doctrine.
David also participated in the defense of his faith and his land. At a battle between the Christian Welsh and the pagan Saxons, David advised the Welsh to wear leeks so they could tell who was Welsh and who was not. That is why the leek is one of David’s symbols.
When necessary, David rose to the challenge, and did what he had to do. But we shouldn’t make too much of the dramatic stories. They were the fruit of a life well lived, a life lived with Christ, and that life is David’s most important legacy.
David was a monk who enjoyed the simple routines of the monastery, the daily round of prayer and service. Those routines were what taught David the wisdom and power of God. In his final words, David summed up his own life and his vision of the Christian life. “Do the little things, the small things you have seen me doing.”
That is good advice. We have to do what we can to face the challenges of our world, of course. But mostly we are called to do the little things, to live our ordinary lives.
But we are called to live our lives with Christ. To pray, and to serve, and to love, with Christ’s help, every day. If we do that, like David, we will gradually be formed in God’s image. We will come to know God’s wisdom that looks like foolishness to the world. We will come to know God’s strength, that looks like weakness to the world. We will come to know Christ crucified, and Christ risen.
That is my prayer for us this Lent, that we can be faithful in the little things so that we too may come to know and to love our Lord properly. In Christ’s name. Amen.