Was it a prop or a weapon, this whip of Jesus'? Was his tirade a sermon or a tantrum? Did Jesus lose his temper, or did he do what he did and say what he said according to a plan he'd made before he ever stepped into Jerusalem that day? Because everything more or less depends on how we answer that.
And there are good lessons to preach either way – about biblical justice and all the rest of it . . . the gospel, that is. I’m going with the pre-meditation option: that Jesus knew what he'd find in Jerusalem at Passover – and he planned what he'd do about it. He'd find a religious system corrupt to its core, turning a profit on the spiritual neediness of human beings. A system which ought to have been devoted solely to fostering connection between humanity and God was abusing its power to satisfy and enrich itself.
All these thousands of people are in Jerusalem for Passover. Passover remembered the Hebrews' escape from Egypt, and so meant freedom from slavery. Passover marked the constant presence of God with the people of God – the presence which began at a time when they were on the run from people who meant to kill them. They’ve come to the Temple to pray and to sacrifice. Temple also had layers of meaning:
To celebrate Passover in Jerusalem was the height of any religious Jew's worship experience – to make the sacrifice and say the prayers in the very spot where heaven and earth meet, where God's presence is known most fully. Some might go every year, if they lived close or could afford the trip. Some might go every few years. Some might go once in a lifetime.
Jesus grew up in Galilee. Poor people were HIS people. He sees the Temple courtyard with the eyes of a Galilean. There were hardly any wealthy people anywhere in Israel. No middle class whatsoever, and masses of poor people. Walking for days, they couldn’t haul their own animals for sacrifice and expect them to still be ritually pure upon arrival. They were forced to buy animals in Jerusalem, from vendors whose animals were vetted by Temple priests. Cattle and sheep for wealthy people. Doves for poor people.
All those pilgrims came with the currency of their home countries. They had to use Temple coin to buy sacrifice and make offerings. The moneychangers were at their service – for a fee. The vendors rented space, just like at the Farmer's Market downtown. That money also went to the Temple.
The vendors got paid in Temple coinage too, then had to turn their money back into local currency to go home. The Temple made a profit on vendors coming and going too. Having changed their money, worshippers would run the gauntlet of vendors to select their animal for sacrifice, then get in line to go in to the priests who were sacrificing the animals.
Rivers of blood were carried away by gutters around the altars built for this exact purpose. It was an assembly line of worshippers carrying live animals in the front, empty-handed worshippers and animal carcasses coming out in two separate lines the other side – for all the days of Passover. Into the courtyard on this day, Jesus arrives with his shopping bag from Michaels or Joann’s, with his craft supplies – a needle, thread, and leather straps. He sews and knots the leather into a whip. Does it take an hour? two hours? . . . his disciples no doubt scratching their heads, “He’s sewing?”
"I'm ready," he says at some point. And stands up. But they weren't – not for what happened next. He cracks the whip and tips over tables. Animals run away and money scatters over the pavement. "Take the doves out of here," he says (caged doves can't run away). "My Father's house isn't a marketplace."
It seems over almost as suddenly as it started. Nobody gets arrested. The police aren't even called. The people in charge want to know what Jesus is up to, asking, "By whose authority are you doing all this?" They want his credentials – which is weird, as if something depends on his answer, as if they need his reason to measure their own judgment of the situation.
I think they're asking about Rome. Romans did this kind of thing now and then. Best not to get in the way, if this was coming from Rome. See how suddenly NOT IN CHARGE of Jewish religious life they were? How spineless? Having to check the political winds before they can tell right from wrong? Biblical Justice is never more doomed to fail than when religious leadership loses its backbone.
But as soon as Jesus spoke, they knew it wasn't Rome. Rome always had a good reason. Jesus sounds like a crazy person: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?" which is all of the actual conversation John records.
Because none of it makes sense to people who don't know Jesus Risen. Even his disciples don't understand any of this – not until after Jesus had risen from the dead, a point driven home again and again by John: that nothing Jesus says or does can be understood outside the light of his resurrection. “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up." He can only be talking about himself here. The Jews in the story don't know, and thus can only speak of brick and mortar.
While Jesus says, I AM and MY HOUSE, Jesus is not a pilgrim. He is the host, the one welcoming the pilgrims home, and chastising the servants who are supposed to be helping: providing hospitality and access to the host; straightening and smoothing the crooked, rough places that trip and obstruct the people so desperate to get to him. Great is the temptation to follow the tasty rabbit of economic injustice showing itself here in the Bible and in our own life together.
