March 11, 2012 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“And making a whip of cords, [Jesus] drove [the vendors] out of the Temple, with the sheep and oxen. And He poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And He told those who sold the pigeons, ‘Take these things away; do not make My Father’s house a house of trade.’”
Jesus has a passion for the Temple. It is many times greater than all the athletes who scream about their stadium or arena: “We must protect this house!” The passion that Jesus has is a love for what is sacred and holy. It is a love for His Father’s house, a zeal that flows out of knowing exactly what was meant to occur in the place set apart by the Lord.
The passion that Jesus has for the Temple leads to drastic actions. This is what John the Gospel Writer records. The event that is described takes place at the greatest festival for the ancient Hebrew people: “The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.” The Passover Feast marked the time when the Lord had delivered His people from Egypt. It is the great annual celebration of the divine redemption shown to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Lord takes them from a foreign enslavement and makes them a strong nation. But the way that the Israelites were freed was not a simple earthly act; the angel of death strikes down the first-born in all of Egypt. Yet, the Lord preserves His people through the spreading of lamb’s blood over the doorways of the Hebrew people’s slave quarters.
The Lord’s awesome act of deliverance at the Passover requires remembrance. He commanded it to be so. But the remembrance is meant to be solemn. The Lord’s power and ability are to be recalled, a presence that brings death but also brings life. There is an encounter with the identification that the Lord makes of Himself: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…. I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love Me and keep My commandments.” And when the Lord’s people are situated in their new homeland, they have a place where the Lord’s presence is promised to them. They are promised to have His actions done to forgive their sins. The Temple was the venue for that sacred purpose.
But what solemnity or sacredness was found in the Temple on the day that Jesus arrived? How was the Passover—the time for recalling the powerful actions of the Lord—being remembered in the Temple? The faithful people were there. But they encounter something less-than-holy when entering the Temple grounds: “In the Temple He found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there.” The place set apart for the Lord to act for His people’s benefit had turned into a marketplace. It had lost its character—the set apart status—that the “jealous God” had given it.
So Jesus begins to restore the Temple’s sacred nature: “And making a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the Temple, with the sheep and oxen. And He poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.” The corrupting elements are removed, forcibly removed. They are driven out, just as Jesus had cast out the unclean spirits from people in Galilee. No more was the secular to have reign in sacred space. And Jesus explains His actions: “Take these things away; do not make My Father’s house a house of trade.” Trade between people has no place in the Temple. The Lord reserved the Temple as the location of His actions. So when the Incarnate Lord stands in its grounds, He makes the Temple holy again by removing the profane from it.
Jesus’ drastic actions get the attention of the people: “So the Jews said to Him, ‘What sign do You show us for doing these things?’” But Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple reflects something more than just cleaning up externals. It is a sign of what He Himself is meant to accomplish as the Christ. He is present as the Lord performs the ultimate act of gracious deliverance, a Passover of cosmic significance. This is referred to in the answer that Jesus gives to the question posed to Him: “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’” The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world was standing in that Temple. And He was there to bring deliverance to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—but also the descendants of Aquila, Yadida, and Julius.
Jesus’ sacrifice makes people of all nations holy, set apart for the Lord. It delivers them from slavery to sin, death, and Satan. And the people will receive it in the same way as the ancient Hebrews did in Egypt. There is no transaction made by them, no purchase of freedom. No, deliverance is given through the gracious act performed by the Lord Himself. He makes atonement for sin. He brings life into the place where death rules. He overthrows the usurper who holds His creation in subjection. The Lord is the actor. He achieves this through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The apostle Paul puts it plainly: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”
But the Lord does not stop there. He establishes the ways that His salvation is given to people in all times and places. He institutes a sacred venue where His salvation is given out for people to receive. That is what the Church is today: a place where people gather around the words of Jesus that bring forgiveness of sins. The externals of the building—if there even is a building—do not matter. But having the Lord’s presence in the Gospel that speaks, cleanses, pardons, and feeds does matter. That is what makes this gathering sacred as you come to be taught by Jesus, to be washed by Jesus, to be forgiven by Jesus, to be nourished by Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. Not only is the gathering made sacred, you are made holy.
But all of this is lost if the Church loses its reason for existence, if the Church loses what the Lord gives that makes it sacred. What is found when Christians gather together to celebrate the Sunday festival, the day that recalls the divine act of Jesus’ resurrection that makes people God’s nation? What is seen here? Is there a solemnity, a respect for the “jealous God”, a focus on using His name properly and keeping holy what He deems sacred? Or do we see “those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there”? Has this congregation or the Church-at-large turned the Father’s house—the place where the Lord is present to act—into “a house of trade” or a venue centered on secular concerns? These are questions about the Church’s essence, about holiness and sacredness. Such questions are what the events in today’s Gospel Reading should bring to our minds.
If our concerns as a congregation or churchbody have become absorbed with the secular, then it’s time for a little table turning and whip wielding. Whenever the Church has become an institution that cannot be distinguished from any other earthly organization, then it’s time for some “zeal for the [Lord’s] house” to consume us. The Lord has not called us to monasticism; He has given you all sorts of callings in the secular realm to fulfill: to be faithful citizens, faithful employees or employers, faithful parents or children, and so on. These are all good callings—divine callings—and must be fulfilled. But here in the Church proper, the calling is to be hearers of His Word and recipients of His grace. The calling is for us to know exactly what the Lord has done for our benefit, to bring us forgiveness, life, and salvation.
The Church has been given the word of God to proclaim, especially the Gospel of salvation that creates, forms, and maintains disciples of Jesus. So that must be the focus of the Church’s functions. Primacy must be given to teaching, preaching, speaking, singing, learning, and hearing the word of God. That is the essence of this institution, what makes it sacred and different from any other organization. If the focus is on this sacred task that the Lord has given, then we will receive the gifts that Jesus’ death and resurrection have earned for us. The apostle’s statement is true: “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Through our receiving that word of the cross, God becomes “our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”
And yet, when that essential, sacred task is fulfilled, there are effects in the secular realm: in the home, society, economy, and government. Hearing the Lord’s word of Law also brings you knowledge of this creation that He has established. It tells you what is expected in your other callings that the Lord has given to you, what you are to strive for as you spend the hundred-plus hours outside this building each week. His “Ten Words” from Mount Sinai included statements about living: “Honor your father and your mother. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet.” These are not vain words; they do give you direction for your life in the world. The Psalmist’s description of them is true today: “By them is Your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.”
So as we have heard the Lord’s words this day, a similar zeal as Jesus had in the Temple is created. “We must protect this house!” is a fine motto for us, the Lord’s people. We must protect and preserve the unique gifts and purposes that the Lord has granted to us, the Church. A bit of cleansing and reform to make that so may be needed in our own congregation and in the Church-at-large to put the focus on the specific calling that the Lord gives. But it is eternally worth it, so that we may receive the power of God that saves and not miss out on it. Always recognizing the divine character that the Lord’s words carry, we will be careful not to despise them, but gladly hear and learn them. Then our souls will be revived, we will be made wise to salvation, our hearts will be gladdened, our eyes will be opened to see what the Lord is doing for us, and we will be His righteous people both now and for eternity.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.