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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Matthew 21:1-17
“God’s House”
April 13, 2014 - Palm Sunday

         Our neighbors came home last Sunday night to find their house a mess. They were expecting some of it. While they were away “snowbirding,” or “rainbirding,” or whatever, in California, a branch fell and poked through their roof in the ice storm two months ago. They chose to deal with it from a distance, with a little help from a neighbor, and lots of work from a contractor arranged by their insurance company.

         At some point they didn’t like what they were hearing over the phone, so they told the contractor to stop work until they got back to see for themselves. They walked in to find some repairs made nicely in the ceilings. But all their kitchen cabinets were empty, with the contents in boxes in the living room, ceramic tiles were torn off the kitchen floor, and all the contents of their shelves in the garage were now in the middle of the garage floor.

         I heard the story Monday morning standing out in our neighbors’ front yard where they were raking up leaves and other debris from the trees. They said they didn’t want to be in the house because it was just too depressing. Jesus probably felt a bit like that. He was depressed and certainly angry as He went to the temple the first Palm Sunday evening. He was coming home to the place He said was His Father’s house when He just twelve year’s old. And it was a mess.

         On this Sunday we normally focus on the first part of the text I read, what we call the “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. It’s the event that gave today its name, with the crowd shouting Jesus’ praises and waving palm branches and spreading them on the road to create a smooth path for His arrival. It was a royal welcome, declaring a public impression that Jesus was the promised Messiah, the “Son of David,” as it says in verse 9.

         Yet the common lectionary leaves out this next part of the story which tells us where Jesus went first after He got to Jerusalem. During Lent for one year, the lectionary gives us the text in John chapter 2 where Jesus cleanses the temple, but that happened two years earlier, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Now, right at the end of His life on earth, Jesus comes back to the temple and does it once again.

         On Tuesday evening, Beth and I had a public discussion with a couple of atheist professors about God and morality. One of them mounted a pretty intense attack on Christianity. When we pressed him a bit, he said that he didn’t have such a big problem with Jesus but he really hated the religion which the apostle Paul had created around Jesus. He said that Jesus was basically a peaceful, carefree sort of individual, like a hippy. But Paul distorted Jesus into a cruel, judgmental, life-hating tyrant.

         I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to see the Man who got angry enough to overturn tables and chase people out of a public building as a peaceful hippy. The first time He did it, recorded in John 2, we’re told He made a whip to drive out the animals which were being sold there. Mark tells us that the second time He prevented anyone from even carrying anything into the temple. He sounds angry, not peaceful.

         We learn why Jesus was so angry from His own words in verse 13, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” There are several things for us to learn from that single sentence.

         First, Jesus was quoting Scripture, Isaiah 56:7, but the words fit perfectly in His mouth when He says, “My house…” What would you think or say about a person who came to visit and suddenly started rearranging the furniture, or pulling down the draperies to replace them with something else, or telling us which music to play on the stereo? Wouldn’t you say that person is “acting like… he owns the place?” And that’s exactly what Jesus was doing, behaving as if He had the rights of ownership, the right to say who should be there and what should go on in that “house.” But whose house is it?

         That’s right, the temple was regarded by Jewish people as God’s house. It was God who first spoke those words commanding that His house be a house of prayer. By saying those words and acting like the owner of the temple, Jesus laid claim to that piece of real estate. He was demonstrating that He is nothing less than God Himself, coming home to find His house in a mess.

         The second thing we discover in verse 13 is the Owner’s purpose for His house. The whole purpose of the temple was for people to come and meet God, to be able to speak with Him in prayer and know they were being heard. That purpose was being thwarted by the noise, the cacophony of the temple court being turned into a shopping mall. No one could possibly pray there, with people haggling for the best price and the animals squawking and mooing and bahhing. You can also imagine the stench of all those caged and tied up creatures. Even if you imagined God could hear you above it all, there was no chance you were going to hear God. It was no place to pray.