To imagine the real rot of religion then – or now – look at its habit of confusing value and usefulness. A new analysis from Georgetown University attempts to document the economic value of religion in U. S. society. It found that the faith sector is worth $1.2 trillion, more than the combined revenue of the top 10 technology companies in the country, including Apple, Amazon, and Google. They came up with three numbers for consideration.
The first estimate took into account only the revenues of faith-based organizations, which came to $378 billion annually. The second estimate, $1.2 trillion, included the fair market value of goods and services provided by religious organizations and included contributions of businesses with religious roots. The third, higher-end, estimate of $4.8 trillion takes into account the household incomes of religiously affiliated Americans, assuming that they conduct their affairs according to their religious beliefs.
The argument might be made that $378 billion would buy a lot of homeless shelters and soup kitchens; that such a system might possibly have failed to grasp Jesus’ call to die to the things of this world, take up our cross and follow him; that he might possibly have been misheard by the modern believer. At the same time, we like churches with doors, a roof, an HVAC system and fresh toilet paper. Is it wrong for leaders to ask their members to pay those bills?
It's tempting and easier to write off these money changers and vendors as cheats – but who, exactly, is served by that? It is us – is it not? We are the ones served, having gotten off scot free. Our hands and our hearts are clean of any guilt, any responsibility. Then again, if your hands and heart – and mine – are so squeaky clean, what are we doing here?
Year after year, these worshippers returned to Jerusalem, to buy a sacrificial animal, to confess a year's worth of sins to the priest, who slays the animal and confers forgiveness. In the process their pockets got picked and their spirits got shamed, but it was all worth it for the year's worth of reprieve and relief it bought . . . until next Passover.
There is the core of the rottenness, you see. The ultimate brokenness of a system that treats symptoms but never the disease. It’s the water that sends you back to the well again and again. And the wine that tastes like all the other wine we ever had but never even hinting at what wine is meant to be.
So long as our end game is economic systems, important as they are, we're still living like folks who don't know Jesus Risen. Jesus didn't come to fix the broken system – simply to point out that it was broken? Yeah, he did that with a whip the same way he did that with the wedding wine. But it was not his grand and final goal. He tipped some tables and moved on. It was just a sign of what he'd truly come to do: break up Temple sacrifice once for all. Remember that: once for all.
It's why I march in marches now and then – to be with people who see this world's brokenness and want the truth about it told, if only for as long as we walk together one Saturday a year. I don't think the world broke a year ago either. Only that I woke up from some things I thought were true but aren't. But marching isn't fixing. I am not that naïve.
The only thing that is going to fix this world is what God already did in Jesus. Only through eyes and hearts who know him risen does marching make any sense at all. Not just marching – preaching, singing, worshipping; sitting with people in the nursing home who will still be there tomorrow; feeding people who will be hungry again tomorrow; encouraging the ones who will get overwhelmed and afraid again next week. It's all for nothing if Jesus didn't rise.
The wine and the whip are props, sweet friends. Signs, John calls them, for a world we could never imagine otherwise.
Would you pray with me?
Justice Matters, friends. It must, if we are to be the church that Jesus' mother prophesied. Thy kingdom come, He Himself taught us to pray, on earth as it is in heaven. This kingdom of God, which Mary described in Luke 1, is the heart of biblical justice.
The kingdom of God is where God’s people take seriously God’s plainly stated preference for the poor, the stranger, the refugee, the dispossessed, the prisoner, the oppressed. The kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven is also where God’s people take seriously God's plainly stated promise that from us who have been given so much, much is expected. Biblical justice is lived out in three-way partnership between God, humanity, and the non-human creation.
God and the non-human creation have kept their part of this covenant, while humanity's record is . . . spotty – having risen to great heights now and then, but mostly doing too little too late. Because, at the end of the day, the work of justice is hard. It take lots of time and energy – time and energy that those of us with time and energy to spare might otherwise spend feathering our own nests or binge-watching Netflix.
Justice Matters, friends. It must, if we are to be the church. But if being church doesn't matter, then neither does justice. In which case let us at least tell the truth – and change our sign to University Baptist Country Club and Democratic Caucus.
But if being church matters, and I know that it does to you, then my hope, prayer and intention is that 2018 will be the year in which justice matters to us more than it ever has before – the year we take bigger steps in:
~ our understanding of biblical justice;
~ our identity as a people committed to biblical justice;
~ our activity in the work of biblical justice in our own time and place.
In my preaching binder I have a page for every preaching week of the year. At the top of each one I’ve written JUSTICE MATTERS in green sharpie. I want it in view as I start every sermon. I'm going to go back and write DO THE MATH! in red on every page too, because I believe there's not a case of injustice that is not, at its root, economic.
