In 1994 Jeff Bezos read an article that predicted that internet retail was one of the industries of the future with potential profit margins of 2300%. Bezos decided that if someone was going to make that kind of profit it might as well be him, so on a cross country road trip from his home in New York to Seattle, Washington he made a list of 20 products most suited for being sold online. He narrowed it down to five and eventually settled on books and, with an $250,000 investment from his parents, started Cadabra Inc. in the garage of the home he purchased in Seattle after deciding he preferred the Pacific Northwest to NYC. He very quickly changed the name, and sure enough, Amazon lived up to the potential for profit promised in that magazine article. Today, Bezos is the richest person in the world, adjusted for inflation it is believed he may be the wealthiest person ever, the wealth produced by Amazon is so large that when Bezos and his wife divorced in 2019 and she was awarded 25% of his shares of the company the simple act of placing those shares in her name made her the 3rd richest woman on Earth.
There’s a bit of a robotic nature to the founding of Amazon. I think we’re all inclined to enjoy success stories where someone took an idea or subject or product they were interested in and managed to turn that passion in a financial windfall but that isn’t the case with Amazon. Jeff Bezos read an article that said internet shopping was going to be big so he started an online shopping center. He needed something to sell so he made a list, analyzed his options, and picked books, not because he’s a lover of literature but because that’s what fit the business model best. There’s nothing inspiring about the story, in fact even the first book purchased on Amazon is un-inspiring. If we were writing a movie it would be some classic work of literature right, something that reminds us all that reading is this great equalizer that connects generations and societies and blah blah blah, it was called Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought. Amazon doesn’t exist because of passion. Amazon doesn’t exist because of inspiration. Amazon exists because someone saw a place where someone was going to make a lot of money and had the means and foresight to make sure that person was him.
We see a similar exploitation of a market opportunity on display in our text this morning. What’s happening in the temple should bring a smile to the face of any one who believes in the power of the “invisible hand of the markets driving progress, its supply and demand and market forces moving social actions right before our eyes. Here are the facts: people need to be able to purchase animals for sacrifice near the temple. Folks come from all over to make sacrifices, they don’t necessarily know what they need before they get there, everyone doesn’t have the means of transporting livestock, the folks selling animals are filling a need. Folks also need to change money. Outside of the temple, the Roman denarius is the currency that drives everything. But there’s an issue – there’s a picture of Caesar on the coins. Caesar claims to be a god. So these coins have graven images. You can’t purchase animals for sacrifice with coins featuring graven images, that’s breaking a commandment. What do you do? Luckily for you someone is willing, for a small processing fee of course, to exchange those blasphemous Roman coins for something more appropriate for the house of the Lord. And, for another small fee, if you find out you exchanged too much they’ll be more than happy to change it back for you once your business in the temple is gone. Is it great? Maybe not. Could we do it further from the temple? That’s valid. But these folks with their booths are providing a service. What they’re doing needs to be done, someone is going to do it, why not them? Why get so bent out of shape over it that you spend the time to make a whip so that you can attack people for trying to make a (relatively) honest living.
Don’t miss what’s happening here. These folks, these buyers and sellers and money changers, looked at the temple, WHERE THEY BELIEVED GOD LIVED, and their thoughts went to how they could make a buck of it. When their minds turned to the house of God they didn’t think of how they could fill their souls, they schemed for a way to fill their pockets. They weren’t inspired to seek the out ways to serve their fellow man, they started searching for ways they could turn a profit off of him. They didn’t come to the Temple seeking for God to expose the places in their lives they needed to turn over to God, they figured out a way they could claim a piece of God’s Holy Ground for themselves. They took worship, and they made it all about them.
I doubt that any of us are sitting here on Sunday mornings figuring out a way we can take this hour and turn a profit off of it. Maybe you’re all out there designing plans for the food truck you’re gonna put on the curb soon, I don’t know, but I doubt it. But I know that I am, and therefore I’d guess some of you are, tempted to sit in the pew week after week and wish this time could be a little more about me. A little more catered to my preferences, and little more geared towards doing things the way I would do them. Especially as we move into March, you know, this is actually the anniversary of the last time I was at a “normal” church service? On the second Sunday of March last year I gave a final amen at 12 o’clock and I didn’t preach from the pulpit of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church again until October. And like I’m sure you do I mourn all that has been missed and lost in the last year. And like I’m sure you are, I’m tired of it. I was tired of preaching on zoom, I was tired of preaching outside, I’m tired of not singing hymns, I’m tired of not seeing your faces, I’m tired the empty pews between us, I want things to be the way I want them to be. And then I see Jesus kneeling in the ground weaving chords together ready the whack me upside the head. Because this time, this place, and this act of worship; all this is not about me.
There’s a reality in this text we don’t want to miss, the angriest we see Jesus get in scripture is when he comes face to face with folks who have taken worship and corrupted it into something about them. And we need to take that reality seriously: there is not greater afront to the Son of God than to turn this space into just another location where we focus on our own interest, our own desires, and ourselves in general. Worship is about coming before God and letting ourselves be filled to overflowing so that God would touch every corner of our lives and make them about God too. What brings us here? Do we come for God or do we come for ourselves? Do we spend our time focused on what we would change or do better or fix or do we focus on the fact that we need to be changed, made better, and fixed by the one whose presence we gather? Coming to life again requires us to worry less about what we do in this place and how we do it and more about how we allow ourselves to be transformed by the time we spend here.
I spent a month in China after my Freshman year at PC and one of the things I had opportunity to do was go to the campus worship service. They could only bring two of us a week because too many of us would draw the administration’s attention and they were allowed to worship as long as they weren’t actively evangelizing. They could listen to hymns but not sing because if they got too loud and upset the neighboring apartments they wouldn’t be allowed to gather anymore. There were 3 languages represented so everything had to be said three times. I didn’t like, I didn’t ask to go back, it was not the kind of thing I wanted from worship. I asked the professor who took us, Canadian guy, if he really liked worshipping that way and whether he got anything out of it and he said “It’s not my preference, it’s not what I would do at home. But I get to worship. And worship is enough.” May God overturn enough booths in our hearts that we can say the same.