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Sermon for 11 Mar 2012

FIRST READING Exodus 20:1–17

1 Then God spoke all these words:
2 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. 12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. 13 You shall not murder. 14 You shall not commit adultery. 15 You shall not steal. 16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

PSALM Psalm 19

1 The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky proclaims its maker’s handiwork. 2 One day tells its tale to another, and one night imparts knowledge to another. 3 Although they have no words or language, and their voices are not heard, 4 their sound has gone out into all lands, and their message to the ends of the world, where God has pitched a tent for the sun. 5 It comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber; it rejoices like a champion to run its course. 6 It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens and runs about to the end of it again; nothing is hidden from its burning heat.
7 The teaching of the LORD is perfect and revives the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure and gives wisdom to the simple. 8 The statutes of the LORD are just and rejoice the heart; the commandment of the LORD is clear and gives light to the eyes. 9 The fear of the LORD is clean and endures forever; the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. 10 More to be desired are they than gold, more than much fine gold, sweeter far than honey, than honey in the comb. 11 By them also is your servant enlightened, and in keeping them there is great reward. 12 Who can detect one’s own offenses? Cleanse me from my secret faults. 13 Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me; then shall I be whole and sound, and innocent of a great offense. 14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.

SECOND READING 1 Corinthians 1:18–25

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

GOSPEL John 2:13–22

13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.