We shall see how it goes, beginning in John, chapter 2, with a text so full of sermons a deadbeat preacher can milk it for a year and a working preacher never run out.
Jesus had no intention of starting His ministry at this wedding. Cana was even more of a no-place than Nazareth. No one even knows where it was. Scholars have three spots in mind it might have been; the closest is less than a mile from Nazareth, the furthest about 12 miles – all of which count as walking distance.
If Nazareth had 200-400 people and we can still find it, how small do you suppose Cana was? But to its people it was home, and they were having a wedding. And by design or default, the wedding family had not ordered enough wine. Given how people – folks related to me, at least – behave around free food and drink, I know how easily this can occur. Still, hospitality requires a host to anticipate such enthusiasm by their guests, and plan accordingly.
These hosts – Mary's friends – didn't. For whatever reason. And now they are about to be really embarrassed. The guests who've had nothing will not think poorly of the early guests who've been through the line three or four or five times. But rather – their host. They will think him stingy and inhospitable – which again is the LAST notion the fathers of a bride or groom want thought of them by their friends and neighbors. It was the greatest of shames.
So Mary makes it her business. As would I, not because I am bossy or a busybody, mind you, but because I am HELPFUL. She finds Jesus and His friends – in the food or wine line no doubt – pulls Him out and tells Him, the wine is going to run out.
Someday I'm going to spend a whole week just thinking about this partnership of Mary and Jesus. He is her son and her Lord. She is His mother and His disciple. They are both servant to and authority over the other. So few words pass between them. The ones that do scratch my ears, begging to be softened – for my sake only, though. Not Mary's. Not Jesus'.
She doesn't tell Him to DO anything. She doesn't have to. Like good mothers of good sons, she knows He knows what she wants Him to do. And He does. John says only the servants and the disciples knew the truth – that it was Jesus' first sign. It revealed His glory, and the disciples believed in Him.
The glory, it seems to me, is in the math. Friends, I want not simply to suggest, but rather to insist, that this math is a sign of God's notion of justice. The math tells us something central to biblical justice.
To do the math, I first had to read up on wine. I found a blog called WinoWoman.com WinoWoman is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute of California and Yale University and is a master sommelier. Assuming you are serving beer but no liquor, she recommends two glasses of wine per guest. Knowing most guests will drink only one glass, she says.
I literally wonder, has this woman ever been to an actual wedding . . . and if so, whose? I can guarantee it was not in Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri or Arkansas. But nevertheless . . . .
Most wine is sold in 750 ml bottles like this one made by my cousin Dick, in his basement in Terre Haute, Indiana. WinoWoman says there are six glasses of wine in here. Again – don't know who is pouring for her, but we'll go with her math, as she graduated from Yale.
John says that after the initial stock of wine ran out, Jesus delivered 180 MORE gallons of the best wine any of them ever tasted. Do you have any idea how many 750 ml bottles are in 180 gallons? I do: 900.
My favorite wine is Dry Red Blend from Oliver Winery. I doubt it is the best wine ever made in the history of wine, but I like it. It costs $8.99 at Sam's Club and $12 at Oliver Winery – however, there's a 30% discount if you buy more than three cases. I know this because I called them – not because I’m in the habit of buying more than three cases of wine at a time.
900 bottles = 75 cases. 75 cases would cost $7,560.00 at the Winery. The 2017 winners of domestic wines cost about $75 a bottle OR $67,500 for 900 bottles. 900 bottles = 5,400 glasses of wine at WinoWoman’s pour. Not Carl Briggs’ pour.
At two glasses per guest – WinoWoman's generous estimate – plus-2700 guests were at the wedding at Cana. Which is absurd. The population of Galilee within walking distance of Cana wasn't 2700. Besides, nobody living in Cana at that time could have afforded that. OR, nobody who could afford that would have lived in Cana.
Everyone knew Jed Clampitt couldn't stay in Tennessee once he got rich, right? Galileans were poor: peasants, heavily-taxed subsistence farmers and workers. That they had never tasted such amazing wine was not exactly remarkable.
A huge wedding in Cana would have been 200 guests. 5,400 glasses of wine for 200 guests? Even the way Carl Briggs pours, that's more than 20 glasses per guest. Of course I'm being silly. I wish I could be as outrageous as I want. I wish I could stack 5,400 wine glasses around this room. I wish I could open 900 bottles of red wine and let that smell fill this room.
Because I really, really want you to get the same sensory experience those first disciples had of the grace of God poured out for us. Because it's right here in the math! Abundance! Generosity! This is the nature of biblical justice!
