THE JOY OF A GOOD FIGHT
John 2:13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” 20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
What to you is worth fighting for? And how will you go about fighting for it? For no one will get through this life without some conflict. The question is, Did we pick the right fight? The one that Paul calls, “The Good Fight of Faith?” The one that John’s Revelation calls “The War of the Lamb?” The one in which Jesus engaged, “for the joy set before him?” It was for the joy set before him that Jesus picked a fight with the very powerful Temple Lobby, ran their “product” out into the streets, and scrambled their accounts all over the floor, knowing it would eventually get him arrested and killed. What joy would be worth that?
The title of the message suggests that he did this for “the joy of a good fight” A “good fight?” What’s good about a fight? you may ask. Why, isn’t the very phrase itself, “a good fight,” an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, like “delayed maintenance” or “smart bombs?” The last thing I want is a fight between America and Iran. Most of us are not any more excited about a fight with our spouse or our children, nor a friend, nor one in church, heaven forbid!
Nor do I mean “a good fight” in the sense that some people talk about war. Whatever side they were on, veterans often tell about how they first went marching off to war with the bands playing, the drums rolling, the flags and the regimental banners flapping and snapping in the wind, the crowds cheering, with thousands of comrades in the same uniform marching together in rhythmic stride, sometimes singing, surrounded by symbols of great power, like tanks and self-propelled artillery. Its enough to sweep everyone off their emotional feet, send chills up their spines, goose bumps over their bodies, tears welling in their eyes, their hearts swelling with pride and the absolute certainty that theirs is a just cause, a good fight, until……
…….until the first of your comrades falls dead. And then, as Homer said in The Illiad some 3000 years ago, the cause for which you went to war far is soon forgotten and now you fight for mostly this: that your fallen friends should not have died in vain nor unavenged. And thus “a good fight” always turns bad. Compared to the fight into which Jesus is enlisting us, that other kind of fight is the wrong fight with the wrong weapons against the wrong enemy.
No, I’m talking about the good fight that Jesus was in, a fight that reached a higher level of intensity with the cleansing of the temple in today’s Gospel text, which he picked for “the joy set before him.”
Now what joy was that, again?
To answer that question, it helps to know what Jesus was fighting against, and what he was fighting for. For one thing, Jesus was fighting against corruption and the abuse of power, especially the corruption and abuse of religious power, taking God’s name in vain, that is, using God for personal gain, and to exploit others. In that time and place it worked like this: you came to Jerusalem for any of three great annual festivals; you brought a lamb that you had tended and prepared for sacrifice and sharing at the altar of God, a lamb that, as far as you could tell, met all the requirements of the Law of Moses. No lame, diseased or blemished cast-off that no one else would buy, but the finest first fruits of your flock. But for some reason that only the experts and the priests could understand, your offering was rejected.
But don’t worry. They have Grade A Temple Certified Sacrificial Lambs that you can purchase with proceeds from the sale of your home-grown lamb. More like make a down payment! Here you brought a lamb for sacrifice and you got fleeced! Fleeced by the priest! Similar shenanigans went on with the exchange of foreign coins for ones you could offer at the Temple. Jesus was fighting against such corruption and abuse of power.
Secondly, Jesus was fighting against what I call a very subtle faith substitute, something that looks and sounds on the surface like faith in God, but which constitutes the sins of presumption, arrogance and an irresonsible, childish, wishful, magical thinking. What Jesus encountered in the temple was like the presumption, arrogance and wishful, magical thinking of their ancestors in the time of Jeremiah, when even priests engaged in idolatry, sorcery, oppression and injustice and thought that, as long as they stayed near the Temple and attended to the required religious services, God would protect them from the consequences of their actions.
It didn’t work. It provoked the destruction of Jerusalem and Exile in Babylon.
In this day of resurgent anti-semitism, I feel the need to say that these sins are not uniquely Jewish things, neither then nor now. They are temptations that come to anyone with power and authority, especially religious power and authority. Clergy abuse scandals, not just in the Catholic church by the way, are such sins of power. We set people up to abuse and be abused in all sorts of ways whenever leaders are unaccountable to the people they serve and need only answer to their higher-ups in some institutional hierarchy. Like with the Temple racket that Jesus confronted. That’s partly why we have an abuse prevention policy here at Emmanuel Mennonite Church, annual reviews Church, a Pastor-Congregation Relations Committee, and why the pastor reports regularly to the church council.
