3rd Sunday in Lent

Alicia Vargas—March 18, 2009

John 2: 13-22

Like some of you, I am in my second career. My first career was in Literary Criticism. I applied it mainly to Spanish Theatre. It was great fun! I enjoyed it a lot.

One of the subjects I used to like the most when I was studying and teaching literature was Semiotics, the study of signs. Signs in everyday life, and signs, of course, in literature. Signs, signs, everywhere. We live surrounded by signs, we organize our communication through all kind of signs; sometimes we take signs for granted, but they are always there.

So even if I left my career in Literary Criticism behind, I certainly did not leave signs behind. None of us can, even if we try. Here, in the Gospel of John there are signs everywhere. John likes to write about “signs,” in Greek “semia,” in our Gospel text for today: “What sign,” asked the Temple authorities to Jesus, “can you show us for doing this?”

No wonder they demanded a sign for Jesus’ authority. Jesus, a complete stranger, had interrupted the business of the Temple—and I should say, from my own theatrical lenses, in very dramatic ways! He came in boldly and powerfully, as if he had all authority, driving sheep and cattle out with a whip he just made for the occasion, yelled at the merchants of doves to fly out of there with all of them, and probably with some degree of violence, turned the tables of the money changers throwing all their coins everywhere on the ground.

This was Jesus’ unequivocal reaction to the signs he saw in the Temple. He did not like those signs. John tells us why he did not like them. Jesus saw those transactions of buying and selling animals to be sacrificed, and changing Roman coins to Jewish money to pay the Temple taxes, as denigrating signs in the house of God. As he is throwing out animals, turning tables upside down, and dumping coins, he forcefully says: “Stop!” “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” He saw signs in those transactions that robbed the meaning of what the “house of God” should signify.

To the angry question the Temple authorities asked him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” he replies with a double-meaning riddle: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” “Yeah, right,” must have thought the Temple authorities. “This is a real nut-case.” So, in their naïve logic, they think of the forty-six years that the Temple had been under construction (and not even finished yet), versus the three days in which that crazy guy, Jesus, claimed he could rebuild it! The Temple authorities did not grasp Jesus’ meaning, but John makes sure that his readers do. He clearly tells us that Jesus “was speaking of the temple of his body.”

Well, Herod’s Temple is no more. It was no more probably at the time that John wrote his Gospel. But at that time, probably sometime during the First Century after Jesus “was raised from the dead,” as our text says, “his disciples remembered that he had said this.” The question is now, DO WE? Do we remember that Jesus’ body, and only Jesus’ body, is our temple? What are the signs that our temples, our church, project now?

Well, according to an Associated Press article that a PLTS grad pastoring out there emailed me a couple of weeks ago, the signs that lots of people see in the church leaves them disinterested in having anything to do with church. The article reports that “the percentage of Christians in the nation has declined, and more people say they have no religion at all.” From coast to coast now, (Northern New England surpassed the Pacific Northwest as the least religious region), the study found that “the number of Americans with no religion, rose in every state.” The article talks about the Roman Catholics and the Non-Denominational churches, but it reports that “the dwindling ranks of mainline Protestants, including Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians, largely explains [the decline of the numbers of Christians in the United States]. Over the last seven years, mainline Protestants dropped from just 17 percent to 12.9 percent of the population.”

Could it be possible that our churches are putting some signs out there that rob the meaning of the true sign of the church, Jesus Christ?? Are our churches seen as marketplaces, perhaps, and not as true houses of God? Maybe, just maybe, we need Jesus’ help here to do some kind of semiotic analysis of our church. Perhaps we need Jesus’ whip to get rid of some of our signs and remind us of the true sign of his authority so we don’t send confusing or lackadaisical messages out there that leave a lot of people cold and completely uninterested in God.

We are called to go against those false signs boldly, and like Jesus we can do that…boldly. In our church, within our church. In our seminaries, in our theological academia.

It’s easy to talk about justice outside of the church. We say, we preach, we teach, we quote Amos: “let justice roll down like waters ….” The divisions between the rich rich and the poor poor, wrong, wrong, we say. That’s not the will of God! But within our church denomination, do people see rich congregations and poor congregations? Why, they must ask, how come this church over here in this working class neighborhood cannot afford a pastor, and that other over there in that affluent part of town pays a six-figure salary to its senior pastor? Aren’t they supposed to be one body? Oh, and yes, all that hierarchy that we say Jesus rejected by being born in a manger, isn’t that alive and well in our own structures?

And in our theological academia, aren’t we still awed at the glorious names of some theologians, and we barely hear the voices of the ones who are assumed to be not important because they did not study in the great universities with the famous teachers? Whom do we learn from? If we ask the little voices, the new voices, whether they think they are heard, what would they say?

And in our congregations, what do we consider to be our most successful ministries? Do we strive the same way to serve congregations full of important CEO’s and high-power people or one with people struggling to even survive socially and economically? Where do we put most of our energies in our congregations week in and week out? In what are most congregations’ budgets spent? Who do we rub shoulders with? What do our efforts of loving all and including “the least of these” have to show for it? Who populate our potlucks and church events? How many times do we drop the name of Jesus outside of Sunday or Wednesday morning, except in formulas or in the occasional exasperated moment?

Jesus’ authority has to do with all of the above. Do we put all of the above commercialization of value above Jesus and Jesus’ radical authority? People notice signs. Signs are meant to be noticed. We don’t set out to create signs, but everything we do or don’t do is a sign. People notice what the church does, what the church values, not just in words, but in its action, in its attitude, in its budgets, in its presence with some kind of people and not with another kind.

We don’t have to do anything to deserve God’s love, we know that. So, our signs show that? By whom and by what are still awed? What are our values? What are our value transactions? Is our church a marketplace of higher and lower values, or we have only one value, Jesus Christ, in whom all are the same, all are loved, all are important, all are heard, all are welcome without ifs, without conditions, without strings attached?

What an awesome role the church has in the world! To show signs of the unconditional love of God, to share with the world our only value: Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection and its impact in our corporate and individual lives.

We’ll be singing a hymn in just a few of minutes that seems to elicit some signs that the world maybe looking for in the church, some signs that communicate Jesus. I don’t have the slightest idea if it’s singable or not because I (like so many people who did not go to schools with great music programs), do not know a musical note from another. Maybe it’s not too singable, but the words describe a certain kind of vision of the house of God:

Where divisions end
Where strong and true words of prophets are heard
Where all children can dream God’s reign
A holy ground where peace and justice meet
Where the love of God through Jesus is revealed in time and space
A house from whence hands reach beyond wood and stone walls
to heal, strengthen, serve and teach
and live the Word
A house where those considered outcasts and the strangers bear the image of God’s face
and are not actively rejected nor passively ignored
A house where all are named
And the songs and visions of all are heard, and loved, and treasured, and taught.

Signs, all signs, signs to be seen, signs to be interpreted, signs to be.

Let us pray. Oh, compassionate God, thank You for sending Jesus into the world, into our temples, into our very lives…to forgive the shortcomings of your church, and to always continue with us faithfully as we boldly live into being signs of his body on earth, blessed from his cross and empowered by his resurrection.