The Temple Most Real

John 2:13-22 (NRSV)

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.

The Passover of the Jews was near … “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

The story of the cleansing of the temple is so important that we hear versions of it in all four gospels. In John, this cleansing happens early in Jesus’ ministry, just after he has performed his first miracle, changing water into wine. In the synoptic gospels, the cleansing comes late, and is seen as one important trigger bringing about Jesus’ execution.

The scene in John is a crowded one. People came from all over Israel for the Jewish Passover, and just like today, where there was a crowd, there was money to be made. For Jesus, the problem was that business had spilled into the outer precincts of the temple itself, which of course served as the home of God among his people.

Two basic commercial acts were going on. First, animals needed for sacrifice were for sale. Most travelers did not bring animals with them for the journey. Second, Roman and other foreign coins had to be exchanged for Jewish coins if they were to be used in the temple, along the lines of how we might exchange dollars for euros or yen when traveling today.

We can assume that with high demand came high prices and inflated exchange rates, although that may have been a mere side issue for Jesus in this version of the story. The very presence of commercialism in this holy place was what ultimately disturbed him.

Jesus’ response was certainly aggressive. People sometimes cite this passage as evidence of God acting in anger, but as I read it, it seems Jesus took his time to devise a calculated plan. We’re told he made a whip of cords to aid driving the larger animals—fashioning such a device would have taken a few minutes, at least.

There’s also no evidence humans were endangered in this dramatic cleansing, although I do imagine the moneychangers bruising their knees as they scrambled to recover their coins bouncing and rolling across the pavement. It’s an ironic posture for people who were being irreverent before God just a few minutes earlier.

This story of cleansing raises an interesting question for us. Do we ever go too far in letting worldly desires, passions, and objects enter into our sacred spaces? What about worldly ideas? What is among us as we worship that might keep us from properly revering God?

His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

Jesus was a good Jew, and the temple represented the primary way God had related to the “chosen people,” the Israelites, for thousands of years. Because of sin, even the people of Israel had difficulty with the idea of being in God’s direct presence, preferring instead to have him symbolically housed in some way, with God’s permission and according to God’s instruction, of course. (This is another example of God meeting us where we are.)

Early in their history, while escaping slavery in Egypt, the Israelites had seen and heard from God more directly, experiencing him in the form of fire and smoke, earthquakes, terrifying trumpet sounds and a thunderous voice. God had spoken his commandments out loud to them, but the people then asked for an intermediary, telling Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”

Later in Exodus, this need for separation led to an elaborate tabernacle, a portable holy place where God could be among his people and yet separated from them enough for their comfort. Centuries after taking and occupying the Holy Land, the Israelites established a temple in Jerusalem as a more resilient expression of God’s house, replacing the portable tabernacle. (The first link details King David’s desire for a temple and God’s response. You also might want to take time to read the account in 2 Chronicles 3 of the construction begun by David’s son, King Solomon.)

By Jesus’ day, the Israelites were on their second temple, the first one having been destroyed in an invasion. Like the tabernacle before it, the temple became holier and holier as one moved deeper into it, until one finally reached the Holy of Holies, considered the abode of God, a place where only the high priest could enter once a year.

The “zeal” quote is a reference to Psalm 69:9, a prophetic statement about the Jewish messiah. Obviously, Jesus cared deeply for this great expression of God’s holiness in the midst of the humans he was trying to save from sin.

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.” … 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.

As much as Jesus cared for the temple as a Jew, he also knew his very presence marked a change in how humanity would relate to God. Where the tabernacle and temples had symbolically represented God’s presence, Jesus, God in flesh, literally existed to be God’s direct contact with his unholy creation.

Of course, for the relationship to be maintained, a path to holiness for all people had to be created. The Gospel of John indicates that even early in his ministry, Jesus knew where he was headed.

The Jewish leaders, in ways they could never imagine, did tear down the temple, with help from Pontius Pilate and the Roman guards’ whips, nails and cross. And crucified Jesus, working with the authority of the Father and the power of the Holy Spirit, did rebuild the temple most real in three days, through the act we now call the resurrection, making the temple of his body indestructible.

