Monday, March 09, 2015

Sermon on John 2:13-22, for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, "Destroy this Temple"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Do you know what it would take to “light a fire in you?” What would get you so stirred up and passionate about something, that you would take action and do something? Maybe seeing something outrageous, or knowing a terrible injustice was being done, and something had to be done about it? Sometimes I feel like our generation is desensitized, or dulled to what’s going on around us in the world. Do you feel so heavily bombarded with stories of violence, corruption, war, poverty, and injustice in the media, that it hardly triggers an emotion in you anymore? We might feel apathetic, like we can’t possibly care—because it’s too much, too great a burden to bear or comprehend. We might feel helpless or even lazy, as though there is nothing we could do that would make a difference anyway. Or we might simply feel safe and complacent, since we may seem to be insulated from much of the “bad news.” If you can identify with any of those responses, and I honestly know I can—are you satisfied with that? Is that ok?
What would it take to light a fire in you? If you became passionate enough to do something, what or how would you do it? Our Gospel reading surprises us with how Jesus took action at something outrageous to Him. The Bible has a word for this passion or fire that takes action—it’s called “zeal.” The Bible sees a difference between a good kind of zeal and a bad kind. The bad kind, the Apostle Paul calls “zeal without knowledge.” Being passionate but taking rash or foolish action. Doing something harmful, not helpful. Knowledge and truth must guide or control “zeal” for it to be helpful and useful.
But does it surprise you how Jesus reacts to the scene in the Temple? The Temple in Jerusalem, 2,000 years ago, was the Holiest Place for the Jews, and it was the one Divinely authorized place for their sacrifices. Worshipping Jews traveled from the surrounding countryside to the capital of Jerusalem. Since it was impractical to bring their own animals, and there were strict requirements on the health and wholeness of the animal, people would need to buy animals for sacrifice when they got to Jerusalem. They also paid a yearly Temple tax, for the maintenance of the Temple. This made for a large and busy trade. It was not this in itself that Jesus objected to.
What lit a fire in Him, what stirred up His zeal so that He couldn’t sit by and do nothing, was that all this marketplace, with its noise, commotion, and the opportunity for greed and dishonesty, had taken up residence in the courts of the Temple. “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade!” Jesus cried out. At the end of Jesus’ ministry, when He cleansed the Temple again, He would say, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17). What upset Jesus was that it was His Father’s house that was being turned into a marketplace and a place of thievery, instead of a place of holy worship and prayer for the nations. It wasn’t a personal insult or injuries Jesus was reacting to—He bore more than His share of those without hatred—rather it was the dishonoring of God that compelled His action. This marketplace and thievery was disrupting true worship of God. This filled Jesus with holy, Godly zeal. A zeal with knowledge.
Does His action surprise? Making a whip of cords—how else do you drive out herds of animals? Turning over the money changer’s tables, and pouring out their coins? It must have been a chaotic, noisy scene, with animals running everywhere, sellers scrambling to pick up their coins and get out of the way, and expressions of shock, anger, and dismay on the faces of the onlookers. This was what Jesus’ holy, righteous, anger looked like. He didn’t stand by and wring His hands in despair, or passively do nothing. He took immediate and decisive action. He knew what the effect be, and He absolutely wanted a return to holiness and reverent worship in the Temple. He did not harm anyone, but He sure disrupted their business and made them think twice about what they were doing. The people were stunned. And for the moment, at least, the Temple would again be a holy sanctuary for prayer. A place to encounter God in His promised mercy, and to worship Him.
Now pause for a moment and consider—what sort of reverence and holiness did Jesus come to restore? Utter silence so that you could hear a pin drop? Would the noise of children, for example be unwelcome there? Would it surprise you to know that the Bible tells us the answer? When Jesus cleansed the Temple the second time around, described in Matthew 21, He again drives out the animals and moneychangers. Crowds of blind and lame people start gathering around Jesus to be healed, and the little children praise Him loudly in the Temple, saying “Hosanna to the Son of David!” And the Temple leaders get angry with Jesus. Jesus answers them, quoting Psalm 8: “have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” The joyful praise and noise of children was exactly the sound Jesus and His heavenly Father wanted to hear in the Temple! They were praising their Savior as God intended them to. This was holy worship in its rightful place. God is delighted to hear the sounds of children singing and praising Jesus.
Back to our John passage, the Temple leaders were stunned by Jesus’ boldness and swift action—just as they were the second time. Not surprisingly, they want to know what authority He thought He had to do this? It all comes down to it. Were these the actions of a wild, irresponsible person, who had no right? Or someone with God’s own rightful authority to set things right in His house? Jesus’ answer leaves them mystified, and doesn’t make sense until much later. But His answer tells everything about who He is and what authority He rightfully had to do this. They just had to wait for the proof.
