Sunday, March 7
3rd Sunday in Lent
“Pictures of Jesus” Sermon Series
Scripture: Psalm 19 & John 2:13-22
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

As we read the Bible this Lent, we’re asking the question, “How do I picture Jesus in this story?” It’s part of our Pictures of Jesus series, and it’s a challenge for each of us to use our imagination to see Jesus in action in our own way. A few of you have sent in drawings you’ve made of the texts we’ve covered over the past couple of weeks, and I’d encourage you to keep them coming. I’d love to see if we can get a gallery of our picturing of Jesus together through this season. So, keep up the good work and send it in!

We are not the first Christian community to try this exercise out. In the 1970s, a Christian community in the African country of Cameroon got serious about visualizing what the stories of Jesus could look like in their context. I always love maps, so here’s one of the African continent. You’ll see Cameroon toward the middle-left of the map, looking almost like a green stocking cap. Let me zoom in just a bit. There it is. South of Niger, where we support the Ludwig family in mission. Next to Nigeria.

In the 1970s the Mafa Christians in northern Cameroon worked with French missionaries to visualize these Jesus stories for their context. The Mafas acted out the scenes from the readings, and people photographed them doing so. These photos were passed along to French artists who made 63 paintings of these scenes and gave the paintings to the Mafa Christians, who have shared them with the world. To date, over six million copies of their work have been shared, and now we get to view one of those works today.

Here’s the painting. What do you notice when you look at it? The centrality of Jesus? The focused look on his face? The way his red cloak offers such a stark contrast to the desert colors in the rest of the painting? I notice the action. I love the little child sprinting away from Jesus. I notice the fruit in midflight. I notice the man in the foreground cowering before Jesus. I also notice that the people in the background seem pretty undisturbed. This is clearly a picture of what a day at the market in northern Cameroon looked like in the 1970s. I wonder what this scene would look like today here in Grand Haven? Would we place Jesus at the church? Downtown during a sidewalk sale? At a concert in the waterfront stadium? I encourage you to picture Jesus as I continue to dig into this text for us.

This is all about perspective. From the perspective of the Mafa Christians, this is how this story translates into their world. John is writing about this story from his perspective too, and it’s a different perspective from the other gospel writers. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell the story of Jesus clearing out the Temple during his final week of life. It’s one action among several that set Jesus on the way to the cross. John views this story entirely differently. He shares it at the beginning of his gospel, the first of three Passovers that mark time to John. (It’s actually from John that we clock Jesus’ public ministry in at around three years because of the three Passovers.)

So, as John pictures Jesus, he sets him up as someone who will challenge the assumptions of the leaders about the Temple. It’s the opening controversy in John, and it is used as a clear pointer to Jesus’ role as the one whose life and work will replace the need for the Temple as a means for people to have connection to God.

Before I go any further, I do want to deal a bit with this picture of Jesus. If you’re anything like me, it’s hard to picture Jesus in this manner. Surrounded by children and laughing? Yes! That’s Jesus. Sharing deep teaching and stories to captivated crowds? Yes! That’s Jesus. Walking humbly with his disciples? Healing the sick? Yes! That’s Jesus. But angry? Turning over tables? Knowing how to make a whip and use it? That’s Jesus? How do we deal with angry Jesus? I think we deal with it by using perspective and context.

First, anything that challenges the status quo, particularly one that involves the livelihood of others, is going to create friction. The life of Jesus will completely upend the need for this kind of commerce because he is the temple. These merchants are doing what is actually helpful for the pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem for sacrifices. Jesus’ own parents would have used them to offer the sacrifice of doves early in his own life. Here’s how one scholar describes what the merchants were up to. “Jewish pilgrims who came to Jerusalem for Passover needed to buy Passover lambs, and many took advantage of the occasion to offer sacrifices in the temple – animals for the wealthy and doves for the poor. The coins of this Roman-occupied country were not acceptable to the temple authorities, because they bore an image of the Roman emperor, who was given divine honors. The authorities therefore issued their own tokens, which alone could be used to buy sacrificial animals and birds in the temple precincts. This requirement entailed the changing of the money pilgrims had brought with them into temple currency, for a fee.”[1]

From a purely practical perspective, what is happening around the Temple makes perfect sense. It’s like selling sunblock at the beach. It’s like the church accepting electronic transfers for giving, not just cash in the offering plate. Yet, as is the custom with humans, we take something that might be good and helpful and we push it to an extreme. In this case, these merchants are creating a barrier between the people and God. This has become big business, and it is not the way God wants it to be.