Grace and peace to you on this beautiful Lord’s Day from God our Father and from Jesus Christ, the God of both mercy and justice.
How many of us stop and consider just how much we pay to get “roughed up?” As a matter of fact, we even pay big bucks to get roughed up on a daily basis, or at least I hope we do! However, we really don’t think about the activity I’m talking about, as getting “roughed up.” Instead we think of it as our morning shower or our evening bath. But consider what we actually do as we go about our daily cleansing rituals. Whether you use a washcloth, a loofah, or one of those “buff-puff” thingies, we’re roughing up and sloughing off dead skin cells. Consider also that many facial scrubs are peppered with “micro beads,” those gritty little bits designed to gently “rough up” our tired skin, exfoliating it and revealing a fresh new layer. For us to “come clean”, some things have to go — dirt, sweat, and a layer of old skin cells. That’s why cleansing involves some “rough stuff.” In today’s gospel text, Jesus’ actions, His “cleansing” of the Temple courtyard, is accomplished with a vigorous roughing up. But what exactly is Jesus so set on scrubbing off?
One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that few people seem comfortable with this passage because it’s difficult to explain. I’m not talking about the fact that Jesus evicts those who are selling animals for sacrifices or swapping dirty money for clean; I’m referring to the manner in which Jesus accomplishes the cleaning. For many Christians, we take great comfort in the passage where St. John writes that God is love. Or where other writers talk of a God of patience, kindness and forgiveness, and all these aspects of God are true. We certainly serve a God of endless compassion.
For many post-modern thinking Christians, they prefer to see the God we love and serve in a “New Testament” way. A God that willingly stripped Himself of His royal trappings and came humbly as a human babe in a manger to live, serve and die for us. This is a God of the gospel, a comforting Lord, rather than a vengeful, angry God as sometimes depicted in the Old Testament. This “Old Testament” God, as it were, is a God of the law, a picture that troubles us and our self-focused lives. And certainly our Old Testament reading for today reminds us of this lesser desirable picture of God. But then again, so does our New Testament reading for this morning.
In this week’s gospel text Jesus is acting as any good, observant Jew. He has traveled to Jerusalem, with thousands of others, on a pilgrimage to the Temple for the celebration of Passover. The Passover, Judaism’s most sacred holiday, called for the pious to offer sacrifices in the form of blood and money. The annual Temple tax was also due, and the only coinage accepted was Tyrian, making it necessary for Jews from other regions to exchange their “Gentile” coins for those accepted by the Temple treasury. Likewise animal sacrifices were required; the heft and expense of the creature was determined not by a person’s sin, but rather their social and financial status. The poor could get away with offering a dove, the very poor, a grain offering. Those of higher social status and wealth were expected to offer a lamb or a young ox.
For those journeying some distance to make this Passover pilgrimage, schlepping a sacrificial creature, one that must be kept free of blemish, fed and watered along the way, was an exorbitant hardship. To alleviate this hardship, a kind of sacrificial marketplace had sprung up around the Temple. Enterprising entrepreneurs ceased the opportunity to locate themselves conveniently on the Temple Mount and sellers of sacrificial animals offered the necessary creatures to the new arrivals. Not wishing to impose their noisy presence on devout Jews who were gathered at that holy site for prayer, both the animal sellers and the money-changers encamped in the courtyard outside the Temple proper — the property specifically set aside for Gentiles, those not wholly converted but deemed “God-fearers,” to gather and pray.
It was into this courtyard that Jesus entered and found Himself in a kind of “Black Friday” atmosphere; an area crowded with buyers and sellers haggling and haranguing each other about the costs of creatures and coinage. And Jesus’ response to this scene is both physical and verbal. He makes a “whip of cords,” or more accurately, of “rushes,” and “drove them out.” Although trained as a builder, apparently Jesus also knew how to motivate and move livestock. The caged doves He doesn’t set free, but sternly orders those selling the birds to “Take these things out of here.” While Jesus simply removed the living creatures, He had far less concern for the integrity of the bankers’ investments — He “poured out” all the coinage and turned over their tables leaving any chance of an equitable accounting among all these publicans lost in the shambles. And what’s interesting in this scene, is the lack of a recorded response from the sellers, those opportunists whose business had been interrupted.
Although John doesn’t record the response of any of those driven from the Temple courtyard, he does offer a connection that Jesus’ own disciples made later about this moment. Citing Psalm 69:9 the gospel writer connects Jesus’ actions to the scriptural concern for a right relationship with God, that “zeal for your house,” for God’s house, the Temple of God where God resides, as the impetus for all Jesus says and does.
Instead, beginning in verse 18, John records the response of “The Jews,” who must have either been Temple priests or official members of the ruling Sanhedrin. These Jews demand that Jesus back up this zealous behavior with some sort of miraculous “sign.” In their minds, this apparent out-of-bounds behavior might be tolerated if, and only if, He’s a genuine prophet. But His prophetic identity must somehow be authenticated. But Jesus’ response to their demand isn’t what they expect.