This is the great work of history, the path to eternal life and holiness for all of us no matter how sinful we are. We hear this story of tearing down and rebuilding, we understand how much God loves us, and we believe, making salvation our own.

Eternity is ours, and from the temple now in heaven, God’s Spirit flows forth on his redeemed, sustaining us until we see God’s glory in full.

The featured image is Luca Giordano’s “Expulsion of the Moneychangers from the Temple,” circa 1675.

A Most Dangerous Sermon

In the seventh chapter of Acts, we hear the kind of sermon that can get a preacher killed.

A little background on the first Christian martyr: Stephen’s job was to handle more mundane tasks so others would have time to preach. His job was to ensure food was distributed fairly among the church’s needy. And yet, the Holy Spirit had a firm grip on him, working “wonders and signs among the people” as Stephen went about his tasks. In Christ’s kingdom, there are no small jobs.

Despite being primarily a broker of bread, Stephen quickly ended up before a council of Jewish synagogue leaders to answer for his miracles and his declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. When asked by the high priest, “Are these things so,” Stephen seized the moment.

I would encourage you to read Acts 7 in its entirety. It is a powerful sermon, one in which the preacher is fully aware of his listeners and their blind spots. In short, Stephen:

  • Started with the story of Abraham, reminding these Jews of how their history was rooted in great faithfulness, a long-term trust that God keeps his promises.
  • Moved on to how the Israelites ended up in Egypt, rescued there from hunger by God’s servant Joseph and slavery by God’s servant Moses, with God’s faithfulness demonstrated across the centuries.
  • Continued with how unfaithful the Israelites were in the desert, causing them to wander for 40 years, until finally a new generation was able to enter the Holy Land and take it from unholy people. Stephen then reminded these Jews of how the Israelites became a great nation, this part of his sermon seeming to peak with Solomon’s construction of a “dwelling place” for God, the temple in Jerusalem.

Throughout this sermon, a man in charge of a first-century Meals on Wheels program kept reminding powerful leaders that their history taught them one was to come who would bring all of God’s promises to fruition. Then the sermon got personal.

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do,” Stephen said. “Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers.”

Talk about getting right to the point, a point the Jews were not willing to accept. The Jews rushed Stephen and stoned him to death, but not before he declared a vision of heaven, one in which Jesus stood at the right hand of God.

One would almost think Stephen was suicidal, except for a fact Scripture makes clear. Stephen was in full communion with God’s Spirit, letting God guide him every step of the way and word-by-word in his sermon. Because of that, I also have to assume there was a genuine opportunity for this audience to understand Jesus to be their messiah.

I’m left a little disturbed by this story. How can so many American Christians be hesitant to speak openly of our faith? Any repercussions we may face are, at worst, mild in comparison to being stoned to death. Are we really that disconnected from the Spirit?

And at the same time, I’m encouraged. In Stephen’s story, we see that a deep relationship with God can give us the strength to do remarkable work, even while executing church tasks that may seem incredibly mundane. Somebody’s got to cook and deliver the food; somebody’s got to drive the bus; somebody’s got to trim the hedges; somebody’s got to clear the septic lines when they clog. The key is to be alert for opportunities to declare Jesus Christ Lord and Savior when doing these things.

Walk with God. Be ready, be willing, and the Holy Spirit will do the rest.


Wind in Our Sails: Our Gifts

The third mast of our Lenten ship brings us to the subject of gifts.

We have many gifts to offer God; certainly, we’re giving gifts back to God and our neighbors when we use our time and talents to spread the love of Jesus Christ. Those gifts tie more directly to the idea of service, however, and we’ll talk about service next week.

Today, I want us to return to a topic we discussed in January, our financial gifts. By the way, I should once again say thanks. We’ve started off the year on a positive financial note, with your tithes and offerings exceeding your expenditures by about $5,000 so far. If the trend continues through the rest of the year, it’s going to be much easier to expand our outreach to people who need to know Christ.

