[This was shared this morning during worship with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio.]
Talk to anyone who has ever had their home broken into and they will always speak less of what was stolen and more about their sense of being violated, the feeling that their personal space has been desecrated by greedy hands. The experience evokes anger, even fury. Remembering this may help us to understand something of what Jesus felt and why He acted as He did during the incident recounted in today’s Gospel lesson.
Please turn to the lesson, John 2:13-22 (page 740 in the sanctuary Bibles). Jesus went to the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Verse 14: “In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money.”
The temple was the one place on earth where God had promised to dwell among His chosen people. It was a holy place. The word holy, as we’ve mentioned before, means set apart. God had set apart this place on all the earth as the place where He would encounter all who worshiped Him.
But what Jesus saw when He arrived at the temple infuriated Him!
This holiest place on earth, set apart for the worship of God, was being violated, turned into a shopping mall.
As you know, one of the things worshipers did when they arrived at the temple was offer sacrifices to God. Depending on their incomes, they might offer oxen, lambs, doves, or, if they were exceptionally poor, grain. Because many Passover celebrants traveled long distances, they didn’t always bring their offerings with them, instead purchasing them at the temple. Merchants sold livestock there. And because the temple had its own money system, “money changers,” people who dealt in foreign currency exchange, also did business in the Temple court.
This was all authorized by the temple priests. They would have argued that, by doing so, they provided a service to people who had traveled hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles to obey God by celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem.
But these practices were far more sinister than that.
Under the Romans and their pretender kings, the Herods, the chief priests of the Jewish faith were appointed by the Roman governors. Being the chief priest was a plumb job for which many of the priestly types vied. In exchange for priestly appointments, the Romans got a cut of all the temple taxes collected.
The rates of exchange charged by the money changers and the prices commanded by the sellers of sacrificial livestock were inflated exorbitantly to allow the Romans and the priests to profit handsomely. It’s easy to do that when you have a monopoly.
This entire system was driven by greed and selfishness.
It desecrated the holy place where God dwelt.
This explains what happens next, in verses 15 and 16. Jesus “made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!’”
The house of God and the grace of God had been monetized.
People who should have known better were ignoring the fact that the Temple was a space set apart for God to meet His people, not a place to transact business or to steal from the pious.
The understandable anger that people feel when their homes are broken into is but a fraction of the fury that Jesus felt on seeing the house of God being used wrongly!
Verse 17 says that Jesus’ disciples remembered a passage from Psalm 69:9, written by King David about one-thousand years earlier: “...zeal for your house consumes me.”
There, David was saying that God was so central to his existence that passion for God’s house, for the place where God lived, had subordinated all his other thoughts, motives, and priorities! This is what Jesus was feeling as He entered the temple.
But truly, it wasn’t the desecration of the temple as a place that aroused such fury in Jesus.
In the end, the Temple was just a building.
It was never meant to be anything other than “a shadow” of the heavenly throne room from which God reigns.
The real issue in all this commerce in the temple was this: If the people were buying and selling as though they were lining up for an attraction at Disney World had no zeal for the place where God had graciously promised to meet them on earth, what sort of zeal did they have for God Himself?
Verse 18. “The Jews [meaning here, the Temple authorities] then responded to him, ‘What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?’”
Jesus had already given one sign of His authority and identity as God in the flesh, at Cana, where He turned water into wine.
Now, in response to the priests’ demand, Jesus gives a new sign of Who He is, a miracle that will require patient faith to see and believe. Look at verses 19-22. “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’ They replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’ But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.”
The temple in which Jesus and the others stood at that moment wasn’t the first one built on the temple mount in Jerusalem. And, the one in today’s Gospel lesson would, in 70AD, about forty years after Jesus' death and resurrection, be destroyed by the Romans. Today, all that remains is a wailing wall in Jerusalem.
But the temple’s days were numbered in another and more important way. Look at John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” You’ll remember that this literally means that Jesus, God the Word, tabernacled or pitched His tent in the world. God no longer would live in buildings so easily desecrated by human beings who forget the fear and love for God that make up faith in God. God would live among us on this earth in other ways.
First of all, God would come to the world in the person of Jesus Himself. Colossians 1:19 says that, “...God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Jesus Christ].” Jesus is the Holy of the holies. He is God.
Short-sighted human beings thought they could be their own gods, buying and selling salvation and sinning with no accountability to God. (We still think that, it seems.) So, just as Jesus foretells in our Gospel lesson, they tried to tear down the new and best Temple, Jesus. They crucified Jesus. But He rose again.
In John 10:18, Jesus says of His crucifixion and resurrection: “No one takes [My earthly life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
This, Jesus says, is the sign of His authority, that He, by his own decision voluntarily gives Himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sin that nobody has to buy or pay for and He, not human beings, has the power to take up the life He voluntarily sacrificed.
Nobody--not the devil and not sinful people trying to swipe our money, or plague our consciences, or build their own egos at our expense--can put themselves between God and us. In Jesus, God has acted and today, He lives.
But if Jesus is God among us and He is the temple, how can we be made right with Him? The temple was a place where people made sacrifice for their sins. This is like a question once asked of Jesus: “What must we do to do the works God requires? Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’”
Jesus was outraged that people who should have known better forgot that God had blessed them out of pure fatherly and divine mercy, made them His own people, and called them to be a light to all nations, helping the nations see that all who will turn from sin and believe in Him will live with God forever.
Because of God's grace, through Jesus, God’s presence on earth is no longer confined to a tabernacle on a Judean hill!
He can be seen today in God's Word and in the Sacraments, of course.
But He can also be seen in the people who follow Jesus.
First Corinthians 6:19-20 says that whoever turns from sin and believes in Jesus Christ is a temple of the Holy Spirit where God dwells! Imagine that.
Through Jesus, Christians are the places where God today dwells on this earth.
We don’t need to go to buildings to find Him.
We don’t need to make sacrifices to reach Him.
We don’t need to burn candles in order to attract Him.
He comes to live in all who welcome Him into their lives. In Revelation 3:20, Jesus says: "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me."
Now, the holy of holies can be found in all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ and who daily live that belief by turning to Christ for grace, guidance, forgiveness, and hope.
God lives in all who acknowledge with both their lips and their lives that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior and King over everything.
That's a somewhat scary thought because, speaking for myself, I know that I can be a somewhat shaky temple for the Holy Spirit. I can forget to trust God. I sin. The truth is that like the temple in Jerusalem, we frail temples of the Holy Spirit, we believers in Jesus, must regularly be cleansed by the savage grace of Jesus Christ.
Without regular prayer, confession and repentance, worship with God’s people, receiving Christ’s body and blood, personal study of God’s Word, and submission to examination and correction by our Lord, these temples of flesh and blood can be desecrated by sin as certainly as the temple in Jerusalem was.
In Psalm 51, David prays: “Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” Each day we need to pray, “Lord, cleanse this temple.”
Christ can cleanse the repentant, forgive our sin, strengthen our faith, and fill us with His Holy Spirit’s power for living.
Christ can make each of us ever fitter places for the King of kings to take up residence, places where the devil, the world, and our sinful selves are kept at bay and Jesus reigns as our loving God, Lord, and King.
May we daily submit to Christ so that, like the temple cleansed, God will live in us and through us, now and eternally. Amen