Instead of a “sign,” Jesus offers one of His most cryptic declarations — “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Despite the fact that His audience obviously didn’t “get” what Jesus was referring to in this statement, its very oddness stuck with them. The accusation that Jesus said He would destroy the Temple was one of the charges levied against Him at his trial (Matthew 26:60-61; Mark 14:57-59). Interestingly, Stephen, the first Christian martyr, had this same accusation flung at him during his trial as well (Acts 6:14).
For anyone who has ever lived through a renovation project, they can appreciate the skepticism of “the Jews” at Jesus’ words. The Temple, Herod the Great’s grand re-build project, had been “under construction for forty six years.” How could such a huge project be undone and then rebuilt in a mere three days? It was a statement that seemed to be utter nonsense for those challenging Jesus that day. But from our perspective Jesus’ meaning is obvious.
The give-away of course is Jesus’ reference to “three days.” Elsewhere in Jesus’ teachings any allusion to “three days” is a reference to those days leading up to the resurrection. To you and me, the statement that, “he was speaking of the temple of His body,” makes perfect sense of what was an enigma to Jesus’ first century audience. Although “the Jews” remembered His words and worried upon them, they couldn’t make sense of His reference, because they were still focused on the stones of the Temple building, rather than the nature of God’s relationship with His Son.
Thus the portrait of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Gospel, appointed for this day, has proven to be something of a conundrum for interpreters through the years. What many people get hung up on, is seeing Jesus in a violent rage driving animals and people out of the Temple. Years ago Bruce Barton, in a very popular book, The Man Nobody Knows, used the story to demonstrate how virile the Lord Jesus was. He surmised that Jesus was capable of herculean strength and prowess because of His outdoorsy lifestyle and vigorous walking missionary tours. However, others have been concerned that this public demonstration, which had all the earmarks of a near riot, was most unbecoming of the normal life style of Jesus. What’s ,more troubling is if this were a pique of temper, couldn’t someone accuse Jesus of being guilty of sin, a charge that we know to be false?
Then, of course, there’s the additional problem of finding this story in the beginning of the Fourth Gospel, whereas the other evangelists place it in Holy Week, at the beginning of His passion. Could it be true that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice? Is John right and the others wrong? Or is it the other way around? Or could there be another reason why John places the story where he does? There is good reason to think that it’s the latter. The story of Jesus cleansing the Temple, using John’s chronology, helps us to understand several very important aspects of the church and its worship.
For us to fully understand this story and not get hung up on the details, we first need to remember that this occasion was a Passover festival. As I pointed out a few moments ago, the Passover attracted worshippers to Jerusalem from all over the world. Along with the travelers came enterprising merchants who set up booths and stalls in the Temple to accommodate the travelers coming to worship and who needed to exchange their monies to pay their temple taxes while others were busy selling animals to be used in the sacrifices. One can easily imagine the carnival atmosphere as travelers found relatives and old friends among the many consumers who populated the precincts of the Temple. We also need to see the importance the Temple played in the lives of the Jewish people.
The temple area covered some 35 acres. Originally built by Solomon about 950 B.C., it was located on Mount Moriah, where Abraham had offered to sacrifice his son Isaac. In 587 B.C., during Nebuchadnezzar final siege of Jerusalem, the Temple was burned to the ground. It was later rebuilt in 561 B.C. under Zerubbabel. Then some 400 years later in 168 B.C. it was desecrated and stripped by Antiochus Epiphanes and three years later it was cleansed and restored by Judas Maccabaeus. But now the Temple was once again under renovation.
The temple in which Jesus found Himself, was the glorious temple begun by Herod the Great, who began His restoration project in 20 B.C. It was an expansive project that was not yet complete; it wasn’t finished until 68 A.D. The Herodian Temple was extremely lavish and more beautiful than the Temple of Solomon. And the people were appreciative.
The people were grateful because the temple was the center of their life and helped to define what it meant to be a Jew. It gave shape and form not only to the Hebrew worship but also to their entire culture. Recognizing the centrality of the Temple, and the joyous character of that festal moment, you can imagine what kind of shock waves ran through the Temple and the entire city of Jerusalem when this controversial rabbi created the ruckus He did in the temple area! Into that busy crowd Jesus rushed with a homemade whip and struck out wildly at people and animals to put them into a rout. But this still doesn’t answer the question of why John places this story differently than the other gospel writers.
The reason that the Evangelist John includes this story at the beginning of his writings, is because he wants to show that throughout his gospel Jesus gave new shape and meaning to the worship life of the people of God. In this very early story, John is able to set the stage for all that is to follow in explaining the sacramental character of the worship life of the church. Therefore it’s quite striking when Jesus shouts as He confronts those selling the little doves for sacrifice, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Jesus was setting the stage to show that He had come to replace the sacrificial system of the Hebrew covenant, by making the once-for-all sacrifice on a cross. Quite symbolically, Jesus was driving out the old system.