I don’t want us having an extended conversation about numbers today, however. During this Lenten season, as we talk about prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness, we’re talking about matters of the heart, or perhaps “habits of the heart” would be a better phrase, if I can borrow a title from an important book published in 1985.

In our Scripture reading today, Mark 12:41-44, Jesus pointed out the very heart of giving by showing us a poor widow making her offering at Jerusalem’s temple. Specifically, she was in the part of the temple known as the treasury, located in the Women’s Court, as deep into the temple as women were allowed to go.

Here, rich and poor men and women mingled, making their offerings by pouring them into what looked like 13 brass trumpets, their bells upturned like funnels. The handfuls of valuable Jewish silver shekels from the rich would have rattled mightily going in, drawing attention to the wealthy givers.

In contrast, the copper clink of the widow’s two almost worthless coins would have been either lost in the din or perhaps even laughable to some, if she were unfortunate enough to drop them in during a moment of quiet.

And yet Jesus told his disciples, “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Clearly, when we talk about gifts, it’s not just about the number of digits following a dollar sign. The widow’s gift is a financial expression of deep love for God regardless of her particular situation. (I wonder what her mansion in heaven must look like; surely it is one of the biggest ones on the highest hill.)

In an ideal world, the widow who gave her all would have had nothing to worry about. At the foundations of Jewish society was the principle that the least in society—the orphans, the widows, the landless wanderers, the poor—were to receive care from those more blessed. In particular, the people in charge of the temple system, making proper use of the resources flowing through it, should have guaranteed this woman had nothing to fear.

We do not live in an ideal world, however. Back up a few verses in Mark, and you can see the problem in Jesus’ day. In Mark 12:38-40, Jesus denounces the scribes, lawyer-like bureaucrats who worked the religious system to their advantage. In particular, Jesus noted, “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”

For a modern analogy, think of silk-suited televangelists who pick and choose Bible verses to build a convincing argument that the elderly poor and others should write checks to them.¹ Scribes used Jewish law in a similar way, selectively choosing and interpreting rules to tell widows the additional burdens they needed to bear. Those brass funnels in the treasury turned into black holes, with bureaucrats on the receiving end sucking up the money so it never emerged to help those in need.

The system could have worked if those with plenty had maintained hearts for those without. Instead, the rich used religion to show off.

The system could have worked if those running it had stayed true to their calling, remembering that the core of Jewish law was to love God with all your heart, mind and strength, and to love your neighbors as yourself.

These principles for giving and using gifts wisely remain the same today. I asked you in January to make percentage pledges based on how you felt God was leading you, using pledge cards that you took home. If you’re still considering that pledge or want to reconsider it, I’ll give you another piece of guidance.

Make your giving decisions when your heart is full of love for God. That may be during a particularly fulfilling moment in worship or in prayer, or simply at a time when you feel blessed. It even could be during a low moment—I know that might sound strange, but it often is in our lowest moments when we’re most sensitive to how much God loves us.

Remember what Christ has done to relieve us of the burden of sin. Like the widow he watched in the treasury, Jesus gave his all. Don’t give because I say so; I’m just Chuck. Give because you truly understand who God is and what God is doing in the world.

I’ll also tell you when not to give. If you ever think this church has stopped doing Christ’s work, don’t give it another penny. I don’t think anyone can legitimately make that complaint right now, though; there’s just too much good being done here in Christ’s name. We may disagree on strategies and priorities from time to time, but the leadership of this church, and most of its membership, I dare say, understand why we exist.

If you give with loving hearts, and if the church continues to use those gifts to reach out with loving hearts, the Kingdom of God will expand because of the people at Cassidy UMC.


¹I had a fascinating experience while writing this sermon. I needed to get away somewhere quiet, so I went down the street to Warriors Path State Park and wound up sitting in the grill at the marina. While there, two middle-aged women and a much younger woman began talking rather loudly about their opinion of preachers. (I was not dressed like the stereotype of a preacher, instead wearing hiking pants and a baseball jersey.)

