March 8, 2015 - Third Sunday of Lent
When each of our two
girls was born, we had to make room. A room full of accumulated stuff needed to
be moved out or thrown away so a crib could be moved in. They were six years
apart, so it was a big deal each time. We took clothes out of a closet, carried
out boxes, shifted furniture around, and made room for all the paraphernalia a
baby needs. Some of you are going through that kind of change right now.
Any time a new person
moves in, your life will change. You have to make room. It doesn’t matter if
it’s a new baby, a new roommate, or your new spouse. You may have to shuffle
the furniture, clear off counter space in the bathroom, clean out a closet or
toss out stuff that up to that point wasn’t bothering you at all.
Jesus came to the
temple at Jerusalem to make room. The title of an ancient television sit-com
says it all, “Make Room for Daddy.” Jesus wanted room for His Father in the
space which He called His “Father’s house.” He did a violent housecleaning of
the temple to reclaim room for its primary occupant.
God wants His space.
You can see that in the anger His Son displayed there in the temple, maybe more
than once. Bible scholars worry because John’s Gospel puts the cleansing of the
temple here at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, during His first journey to Jerusalem with His disciples. The other three Gospels put it either on or right after Palm
Sunday, at the end of Jesus’ ministry. Which is it? Or is it both?
The arguments are not conclusive
either way. On one hand, it’s hard to imagine such a dramatic scene happening
twice. And the Gospel writers clearly do sometimes group what Jesus said and
did by topic rather than by strict chronology. On the other hand, if it
happened twice, there were two years in between. Humans quickly go back to
their old ways and they couldn’t keep a lookout posted to stop Jesus doing it
again for that long.
Either way, Jesus was
angry about this. He is not always the sweet, gentle long-haired guy we see in
so many paintings, including our own Covenant portrait by Warner Sallman. He’s
a man capable of flying into a rage. He descended upon the everyday business of
the temple and sent it flying. Our gentle Lord chased sheep and cattle with a
whip. He turned over tables and flung coins on the floor. Shepherds ran out
behind their sheep. Moneychangers scurried to gather up their coins. And sellers
of doves cowered behind their cages as Jesus shouted “Take these things out of
here!” It was just like that irreverent bumper sticker that says, “Jesus is
coming, and boy is He…” you know.
God still wants His
space. He wants room in this world and in our lives. When His space is filled with
other things, it hurts Him. It angers Him. Jesus cleansed the temple with a vengeance
to make room for His Father. Jesus would still like to turn over some tables to
make room for God in His today.
In the church
lectionary we only read this text once every three years on the third Sunday of
Lent. It puts us in mind of cleaning our own houses of God, the spaces in our
own lives where God wants His place. But we’ve filled that space and those
hours with other things.
It’s not necessarily
bad things which take God’s place. The cattle selling and the money changing in
the temple were necessary for worship. God commanded sacrifices. Bring an
offering of livestock, according to what you could afford. A sheep or an ox for
someone well-off, a dove for a poor widow. People traveled miles to sacrifice,
especially during Passover. It was impractical to bring animals with them. They
brought money and bought animals when they got there.
Money changing also
had a good purpose. The temple tax was paid in purest silver, a Tyrian coin.
You came with the currency of your village and exchanged it for a gift worthy
of God. The trade in the temple aided those coming to honor the Lord.
Matthew, Mark and Luke
suggest the trade in the temple was dishonest because Jesus quoted Jeremiah 7:11 about the house of God being a “den of robbers.” We imagine overcharging or
exorbitant interest. But John doesn’t mention that. For all we know from him,
these were honest business people, serving the faithful, like Christian
bookstores used to do.
The old 1970’s song by
Ocean was right, “the buyers and the sellers weren’t no different fellers from
what I profess to be.” Temple trade was ordinary religious life, like receiving
an offering is for us. It helped people worship and give to God. Jesus was not
angry because of the trading. He was furious because of where it took place. It
filled and took over a space where people had come to pray and seek God’s
presence. So the question is, if we aren’t “no different fellers,” what is in
the way of worship for you and me?
