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Sermon for Sunday 7 March 2021

First Reading: Exodus 20:1-17

1God spoke all these words, saying, 2“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.3You shall have no other gods before me. 4You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. 8Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. 12Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13You shall not murder. 14You shall not commit adultery. 15You shall not steal. 16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Psalm 19

1The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork. 2One day tells its tale to another, and one night imparts knowledge to another. 3Although they have no words or language, and their voices are not heard, 4Their sound has gone out into all lands, and their message to the ends of the world. 5In the deep has he set a pavilion for the sun; it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber; it rejoices like a champion to run its course. 6It 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. 7The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the innocent. 8The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes. 9The fear of the Lord is clean and endures forever; the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. 10More to be desired are they than gold, more than much fine gold, sweeter far than honey, than honey in the comb. 11By them also is your servant enlightened, and in keeping them there is great reward. 12Who can tell how often he offends? cleanse me from my secret faults. 13Above 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. 14Let 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 1:18-31

18For 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. 19For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20Where 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? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 26For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Gospel: John 2:13-25

13The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. 15And 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. 16And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” 17His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” 19Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 22When therefore 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. 23Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. 24But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.

House Cleaning

           James W. Moore in his book, When All Else Fails, Read the Instructions, tells about an older woman who was called to testify at a very dramatic trial.  One of the lawyers was famous for being tough and heartless, and he was really badgering her on the witness stand.  He shouted loudly and pointed his finger, using all kinds of tricks to upset and confuse the woman.  She prayed quietly to God for strength.  She asked God to help her stay poised and find the right words.  As she finished praying, the lawyer went into a tirade, asking a sarcastic, ruthless question, gesturing in a demeaning way, and shouting loudly.  When he finished, she leaned forward, looked him straight in the eye, and said, ‘I’m not sure I got all that.   Could you please scream it at me again?’

“When she said that,” says James Moore, “the jury broke up in laughter, spectators in the courtroom applauded, the judge even laughed, and the thoroughly humiliated lawyer said, ‘Oh just forget it!  No more questions.’  “As the woman stepped down from the witness stand, she quietly prayed again, ‘Thank you, Lord.  Thank you for giving me strength!’”  It’s sad, but studies show that Americans are angrier than ever.

National Public Radio and IBM Watson Health teamed up to survey Americans on their attitudes toward anger.  The results are interesting, and for some, they may not be a surprise.  Eighty-four percent of people surveyed said “Americans are angrier today compared with a generation ago.”  Forty-two percent of people reported feeling angrier in the past year than they had ever been.  Sixty-nine percent of people surveyed believe that anger is a negative emotion.  However, 31% said that anger can have a positive effect if it moves people to take action.  Now I for one, subscribe to the teaching of Solomon, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).  That said, I do understand that there are times when it is right to get angry.  

However, in those times when we feel anger is warranted, we need to be careful that our words and actions are consistent with God’s commands and statutes, that our response is appropriate for the situation.  An example for us to examine this morning comes from our gospel lesson.  Jesus was obviously angry when He drove the animal herders and moneychangers out of the temple.  The outer Temple grounds had been converted from its intended place of worship into what Jesus called a “den of robbers.”

The portrait of our generally compassionate and gentle Rabbi as a whip wielding Crusader, has proven to be something of a conundrum for interpreters throughout the years.  What we see in paintings and illustrations is God the Son in a violent rage driving animals and people out of the Temple.  It’s certainly a major contrast, to the pictures we see of Jesus blessing the children and of Him holding a lamb gently in His arms.  Some are concerned that this public demonstration, which had all the earmarks of a near riot, can be seen as unbecoming of the normal lifestyle of Jesus.  Also, if this were a fit of uncontrolled rage, couldn’t someone then accuse Jesus of being guilty of the sin wrath, one of the 7-deadly sins?  As I said, this story, for some, can become problematic.

The problem many experience is they fall into the trap of focusing solely on Jesus’ unusual actions, and fail to see the bigger picture; when we do, we miss a great deal of why all four of the gospel writers include this event in their writings.  But before we get to this, we need to step back for a moment and ask ourselves why the First lesson was chosen from Exodus.  To do this, we need to ask ourselves, what does the 10 Commandments have to do with the mistreatment of God’s house?  The answer comes in the opening verses of Exodus chapter 20.

