Seeking a Sign

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Lent 3
March 3, 2024
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermon

Summary: Jesus confronts a hardened religious tradition by tossing it over and replacing it with an emphasis on his death and resurrection.

It must have been some sight! With the crack of a whip, Jesus chased merchants from the temple. He drove out the oxen. He scattered the sheep. He turned the tables on the moneychangers, with coins jangling to the floor and rolling away. Single-handedly, Jesus swept the temple clean. The leaders glared at him and said, "What sign can you show us for doing this?"

"What sign can you show us ...?" The fact is, Jesus was disrupting a workable and established system. The leaders at the temple were ostensibly concerned that everybody was properly equipped for worship. Does anybody want to offer a sacrifice to God? An appropriate animal was available at the temple. Does anybody want to offer thanks to God, but is short on money? Inexpensive doves will be available at the temple.1 Does anybody need to change common Roman currency into Jewish temple money? Money changers will be available at the temple. How convenient! You could travel those long, dusty miles to the holy city, never worry about dragging along your own ox or sheep, never fear about bringing exact change. If you wanted to be religious, the religious system provided everything.

It was a good system until Jesus came and disrupted it. In response, the leaders said, "What sign can you show us for doing this?"

An action that challenges

Obviously, they saw Jesus as an upstart. According to the Gospel of John, this was the first time Jesus confronted organized religion. Up to this point, he had been collecting disciples and attending wedding receptions. Now for the first time, he met organized religion head on - and he exposed its seedy underside. No wonder they responded, "What sign can you show us for doing this?" Who did Jesus think he was? What were his credentials? Where was his diploma? Did he think he could march into the temple and smash the system to bits? If so, he should have remembered that actions have ramifications.

The other Gospels tell this story as if it happened much later in Jesus' life. When Jesus undertakes this prophetic action in Matthew, Mark and Luke, the authorities say it is the last straw. They decide to eliminate the troublemaker. They practically sign his death warrant.

Yet in his Gospel, John tells the story as early as chapter two, as if to say that, from the beginning of his ministry, Jesus took on organized religion. No wonder the Jewish leaders demanded some proof of his authority.

But did they know what they were asking for?

The word "sign" is a loaded term, especially in the Gospel of John. Immediately before this story, Jesus turned water into wine. The Gospel writer calls that "a sign." It is not just any sign. It is a sign that makes a statement against organized religion when it misses the point.

Sign is a loaded word for the Fourth Gospel

You may remember the story. There was a wedding party in Cana, well attended enough that the caterer ran out of wine. Jesus saw six stone jars, each able to hold 20 or 30 gallons. "Fill them with water," he said, "and then ladle some out." Out came some of the best wine the caterer had tasted in years. On went the party.

The only problem had to do with those six stone jars. Normally they were filled with water for purification ceremonies.2 And Jesus fills them with Manischewitz? That is disrespectful!

But that is what Jesus did. Imagine if someone threw a party in the church's fellowship hall. As the punch bowl is carried in, it accidentally slips and smashes on the floor. In that moment of panic, someone says, "Don't worry! I know something we can use." Slipping into the sanctuary, he lifts the baptismal font over his shoulder, then carries it down to fellowship hall where it is filled with Canada Dry and cranberry juice. The baptismal font becomes a punch bowl. Now that would be disrespectful! Just like what Jesus did.

At Jesus' command, Jewish purification jars became carafes of new wine. The writer says the wedding at Cana was the first sign Jesus performed.3 That sign stood against established customs. When Jesus cleansed the temple, the leaders demanded a sign. Did they know what they were asking for?

Whether or not they did, Jesus answered, "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up." Wait a minute! No one said anything about destroying the temple. All the people want to know is why he chased away the animals. But destroy the sanctuary? The temple was the meeting place. The temple was the place where God meets people in worship. And Jesus dared them to destroy it? It had taken 46 years to build that temple.

Challenging religious traditions

Did Jesus think he could destroy the center of their religious traditions? It takes time to build our traditions. Traditions do not grow overnight. Once established, we maintain them for years. Traditions hold deep personal meaning. They order our lives. They give us stability. They are propped up by words such as, "We've always done it that way."

"We've always done it that way." That phrase was heard in a small church in New Jersey. They had a tradition or two. Every time they celebrated the Lord's Supper, they would cover the table with a white tablecloth. As they sang a hymn before Communion, two church leaders would lift the shroud from the table. They folded it lengthwise, then lengthwise again. Then they folded it in small triangles, like a flag. A woman named Betty always helped to fold the shroud. By her admission, she was the guardian of tradition.

One Sunday during communion, the tradition nearly unraveled. It happened on the day that a brand-new leader served for the first time. The congregation sang the communion hymn. During the hymn, before anybody knew what happened, this new leader stood by himself, lifted each corner of the shroud, wadded it up in a ball, and tossed it on the pew behind him. Betty dropped her hymnal.

In the middle of the hymn, she bellowed, "No! Don't do that!" She grabbed the shroud and flung it back over the table. She straightened the corners. Then she beckoned to another server, an old-timer who could do it her way. They folded it lengthwise, then lengthwise again and then in little triangles like a flag.

After the worship service someone asked Betty, "Why do we cover the communion table with that old white cloth anyway?"

Betty said, "We've always done it that way."

The person said, "But why do we use it? Does it keep the flies out of the communion wine?"

Betty said, "Don't ask questions. We've always done it that way."

The interrogator persisted, "Don't you think that fussing with the communion cloth takes our attention away from communion itself?"

Betty said, "Stop asking questions! We have always done it that way, and that's the way we are always going to do it!"

In other words, "Jesus, it's taken 46 years to build this Temple, and you challenge us to destroy it?"

Jesus said, "Yes. Yes, I do."

"But Jesus, it's taken 46 years..."

"Destroy this temple," he said, "and in three days I'll raise it up."

What was Jesus talking about? Was he talking about cleansing our institutions, both large and small? It sounds that way. It may be time to cleanse the temple, especially of those habits that may have become religions in themselves, like providing sacrificial animals for the convenience of traveling worshippers, covering the communion table with a shroud without anyone really understanding why or all the other distractions that consume our spiritual attention.

Religious folks can fall into habits, conveniences and inconsequential distractions. If anybody dares to confront these traditions, someone may respond, "But it's taken 46 years to establish these things." Nevertheless, the truth remains. We do not need any props to worship God. God is God. Worship is worship. Human temples must continually be cleansed, just as Jesus cleansed his temple of one of its rituals.

Death and resurrection make Christ accessible to all

Yet there is something more. When Jesus cleansed the temple, his opponents wanted a sign. To meet their request, he spoke his word. "Destroy this temple," he replied, "and in three days I'll raise it up." According to the early church, Jesus was not talking about the temple and its traditions. He was talking about himself.

Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus does not need the temple. When Jesus encounters the traditions, routines or religious procedures, he often ignores them.4 Jesus does not need the temple, because, according to John, Jesus is the temple. Nonetheless, as this scripture passage shows us, he deeply values what the temple represents. If the temple is where God meets people, that's important. But the text also shows us that as Christians, our temple is Jesus Christ. He is the One in whom God meets us.

As proof, Jesus gave the one sign that abolishes the over-organization of religion. He offered his own death and resurrection. "Destroy this temple," he said, "and in three days I will raise it up."

And he was raised up, lifted up on the cross to draw all people to himself, lifted up from the dead to draw near to all people through his Spirit, lifted up to God's right hand, with authority to forgive our sins.5

His opponents asked, Jesus, what gives you the right to reform our religion? What sign do you offer?

The sign he offered was himself.