Speaking Truth to Power

Pastor Kim Gilliland
Lent 3 – March 14, 2021
SCRIPTURE: 1 Corinthians 1: 18-25 and John 2: 13-22
To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!”
John 2: 16 (NIV)

JESUS CLEARS THE TEMPLE

In today’s story from John 2:13-22 (NIV), Jesus speaks truth to power. Let’s read what happens in verses 13-17:

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 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. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

As always, I want to put this story into context because context is important. What we do know is that John’s version of this story happens near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry immediately following his first miracle which was turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. In John 2:12, we read that after the wedding, Jesus stays in Capernaum for a couple of days and then heads to Jerusalem with his disciples to celebrate the Passover which is one of the big Jewish festivals.

Upon entering the city, he goes to the Temple. What he finds there are people selling birds and animals for the ritualistic sacrifices that are part of the Jewish Passover celebrations. There are also people exchanging money. Just be clear, there are different sections of the Temple. These activities are happening in what is called the Court of the Gentiles, a place that anyone could enter. So while they are in the temple complex they are not actually in the building. This is where the animals are being sold and the money is being exchanged.

Jesus looks around at what’s going on and he falls into a rage. He makes a whip of chords and drives all of the animals out. Then he overturns all of the tables of the money changers and scatters their coins everywhere.

It’s important to understand why he does this. It is not because of what they are doing. They are, in fact, offering a valuable service to the people. That because not every animal was good enough to be sacrificed. It says very clearly in Leviticus 22:19 that it had to be a male animal without blemish or defect. Why male? This is not sexist. It’s actually shows the practical side of God who really wants to ensure that his people are fed and well cared for. God choses male animals because the people don’t need very many of those. It doesn’t matter how many cows you have. All you really need is one good bull and he will get the job done. So more of the males are dispensable. But they do have be without blemish or defect. That means that the white sheep cannot have any black spots on them. Neither can they be lame or missing an eye or something like that. God doesn’t want the people’s leftovers and damaged goods. God wants the people to honour him by offering the best that they have. But these are hard to come by and many of the people have travelled to Jerusalem for quite a distance. For those people, it’s just so much easier to buy an animal or a bird when they get to Jerusalem. So these seller are providing a valuable service.

Jesus is not upset that they are selling these animals. What he upset at is the prices that they are charging. The prices were far more than the people would pay for a similar animal in the market if one were available. Because male with no blemish or defects are in short supply, the prices skyrocket and the people are getting ripped off. That’s what upsets Jesus.

It’s similar with the money changes. When they are at the Temple, people also are giving their monetary offerings to the Temple which they are supposed to do. But the Temple treasury will not accept Roman currency. It has to be Temple currency. The money changers are simply providing the people with the appropriate type of money so that they can pay what they owe to the Temple. Again, it’s a valuable service. The problem is that because there is no other place to get money exchanged, these money changers are changing exorbitant exchange rates, ripping off the people and getting rich doing it. That is what upsets Jesus and that is why he overturns their tables and scatter their coins all of the floor. It’s not what they are doing that upsets Jesus. It’s how they are doing it.

The response by the religious leaders is found in John 2:18 (NIV) which says, “The Jews then responded to him, ‘What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?’” When you see the generic word “Jews” in the gospel, it almost always refers to the Jewish religious leaders such as the priests and the teachers of the law. These were very powerful people back in the day. They were the educated people. They had status. They weren’t just religious leaders of the communities. Because they basically lived in a theocracy, they were also the political leaders of the day. These were very powerful people.

But why are they upset with Jesus? They are upset because they get a cut from all of the business that is being done by the animal sellers and the money changers. The religious leaders are the very ones who set up the system. And while they are providing a much needed service, they are also benefitting from the price gouging that going on. What started out as a much necessary service has become a corrupt system of legalized extortion. That is what bothers Jesus. That is why he chases away the animals and overturns the tables of the money changers. He is speaking truth to power.

But I also want to be clear about something else. Jesus is challenging the rich and the power but he never says that there is anything wrong with riches or power. The are stories in the Bible where Jesus said some pretty complimentary things about the rich and powerful. I can think of the story of Nicodemus (John 3:1-21) who was a very rich man and the story of the Roman Centurium who was a very powerful man (Matthew 8:5-13). Jesus never said that there was an inherent problem with wealth or power. He said that the challenge with wealth and power is to use the wisely.

CHALLENGED BY THE POWERFUL

Speaking truth to power is never easy. Power is pervasive and also very, very – well – powerful. How does that old saying go?: Power corrupts but absolute power corrupts absolutely. I think there is truth to that. Another truth is that powerful people can make things very difficult for those who may speak the truth and challenge them. They can cause people to lose their jobs, their social standing, and their sense of personal safety and security. In extreme situations, it can even cost someone their life.

Jesus challenged those with money and misused it. He also challenged those with power and abused it. And what did they do? Those very same people were the ones who did their outmost to get rid of him via the cross. And they did not like it. Let’s find out how they tried to challenge Jesus right back. John 2:18-22 (NIV) says this:

The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 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.

