Turning the Tables

Today’s Gospel delivers a different sort of Jesus than the kind and gentle Jesus we hear about in Sunday School or the fun Jesus who makes 180 gallons of vintage wine for a wedding that’s already run out of Two Buck Chuck. This Jesus is flush with anger. Veins sticking out of His neck, His face blood red, a whip of cords in His hand, flipping over tables, and dumping money boxes on the floor. This Jesus is consumed with righteous zeal for the temple, His Father’s house.

I saw a cartoon that depicted a little boy who had just gone on a rampage through the ladies’ bake sale. Cookies and pies scattered all over the floor. Money poured out, coins rolling everywhere. And his mother comes and grabs him 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. The teacher asked us, ‘What would Jesus do?”

Matthew, Mark, and Luke set this episode at the beginning of holy week, a few days before Jesus was crucified. This was sort of 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 it right up front in his Gospel, in the second chapter, right after Jesus’ first miracle in Cana of Galilee, as the time of the Passover drew near.

Passover was the 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 dragging it along with you. And the money changers were there to exchange out of town currency for temple currency, just to be sure some unclean gentile hadn’t handled put his dirty fingers on it.

Jesus saw something else. He saw His Father’s house being turned into an emporium, a shopping mall of religion. Next thing you know, they’ll put in a Starbucks. Some even suggest that the profits of the temple were being used to fund anti-Roman terrorist groups like the Zealots. More than a shopping mall, the temple had become a haven for terrorists. Jesus seemed particularly irked by the pigeon sellers. Pigeons were the sacrifice of the poor. These merchants were praying on the poor for profit.

Nothing irritates Jesus more than faithless religion. Faithless sacrifices. Bargaining, dealing, transacting in the Name of God. All of it in some vain attempt to atone for your sins by your own self-chosen sacrifices. And don’t think the sacrifice sellers and the money changers have gone away. They’ve just changed their bill of goods to accommodate more modern tastes in religion. Now they sell motivation and purpose and self-improvement, all in the Name of God. All this can be yours if you just fork over 40 bucks. A whip of cords might be too kind.

Behind it all is the business of transaction, cutting deals with God. It’s at the heart of all religion, the idea that we need to do something to atone for our sins, to get on God’s good side. It’s the notion that God has done His part and now He’s waiting around for you to do your part. It’s the idea, implicit in WWJD wristbands and purpose-driven books which would surely be on any money changers best seller list, that there is some way to have a life than than in the death and resurrection in Jesus. Let’s face it – death and resurrection is not a path you and I would willingly choose for ourselves.

At the heart, it’s a failure to recognize how grim our situation actually is. We like to think we’re doing pretty well and improving. And then we get a quick refresher course straight from Sinai and the terrible truth gets mirrored back to our sinful selves:

  • You shall have no other gods.
  • You shall not misuse God’s Name.
  • Remember the Sabbath day (i.e. don’t forget to hear and learn God’s Word and to worship)
  • Honor father and mother.
  • Don’t murder, commit adultery, steal. (Don’t even think about it.)
  • Don’t lie about others.
  • Don’t want things you can’t have that others have.

Not just in deed, mind you, but also in word and thought. You think things are bad? You’re only seeing part of the picture, the part that God permits you to see. You and I couldn’t handle the whole truth.

And so we invent religion, ways to bribe and butter up God so that He’ll overlook this mess we’ve made of our lives. OT Israel treated the sacrifices that way – turned them into religious obligations and duties, stuff you had to do to get on God’s good side. That’s not what the sacrifices were for. They weren’t bribes. You think you can bribe God with a sheep? You think He needs a pigeon? Or a check in the offering plate? Think again.

The sacrifices in the OT were supposed to teach the Israelites how to live vicariously, literally to live off the death of another. The blood of the animal stood for your life. Bad news for the lamb, good news for you. It was training in trust, teaching people to live on the promise of God and not their works. Yes, you brought your sheep, or bought one from the local sheep seller. But the gift of forgiveness and life was God’s to give through the blood of the Lamb. It was more sacrament (gift from God) than it was sacrifice (work you do).

But the Israelites flipped things upside down, as religious man always does, and made God’s work their work, and turned a gift into a transaction where God does His part and you do yours and together you work out the terms of your salvation. Jesus utterly turns the tables on that sort of religion.

The Jews want a sign from Jesus. By what authority do you do these things? This was an act of messianic proportions. You don’t just go into the temple courts and start turning things upside down. They want a sign, and Jesus gives them a sign. “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it.” How’s that for a sign? His own resurrection from the dead.

But they are thinking temple as in building. They say, “What are you talking about? It took forty-six years to build this temple. It would take another 38 years to complete the work. And then six years later the Romans would knock it down. (God has a way of making His point, doesn’t He?) “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it.”

The “temple” Jesus was referring to was the temple of His own body. The true temple where God meets man is His own human flesh born of Mary. This is where you meet God face to face. Not in a building, but in the crucified, risen, and glorified flesh of Jesus Christ. Here God and man are united as one Person. Here humanity is glorified. Here sins are forgiven. Here the dead are raised. This is where your life is, not in a building, but in the body of Christ.

Jesus is the true and ultimate temple, where God locates His Name to save, where God makes His dwelling with man, where the Father is worshipped in Spirit and in Truth. Where the body of Jesus is, that’s where God forgives and blesses. That’s where heaven kisses and earth, where the infinite meets the finite, where eternity breaks into time. It happens right here, among us, where sinners are baptized into the Triune Name of God, where sinners hear the full and entire forgiveness of their sins, where sinners eat and drink the body and blood of Christ.

The church is the temple of God. Not a building but a gathering, an assembly, a congregation congregated around the Word and the Lord’s Supper. Peter wrote, “You (the baptized) like living stones are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). The church is God’s temple built on the crucified and risen body of Jesus.

After Jesus rose from the dead and the disciples saw Him, ate with Him, touched Him, they remembered what Jesus said that day in front of the temple. 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, 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 Jesus speaks to you here – “I forgive you all of your sins.” “This is my body given for you.” “This is my blood shed for you.”

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” That’s precisely happened. Jesus was crucified. The temple of His body was destroyed in death in order to save the world. And in three days, He rose from the dead. Death and resurrection is the way of God’s temple, the body of Christ, and you. Though you go down to death, from death Jesus will raise you. That’s what He always does with His temple.

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

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