         There’s another dimension to the fact that people were being prevented from praying there in the outer court of the temple. It’s not just that proper worship was being ignored and prevented. Does anyone remember what that outer court was called, for whom it was built? Yes, it was the court of the Gentiles. That court, where all those Jewish traders were busy making money, and shoppers were trying to find the best deal on an offering to get their sins forgiven, was the one part of the temple a non-Jew could enter and seek to find God. But all that hubbub made it nearly impossible for anyone to meet God there.

         A Jew could go on into an inner court and find a place where prayer and worship were actually possible, but for the Gentiles their one access point to such worship had been overrun. And that ran contrary to God’s purpose. Mark’s Gospel gives us a phrase Matthew leaves out of Jesus’ words from Isaiah here. What He said in full was, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” God is not exclusive. He meant His temple to have a place for everyone. While giving the Jews a special relationship with Him, He didn’t mean to leave anyone out. Anyone should have been able to come and talk to God and worship there. But the place for Gentiles had been ruined.

         That’s why we need to say a bit more about Jesus’ complaint, what He called the people causing the problem. When we read that He said, “you are making it a den of robbers,” we naturally imagine He is complaining about the commerce, the buying and selling. The moneychangers and merchants are robbing poor pious worshippers with high prices and poor quality animals for sacrifice. That may be true, but it also may not be what Jesus was talking about.

         Last fall, on Christ the King Sunday, I talked about those two men who were crucified on either side of Jesus. What do all our translations call them? “Thieves” or “robbers” or “bandits.” It’s the same word found here in verse 13, a “den of robbers.” But then I explained how in Jesus’ day that word didn’t usually mean just a person who commits larceny. It was what people called the Zealots, called those who were planning a rebellion against Rome, called people who did violence to oppose the current government. We would call them “insurrectionists,” or maybe “terrorists.”

         The people the Jews of the first century typically called “robbers,” using the word Jesus used, were extreme Jewish nationalists. They were focused on throwing off foreign government and chasing foreigners, chasing Gentiles out of their country. So Jesus said that’s what was going on in the temple. The salesmen and bankers there probably didn’t belong to the Zealot movement. They weren’t literally rebels or insurrectionists. But Jesus said that in relation to Gentiles and God’s house they were doing the same thing. In the place that was supposed to a “house of prayer for all nations,” they were keeping out and driving away everyone but members of their own nation.

         Jesus was forcefully announcing that God was the God of every nation, of all people, that anyone should be able to come into God’s house and meet Him there. That’s why the next thing we read in verse 14 is that the blind and lame came into the temple to be cured by Jesus. It was another demonstration of the same point.

         If you turn back to II Samuel 5:6-8 in the Old Testament, you will find an account of how David first conquered Jerusalem and took the city from the Jebusites. They taunted David and boasted that they were so well fortified that even the blind and the lame would be able to defend the city from him. But David and his army snuck in through the water shaft and took them by surprise. But out of all that came a tradition that somehow the blind and the lame were “David’s enemies” and they were not to be allowed in the house, not to be able to enter the temple. But now we find the Man the crowd was calling the “Son of David” welcoming the blind and lame into God’s house and healing them.

         Jesus’ anger and violence there in the temple is not so much about reverence and quiet and some sort of sanctity to be preserved in God’s house. It’s about His Father’s house being a place where guests of all sorts are welcome, where they can find a place to pray and worship and draw near to God.

         It’s the same thing in verses 15, when children brought the shouts of the crowd around Jesus on the road right into the temple courts, crying out “Hosanna to the Son of David!” The priests and scribes who ignored all the commotion of commerce now want these little voices to be quiet. In verse 16, they ask Jesus if He hears what the kids are saying. Their implication is that Jesus ought to have the sense to quiet them, to refuse the title the crowd and the children gave Him, to deny being the rightful heir to David, the One who was coming in the name of the Lord.

