This sermon and all worship videos can be seen on YouTube.
In making plans to worship outside this Sunday, I have been powerfully reminded of an extraordinary worship experience I had when I was a seminary student and spent a semester in the southern African country of Zimbabwe. I traveled for a long weekend visit to the Zion Christian Church, a rural, indigenous independent Christian church. Much of the church’s membership lived on a cooperative farm. They greeted us with biblical hospitality—arriving as strangers unannounced at their door, we were welcomed with open arms, given food and drink, a place to stay in someone’s hut, and time to visit with the Bishop. We worked in the fields during the day, breaking for a lunch of stewed greens and tea. On Sunday morning, as we gathered for worship, we look for the church building. Instead of an edifice we were led to long wooden benches under a huge tree. The women led the singing, clapping, dancing, and ululating while drums played, full of joy at God’s blessings and Jesus’ forgiveness. The bishop read a passage from the Bible and preached, followed by more singing and dancing. Their sanctuary was creation, God’s first and best cathedral, and their focus was on Jesus.
My experience in Zimbabwe resonates with our passage from John. Jesus, through his words and actions, asks the question: Where is the focus of your worship? By overturning the tables of the money changers and the sellers of animals, Jesus leads our worship in a new direction.
It is important to note that there was nothing wrong or immoral about selling animals for sacrifice in the Temple Courtyard. Indeed, the book of Deuteronomy, as it instructs everyone to bring their tithe to the Lord, says if the distance is too great to bring their goat or a tenth of their grain to the Temple, they can turn their first fruits into money for ease of transport, and then purchase animals for sacrifice once they arrive in Jerusalem. So, the moneychangers and animal-sellers have set up tables in the Temple courtyard to accommodate the faithful traveling in from out of town to make their sacrifices for Passover.
So, in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ concern is not criminality or the illegitimacy of buying and selling animals, but instead the authentic worship of God. Arriving in the Temple, Jesus observes people going about business as usual—purchasing sacrifices, preparing tithes, and getting ready for Passover as if nothing has changed. But everything has changed. God has become embodied in a human person is present with and for them at this very moment. The Word has become flesh! God’s presence and God’s name is no longer confined to the building in one location, but is now extended and present in the person and power of Jesus himself. The focus has shifted from the Temple to Jesus. In other words, God has left the building.
One’s worship and devotion is no longer lodged in a monetary exchange to make an offering or in animal sacrifice, but in an on-going relationship with the God who has invested in creation and within humanity and in all the details and fullness of life. The Word became flesh who dwells among us is the fullness of God who is present in everything and in our every day—not in one exchange, in one market, in one location, at three festivals a year.
In order to shake things up and in order to get people’s attention, Jesus goes for the grand gesture –he turns over tables, dumps out coins, and scatters animals. The new focus of worship is Jesus—and the relationship with the God you can now have with the One who came to walk among you.
The Jewish leaders ask for a sign—Jesus tells them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up…But he was speaking of the temple of his body.” Jesus is saying, Do you not get it? God is not simply “in there.” I am God. I am the Temple! Yes, God has left the building. Focus on Jesus.
If we have learned anything during the pandemic, it is that God has left the building! We may prefer worship in the sanctuary, we may like the altar, the pulpit, the pews, and all that goes with it, but we have learned through both difficult and I hope beautiful and meaningful ways, that God shows up everywhere, because Jesus is everywhere.
• At home on video—Jesus is with us.
• In the parking lot outside—Jesus is with us.
• In our car or sharing a video on Zoom—Jesus is with us.
We have all discovered that we worship Jesus wherever we are. What matters to us is the same thing that mattered to Jesus when he cleansed the Temple, and what mattered to the rural indigenous church worshiping under tree: the main thing is that we keep the main thing, the main thing.
The main thing is not the building or the sanctuary—nice though they are. The main thing is not the flowers, or the paraments, or pipe organ, or the coffee—lovely as they can be. The main thing is not the pastor, or the style of music. The main thing is Jesus. Focus on Jesus, the Word made flesh who lives among us. He is the Temple, he is the presence of God everywhere for us now. The Temple is everywhere, because Jesus is everywhere.
As more people become vaccinated and the pandemic winds down, Council hopes that we can return to worship in the sanctuary this summer. As we spend the next few months preparing for this transition, Jesus reminds us that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing—and that is him.
• How will we use our building so that more people have a chance to experience of God’s grace in Jesus?
• How can we use technology to expand the number of people who experience God’s forgiveness in Jesus?
• How can make sure our ministry leaves the building so people are fed, and visited, and forgiven and given hope in the name of Jesus?
That is the main thing. “The Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” We can keep the main thing, the main thing because we know in our own hearts and lives the fullness of the risen Jesus dwelling in and with us—wherever we are because we, too, have left the building.
We have witnessed the presence of God in new ways in our own home, at our dinner table, worshiping at our home altar, through the miracle of technology, in our new connections with old friends, in discovering new ways to pray, to serve, and to be Christ to each other while we are apart. God will continue to expand our experiences of God at home, in the cathedral worshiping outdoors, and in the world, because Jesus Christ is in all, through all, and with all and within each of us.
Yes, God has left the building and dwells in Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh and living among us, and through us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
• Have you worshiped outside before and what was it like (perhaps at camp as child? In college?)
• If you have worshiped outside during this pandemic, what has been your experience of it?
• What is the most powerful part of worship for you or where you feel the presence of Jesus Christ most intimately? Has this changed over the course of the pandemic and the changing styles or methods of worship?
• How has your relationship with Jesus changed over this last year of the pandemic?
• Have you thought of the significance of Jesus’ body as the new Temple, and later in the New Testament, Paul calling all our bodies the “temple of the Holy Spirit?” (1 Cor. 6:19). What does this mean to you?
• What do you think is important for your congregation moving forward to help keep Jesus, the main thing, as the main thing?
• In what new or surprising ways have you experienced Jesus in the world, in your daily life, or in video/Zoom/Outdoor worship?