Jeremy Serrano, Concord, CA

Warm-up Questions

  • Do you have symbols that are important to you? If so, what are they?
  • What do those symbols mean to you?
  • How do you show they are important?

What Belongs?

Some people watch the Super Bowl to see the best football teams play each other, but for others it is all about the commercials. The 2021 broadcast was no exception. One commercial from a car company hit all the right points for many in the audience, yet left others feeling uneasy. 

It begins with a wide shot of a long road and man driving down it. After a few seconds of light music in the background, a voice says, “There’s a chapel in Kansas standing on the exact center of the lower forty-eight. It never closes. All are more than welcome to come meet here in the middle. It is no secret that the middle is a hard place to get to lately.” As sweeping shots of Americana imagery glide across the screen of wheat fields, trains, and houses (all with the car companies product in them, of course), the voice continues, “We just have to remember the very soil we stand on is common ground, so we can get there. We can make it to the mountaintop through the desert, and we will cross this divide. Our light has always found its way through the darkness. And there’s hope on the road up ahead.” It is as feel good as a commercial can get, drawing on a sense of collective nostalgia for small town rural America. 

This commercial has some beautiful and touching imagery, and the sentiment behind the speaker’s words is worth pondering. However, for the Christian, there is one image worth questioning. A panning shot inside the chapel shows a lectern with candles in the corner of the room, and, on the back wall, a map of the United States painted as the American Flag. Over the map is a black cross. The two symbols are conjoined as the main focus of the worship space. 

Discussion Questions

  • What does the American flag mean to you?
  • What does the cross mean to you?
  • Do we risk conflating American citizenship with our faith when we mix national symbols with religious ones?

Third Sunday in Lent

Exodus 20:1-17

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

John 2:13-22

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

We tend to think of Jesus as more tame and subdued than the author of John shows in today’s lesson. Nevertheless, Jesus enters the temple just before the celebration of Passover and shows that not everything belongs in a worship space. Jesus’ visceral reaction to the sellers and money changers—driving out the animals, pouring out the money collected, turning over the tables—indicates what he feels is appropriate in that space. Just in case his actions are unclear, he says “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market place!” (John 2:16, NRSV).

The main people involved are the money changers. They are a for-profit group who exchange foreign coins into local currency. Worshippers need to buy the animals for the prescribed ritual sacrifices of the temple, and so their services are much needed. 

The timing in John’s gospel is just before the Passover. The celebration of Passover is a multi-day festival which remembers the time God “passed over” the houses of the Israelites during the last of the ten plagues on the land of Egypt (Exodus 11-12). Passover has been one of the most important holidays for the Jewish people since the time of Moses. 

The setting of Jesus’ outburst is the temple. The temple was more than just a local church in a neighborhood; it was the epicenter of Judaism at the time. The Temple was the center, not only of worship and music, but also of politics and society.  It was the central place of both celebration and mourning. But, most important, God promised that it would be the dwelling place of God among the people.

Jesus’ wrath is not directed against those participating in or leading worship, but against those detracting from it. As evidenced by Jesus’ actions and words, he views the money changers and sellers as desecrators of the temple. Jesus says, “ Stop making the house a market place!” (John 2:116b).

Jesus’ prophetic action calls for the worship of God to not be an activity married to commerce. In this action, he shows that some things are not useful for worship, nor is everything that we do in our places of worship worthy of being there.

What incensed some of the 2021 Super Bowl audience with the car commercial was the presence of national symbols in a worship space. Two thousand years ago Jesus used an important holiday to show that not everything is acceptable in the worship space, even if it is useful. In the synoptic versions of this story, Jesus says, “My father’s house shall be called a house of prayer.” Jesus shows that the people working in the temple forgot to make the main thing the main thing.

Discussion Questions

  • Are there any symbols or activities that don’t belong in a Christian worship space? Why not?
  • How do we decide what symbols and activities belongs in the worship space?
  • Do you think Jesus would cleanse any of our churches?  If so, what would he cleanse?

Activity Suggestions

  • While you are online this week, notice where national symbols and religious symbols are intertwined. Pray for both our nation and the Church. 
  • Take a moment to read the ELCA resource, “Are Flags Appropriate in church?”
  • In worship this Sunday, identify as many symbols you can in worship, including clothing, images, and statues.  Look up what those symbols mean. Or call your pastor and talk to them about it.
  • Imagine designing a worship space for your community with only 5 items or symbols.  What would you choose and why?

Closing Prayer

Holy God, you sent Jesus to guide us in all things related to our faith and lives in you.  Show us those things that bring you glory and give us wisdom, through your Holy Spirit, concerning the things that need to be cleansed from us and our communities today. Amen.