         And once again Jesus quotes Scripture to demonstrate that not only were the children right, but that their noisy praise was welcome. He reminded them that Psalm 8:2 declared “Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself.” Of course, the psalmist was talking about praise to God, so Jesus was telling them that the shouts of the children were not only right about Him being the Son of David, the Messiah, but that they were also a sign that He is God. And God welcomes the voices of children, even of babies, in His house.

         The lesson here for us this morning as we prepare to celebrate the central and greatest events of our faith is that this good news, this story of a Savior who gave up His life and then rose from the dead, is for everyone. On the very cusp of His death and resurrection Jesus stood in the temple and cleaned house to demonstrate that the door He was going to open into new life would be open for anyone who wants to come in, regardless of nationality or race, regardless of handicaps, regardless of age.

         That’s our lesson. Our question is whether when you and I gather here in this place where we also come to meet God, which we would also like to call a house of God, it is open like Jesus wanted the temple open? Are we behaving in ways, are we keeping house in a way, that allows anyone to come in and pray to God the Father and to be healed and renewed by Jesus Christ His Son? Or are there things which distract from worship? Are there other sorts of concern or business going on which will keep out the stranger, the person with a handicap, the little children?

         Ultimately, it’s not just about a building. Not long after He cleansed that temple in Jerusalem, Jesus predicted that it would be torn down. He said it would be replaced with a better temple, an eternal temple, the temple of His own body. So He rose from the dead. And Paul told us that in a beautiful mystery that we now are also Christ’s body. We are His temple. We are the house of God. And whatever four walls we worship in, or even if we worship outside, the question remains, are we a house of prayer for all people?

         Overall, I believe that you all, this church, this congregation have been a good example of God’s house open for everyone. Over the years God has sent us some challenges, some people difficult to welcome. Many years ago one was a talkative man with some mental limitations. People here gathered him in, let him talk in Sunday School classes and tried to offer him the healing of Jesus by donating a couple thousand dollars to buy him dentures.

         Another woman came to us with a brain injury. I don’t remember her well, but I know at least a couple of you gave her much attention, gave her rides to church and back home, gave her as much love as she was able to receive.

         Several years ago, and this is a story Beth and I tell often, a woman of another faith and nationality, a Muslim, came by on a Monday morning went into the office and asked to pray in our church. Fred let her in and got her phone number. Beth and I visited her. She started coming to worship here, coming to pray among us often. Some of you remember how after worship was over she would sometimes prostrate herself here at the front and just cry out to God. The Sunday after Easter eight years ago we baptized her and she went in peace to be with her Lord a year later.

         Yes, this has been a house of prayer open to all people. You have been God’s house. You welcome everyone who walks in the door. You welcome the little ones with all their commotion. Someone has said, “If you don’t hear crying, the church is dying.” That’s just an update of what Jesus was saying on Palm Sunday in the temple, of what He said when He told His disciples to let the little children come to Him.

         Yes, yes, yes, good work, little house of God that calls itself Valley Covenant Church! But let’s not rest on our laurels. Let’s not get complacent. Let’s keep working at being a house of prayer for all people. A big part of that is that you and I will need to keep that central activity in the center. Like we have emphasized this Lent, let us be people of prayer, people who regularly and often speak to God, who come here ourselves for the primary purpose of meeting and talking with our Lord.

         Then let us do a little temple cleaning now and then. It may be literal cleaning like we did yesterday, so that no one is turned off or turned away by dirty windows or cobwebs in the corners or weeds in the flower beds. But even more we may need to look at what we do and how we live together and wonder if it might not be time to overturn a table of our own comfort or chase some distracting beast of a song or way of worship or personal expectation out of God’s house, so that someone a little different might come in.

         Let this, let us truly be God’s house. Jesus came and gave His life and rose again to cleanse us, to make us into a fit and holy dwelling for God’s Spirit. Let’s not keep that gift to ourselves. Let’s keep the doors open, so that anyone can come in, so our Lord Himself may enter in here like He did into Jerusalem long ago.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated April 13, 2014