When human beings make a mess and Jesus fixes it, He doesn't go around with a ruler measuring out precisely one glass of wine per person, like WinoWoman.com. He doesn't double that and call it generous, like we do when we give poor people our nice old clothes.
He gives the poorest, most forgotten people on the planet (Cana is literally forgotten!) better than they would ever have known to ask for, and more than they can ever, ever, ever use in this lifetime.
The math of human justice says everyone gets one. The math of human generosity says everyone gets two. But because human beings are both stingy and greedy, our ideas of justice OR generosity rarely work to anyone's advantage.
Either we are passive- aggressively obliging others to accommodate our stinginess. Or we are soaking up our privilege like we deserve it because we got here first. Or because we followed the rules and worked hard. Or certainly are not as rich as so many other people. All those reasons are only useful to people who are NOT interested in being church.
We are not here to justify ourselves, but rather to exercise biblical justice in this time and place. So we find ourselves as the hosts in this wedding story in the land of scarcity – a bed we made for ourselves by design or default, but one that we most definitely DO NOT want to lie in. What does that have to do with me? Jesus asks. Fair question.
We Protestants all grew up knowing that “God helps those who help themselves." Amen? Hard work ALWAYS precedes prayer. Thus needy people are people who haven't worked hard enough. God helps those who help themselves. We think it without even meaning to.
Except that's not the first sign of His glory, is it? Jesus agreeing with us that those greedy guests should have been more grateful for the two glasses allotted to them. After all, it’s free, and they were really only entitled to one.
The flash of the first sign of His glory was however-much time and energy it took however-many servants to schlep 180 gallons of water from the spring to the jars. (180 gallons of water weighs 1501 pounds, by the way.) It was however-much time and energy it took however-many stewards to draw and deliver 5,400 glasses.
It was however-much time and energy it took however-many guests to raise however-many glasses of this new wine they'd just been handed, however-much time and energy it took to tip those glasses and discover what biblical justice tastes like when it's drawn up, measured and poured out by the hand of God.
Later, Jesus will describe it as “living water so satisfying we will never be thirsty again.” The math of biblical justice is the math of abundance, of generosity and of grace. Remember, the wine is only a sign of what Jesus is going to do. He didn't come to improve our parties. He came to save our souls, that we might have more life than we ever dreamed a human being could have. Not more years – more life! Gallons and gallons and gallons of life! Extravagant life.
For those of us already drowning in the securities of this world, we've been offered the privilege of extravagant service. Of never withholding from others for fear of our own losses. Of never hoarding joy or lying awake heart-broken with worry.
Speaking to the Anti-Defamation League in 1963, President Kennedy spoke of the United States as a country built by 40 million immigrants. Except for failing to mention all who came by slave ship – no small omission – his speech is wonderful.
He spoke of OUR responsibility to BE the country they imagined and built. "We are equal to this great inheritance," he said. I found it healing after this week's vitriol. Because at the end of the day, friends, biblical justice is not born of what we think or what we say. Biblical justice comes to life on earth as it is in heaven, because of what we do and how we live.
May Jesus find us generous and ever confident of the abundance of grace and courage with which He has already supplied the church in this time and place. Would you pray with me?
If your mama or daddy ever said, “I seen what you done and I know what you're up to,” was that good news or bad? Did it prompt fear and anxiety? Or relief and joy? Jesus wasn't telling Nathaniel that he “saw what he done” so much as, I know what you were up to. I know what you were praying for. I've always known. And here I am.
Because knowing that a holy man was probably under a fig tree is something like knowing that Kelley School of Business professors can be found at Lennie’s on Friday afternoons. It is what they do. Holy men pray under fig trees; it’s what they do. Nathaniel, naturally, was struck down. “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel.”
Struck down in that he spit out treason like it's nothing in the world to him if Roman soldiers hear him say it, “Son of God” and “King of Israel” being titles reserved for the Emperor, not Galileans. Struck down that a man knows about himself not just what everyone else knows, but what is in his heart and mind.
Two sentences earlier Nathaniel himself insulted Jesus. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” — Nathaniel asks the air, the way folks do when we believe everyone in the room agrees with us. Nathaniel was Judean. Judeans thought themselves better Jews in general than Galileans. More racially pure, more sacrificial. More devout.
Not unlike American white people.
Once when I was a child my grandmother was looking at the school pictures of my cousin’s kids and she said, “Somebody in that bunch jumped the fence.”
It was her not-so-subtle racist description of an interracial child. Her own great‐ grandchildren, mind you. But I had no idea what she meant, so I asked my mother. My mother having to explain was worse than hearing Mamaw say it. Yet I loved them both, cringes and all.
