The Gospel reading we just heard is another one of those really dramatic episodes in Jesus’ public ministry. Take a minute to picture the scene. The Temple in Jerusalem, where it all happens, was enormous and included a very busy marketplace, always packed with people. And, as we just heard, not just people; sheep and cattle, too.
This was not Jesus’ first time to see all the activity at the entrance to the Temple. We know he was there at least once before, when he was a boy, and probably more often than that. But this time Jesus was outraged by what he saw, and he waded into the crowd using his belt as a whip to drive out the people and the sheep and cattle. It probably didn’t last long, but it must have been total chaos while it was happening.
When Jesus calmed down, bystanders approached him. John tells us they were Jews, but that doesn’t mean much. Virtually everyone going into the Temple was Jewish. I think John means they were ordinary people as opposed to the Temple guards or religious leaders.
Whoever they were, these people ask Jesus the obvious question. “What sign can you show us for doing this?” That is, “What do you think you are doing? And what gives you the right to do it?”
Jesus’ reply makes the situation more uncomfortable, not less. When they ask Jesus for a sign justifying his right to cause such a disruption, Jesus answers, “Destroy the temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” That’s not an answer designed to offer much comfort to Jesus’ challengers, and they just scoff at him.
Now try to put yourself in the position of the disciples there that day. What would you be thinking as you watched this scene unfold before your eyes, as you watched your master cause all that commotion?
And remember, the disciples haven’t been following Jesus for very long. We’re still in chapter two of John’s Gospel. About all that has happened so far is Jesus calling four of them, turning water into wine, which is a very cool thing to do, and then this.
If I had been one of the disciples there that day, I suspect my first thought would have been, “Jesus, let’s not spend any time talking to these people. Let’s get out of here before the cops arrive. Because you know they are coming, and they won’t be happy.”
My next thought, although I doubt I would have gotten to it until we were all safely off the Temple grounds, would be to wonder what I had gotten myself into. Jesus is certainly impressive. And it’s fun to be Jesus’ disciple when he is turning water into wine at weddings. But this cleansing the Temple thing is a whole different story. This is getting dangerous.
Jesus’ comment about destroying the Temple and rebuilding it in three days couldn’t have been much encouragement. Taken literally, it sounds both blasphemous and crazy. Eventually the disciples come to understand that Jesus was talking about getting killed, which is just as scary, if in a different way. But for the moment, they have no idea how to make sense of Jesus’ actions or his words.
The Gospel writer carries on with the story of Jesus’ ministry, and we’ll continue with him for the next two weeks.
But for now, let’s stay with the disciples, frightened and confused as they must have been. Having witnessed the violent cleansing of the Temple and the hostile interaction that followed it, having heard Jesus’ cryptic message implying more destruction to come, not having any clue what Jesus meant by his ominous words, the disciples have a difficult decision to make. What are they going to do? Do they stay with Jesus? Or do they turn back?
Now, in lots of ways, Jesus’ disciples were an unimpressive bunch. They routinely fail to understand Jesus’ teachings. They could be petty in their rivalries with each other. They abandon Christ when he is arrested.
But in this passage, we see that Jesus chose well when he called them. The disciples decide to stay with Jesus. They stay with Jesus in what must have been a difficult and unsettling time. They stay with Jesus even when what he is doing and saying makes no sense to them. They stay with Jesus.
Staying with Jesus was not easy for them. And they didn’t always succeed at it. But we remember the disciples today because, in the end, they stayed with Jesus.
But why? Why did they stay? Why did the disciples stay with Jesus even as it became increasingly clear that things would end violently for him?
Peter answers that question for us. On a later occasion, when many abandoned Jesus because they couldn’t accept what Jesus was teaching, Jesus asked Peter and the others if they too wanted to leave him. Peter responded, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)
The disciples stay with Jesus because they see that Jesus offers them something they cannot otherwise have, a right relationship with God, both now and forever.
And over time, as the disciples continue to stay with Jesus, something amazing happens. They become the people Jesus called them to be.
All of that is a good lesson for us.
What should we do when bad things happen, when a pandemic won’t go away, when the threat of violence continues to loom over our country, when our Church building remains closed, when we struggle with all the things we struggle with? Stay with Jesus.
And what should we do when we can’t make sense of our world, when we don’t understand why God lets happen the things that happen, when we feel lost? Stay with Jesus.
And how about when we botch it, when things get to be too much for us it, when we fall away, when we fail to stay with Jesus? That’s a good Lent question. And we know the Christian answer. We repent and return to the Lord. We come back, and we try again to stay with Jesus.
And over time, as we stay with Jesus, even if imperfectly, something amazing happens in us and to us. Over time, as we stay with Jesus, we are changed. We become better disciples. We grow closer to God. We get a little better at seeing God’s hand at work in our world even in hard times and even when there is much that we do not understand. We get a little better at staying close to Jesus.
And so on this third Sunday of Lent, I thank God for inviting us to stay close to Jesus. And I ask God to help us stay close to Jesus. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan