Today’s Gospel is about Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. It’s not the kind of Jesus we like to hear about, this Jesus who takes a bunch of cords and turns them into a whip and drives out the sheep and the oxen and those who were selling them and turns over the tables of the temple moneychangers.. We’d prefer to hear about gentle and kind Jesus, who makes 180 gallons of really great wine for a wedding reception. Fun Jesus. But not this Jesus, with face flush with anger, and veins sticking out of his neck, consumed by zeal for his Father’s house.
Someone once gave me a cartoon of a little boy who had gone on a rampage at the church’s bake sale and had turned over all the tables. Cookies and pies were scattered all over the floor. The money from the moneybox was poured out, coins rolling everywhere. And the mother comes and grabs her kid by the scruff of the neck and says, “What on earth are you doing? Who told you to do this?”
And the little boy says, “I learned it today in Sunday school.”
“Sunday school! What did they teach you in Sunday school?”
“The teacher asked us, ‘What would Jesus do?”
And so that’s what he did. He did what Jesus would have done.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke put this incident in holy week, a few days before Jesus was crucified. This was sort of the straw that broke the religious camel’s back, and you can understand why the religious leaders wanted to get rid of Jesus. But John puts this story right up front in his Gospel, in the second chapter. Right after the first miracle in Cana of Galilee, John hits the fast forward button and goes to the temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Jewish Passover. The wedding at Cana and the clearing of the temple are two sides of the same Jesus. The two events are very closely related, even though they seem worlds apart.
The Passover was a time when people would have been coming from all over the land of Israel to celebrate the Passover meal and make sacrifices. The Law said that if you had to travel a long way, you could buy your sacrificial animal in Jerusalem instead of lugging it along with you. That’s what the animal sellers were doing in the temple courtyard. They were providing a service for out of town pilgrims. And the moneychangers were there to exchange out of town currency for temple currency. Again, providing a service for out of towners.
But Jesus saw something besides a convenience. He saw the temple, His Father’s house, being turned into an emporium, a place of business. They were turning the temple, a place of worship, the sacramental sign of God’s presence, into a mall.
Not that this doesn’t go on today. You’ve probably seen or heard the reports yourself. Churches laid out like shopping malls with sprawling campuses and food courts. Some even a Starbucks franchise right on the premises so you can grab a quick latte before services. The reasoning goes that we’re a mall-oriented, marketing-driven culture that responds to advertising and pitch. So we have to market Jesus to the masses, much the way we market toilet paper and beer. And don’t kid yourself, there’s gold aplenty to be mined in the business of religion. The Roman church that sold indulgences to grant time off from purgatory wasn’t the first or the last attempt to tap into the vast motherlode of religion. Religion is booming business today.
I won’t call it “Christian,” because much of it has very little to do with Christianity. Feel good about yourself. Atone for your sins by your own sacrifices. Or at least learn to cope with them. Have a well-balanced life. Learn some tried and true principles for successful living. Hear some great motivational speakers. Take in some inspirational music, to the tune of your choice. All for a price. The sacrifice sellers and the money changers haven’t gone away. They’ve just changed their bill of goods to accomodate the market.
Behind it all is the business of transaction, dealing with God. It’s at the heart of all religion, the idea that we need to do something to atone for our sins and to great on God’s good side. It’s the notion that God has done His part and now He’s waiting around for us to do our part. It’s the idea, implicit in WWJD wristbands or books like the Prayer of Jabaz, which would surely be on the moneychangers best seller list, that there is a way, other than death and resurrection in Jesus, to have a life with God.
We think that a little religion is good – good for our kids, good for morals, good for society. We put a little coat of religious shellac on things – say a little prayer, read a little Bible verse, check in at church once in a while to see if we’ve missed anything. We cut deals with God, big and small. “Lord, if you do just get me out of this jam, I’ll clean up my life, become a better person, pray every day, whatever.” We learn it at an early age – “Lord, please help me with this exam I didn’t study for; I promise to be a better student.” (Who says there isn’t prayer in schools?) Or, “Lord, please fix our marriage that we’ve neglected for twenty years; we promise to do better.”
We lead others into this business of transaction, even if we don’t mean to. You can run Baptism and the Lord’s Supper though they were something you have to do in order to be saved. You can turn church-going into a saving work. Even the question, “Brother, are you saved?” implies transaction. It means, “Brother, have you done this or prayed that to get in on salvation.” We hop, skip, and jump our way through the hoops of religious duties and obligations. We bring children to Baptism as though we were taking out some kind of eternal life insurance policy on them. There, got them covered. Or we go to church like we go to the gas station, tanking up on forgiveness for another week’s worth of sinning. Transaction, deal cutting. And when people find out they don’t have to go to church to be saved, they stop coming to church, because they’ve been going for all the wrong reasons.
The big mistake in all this is the failure to recognize that we are dead as dead can be in sin and Adam’s death and cannot do anything about it. And the problem is that we think we can, or we think that we have done it. But I’ve got news for you. First, bad news. There’s nothing you can do to make yourself pleasing to God, to make you any less of a sinner than you are, and to raise yourself from the dead. The dead can’t do anything except be dead. And then I have some good news: Jesus has done everything that needs to be done for your salvation by dropping dead on good, dark Friday and taking you and the world along for the ride in His death. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not something added onto His death, something you have to do in order to be saved. Nor is faith something you do to make Jesus your personal Lord and Savior. He is and always has been your Savior.
Baptism is God’s way of telling you that personally so that you might experience it for yourself. The Supper of Jesus’ Body and Blood another way of telling you that personally that His death and life are at work in you. He is your food and drink. And faith simply trusts what He tells you, namely, that even though you are dead in yourself, you are alive to God in Jesus.
Let me put it bluntly: Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead on the third day is the end of religion. Period. Not only is religion wrongheaded, it’s an waste of time. If you’re trying to cut a with God and make up for your sin, forget. He isn’t dealing. He’s out of the religion business. That’s what Jesus was up to in the temple. Cleaning house on religion. Turning the tables on transaction. Do you remember what happened in the temple the moment Jesus died? The curtain in the temple that walled off the most holy place, was torn in two, from top to bottom. It’s as though God took the whole business of religion, and tore it up.
God declaring His own religion, the one He Himself invented, finished, fulfilled. Caput. Done to death. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to how the book of Hebrews handles It. I’m reading from Hebrews, chapter 10:
“For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices which are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered? If the worshipers had once been cleansed, they would no longer have any consciousness of sin. But in these sacrifices (that is, the sacrifices in the temple), there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins. Consequently, when the Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings thou has not desired, but a body hast thou prepared for me; in burnt offering and sin offerings thou hast taken no pleasure.…Every priest stand daily at his service, offering repatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God.” (Heb 10:1-11)
Think about what Jesus did in His ministry. He ran roughshod over religion. He gunned down the sacred cows of religion. He “broke” the traditional sabbath rules, the blue laws of His day. He touched the “untouchables.” He ate and drank with outcasts. He tweaked religion at every turn. He took water, reserved for ceremonial washing, and turned it into wedding wine. He took the religion of the old testament and made it into 180 gallons of joy. And here, he takes the whole religion of the temple,with all of its sacrifices and purity laws and moneychanging, and He turns the tables on the whole thing, and says, “Enough of this stuff. Look to me, to my body. Not to this building, but to my flesh and blood. Here is the true temple, the dwelling of God. Here is where true worship takes place, in my body. Here is where you meet God. Not in a building, but in my crucified and risen flesh.”
“Destroy this temple,” Jesus said, “and in three days I will raise it up again.” He’s talking about His death and resurrection. That’s where the action is. The people are outraged. What’s he talking about? We’ve been working on this temple for forty-six years and he’s going to rebuild it in three days? What, is he nuts? No – He’s the true temple, the place of true worship, the ultimate Sacrament. His body – born of Mary, crucified on Calvary, raised from the dead, and glorified at the right hand of God – that body of Jesus is the meeting place where God and humanity are at peace, the place where God forgives, hears prayer, blesses, raises the dead, gives us a foretaste of heaven on earth.
The body of Christ is not a building. The Church is not a building. We have buildings because its easier than meeting in someone’s living room. We call them churches only becauseof the meeting that takes place in them. The Church is the body of Christ, and each of you are members of that Body, baptized into Jesus’ death, included in His victory, living in His resurrection even now by faith.
Jesus is the end of sacrifice, the end of religion. I know what you’re thinking. We do religious things, don’t we? We have services, we sing hymns, we pray. We’re “religious,” aren’t we? Yes, in a way, but unreligiously.
We gather together as the church and do some religious things, not in order to be saved, as though getting up on Sunday morning and putting in our pew time ensures a slot in heaven. We’re here together this morning because we are saved in the death of Jesus, and because God in His grace has given us to recognize our salvation and has provided a temple to worship Him, a temple not built with hands, the body of Jesus. And we celebrate our salvation in Jesus before the whole world as as sign to the world, lifting the cup of salvation and calling on the name of the Lord.
What needs to be done for the world’s salvation has been done in the death of Jesus. There is nothing for us to do but drop dead, trust Jesus, enjoy the ride, and invite others to drop dead with us. There is no sacrifice for sin except one dead Jesus on a cross, and there is no way to God than the one way God Himself provided in the death of His Son. And there is no temple, except the temple of Jesus’ body, a temple that you and I have been built into as living stones.
The disciples remembered what Jesus said that day. They remembered how the prophet Zechariah had said that a day was coming when God would come to purify His temple. They remembered the psalm of David which said that zeal for the Lord’s house would consume Him. And, reflecting on everything, they trusted the Scripture and the word Jesus spoke. You could do no better this morning, than to leave here trusting the Scripture, which speaks of Christ’s death and resurrection, and believing the word of Jesus spoken to you here – “I forgive you all of your sins.” “This is my body given for you.” “This is my blood shed for you.”
You have all the temple you need – the body of Jesus. You’re a part of it. Your Baptism tells you so. Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. He did it. And He will raise you up too, just as surely as He is risen from the dead.
Who needs religion when you have Jesus?
In the Name of Jesus. Amen.