However, at the same time He was making it clear that He was highly displeased that people had made their sacrifices and their worship commercial. And clearly the disciples were really shaken by what they witnessed Jesus doing that day.
Jesus’ actions in the Temple court didn’t appear to be the same Teacher who is so gentle and considerate otherwise. However, the evangelists said that they “remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.'” They recalled Psalm 69 which they saw Jesus fulfill. They later understood that Jesus was making a rightful claim to His Father’s house. It meant that He clearly identified Himself as God’s Son, who was linked to all that God had revealed in the covenant read in the First Lesson this morning. That covenant established God’s claim on the undivided attention, affection, and trust of this people. Furthermore, Jesus forcefully demonstrated His right to claim the fidelity of this people.
The people were impressed, taken back, but quizzical. “What sign can you show us for doing this?” they asked. Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” His response sent the people reeling; for them, His response was ridiculous. The disciples were also confused at this time. The evangelist says that “after He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”
It’s in the light of His death and resurrection that we can understand this spectacular event. As John had placed this event at the beginning of his gospel to indicate how Jesus had come to replace the former manner of worship with the sacramental life of the church, He was also saying something about the nature of the church. Formerly, the people of God had to be reassured of the presence of God by symbols and the people had to gather at shrines symbolized by the likes of the Temple; now they would gain those assurances in Christ himself.
The assurance of God’s presence among us is the Risen Christ. Jesus died for our sins and rose again that He might be present among us. Because this Risen Christ is present among us in the Spirit of God given to us, the Apostle Paul could refer to us as the Body of Christ. The Church is the Body of Christ. Thus it was true that the people did destroy the Body of Christ, but He was raised to new life in three days, and we are now part of that Body. The boast that Jesus made that day, in view of the promises of God and in perfect trust that God would complete them in Him, are now fulfilled in us. Also important to the evangelist was the sacramental character of the church.
When our Lord talked about the temple of His body replacing the Temple at Jerusalem, that was also true in a sacramental sense. The sacrificial system that was practiced in the Temple at Jerusalem, along with the priestly entrance into the Holy of Holies, were signs of God’s grace and mercy for His people. The people didn’t have to sacrifice themselves and they were always reminded of God’s presence and their access to Him. Now it’s the Risen Christ who offers His body to us in the Holy Eucharist as the sure sign that He has been sacrificed for us and is present with us. In the giving of that body and blood to us we are literally filled with the Presence of the Risen Christ. Together we are His body.
Luther found it fascinating to talk about us as being baked into one loaf. As we all receive of the same bread and eat of the same together, we become one loaf. We are bonded together in this Christ. For us that means that we are not alone. Not only is God present in us, but we are also present in one another to be a strength and a presence for one another. We emphasize that when we go to the home of shut-ins bearing bread and wine that have been consecrated in the Eucharist. For those who haven’t been present with us, Christ is present with them in the Sacrament, so we also are united with them in this body of Christ.
Later in his gospel John gives an account of a confrontation between Jesus and a woman of Samaria. When the woman perceived that Jesus was a prophet she asked Him why the difference in attitude of the Samaritans and the Jews, who each claimed separate shrines for worshipping God. Jesus said to her, “The hour is coming and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24).
Taken with the Holy Gospel for this day we should understand then, that we can never permit buildings, symbols, signs, organizations, traditions, customs, liturgies, or any features of church life or worship to become substitutes for our real devotion to our Lord himself. All these things in themselves can become too important. When we worship God in spirit and in truth we know his Real Presence, in us and among us, is the Risen Christ, who is our Real Temple, our Real Altar. We worship Him and adore Him when we receive all that He offers to us by grace. We dramatize that when we come together for worship, and we gather Him to ourselves when in faith we receive Him.
If we’re “cleansing” our temple, our mind/body/spirit through some daily act, then there should be a daily renewal, a daily encounter with a new perspective, a daily experience of Christ’s sacrifice for our sake. For us, Lent is a time to get “buffed up”, a time of renewal and refreshment.
But this roughing up, shouldn’t be limited to the season of Lent, it’s a routine that should be done daily. Daily we should take the time to work at wiping off and washing away the built up layers of everyday evils — a hardened heart, a shortened temper, self-absorption, greed and gluttony, envy and avarice. Lent is a season that reminds us that we need to scrub hard and rub away all the calluses that make us able to walk by the homeless, turn the channel at reports of genocide, ignore our children, exploit our environment, put gain above God.
Jesus’ actions in our Johanian reading for today may be hard to take at times, but it should be a reminder that in this Lenten season, some roughing up is necessary. It’s this “cleansing” that brings our spirits to the surface and lets us risk being tender and exposed before God’s presence. Our Lenten cleansing also brings us to the Easter resurrection. It’s a reminder that without cleansing, there can be no refreshment.

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