Maybe we can learn
something from, of all people, Bill Gates. Back in the 1990s in a Time magazine interview, he was asked about religion. His wife is a Catholic and
attends mass. But he said, “Just in terms of allocation of time resources,
religion is not very efficient. There is a lot more I could be doing on a
Sunday morning.” Gates had plenty of other ways to occupy that time and space
his wife used for worship.
But just last March in
a Rolling Stone interview, after agreeing a bit with Richard Dawkins on
religion, Gates said that his children have been raised Catholic and that he
now “participates” in the church his wife attends. Then he said this:
Now science has filled in some of the realm—not all—that
religion used to fill. But the mystery and the beauty of the world is overwhelmingly
amazing, and there’s no scientific explanation of how it came about. To say
that it was generated by random numbers, that does seem, you know, sort of an
uncharitable view. I think it makes sense to believe in God, but exactly what
decision in your life you make differently because of it, I don’t know.
Obviously Gates is not
going to make the cover of Christianity Today anytime soon, but it seems
clear, perhaps because of his wife’s influence, that God has a bit more room in
his life. Science and efficiency cannot and do not fill in all the gaps. What
he’s yet to see is that making that space for God is itself a different
decision than he made before.
I’ve said Jesus was
angry, but there was a deeper emotion at work. Before I met my wife Beth I was
engaged to someone else. My first spring of graduate school, she dumped me. She
was back in California. I was in Indiana. I skipped all my classes, bought a
plane ticket I had no money for, and flew home to work it out. I went straight
from the airport to her house. When she opened the door, there was another guy
All I felt standing
there was anger. I wanted to shout, “What is he doing here? Get him out
of here!” just as verse 16 says Jesus yelled “Get these things out of here!”
The burly guy in a navy blue T-shirt was in my place. The cattle and doves and
tables holding money boxes were in God’s place. I thought I was in love with
that woman, so I was jealous of my place with her. Jesus was jealous of God’s
place with His people.
Verse 17 tells us the
disciples recalled words from Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for your house will consume
me.” In Hebrew, “zeal” and “jealousy” are the same word. Jesus was not just
zealous. He was jealous. He was not just passionately devoted to a
faith. He was passionate for God Himself. Jesus’ love for God made Him jealously
angry at what took God’s place.
That’s why the Ten
Commandments are paired with this text in our Scripture readings. The second
commandment tells us to have no other gods before God, saying “I, the Lord
your God, am a jealous God.” It is that same word in Hebrew again. God is a
jealous God and it is jealousy for God’s house which will consume Jesus.
The rest of the
passage tells us that Jesus’ jealousy for God would consume Him. It
would be the death of Him. He would die for the sake of His love for the
Father. His passion for God would become what we call His Passion on the Cross.
Temple guards came
running, a crowd gathered. People thought a riot had happened. But all they saw
was one man standing there in the middle of the mess of tables and cages and
straw and coins rolling on the floor. The recognized him as rabbi and gave him
the benefit of the doubt, asking “What sign can you show us for doing this?” In
other words, what are you trying to teach us? You and I should ask the same
I’ve been talking
about making room for God, but even that was not Jesus’ most important lesson.
In verse 19 Jesus told them the words Mark tells us were later used against Him
at His trial, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
They scoffed. Their
temple was a building project under construction for forty-six years and still
not completed. Jesus might knock over a few wooden tables, but not a stone
temple. And as for putting it back up… that was laughable. Even His disciples
were confused until, as verse 22 says, much later when they met Him resurrected
Jesus’ jealousy would
kill Him. Eaten up with the love of God, He would accept a death sentence for
the sake of that love. His jealousy was not limited to a piece of real estate
in Jerusalem. That was finally torn down as Jesus predicted in 70 A.D. That was
not the ground Jesus really wanted. He came to claim something else, a
Verse 21 says He spoke
of the destroying and raising of His own body. It was not a particular
geographical location where God the Father was most honored. The place with
room for God—the real holy of holies—was in the body, heart, and life of the
Son of God. Jesus Christ Himself was the perfect temple of God.
