“March Madness: The Prophet-Driven Church” (John 2:13-22)

Third Sunday in Lent
March 7, 2021

“March Madness: The Prophet-Driven Church” (John 2:13-22)

“Gentle Jesus, meek and mild”: That’s how we usually picture our Savior. And in many respects, that’s true. Our Good Shepherd is kind and gentle with his sheep. But that image of Christ is not enough. It doesn’t give the full picture of Jesus and his character and his range of emotions. Especially is that the case with our text today. Because today we see our Lord getting downright angry–or upright angry, I should say, since it is righteous anger that he displays. Today Jesus gets a case of “March Madness”: He marches right into the temple like he owns the joint, and he is mad. How come? What’s the problem? What is it that makes Jesus so mad? And what does it have to do with the church in our day? Let’s find out, under the theme, “March Madness: The Prophet-Driven Church.”

The problem was with what was going on at the temple. At the temple in Jerusalem, a lot of buying and selling going on, a lot of money was changing hands: “When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money.”

Now to be fair, we should ask: What was so bad about that? I mean, if you look into this a little bit, it may not seem so bad. Think about it. The temple in Jerusalem was the one place where the Lord God had commanded his people to come to offer sacrifices for sin, as well as other sacrifices, for guilt, peace offerings, thank-offerings, and so on. This was God’s idea, and it’s all recorded in the Book of Leviticus. The Lord had provided the way for his people to get their sins forgiven. Instead of requiring their life for their misdeeds, the people could offer up burnt offerings and the blood of bulls and goats and lambs. This was God in his mercy and grace providing forgiveness, atonement for his people. And for hundreds of years, ever since there was a temple in Jerusalem, that’s where all of those sacrifices were supposed to take place: at the temple, in Jerusalem. Nowhere else.

But the thing is, the people at Jesus’ time had to come from long distances. The Jewish people had been scattered far and wide across the ancient world. They had been dispersed to faraway lands. So it would be extremely impractical for them to bring the sacrificial animals with them on such a long trip. What they would do, then, is when they got to Jerusalem, they would buy sheep or goats or bulls or doves–they would buy them locally, right there in Jerusalem. That made sense. So businesses were set up to handle that trade. And because in many cases the people coming to Jerusalem were coming from lands with different currency, there would also be money exchanges set up to deal with that.

So far, so good. Those things in themselves, you would think, should not make Jesus mad. They would be providing a service for people coming from long distances. But the problem was, the animal trade and money exchange morphed way beyond that and became a profit-making business that overshadowed the real purpose of the temple. The forgiveness of sins got lost in the shuffle. It got pushed to the side. Other interests, self-interests, took over. And they even set up shop in the temple courts.

All of that, then, is what gets Jesus so mad: “So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!’” So here where the profit motive was driving the profiteers, a true prophet, a prophet of God, steps in and drives them out.

Now it’s great that nothing like what was going on in the temple can happen in the church today, right? I mean, we’re not buying and selling animals or exchanging currency back in the narthex. And I’m not referring to bake sales or yard sales or things like that. Those can be innocent and helpful and acts of Christian service. But there is a problem, a big problem, when anything overshadows or pushes to the side the real purpose of the church, which is still the forgiveness of sins. When that happens, and it does, Jesus still gets mad.

There is a problem when other things become the big thing in the church. Some religious merchants sell entertaining worship and peppy pop music. Some capitalize on their big smiles, funny stories, and pleasing personalities. Some market their advice for being successful or “purpose-driven.” Church-growth gurus peddle their techniques for driving up numbers. When these things happen at the expense of truth and substance, when the gospel gets shoved to the side, when the forgiveness of sins is downplayed–or even is seen as an impediment to growth–well, that’s when Jesus gets mad. And all faithful prophets of God will get mad, too. We’d like to drive those religious hucksters out of God’s house.

God forbid that we fall for their tricks! Because you know what? Their appeal can be very subtle. It can sound on the surface like a good thing, and it’s easy for a church and church members to fall for it. Been there, done that. I used to be a proponent of some of this stuff. Thank God for his forgiveness and for helping me to see things better. And it can happen to any of us. What we’re looking for in the church may not be what God wants us to look for. The answer, of course, is to repent and receive God’s forgiveness, which he gives to us freely, for Christ’s sake. God help us to rethink things from the perspective of his Word, so that the doctrine and practice of the church remain faithful to his purposes.

The church back then, the temple in Jerusalem, had gotten off track. They had gotten away from God’s purpose of the forgiveness of sins. So Jesus goes and shakes things up, like a prophet of God. Yes, and more than a prophet. As I say, Jesus marches in there and acts like he owns the place. He even calls the temple “my Father’s house.” Jesus is claiming a unique relationship to God, one that gives him authority to act in the way he does.

This catches the attention of the Jewish leaders. They challenge Jesus’ authority. They demand a sign, an outward display of divine power. Jesus refuses. Their demand for a sign came from their unbelief. Jesus tells them the only sign they’re going to get from him is a sign of judgment: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

Whoa! Jesus is laying down the gauntlet! He’s challenging them right back. And woe, w-o-e! Jesus pronounces woe on these unbelieving, hard-hearted religious leaders. For they will reject him, the only Son of God. They will kill him, in fact. And so judgment will fall on Jerusalem and on the temple that was their bread-and-butter, their base of power. And fall it did. Within a generation, the Roman army would lay siege to Jerusalem and destroy the temple in the year 70, never to be rebuilt. The destruction of the temple–the physical temple in Jerusalem, the building–serves as a sign, a permanent warning against the stiff-necked unbelief that rejects God’s Son sent from heaven.

But is the physical temple, the one made of stones, the temple Jesus is talking about? The Jewish leaders thought he was talking about the physical temple, the grand stone structure that Herod the Great had started an ambitious renovation and expansion project on some 46 years earlier. How in the world was Jesus going to tear that down and raise it back up in three days? But really, the temple Jesus was talking about was his own body. “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” “Yes, Jewish leaders, you Pharisees and Sadducees and chief priests, you will hate me and reject me and even kill me, but you will not thwart God’s plan.”

In fact, that is exactly how God’s plan will be carried out. Again, it comes back to the forgiveness of sins. For what all those bulls and goats and sheep were pointing ahead to is now going to be fulfilled in Christ. He is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The Lamb of God–the final one, the once-and-for-all sacrifice for all sin for all people for all time. He’s the one who will put the temple out of business, for he is the one the temple was pointing ahead to. Christ comes, and the old temple is no longer needed.

“Destroy this temple,” Jesus says, namely, my body, “and I will raise it again in three days.” Good Friday and Easter–those great and momentous days we are aiming for here during Lent–Good Friday and Easter are when these words of Jesus will come to pass. “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” Christ’s death and resurrection: a dreadful sign of judgment and woe for the unbelieving religious leaders who had perverted God’s purpose. But that same death and resurrection for us who believe in Christ: a wonderful sign of forgiveness and everlasting life! If you need a sign, my friends, a sign to show you Jesus’ authority, it is the sign of the cross. That’s the sign that Jesus has the authority to forgive your sins! And the resurrection of Christ is the sign that you who are baptized into Christ–that your body likewise will be raised at the last day!

March Madness: My friends, Jesus is not mad at you–not in March or in any other month! Like a prophet of God–indeed, as the very Son of God, zealous for his Father’s house–Christ will continue to drive out unscrupulous merchants from the temple, so that the church will remain true to God’s purpose. And that purpose, dear friends, is to give to you and to all people the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name.

Published in: on March 6, 2021 at 11:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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