Starting with verse 2 we read, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  3You shall have no other gods before me.”  Now you might be thinking, what has graven images got to do with Jesus cleansing the temple?  To answer this, we need to clarify that the little gods, God was referring to, aren’t just carved, cast or molded images, but anything that creeps into our lives and comes between us and God.  Each time I go over the 10 Commandments in Confirmation classes, I ask the kids to name the things that can come between us and God.  The answers will amaze you.

When asked, they’ll list all kinds of things, many of which are useful, everyday objects that somehow have become more important to us than anything else at the time; things like cell phones, computers, TV, popularity, sports, friends and the list goes on.  We must understand that oftentimes things come into our lives for very good reasons, but before we realize it, the subordinate becomes the superior, the peripheral becomes the central. 

The idols of life creep in slowly and begin to crowd God out.  We add them to our lives for a variety of good reasons, but then they become dominate over our time, our resources, and our attention.  Our lives are oftentimes like our leisure time activities.  I was thinking about an online crossword game that Terry and I enjoy playing.  For those who may not be familiar with Wordscapes, Wordscapes is an online game where teams and individuals compete against each other for points and awards.  Rest assured, there is no gambling involved, the awards are virtual crowns and icons and such.  One of the features of the game is a weekend tournament.

In this weekly tournament, people and teams, from around the world, work to solve more puzzles than the other teams.  The concept is simple.  However, what started out as an enjoyable diversion and a healthy exercise for the mind, for many has become an obsession.  Some of the players and teams look for ways to cheat, will play around the clock and the conversations between teammates and others can become acidic.  Otherwise rational and courteous people become angry and can turn on others, even their friends on their own team.  In short, during the weekend tournament, the game becomes the main focus of their lives.  The game becomes a little god or an idol; it becomes more important than anything else in their lives.  Something similar happened in Jesus’ time at the Temple.

In Jesus’ day, what started out as a way to assist people in meeting their religious obligations had become the central thing in the Temple mount.  But for us to better understand the why of Jesus cleansing the Temple, we need to understand several very important aspects of the church and its worship.  First is the context and the importance of the Temple.

St. John set the stage, that this occurred during a Passover festival.  The Passover attracted worshippers to Jerusalem from all over the world.  They came from great distances and in most cases, they needed to pay the temple tax, but only had foreign monies.  Additionally, since travel was difficult and took days if not weeks, trying to drive the needed sacrificial animals was a demanding and difficult task.  A traveler would need to consider food, water and shelter for the animals at night.  Since the animals needed to be without blemish, protecting the animal from injury and predators was also challenging.  Thus, the necessity for many to exchange money and buy appropriate animals for sacrifices in Jerusalem was needed.  Enter the resourceful vendors.

Enterprising merchants over time gained permission to set up tables, booths and stalls in the outer Temple area to accommodate the travelers coming to worship.  As with any large gathering, to be sure, there was great commotion and excitement.  Advertising of one’s goods and services in Jesus’ day was done by word of mouth, by announcing your goods and services to those walking through the marketplace.  One can almost picture a Mardi Gras type atmosphere set up for the travelers as they connected with relatives and old friends among the many consumers who populated the precincts of the Temple.  The temple area covered some 35 acres, so I’m sure that there was lots to see, and probably lots to do.  As with any circumstance, all this started on the very outer edges of the Temple area, but over time, it grew bigger, noisier and more disruptive.  A few feet here, an outer court there and soon, the majority of the Temple mount became a market place instead of worship space.

The original Temple had been built by Solomon about 950 B.C., but was burned by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C.  The Temple was then rebuilt under Zerubbabel in 516 B.C. and then was desecrated and stripped by Antiochus Epiphanes in 168 B.C.  Three years later in 165 B.C., Judas Maccabaeus cleansed and restored the Temple.  The temple in which Jesus walked, amid the cattlemen, sheep herders and money sharks, was one rebuilt by Herod the Great, who began the work in 20 B.C.  This time the renovations were so extensive that even though it had been in work for some 50 years, it still wasn’t finished.  It would be 68 A.D. before the final touches would be completed.  And sadly, the Temple was destroyed a final time in 70 A.D.  It’s said that the Herodian Temple was extremely lavish and even more beautiful than the Temple Solomon built.