Interestingly, I don’t read the scene with as much chaos as it’s often pictured. Yes, he made a mess, overturning the money changers tables. Yes, with his whip he sent the animals away. But John is focused on why Jesus does this, and so people come up to Jesus and ask him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” The word “sign” is an important word in John’s gospel. In the passage immediately before this, Jesus performs his first miracle – turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana. John writes, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs…and revealed his glory” (2:11). What is a sign? It’s something that points to a truth that is beyond itself. A sign that reads “Franklin Street” is not the street itself, but it signifies that Franklin Street is right there. The signs in John point to the truth of who Jesus is, going far beyond the miraculous action itself.

If your memories are really good, you’ll recall that I preached through the Signs of John during my first Lent here. There are eight of them. The first seven occur over the first half of John’s gospel. Jesus turns water into wine. He heals the official’s son. He heals a paralyzed man. He feeds the 5000. He walks on water. He heals a man’s blindness, and he raises Lazarus from the dead. John’s seven signs correspond to a full week, which is, of course, the number of days of creation in Genesis 1. Yet, there is one more sign in John, and it’s the biggest and most important of them all. The eighth sign – the first day of the new creation – is the resurrection of Jesus. Everything in John’s gospel is pointing towards this brand-new thing God is doing in Jesus.

Which brings me right back to the question posed by the Jews after Jesus has made a royal mess of the market near the Temple. “What sign can you show us for doing this?” they ask Jesus. In Jesus’ answer we get some serious foreshadowing of what he is actually up to. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” he responds. If I were drawing a picture of myself upon hearing those words in that moment, it would include my jaw hitting the floor. The glorious Temple, in whose shadows they are standing, took almost half a century to build, and Jesus says he can bring it back in three days. By comparison, it took me a week to rescreen my porch. I know Jesus grew up building, but this is quite a claim. If you think he’s talking about a building, then his claim is absurd. But he’s not talking about a building. He’s talking about himself. John is hinting towards the end. What sign will you give, Jesus? The resurrection, he answers. I am the new temple, he answers. Which I think drives home why he is so adamant about making sure there is nothing that can get in between people and God.

I’ve said that this is all about perspective. Looking back, we can see what Jesus is up to. John writes his gospel in the decades after the Romans destroy the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70. He knew the Temple was gone, and for those who hear his gospel, he puts Jesus in the position of being the access point to God. People need not find God in one particular spot and in one particular way. God in Christ can meet a person on the road to Damascus. Or on the battlefield. Or right here in western Michigan. John is writing so that people will believe that Jesus is who he says he is. John wants us to read the signs. He wants us, like Jesus’ disciples, to know who Jesus is. John writes, “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word Jesus had spoken.”

Looking back, we can see what Jesus is up to when he clears out the Temple. Hindsight is really helpful in the story, I think. But I also think that having the ability to look back at our lives helps us to see God at work in ways that perhaps we didn’t realize at the time. I’ll give you an example from my own life. I had no designs on being a pastor, yet as I look back on my life, I see all of these interesting events and opportunities that prepared me to be a pastor and, frankly, to be your pastor here in this particular moment. In high school, I became friends with people interested in drama, so I signed up for an acting class to be with them. I learned improvisation there. I grew comfortable in front of people. In college, I followed a love of good stories into studying English. I had no idea that I would spend hours every week writing for my work. I studied music theory, but I had no idea that learning that theory would equip me to play piano for online worship during a pandemic. There are dozens of ways – small and great, joyful and painful – that God prepared me to be who I needed to be today. It is in looking back that I can see those things and come to appreciate them.

Looking back, I think you’ll find the same is true for you. Sure, not everything will make sense. Not everything will feel redeemable. Yet, God has been and continues to be at work in each of us. When we look back on the hard time of this past year, I wonder where we’ll see God at work because God is indeed at work – even now.

[1] Lamar Williamson, Preaching the Gospel of John  29.