The powerful are not happy with Jesus. He has upset the applecart – or in those days, probably the fig wagon – and called them out for what they do and who they are. So they challenge him back: “Who are you to tell us what to do? Show us a sign of your authority.” And Jesus talks about the Temple being destroyed and being built up again in three days. They think talking about the actual Temple but we know better. What Jesus is talking about is himself. This is prophecy of his crucifixion and his resurrection on the third day.

The interesting thing is that during Holy Week when Jesus was arrested and put on trial, these are the very words that his accusers used against him. In Mark 14:58 (NIV) this is what they said:

“We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.’”

That, of course, is not what Jesus said. He did not say that he would destroy the Temple. He said that that they would. But whoever said that the powerful have much regard for the truth. They will say whatever then need to say to keep their power. But Jesus still speaks truth to power.

WHAT IS TRUTH?

But before we can speak truth to power, let’s be clear about what we mean by truth. That’s because truth, these days, is not as easy to define as it once was. There has been a meme going around on Facebook that maybe you’ve seen. It looks like a take off on the TV game show Jeopardy but it’s call Facts Don’t Matter. Clearly someone has answered the question. And the host is heard to say, “I’m sorry, Jeannie, your answer was correct but Kevin shouted his incorrect answer over yours, so he gets the point. And Bill also gets a point for being offended.”

As people of God we have to ensure that we stand strongly on the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a gospel that promises eternal life for all who put their faith in Jesus but it also has tell us how to live our lives today. It calls us to live with justice, to treat others fairly and properly and to stand with those who are facing oppression and marginalization. The truth of Jesus is not a transient truth. It does not change based on the latest social fad or what may or may not offend the woke or cancel culture which, in my humble opinion is just bullying in modern society.

Just like Jesus, we must resist the temptation not back down to the powerful forces that try to silence any opposition by making others pay for daring to even disagree with them. This is every bit as tyrannical as anything done in Russia or China except that fewer people die. Rather than being killed, dissenters are simply crushed.

George Orwell was hardly a Christian but he challenge the assault on truth even in his day when he said, “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” And sometimes it means that animals are driven out and money changers tables overturned.

The truth of Jesus is a truth based on love and forgiveness, compassion and grace. That is the truth that we are called to uphold even in the face of the powerful forces that may stand in opposition to it.

SPEAKING TRUTH TODAY

The challenge for us today is to find the courage to do the same, to speak truth to power. That’s because there are still people out there who are more than willing to seek to silence those who speak truth. We see it all the time. Look around the world. Let’s start with Russia where you can be arrested and imprisoned for defeating a candidate who was backed by Vladmir Putin  If you wonder if that happens, ask Sergei Furgal who is in prison waiting to be tried on questionable charges. If found guilty, he could face life in prison. But that’s what happens when you speak truth to power.

Let’s go to North Korea where Kim Jong-un rules over a reign of terror. The slightest infraction against him can mean imprisonment, being sent to a labour camp or even execution.

Let’s move to China but not today. Let’s go back to June 5, 1989 when the world witnessed what was clearly one of the most profound demonstrations of speaking truth to power. The spring of 1989 was a season of unrest in China. Students, in their desire for reform in the Chinese system, began a series of daily demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. These demonstrations grew until the Chinese government decided it was time to send in the troops. On June 4, the People’s Liberation Army entered Tiananmen Square and opened fire killing hundreds of protesters and wounding thousands more. The protests were effectively over. Or at least that’s what everyone thought.

The next day, the tanks rolled in again onto the square but as the column advanced, one young man stood his ground in front of a column of armoured vehicles. Commander of the lead vehicle, to his credit, tried to drive around him but every time he did man moved in front of the tank. Finally, when it was clear that this man was not going to move, the tank came to rest just a couple of feet away from him.

The image of that event is burned into the memory of those who saw it repeated on the news media around the world. In 2016 Time magazine included this picture in its list of the 100 most influential images of all time. In 1998, Time magazine included this protester in its list of the most important people of the 20th century. And do you know something interesting. He has never been positively identified. We don’t know who he is or if he is alive or dead. He’s simply known as Tank Man to the legions of people who look to him as an example of someone who spoke truth to power. I’m of the very strong opinion that Jesus would have approved.

But again, what about us? Are we willing to speak truth to power like Jesus did? Like Sergei Furgal in Russia or Tank Man in Communist China? But we have to realize something important here. Speaking truth to power does not just happen at the national or international level where it is covered by the news media. Most times, it happens in local settings with neighbourhood people and we never hear about it. Powerful people who prey on others do their work in various settings.

That happens in schools and school yards. It happens in the work place. It happens in offices and stores. It happens in the gym, in the bowling alley. And it even happens it churches where both ministers and congregational members can be guilty of it. People who like to abuse their power are everywhere. It might just be the situation of being a big fish in a little pond but that makes no difference to one who is being threatened by that power.