I brought all this up to explain that with this long history of the Temple in the life of the Hebrew people, it’s easy for us to imagine how important a complex this was.  It quite literally was the center of Jewish faith and life.  From the very beginning of the Hebrew people, sacred places had been important to the patriarchs.  Back then, the tabernacle, a tent, had been the center of the life of the Hebrew community.  Eventually the people wanted a more permanent structure.  It was king David who gathered the materials for his son Solomon, to build the first permanent temple on that holy site, Mount Moriah, where Abraham had offered to sacrifice his son Isaac.  

The temple had always symbolized the presence of their most holy God, YHVH.  That was why it was so important that after each time the Temple was destroyed, that it be restored to proclaim once again the assured presence of the Almighty, the Holy One of Israel.  It was especially gratifying for the people that Herod the Great gave so much attention and funds to the restoration of the Temple.

Herod had done much to promote the Hellenistic or Greek culture with special buildings.  However, Herod also wanted to curry the favor of the Jews by investing much in the building of their worship center.  The people were grateful to worship in Herod’s refurbished temple, regardless of Herod’s motives.  As I said, 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.  The second aspect we need to look at was the shock of challenging an old system.

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!  It appears this happened at the beginning of the feast when the greatest excitement had to do with the preparations, so the commerce had to be at its height.  It was into that busy crowd Jesus rushed with a homemade whip of cords and struck out wildly at people and animals to put them to rout. 

Again, there’s a reason St. John wants to include this event at the beginning of his gospel; John wants to show, throughout his gospel, that Jesus set the example for us of the importance of placing God first in His life, and He also gave new shape and meaning to the worship life of the people of God.  Again, keep the First Commandment in mind as you consider this story and the entire book of John for that matter.

As I mentioned, Jesus demonstrates the importance of placing God first, above all else, even His own life.  We see this in His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.  It was there that He prayed to the Father three time, “let this cup pass from me, but not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).  Not even satan, with all his tempting power, could change Jesus’ focus.  The devil tried food, adoration, and power; nothing could shift Jesus’ focus.  Next John uses this story to explain the sacramental character of the worship life of the church.  

It’s quite striking that 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 had come to replace the sacrificial system of the Hebrew covenant, by making the once-for-all sacrifice on a cross.  One could say that 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 allowed their festival and the areas within the Temple mount to become commercialized.  Jesus highlights how things of this world, even those things that started out for good reason, can slowly become more important than God.  So Jesus did what He knew needed to be done.  He had to shake things up to get people’s focus back to where it needed to be.  When the disciples saw Jesus in action, John says, they “remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.'”  

The disciples recalled Psalm 69 which they saw Jesus fulfill.  They understood, in that moment, that Jesus was making a rightful claim to His Father’s house.  We see this clearly in verse 16 where John records Jesus saying, “Do not make MY Father’s house a house of trade.”  Here He clearly identifies Himself as God’s Son, linking Him 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.  So, Jesus justly and forcefully demonstrated His right to claim the fidelity of thes 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.”  To this statement, they responded.  “This temple has been under construction for 46 years, and will you raise it up in three days?”  The Herods had been at it all this time and it still wasn’t finished, and Jesus thought He could rebuild it in three days!  That was ridiculous.  The disciples too were confused.  John reminds us, 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” (vs. 22).  Finally, we need to see the body of the Church and the Sacramental Body of Jesus.

It’s in light of the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ that we can understand this spectacular event.  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 we 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 the Risen Christ is present among us in the Spirit of God, the Apostle Paul could refer to us as the Body of Christ.  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.  But this can only happen when we keep our focus on and place God first in our lives. 

By looking at our First lesson and the gospel for this morning, we know we can never permit buildings, organizations, personal goals and desires, or earthy things, no matter how useful they might be, to become substitutes for our real devotion to our Lord Himself.  All these things in themselves can become too important if we’re not careful.  Today’s gospel reading isn’t solely about Jesus acting out of character, it’s about us keeping the First Commandment and about us removing the stuff, even the stuff that we see as important, that has crept into our lives and gotten between us and God.


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