Mar. 11, 2012 Lent 3 “The Cleansing of the Temple”

The gospel passage about the cleansing of the Temple always has a jarring feel to it, I think, because Jesus seems to be acting much more human than we are comfortable with. We know that Jesus is compassionate, that he is humble, that he is wise, that he has authority to heal diseases and cast out demons – but can we believe that Jesus would fly into a rage and cause an uproar and knock over tables – in church? Can the man who called himself our good Shepherd really be the one we see today taking a whip and driving both men and beasts out of the Temple? Is it really OK for God to act like that?

Jesus and his disciples had come up to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of the Passover. The Passover is the holiday that remembers the time when all of the Israelites were living as slaves in Egypt. After many years of cruelty and oppression, God had sent Moses to Pharoah to demand that his people be set free. And when Pharoah defied God, refusing again and again to listen to God’s demand, God sent a destroying angel to kill the first born of every living thing in Egypt, both man and beast. But he protected his own people from the angel of death. Not one Israelite was killed, and God led his people out of their bondage in Egypt, out of slavery and into freedom. God traveled along with them: he protected them from their enemies along the way; he provided for all their needs. And he gave them a law to live by and a place where he promised to meet with them; God made a way for his people, who used to be a small band of slaves in Egypt, to come into his Presence. He made a way for them to be holy, set apart for him, so that they would be a sign to the whole world pointing to the one true God.

That is what the Jews were preparing to celebrate when Jesus came into the Temple and found something like a farmer’s market: sheep and oxen and pigeons, and men sitting at tables counting out coins. God’s people had taken his gift of love and amazing grace and they had turned it into a business, something they could buy and sell. Think of the way the Ten Commandments begin: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of slavery, out of the house of bondage.” God’s commitment came first, before his people obeyed him, before they even knew him, he loved them and prepared that great act that would set them free. All that followed, all the law, all the sacrifices, all the rituals of Temple worship, were just ways for God’s people to respond to his free and gracious gift of salvation.

Jesus’s anger was not toward the people, who came to Jerusalem year after year to buy the sheep or pigeons for the sacrifice, who worked hard to live as faithful Jews, obedient to the God they honored. His anger was for the leaders, the priests and scribes, who made the people carry that burden of making the ritual sacrifices, of paying year after year after year, of striving all their lives to live in accordance with the letter of the law, without teaching them the heart of the law, which is love. Jesus said to the scribes and the Pharisees, “Woe to you, for you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and you neglect justice and the love of God. Woe to you, for you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers.” The worship of the Temple, that God had intended to be an opportunity for his people to draw near him, had become nothing more than a matter of rules and regulations. God’s marriage covenant with his people had been turned into a business. The house of prayer had become a house of trade; the other gospel writers remembered that Jesus even called it a “den of robbers.”

If we don’t understand God’s grace and love, religion becomes a nasty and hopeless little business of trying to make things right by our own feeble efforts. We are like a child who breaks an expensive plate glass window, who refuses to go to his father and admit his guilt but hides away in fear day after day, saving his pennies in a hopeless attempt to pay for his guilt. There are so many people who go through their lives day after day just trying to be good people, making their little sacrifices and trying to live by whatever code of conduct seems right to them. There is a story about John Stott, who spoke once with a young woman who identified herself as an atheist. He asked her three questions. First, he asked, “If you are perfectly honest with yourself, would you say that you always live up to your own standards?” And after she thought, she had to say honestly that no, she didn’t. Then he asked her, “Would you say that you are able to live up to your own standards?” And after a little thought she answered no, she wasn’t, not perfectly. And then Stott asked her, “Could you honestly say that you want to live up to your own standards perfectly?” And this woman, who must have been an admirably honest person, had to admit that no, she didn’t really have the power to even desire to live up to her own standards. And that is our human condition of sin.

Left to ourselves, no matter how earnestly we human beings try to live up even to our own personal standards of goodness, we will always fail. We are hopelessly broken, our wills hopelessly bent so that no matter how hard we try we fail. Paul put it like this: “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

As Christians who are also sinners we are no different than the woman John Stott spoke to, or our neighbor who hasn’t darkened the doors of a church since 1978, or our son whose life seems always to be unraveling at the seams. We all find ourselves unable to live up to what we know is right. And we all have our ways of trying to solve the dilemma ourselves, of making our sordid little deals. We find someone who is more broken than we are, so that our faults look smaller by comparison. Or we punish ourselves to make up for that guilt that lurks in the back of our minds. Or we keep records of our good deeds, hoping they will weigh in against the mass of our petty meanness and impure longings and the secret joy we take in the unhappiness of our enemies. So often we do everything we can to keep on living in our slavery, to make some kind of bargain with God to pay off our debt, and we forget that Jesus came to set us free, not as a business deal, not on condition of any good works that we do, but because he loved us. When Paul cried out “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” he answered at once, “Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

You and I are temples of the Holy Spirit. We are the temples that Jesus cleanses, overturning the tables covered with our false treasures, driving out all those sacrifices we try to offer to ransom our own life, everything we do to try to make amends for the failings that plague us. He doesn’t want any of those things. He just wants us. The good news is this: when we have offered ourselves, empty of all that we tried to bargain with, then he is pleased to accept our every offering of love, however small, delighting in us as his beloved child.

In the season of Lent we are called to honestly face the hopeless corruption of our own hearts, and the truth of what the psalmist said, “there is none who does good, not even one.” It is the burning question of all humankind. But God has given us the answer: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of bondage, out of the land of slavery.” We have been set free from bondage to sin – not just forgiven for the wrong things we do, but set free from the whole mess of that body of death that Paul wrote about. We are not perfect, we don’t stop having to wrestle against sin, not until the work of redemption is complete, but right now we are no longer slaves to our sin because Jesus did what no other man could do – he took all of sin and evil and death upon himself, willingly and without giving in to it, and nailed it once and for all to the cross.  The war is won, and we are set free from our enemy, though we continue to fight the skirmishes that follow until Christ returns.

And that is the message of hope we have to share with the world around us, who are all fighting the same battles we are, those neverending battles of selfishness and envy and hatred and all the rest. If we offer people rules and codes of morality then we have failed them just as surely as the priests in the Temple who sat at their tables and sold the sheep and oxen that could never lift the burden of guilt and shame under which the people were staggering. If we sit back and criticize we too are laying burdens upon the backs of our fellow men without lifting a finger to help. But if we reach out in forgiveness and mercy and love we will be pouring the oil of grace into their wounded hearts. And if we bring them to the one whose desire is to free every man from the bondage of sin, then we will be doing the work of our Father who is in Heaven.

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