Jesus answers them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Not surprisingly, they thought He meant the physical building of the Temple. The Temple was 46 years into a massive renovation project that would continue for more than 25 years longer. It would make it into “one of the most remarkable and beautiful buildings of ancient times” (Garrard, Splendor of the Temple, 5). The thought of destroying this was incredible and offensive to them. But the Gospel writer, John, explains that Jesus wasn’t talking about the building—“He was speaking about the temple of His body. When 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.”
Why would Jesus take this opportunity of cleansing the Temple to tell them that His body was a temple, and one that they were going to destroy? Jesus was signaling the huge change that was coming. Jesus, as God’s own Son, was replacing the Temple. They were not ready to grasp something so extraordinary. But Jesus would slowly teach and explain that the days of the Temple were numbered. Worship of the One True God was no longer going to be centered at the Temple in Jerusalem—but it would be re-centered in Jesus Christ, and all true worshippers would worship God in Spirit and in Truth, all over the earth. Worship of God in the Temple would be replaced by worship of God in Christ Jesus. The sacrifices made to God in the Temple would be completed and fulfilled in Jesus’ One, final, perfect sacrifice, made on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. His body was the Temple they would destroy—He said it to point them forward to His cross—where they in misguided zeal without knowledge, would put Him to death.
He told them ahead of time so His disciples would understand that when He was raised in three days from the dead—that this Temple was His body. Rising from the dead would be the proof that He was truly the Son of God, who had all power and authority in heaven and on earth. Power over death itself, and authority to cleanse the Temple of God’s house, to restore true worship. And while the leaders stood by allowing animals and crooks to overrun God’s Temple courts and worshippers, Jesus took action to clean house. And again when it came to the seemingly hopeless sinful condition of human beings—Jesus did not stand idly by and bemoan what was wrong—but with zeal, with power, and authority, He took action. In the unlikeliest way, He took action with true worship and obedience to His Father, and humbling Himself to die on the cross and become our sin, so that in Him, we could become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).
Destroy this Temple…He put it to them. You want proof that I can do this? Take my life—and in three days I will raise it up. If death cannot hold Jesus—and it didn’t and can’t—you know the answer by what authority He did this. He is God Himself in human flesh. No one but God holds ultimate power over life and death. And since Jesus is True God, the only way to the Father, then He is worthy of all our worship and praise. He is rightfully the New Temple in whom we worship the Living God who sacrificed Himself for us, and who desires pure and open worship of Him. He is the God who delights in and prepares children to sing His holy praises.
God is a God of action. Jesus faced the single greatest threat to our well-being, our relationship with God, and our salvation—and He took action dying on the cross for our sin, and destroying the power of death. And we are called to be His disciples. To be men, women, and children of action. Led by a Godly zeal, guided by knowledge, to do good and love our neighbors as ourselves. Someone once said that the only thing needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. God’s Word and Jesus’ example calls us to action. To do good in the face of evil. To have compassion on the poor and needy, to be a voice for those who have no voice, to prevent injustice where and when we are able. There are doubtless opportunities, very near to you every day, where you can begin to make a difference. And a guiding principle that steers our zeal and passion to be helpful and not harmful; to be wise and not foolish—is this: “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). And most of all, be certain of this—that the power to overcome the evil, the injustice, and the suffering that we see in this world is God’s power, and that the ultimate victory of good over evil belongs to Him. We have seen and known His victory in Jesus’ cross and resurrection. So worship Him in His Holy Temple, in Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Travelers coming to worship at the annual feast of Passover needed to purchase animals for sacrifice in the Temple. What was Jesus’ objection to the sale of these animals and the exchanging of currency happening in the Temple? John 2:16.
  2. What is the “zeal” that affected Jesus? Psalm 69:9; 119:139. If “zeal” means a passion or fervor for something—what was it that Jesus (and the Psalms that predicted His action) was passionate for? What does it tell us about how much Jesus cared about this issue, that He did it at the beginning and end of His ministry? Mark 11:15-18. How did the Temple leadership respond the second time? Are there any things that you see as so important that they are worth fighting for?
  3. In Romans 10:2 Paul contrasts a godly kind of zeal with a negative type of zeal. What makes the difference? What else is said positively about the place for zeal? Romans 12:8-11. How are we often prone to laziness or indifference in the face of evil or injustice? What would stir you to positive action?
  4. Read John 2:19-22. How did the Jews misunderstand Jesus’ statement? How did they distort it at His trial? Mark 14:57-58; Matthew 26:61. Jesus did not say He would destroy the Temple, but told them, [you] destroy this temple, and I will raise it up. It wasn’t possible for them to grasp His meaning till after His death and resurrection. The earthly Temple was a copy, an image, or type, of God’s heavenly Temple—and Jesus is declaring that He is that Temple of God.
  5. While Hebrews 9-10 does not compare Jesus to the Temple, it does compare Him to the priests and sacrifices, and shows that the earthly things were copies of the heavenly things, and that Jesus has introduced a new and greater way. How was Jesus, as God’s Holy Temple, Great High Priest, and Sacrifice all rolled into One—how was His worship of God pure and holy?

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