What that means is this. Every time someone confronts a bully in the school yard, that person is speaking truth to power. Every time a person confronts an employer who is abusing their employees that person is speaking truth to power. Every time a fellow employee stands up for another employee who is being abused by a customer or client that person is speaking truth to power. Every time one man at the gym tells another man to stop ogling the women that person is speaking truth to power (and, by the way, that happens the other way around too). Every time someone challenges another person who is telling sexist or racist jokes that person is speaking truth to power.

Speaking truth to power takes courage. It takes strength. It takes tenacity because those who do it place themselves in the line of fire. But even more than that, it takes love. It takes love to stand with the oppressed and the down trodden. Jesus tells us to love people such as these because they need protection and to know that they are not alone. But he also tells us to love those who abuse their power and hold it over others. Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 5:43-48 (NIV):

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Being perfect means to love all people, friends and enemies alike. That’s some special kind of love. It’s the kind of love that Jesus shares with us and commands us to share with others.

During Lent, we are challenged to think about these things. We are challenged to consider what it means to speak truth to power. One of the most difficult things to do is to look at our own lives. We are quick to recognize when someone else holds the reins of power and abuses it but do we ever look at our own lives, at what we do and say? All of us have the potential to wield power over others and all of us have the ability to abuse it. That means that sometimes, we have to speak the truth to ourselves.

But that’s okay. It’s good to be honest with ourselves because that is where change begins. That is when Jesus begins to turn us from who we are into who he wants us to be.  May you be blessed as you consider this during Lent.

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE

Blessed are you, Gracious God, Creator of Light, Giver of Life, Source of Love. You guide the sun, cradle the moon, and toss the stars. At your word, the earth was made and spun on its course among the planets. You breathe life into us and set us among all your Creation in a covenant of love and service.

O God of Peace, we praise you for your love revealed to us in Jesus. He journeys with us as our Wisdom and our Way, sharing our joys and sorrows, healing the sick, feeding the hungry and setting the captive free. He walks among us and leads us down the path that you, in faith and caring, have set before our feet.

We thank you, O God, for the passion with which you come to us. In the acts of Creation and Cross you have shown your love in immeasurable ways. In the Spirit, you continue to live around and within, filling us with life and wonder. In our inadequacy, help us to sense your mystery and feel your presence. Give to us the passion that we need to do your work with joy and faithfulness all of our days.

We would lift up in prayer the people who struggle to live abundantly through this pandemic. While vaccinations are rolling out and the situation appears more hopeful every day, we still need to be vigilant. Bless those who continue to live in fear and anxiety. Grant them peace and healing.

We pray for those who mourn, that they would feel the comfort of your love and the peace of your presence. We pray especially for the family and friends of Jim Elfort whose funeral will be on Tuesday.

We pray, this morning for the sick of our congregation and community. Comfort and heal them with the touch of your indwelling Spirit.

We lift our prayers to you who is our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Enable us to discover the ministries that have been placed before us. Give us the courage not to shirk from our duties. Give us the wisdom to know what to do. And the love to do your will with compassion, gentleness and grace.

All of this, with praise and thanksgiving, we pray to you in Jesus’ name. Amen.

WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE

March 7, 2021 / Lent 3

SCRIPTURE

Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; John 2:13-22; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

CALL TO WORSHIP

ONE:         The heavens declare the glory of God;

ALL:         the earth proclaims Christ’s faithfulness.

ONE:         God looks upon creation from the throne of grace;

ALL:         and guides us into the way of peace.

ONE:         We come, as servants, to worship our Creator;

ALL:         We come to honour Jesus who gives us life.

PRAYER OF APPROACH

Your glory fills the sky, O God, and the heavens declare your glory. Glory to you, who made all things. Glory to you, who makes all new things possible. Glory to you, who looks upon us and cares what happens to each and every one of us. Glory to you, who lifts us above our sinfulness and places us upon the rock solid ground of faith. Glory to you, God of love and compassion. Only you can hear our prayers. Only you can see our worship. Only you can, in love, answer us when we call upon your name. Amen.

PRAYER OF CONFESSION

We call to you in the midst of Lent. We seek in this time, O God, to draw closer to you and to discern your will in our lives. We have fallen short of your glory. We have failed to live with the faithfulness that you have set before us. Like our ancestors, we have turned our backs and run from your call, forgetting your promise to provide for our every need. Forgive us, O God, when we fail to follow. It is only by your mercy that we are healed. Amen.

ASSURANCE OF PARDON

The joy of faith is that wherever we walk, we have the assurance of God’s love and presence with us. Even when we journey into sin, God is there to lead us back on the path of righteousness and bring us peace and reconciliation. Thanks be to the Christ for the amazing and gracious gift of life.

DEDICATION OF OFFERING

All that we have and all that we are is symbolized by these, our gifts. Give us the courage, the wisdom and the insight to use them wisely, not only this portion but all that we have. We offer ourselves for your work and glory, in Jesus’ name.

COMMISSIONING

We have worshipped and given glory to God. As we leave, may our praise continue. May our worship enter into every aspect of our lives that we may live in prayer and faithfulness every moment of every day. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

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