Riddling Jesus


John 2:13-22

Do you enjoy riddles?

Here’s one: What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?

Anyone know the answer?

Anyone know the history, where this riddle comes from?

In Greek mythology, the Sphinx guarded the road to the pyramids and other treasures of Egypt.  It would ask this riddle to people who wanted to pass by; and if the person couldn’t answer, the Sphinx would devour the traveler.

Finally, after many travelers had come to their respective tragic ends, a man named Oedipus answered this riddle successfully; and the Sphinx met her tragic end, turning into sandstone and eventually crumbling—which is why she has no nose today.

The answer to the riddle, then: man.  In the morning of life, a man is a baby and thus crawls on all fours.  At life’s midday, a man walks upright, on two legs.  In the evening of life, when a man is old, he uses a cane and thus has three legs.

Here’s another riddle:

It cannot be seen, cannot be felt, / Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt. / It lies behind stars and under hills, / And empty holes it fills. / It comes out first and follows after, / Ends life, kills laughter.

Anyone know whence this riddle cometh?

This is one of Gollum’s, posed to Bilbo in The Hobbit.  Bilbo is lost in a cave deep within a mountain.  It’s the cave where he finds the notorious ring.  Here he encounters Gollum and strikes up a deal.  They’ll play a riddle game.  If Bilbo wins, Gollum will show him the way out of the cave.  But if Gollum wins, Bilbo becomes his dinner.  Yikes!

Anyway, anyone know the answer to this riddle?

Dark. Dark cannot be seen, cannot be felt, and so on.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m a puzzle solver.  Riddles are a kind of puzzle for me.  When someone poses a good riddle to me—a clever one with only one possible answer, like the ones just discussed—it sticks with me.  I wrestle with it.  I struggle over it.  I think about it in my sleep—or so it feels like I do.  Until, at last, I either figure out the answer or return frustrated and defeated to the person who asked it.  Can anyone relate?

Now, let’s turn to today’s Gospel reading.

Here is a well-known story.  And, it seems, no matter how many times I’ve read, thought about, and even studied it, my initial gut response is always, “Yeah!  Go, Jesus!”

Here Jesus stands armed with a whip, determined to set things right.  Jesus is my kind of hero!  Jesus is the kind of leader I want to follow!  Yes!  Go, Jesus!

But then I begin to settle down.  The adrenaline rush is over.  And I start to realize the setting: the place where this scenario is taking place; and the people whom Jesus opposes.

Jesus is in the Temple!  This is a beautiful worship space, well designed as the spiritual center of the holy city Jerusalem.  And everything taking place here isn’t necessarily wrong.

People need a place to exchange their common currency—with images of Caesar on it—for the image-less drachmae, the coins required for the Temple tax.

Likewise, spiritual pilgrims need to buy sacrificial animals, meaning animals without blemish.  It would be very difficult to carry a turtledove, for example, from a long distance away and keep it unblemished.

Arguably, then, all these tables that Jesus is now overturning are in fact necessary for the Temple to function properly.

And the people who confront Jesus—those whom Jesus apparently opposes—are the Temple leaders.

You know what this is?  This place is the cathedral of Jesus’s day!  And these leaders?  They’re the cathedral dean and his canons; they’re the rector and his associate priests.

Now my adrenaline begins pumping again and I’m thinking, “Hey, wait a minute!”

And I find myself very sympathetic when these religious leaders ask Jesus to show them his credentials.  “What sign can you show us for doing this?” they ask.  By what authority, Jesus, are you causing this scene?

And to answer them, Jesus poses a riddle.  “Destroy this temple,” he says; “and in three days I will raise it up.”

Well, we know the answer to this riddle from the words that follow.  Jesus is not speaking about the literal Temple, the physical building and grounds still being constructed after forty-six years of work.  Rather, Jesus is talking of his own physical body, the temple of the Holy Spirit, which the political and religious leaders will in fact destroy; and the temple which Jesus himself will in fact raise from the dead after three days.  We know the answer to Jesus’s riddle.

But, I wonder, after their initial response, did the leaders Jesus confronted wrestle with his riddle?  Did they ponder his riddle, puzzle over it, lose sleep over it, and perhaps even grow frustrated as they sought unsuccessfully to understand what Jesus meant?

These leaders were doing what they knew how to do.  They were taking their jobs seriously.  And they did their jobs well.  Pilgrims needed a place to exchange money; pilgrims needed to obtain unblemished animals for sacrificial purposes.  And the leaders had attended even to these very particular details.  To put it in modern terminology, they were meeting the people where they were!  The Temple leaders were making Temple worship user-friendly!

Which causes me to wonder even more. What about us?  Is Jesus telling us a riddle here to get us thinking?  Should we be puzzling over his words?

Like the Temple leaders, both as individual disciples and as a corporate church, we have a pretty good thing going, a pretty well-oiled machine running.  We might spend some time troubleshooting and brainstorming now and again, to improve our machine; but we are pretty much settled into a routine, a method—disciplines—for maintaining our spirituality.

We are settled on them: these disciplines.  We’ve had good reason to do so.  And so, after a while of practicing our routines, we’ve come to think we have it down.  At best, we say, it works for me; at worst, we think, everyone else should do it my way too.

But what if there is something about my way that needs to change?  What if I’ve become blind to something?  Who will I allow to get my attention?  And how will they get it?

Maybe it’s time for me to consider this riddle from Jesus.  Maybe it’s time—right now, in the middle of Lent—as an individual disciple of Christ, to ask questions like:

  • What is Jesus trying to tell me?
  • How can I serve Jesus better?
  • Where have I been blind to Jesus?
  • Where have my own self-serving routines eclipsed Jesus?

Or maybe it’s time to ask these questions not as individuals but as a church.  The riddles, the perplexing questions, are there—if we look for them.

A friend recently posed this one to me.

There’s this group on the internet called Mystery Worshiper.  You can look them up.  They’re kind of like Mystery Shopper.

Anonymous people worship in churches and then write up evaluations of their experiences.  One of questions by which this group evaluates a church is, “What were the first words you heard spoken in the worship service?”  The answer they favor is, “Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” for this opening acclamation is vertical: God-directed.  The answer they criticize most harshly is, “Welcome to St. So-and-so’s,” for this salutation is horizontal: directed at the worshiper.  Worship should be vertical, they say; not horizontal.

Well, the astute worshiper here will note that we usually practice the latter, not the former.  But that’s not the point.  Whatever the case, whether we agree with this approach or not, it’s a good place to start; a good question—a kind of riddle—for us to consider as a church.

  • How might we be eclipsing Jesus as a corporate body?
  • Are our outreach efforts more interested in serving Jesus or ourselves?
  • Do we value things like user-friendliness too much?
  • Are we trying too hard to meet people where they are?

Following Christ is a riddle worth pondering deeply.


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