Beyond the Sanctuary of the Sanctuary
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 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. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 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.
Thursday night, in our Bethel Bible Series class, we found ourselves discussing the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and about how strategic his non-violent Civil Rights Movement was in this country… How he took intentional advantage of the prolific media coverage he knew his actions would receive – if he only knew how prolific media coverage could be, just a few decades later, right?!?
But we talked about how he banked on the photos and videos and news reports of the violent responses to his non-violent actions… How he hoped white America – and the rest of the world, too – would see the images of police dogs attacking peaceful protestors.
How he hoped white America – and the rest of the world, too – would see the fire hoses turned onto marchers dressed in their Sunday best.
How he hoped white America – and the rest of the world, too – would see the beatings and the abuse and the arrests of innocent African-American men and women, boys and girls.
And about how he hoped white America – and the rest of the world – would respond with revulsion and revolution against the injustice made plain to them by this ugliness.
And until they saw it for themselves, too many people were able to deny or pretend it was something other than as shameful and sinful and wrong, as every bit of it was.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was as peaceful as he was persistent. He was as wise as he was faithful. He was as clever as he was courageous. He knew exactly what he was doing and what he did was change the state of race relations – and the status of African-American people – in our country and in the world, for the better. And he learned so much of his strategy, of course, from the God he knew in Jesus Christ.
And I thought about all of that again for this morning, because some people are under the impression that Jesus walked into the temple in Jerusalem on the day we just heard about and that he was surprised to find the cattle, the sheep, the doves and the money changers doing their thing; that he showed up for worship or for prayers – being the good, faithful Jew that he was – and that he was caught off-guard to see “the market-place” that set him off.
But back in Jesus’ day, it was common for things to be sold in and around the Temple. Because the celebration of Passover was right around the corner, Jews from all over the known world were traveling to Jerusalem in order to celebrate the holiday. Since it was difficult to travel with animals and because animal sacrifice was an important, necessary part of Jewish worship, those who came to Jerusalem had to buy the animals they were expected to sacrifice, once they got into the city. Jesus, again as a good, faithful Jew, may even have done this himself more than once in his day.
Now there is all kind of reason to believe the merchants in the temple were ripping off those who came to buy their animals. It’s believed they made them use special currency and exchanged it unfairly and that the animals were probably being sold for more money than they were worth – maybe like the difference you pay for a hot dog at Lucas Oil Stadium versus what you’d pay for the same, if you bought it at the store and cooked it yourself.
So when Jesus shows up in the temple at the time of the high festival of the Passover – the Super Bowl of Jewish festivals, you might say – and when he starts cracking whips and tossing tables and pouring out money and herding cattle toward the door, he knew exactly what he was doing. It wasn’t just about the selling of things. It wasn’t even just about the high prices of those things, though that would have gotten everyone’s attention, for sure.
Jesus was staging a one-man protest. And he was protesting the powers-that-were. He meant to turn over, not just tables and coin boxes, but the whole Temple system of it all. He meant to drive out, not just the cattle and the sheep, but the whole practice of an empty, superficial, superstitious sacrificial system. He meant to point out and to call everyone’s attention to himself and to what he came for in the first place: to focus their attention – and the world’s – on what was to be the center of their faith, the object of their devotion, the source of their salvation going forward, his very self.
In other words, the times they were a-changing, or they were supposed to be, and Jesus wanted everyone to know it. The way to God’s heart of hearts wasn’t through the practice of sacrificing in the temple any longer. Jesus, himself was to be a new, better, different, complete kind of sacrifice. He was angry and God was still weary of the hypocritical, half-hearted, misguided worship of God’s people. There weren’t enough cattle, sheep or doves to burn on God’s altar that would do the trick of redeeming what was broken in the world. Jesus, the Son of God, came to fulfill all the law and the prophets. And he would – by his own destruction and resurrection – redeem and restore the world to the God who created it.
In still other words… in words that might speak to the likes of you and me, these days… God still desires more than just this… God desires more than just our ceremonial singing and our ritualistic repentance. God desires more than just placating the problems that surround us with “thoughts and prayers,” no matter how faithful or well-intended they may be. God desires that our worship and our devotion and our service and our sacrifice take place beyond the sanctuary of the sanctuary, if you will.
So I wonder what that looks like for each of us, for Cross of Grace, for God’s church in the world. Of course there may be as many different answers and action plans as there are people in this room, or churches in the community, or faith communities in the world. But what if we start close to home? What if we start by looking in the mirror?
What is it that stirs you? What is it that makes your heart beat a little faster? What is it you would do, for the sake of the kingdom, that feeds you and fuels you? … that could keep you up at night? …that you’d do for free and for fun? For what might you turn over some tables or stage a protest, if you had the chance?
Whatever the case, what Jesus shows us in this morning’s Gospel – and what the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. prove – is that the work of the faithful people of God can be a hard, holy road. When Jesus drops that line about destroying the temple, he knew just how hard and holy it would become for him. He knew he was to be the new temple – that his passion would lead him to suffer, to be crucified, killed and raised from the dead – wherein lies the source of our own purpose, our own passion, and our one and only most reliable hope.
So may our passions be inspired by the abundant love of God, in Jesus Christ, broken and poured out for the sake of the world. May our purpose – as individuals and as a community of faith – be grounded in the same grace, mercy and peace we see in him. And may we go about our work with more faith than fear, prepared, not just for whatever sacrifice and struggle might find us along the way, but prepared, too, for the redemption and new life that will come for us and through us when we do.