But can you and I say we don't have our own Nazareths? People or places or parties we've written off; dismissed; decided are not worth a look or listen?
Can anything good come out of ______ ? What? Surely you can fill the blank.
The White House . . . Congress . . . the Republican Party . . . the Democratic Party . . . the Southern Baptist Convention . . . the Evangelical Church . . . Sudan . . . North Korea . . . Alabama . . . the IU men's basketball program. Come and see, Philip answered. But he was not the first to say so. Jesus was.
When Andrew and his friend (both disciples of John the Baptist) heard Jesus speaking, they wanted to hear more. Where are you staying? they want to know. Come and see, Jesus said. This word for staying is important for John. Elsewhere it gets translated "abide."
Abide in me as I abide in you is nearly the whole message of John 15 as well as the pastoral letters of John. But Jesus doesn't say I abide in you here in chapter 1. That would have been too creepy. It wasn’t time yet. He cannot tell them; he can only show them. Come and see. And so they peel away from John the Baptist to follow Jesus.
Too bad for preachers, John the Baptist isn’t our role model: the more disciples he lost, the better job he was doing. Andrew and this other fellow listen for a day, and Andrew finds his brother Simon, whom Jesus renames Peter.
Off, the four of them head to Andrew and Peter's hometown in Galilee, where Jesus finds Philip, and Philip finds Nathaniel. Here’s when Nathaniel insults Jesus. And Philip bids him come and see.
But before Nathaniel can open his mouth, Jesus shouts a greeting. “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Did Jesus just insult most of Israel? As if this is an unusual thing to see – an honest Israelite. If I had a quarter for all the times people have said to me, “Wow, you don't look like a preacher,” I could buy new shoes – nice new shoes.
The thing is, I can't tell whom they are insulting – or complimenting. So I just say “thank you.” What is Jesus doing here?
He is doing, it seems to me, what Jesus always does, welcoming whoever is willing to come and see. Nathaniel isn’t hiding anything from Jesus. Jesus knows him through and through, his devotion AND his bigotry.
Nathaniel is just one human being, and when he comes to Jesus he comes as a whole package. Coming to Jesus, he is not instantly free of his past – as Judean, as Jew, as a male. Or any of all the bits and pieces of his history that make him who he is now. And Jesus takes him all. I love how Jesus acts the gospel out in the minutiae of a conversation. How he flexes his thick skin and his tender heart simultaneously.
Nathaniel has just insulted Jesus. But not just Jesus himself: Jesus’ kinfolk and his hometown.
Now I know Christian people who could not get past that. They’d get offended. They’d have to talk it out – talk about nothing else until that was worked out.
Not Jesus. In response to insult, Jesus chooses to praise Nathaniel's great faith. Friends, let it not be lost on us that Jesus will bid these same disciples – AND US – to come and die with him. And here is his first lesson: Let other people's insults die; when others insult you, let those insults fall into silence – silence deeper than a grave.
As for me, I’m perfectly capable of receiving an insult without returning fire . . . out loud. Instead, I like to absorb the insult and nurse it like a wound, until it festers and infects the relationship. Which, I suspect, is not exactly the lesson Jesus was trying to teach. So yeah, I have some room to grow on letting insults die.
While Jesus, apparently, has better things to do, like turn these men (and, eventually, women) into friends and partners in the work he is setting out to do: saving humanity from sin and death. Go figure.
“How do you know me?”
“I saw you under the fig tree. Not just what you were doing. I saw every nook and cranny of your heart. I know what you are up to. Here I am.”
“Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel.”
Nathaniel's confession of Jesus as Messiah is John's first proclamation of the gospel by a human being, a doubter who was a little bit racist.
Nathaniel may have thought his day couldn't get better, when Jesus, like every game show host ever, says, “But wait – that's not all! Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man!”
Whose vision is Jesus recalling? We read it early back in the fall. In this “lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” Jacob's vision has come to pass. Remember the stairway to heaven with angels ascending and descending? Only now, there is no stairway. The Son of God has replaced the very road between heaven and earth.
“You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man!” is language that will eventually get him killed by far more powerful men than these four, these men from No-place, Galilee. And yet, of all the people in all the world whom Jesus might have chosen, these are the folks God chose as friends and partners in the most important work anybody ever did this side of heaven: rescue folks from sin and death.
Jesus finds them. They find their friends. Jesus welcomes all of them to “come and see.” Come and see the one who “seen what you did.” Come and see the one who “knows what you're up to.” Come and see the one who invites you to imagine that such a thing can be ALL good news.