And as for confusing biblical faith with irresponsible, magical, wishful thinking, there was a well-known Christian leader thirty years ago who said that, in case of nuclear war, God could make all our missiles hit the Godless Soviets, and make all their missiles miss us. Because we believe in God and they didn’t. That’s when I knew I needed to be a Mennonite. Because that’s not faith in the Almighty God of Jesus and the prophets, its irresponsible, magical, wishful thinking about a tribal idol.
For that kind of bogus faith in a Celestial Santa Claus, Jesus accuses the Temple merchants of making God’s house a house of merchants. Or in other gospel accounts, “a den of thieves.” Either way, those are loaded words, because they are the very words by which the Prophet Jeremiah charged the Temple elite of his time with the same sins. And then he went on in the same breath to predict the destruction of the temple and the exile of the people. So everyone there would have understood that not only was Jesus crashing their party, he was acting out a parable, a repeat parable, one that was meant to remind them of Jeremiah’s warning about the coming Exile and destruction of Zion. In effect, Jesus was predicting and depicting the destruction of the Second Temple and another Exile if they didn’t mend their ways. That prediction and depiction came true 40 years later, at Roman hands.
Which means that Jesus was not just indulging in hot anger or blind rage as some people like to think he was. He was angry, I’m sure, at the abuse of God’s name, and the abuse of people. But this was no spur-of-the-moment temper tantrum. It was a carefully, deliberately enacted parable that pointed back to Israel’s first Exile, to warn them about the next Exile. So, next time we lose our temper and let someone have it, or throw things around, let’s not say, “Well, Jesus let loose in the temple.” Jesus was not acting out of rage then and there.
But obviously there’s no denial, indifference, numbness and acquiescence or passive acceptance of evil going on, either. Yet aren’t those our two greatest temptations whenever we face injustice and evil? Rage on one hand, or denial, numbness, indifference and passive acquiescence on the other? One is failing to act while the other is acting so as to fail. Sometimes don’t we even engage in denial and indifference for as long as we can until we just can’t stifle it anymore, and then–BLOOEY– we blow up in rage at someone?
What we see here, instead, is Jesus attacking a problem, but he’s not attacking people. Don’t let the rope that he used fool you; I take it from the story that he used it to drive the animals out of the temple courts, not the people. And that’s always a good way to deal with conflicts and issues among us: attack problems, not people (as most problems don’t require us to use a whip), instead of coasting along in denial and acquiescence until we just can’t stand it anymore, and then we may blow up and attack people. Yes, Jesus was angry and forceful. Yes, he confronted arrogance, exploitation and corruption. But he didn’t assault anyone. He was issuing an invitation to repent.
And with that we come to what it was that Jesus was fighting for. Here we start to see the joy that drew him forward, even through a fight. We get a glimpse of it in verse 19, when Jesus explains his authority to clean house, by saying, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
Now, that didn’t make much sense to anyone there, at the time. But later the disciples caught on. “Oh! He meant his body! It would rise on the third day after they destroyed it. On the cross. Of course!” Which it did. If they had caught what he meant then and there, they might have taken a whip to him! For Jesus was saying that his body was the new temple that would replace the old temple. That means that everything people went to find at the temple they can now find with Jesus.
You want mercy, forgiveness, divine instruction, answer to prayers, fellowship, worship with God’s people gathered from all over the world? Don’t look to a temple of stone and wood anymore for that. Jesus is the new temple, the place of God’s most immediate presence on earth.
But that body is no longer here the way it was back then. Now its here in the form of his people, you and I, the church. We are now The Body of Christ. We are now the new Temple. And this new Temple is the joy set before Jesus, by which he endured the cross and despised the shame: in effect, you and me, the new temple that he, the one greater than Solomon, would build for his God and Father, a temple in flesh and blood, life and love, not of stone nor steeple. Building this new temple of living stones is the good fight that Jesus found worth fighting. And he counts it all a joy. A joy he offers us.
So, that’s the good fight that I recommend to us too, the right fight, St. Paul’s “good fight of faith,” or St. John’s “War of the Lamb.” For such a fight, no ropes or whips are needed, unless you too should find livestock in the sanctuary. Ours are the weapons, of prayer, love, witness, worship and service. The right army is a new, royal priesthood who willingly wash each other’s feet in service and mutual aid, protecting even the weakest lambs among us, rather than fleecing them. Such a temple of flesh and blood, of living stones, is worth fighting, even dying, for. Whatever the cost, count it all joy.