The body of Christ is
still the temple of God. His word was true. His body was killed and raised up
again in three days. He is alive and still living in that flesh. The hands that
held the whip for the cattle and scattered the coins from the tables became
nailed to the Cross. But those hands still live, bearing their scars. God
raised Him up.
The body of Christ is
still the temple of God, and now it’s even more. It’s you and I and everyone
who believes in Him. Jesus was jealous for God. He was angry, but He did not
hate the buyers and sellers. He loved them and wanted them to love Him. That’s
why He died and was raised again, because of His passion for God and His
passion for God’s people. He wanted those people to be a true and holy temple
for His Father.
You and I are “no
different fellers.” Jesus doesn’t hate us. He doesn’t hate us even when we let
all the junk in our lives get in the way of worshipping and loving Him. He died
on the Cross and rose again to make us part of that same holy temple which is
His body. When we believe in Jesus, then we too die and rise with Him. We
become part of His resurrected body in which God lives by His Holy Spirit.
Our hearts and lives
are the space God wants to inhabit. The same jealous love that made Jesus want
to drive all the distractions from the ancient temple makes Him want to cleanse
the temple that is you and me. Jesus loves you—passionately and jealously—and
He wants to cleanse your life until you are able to love Him like that.
Jesus is asking you to
make room for Him in your life, in your heart, even in your body. His love for
you is so great that it will fill all the space you can create. I told you how
my first engagement broke up. It was only then that I met my wife Beth. I
thought that breakup was a disaster. But it cleaned house so that I could meet
and love the woman I’ve been married to for 35 years.
The winter before Beth
and I were married I went home to visit my mother. In her garage I found a box of
letters and cards to me from this other woman. They went in the trash. I
emptied the box. It didn’t need to take up space in my mother’s garage. And there
was no room in my heart now for anyone but Beth.
Today, in our garage
you could find several boxes of letters and cards from Beth, thirty-five
years worth. I do not grudge the space at all. There is all sorts of room both
literally and figuratively in my life for her.
If you let Jesus
cleanse the temple of your life you will not miss what He tosses out. You will
not begrudge the space he takes over. You will find yourself instead filled
with the evidence of His great love for you. Give room to Jesus and He will
fill it with joy and peace and grace.
We all need a regular
temple cleaning. That’s why we come round to this Scripture on a regular basis.
I can’t say what needs to go for you. It may be some sins, some beasts that
need to be driven out of your life. Or it may be some perfectly innocent activity
like those doves that were in the way of God’s place in the temple, in the way
of God’s place in your life.
If there is hatred or
lust or greed or pride stabled in your temple, then bow in prayer and ask the
Lord to drive those critters out. The more of those vices go away, the more
room will open up in you for God. But look too at the doves fluttering around in
your life. Is texting on your phone or posting on Facebook or watching
television taking up space meant for prayer? Are sports activities drawing you
or your children away from worship? Is some hobby like fishing or antiquing or
some luxury you enjoy taking money that belongs to God?
The trade in the
temple was not all evil. It was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The
cleansing of our lives goes beyond what is wrong to what is good but taking up
space that is God’s. Review your calendar, think about how you spend your time.
If you have the room for prayer and Bible reading and acts of kindness or
generosity, then you’ve got room for God. If not, then it’s time for a temple
cleaning, time to make room.
This year as we
celebrate the 40th anniversary of our church community, we also want
to do that same temple cleaning here. We might need to literally clean out our
storage spaces as some of you know, but we also want to look at all we do
together and make sure that our worship, our study, our life together and our
ministry to the community and to the world has all the room it needs for God to
be there, to be at the center of all we do.
Jesus was jealous
enough to die to clean the temple out, to clean out our lives so that we
together can be His temple. If He cared that much for us, let us care enough to
join Him in the house cleaning. If we make room for God, then He will be there.
And that’s why we are here.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj