Sunday sermon 11 March – Which tables? Which temple?

Readings: Exodus 20:1-17 and John 2:13-22


So Jesus comes to town – and finds priests selling forgiveness of sins – indulgences that free people from hundreds of years of purgatory and speed up their painful journey into heaven.

  • What does he do?

He gets hold of an interesting character – a priest called Martin Luther – and makes him zealous for truth! The guy posts the most radical ideas on the internet of the day – by nailing his ideas to a door of a building.

Ta-da! – a Reformation. They try to kill Luther of course. But he changes the world.


So Jesus comes to the temple at Passover – and finds tables where people are selling things – important things for the sacrificial system – and he challenges the system – the religious people who made a living from it –  and the political authorities who were the backers of the system as they kept the PAX ROMANA – the peaceful stability of Roman Empire.

  • What does he do?

Call a board meeting? Nope. Preach a sermon? Nope. He engages in prophetic action.  He turns the tables over and uses a whip to drive the sheep and the cattle out. And the doves. He makes a right mess. He comes across as a zealous religious crazy man!

“Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” he says. And his followers suddenly remember something he said about how all consuming his zeal for His Father’s house was. (Psalm 69:9)


So Jesus walks into this Presbyterian church. And these lovely local people have a sales table – selling delicious jams and spreads, right there at the door of the church. And cakes and cookies!

  • What does he do?

I have absolutely no idea. Buy some marmalade?


But I tell you this. Those religious guys in the temple had it all sorted. Good systems people they were. And yes it was helpful. People couldn’t carry cows for miles. And they had to use temple money – so they made it possible to exchange Roman money (with an image on it) for the image-less temple coins.  Everything was in its place. And they were so used to it that it never occurred to them that it might be all out of balance. Wrong. Off centre.

It takes a new person in town to see things sometimes. By the way – some of the best people to talk to about how effective a local church is – are people who are new. Ask them what they see!

Well I’m not new anymore. It will be a year at the end of this month since we arrived here.

First question today:


  • Are there any tables that need to be turned over?
  • Any sheep and cattle to drive out?
  • Any whip to be produced?

I don’t know actually. There are these theories about change – about moving the piano across the room six inches a week. About the new broom sweeping slowly. People expect change when a new pastor shows up. I’m not sure they want it though.

Lucky for you I am not Jesus. But I am called to speak for him.  It’s a scary thought and a terrible responsibility. And I mess it up at times – because there’s too much of me and not enough of Jesus!

But at the heart of our traditions – Jewish, Catholic and Protestant, there is this command which we heard today:

3 “You shall have no other gods before (besides) me.

 4 “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.

In the Protestant tradition they form two commandments. In the others they are regarded as one.

To simplify!

GOD ONLY! GOD FIRST! No substitutes!

You can’t have anyone else in God’s place – no other god (they had options in those days it seems) – and no substitutes for God (idols – things you make or put in his place!)

Maybe that was part of Jesus’ zeal for the temple. It was about honouring God – not making a profit at the expense of the poor. Not missing the point of worship (like I suspect we do today). Not creating idols in the system or of the system.

The church today as an example (including ours) measures success in terms of its balance of payments. That’s a mistake.

What really matters is what’s on the table! What do WE focus on? What consumes US? What gets in the way?

And some of our tables may have to be overturned.


That’s the next question.

In Jesus’ time on earth, the temple was the place where God was expected to be. But even in this passage Jesus opens up a new way of seeing thing.

Reading on in verse 18 and 19:

18 Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous 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.”

So what’s the new thing here? Anyone?  (Ask questions – take answers!).

Yes of course – he’s shifting the focus from a building to himself.

You can imagine the hoo-hah when they hear he’s about to demolish the temple – their  cathedral, so to speak. (Ring any bells? Christchurch cathedral?).

20 The Jews 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.

Aha! They got it. Later of course!

Reminds me of another encounter in John’s gospel – the woman at the well.  (John 4). Great story – he sees through her pretense, her theological posturing and debate, to her real issues. Some tables in her life – too many men. A whole string of husbands and then a partner!

And on that occasion – when she starts the discussion about which temple (The Jewish or Samaritan options) – Jesus says this:

 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (Verses 23 and 24)

And how do we get spirit and truth? How do we find it? The conversation continues:

 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”  Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you–I am he.” (25 and 26)

Jesus is the focus – the new location for worship. The one who gives the spirit – the one who is the truth!

And our bodies are temples too – of the spirit. And we as a community form a temple too.

Paul puts it like this:

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? (1 Corinthians 3:16).  He is speaking of the church as a group here.

And then speaking about us as individuals Paul also says:

 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.(1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

WHICH TEMPLE does he want to cleanse?

Where will he find the tables that need turning over and the livestock to chase out with a whip?

It’s not the “church” that needs fixing alone (and when we say “the church” we usually refer to the minister and leaders or paid people who need to do things – when we are the church together).

It’s all of our lives! Church – family – work – individual lives!

Jesus wants to call in!

His Zeal for his father’s house was zeal for the honour of God’s name and position  – for his position of priority!

Do our lives honour God? God first? Really? Are you sure?

I don’t know. I think that there are some tables that are in trouble. What’s on them – the things we hold dear – may well be scattered – smashed as idols should be.

Watch out. Jesus is coming. In fact He is here. Today! Right now!


About robinpalmer

I am a Presbyterian Pastor living and working in Browns Bay on the North Shore of Auckland in New Zealand. We moved here at the end of March 2011 after spending five years in Wellington the capital city. I am passionate about what I do - about communicating and writing. I also enjoy my counselling work, especially with young people.

Posted on March 10, 2012, in Sunday Morning Sermons. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Robin,
    In my view this was a message for our time. It addressed the centre point of concern for the modern Church and church people. Is God first in my life? How do I / we improve my / our individual focus on worship?

    How do we teach our new folk, especially young people these two fundamentals of our faith.

    Your reference to tables that need to be examined, checked and on occasions turned upside down was one of the most effective illustrations I can recall in over 40 years as a Christian. I am still thinking about it two days after hearing the challenge.

    Thank you for a classic message, well placed as part of our worship service. Bill D.

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