“I just don’t trust them,” one of the older ladies said. “I believe in God, but I don’t go to church.”

A big part of her complaint was that she thought preachers were too well-off, citing one she knew “living in the big house with the rich people.” (Even as grateful as I am for the house this church provides its pastor, I don’t think she was describing the Cassidy UMC parsonage.)

Apparently, we all need to spend more time at the grill, and I look forward to getting to know these ladies better.

Silenced by the Lamb

Matthew 22:15-22

The danger in setting a trap, particularly one designed to kill, is that it can close on the hand putting it in place. You can watch one snap back on the Jewish leaders who tried to trap Jesus.

The trap to which I refer is a question in Matthew 22:15-22, one designed to make Jesus appear either a traitor to the emperor—a crime punishable by death—or a collaborator unworthy of his populist following.

To follow what’s happening here, we first have to understand where Jesus is in the gospel story. He has entered Jerusalem in a parody of a conqueror’s parade, riding a donkey instead of a stallion. He has cleansed the temple of the merchants exploiting poor worshipers.

He also has told a series of parables that are quite deliberate about insulting the Jewish leaders. He paints them as hypocrites who have ignored the will of God.

In short, Jesus is near the end of his ministry and headed toward the cross. Knowing this, he boldly makes a clear distinction between how the world is working and how God wants it to work. And the clarity of the message has made these leaders very, very angry.

In the “trap” story, some unlikely partners emerge, bound by a sense that Jesus is a common threat to their positions. Some of them are disciples of the Pharisees, a strict, legalistic Jewish sect with significant political power; others are Herodians, highly secularized Jews who openly work with the Roman Empire as part of the puppet King Herod’s court.

After flattering Jesus, they ask him a straightforward question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

By “lawful,” they mean “correct under Jewish law.” Paying taxes to the Empire raised all sorts of problems for Jews, the biggest being that taxes could be paid only with official Roman coins, all of which bore the image of a deified emperor. To many Jews, using such coins meant violating at least two commandments.

In response, Jesus asks for such a coin. (Underscoring the hypocrisy behind the test, someone apparently has one handy. The image of another “god” has been carried into the temple by a Jew!) Noting whose head is stamped on the coin, Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Jesus’ questioners are “amazed” and slip away from the scene, Matthew tells us.

This text sometimes is preached as evidence that the state must exist alongside the church—that somehow Jesus predicted our need to pay both taxes and tithes. To go down that path is to miss the reasons for amazement, however.

Jesus first of all has shown great wisdom in sidestepping their trap, looking like neither a traitor nor a collaborator with his response. But more importantly, Jesus’ answer confronts those who hear it with what theologian Stanley Hauerwas calls an “insoluble problem.”

As followers of the living, redemptive God, can we really offer parts of ourselves to other powers that demand our allegiance? Even if those powers threaten us, should we not avoid what opposes God’s will?

It seems to me that if we are among the things that belong to God, then we need to give ourselves to God totally.

I know—easy to say, hard to do. Compromise just seems like part of life. I can give you a common example we see repeatedly in the Christian community.

I’m not one to argue that Sundays should somehow be jealously guarded by society. I don’t think the old “blue laws” that once forced the closure of shops and restaurants on Sunday were a good idea. No one should have Christian beliefs imposed on them.

But at the same time, I’m disturbed at how flippant Christians are becoming regarding Sundays, particularly when sports are involved. I hear this casualness about worship and fellowship voiced along these lines: “Well, we would have loved to be with y’all, but the big professional or college game/kids’ game/cheerleading competititon/practice/other sports event interfered.”

And I’m not talking about an occasional outing. It’s the excuse made weeks and months on end for being absent from Christian fellowship. The sporting world wants Sunday morning for its own; Christians acquiesce.

Christians, just say “no.” Enough of us remain that the sporting world will modify its schedules when we choose worship and fellowship instead.

To avoid despair in the face of Jesus’ challenge, we have to read Jesus’ temple test in the bigger picture of Matthew’s story. The Jewish leaders, in particular the Pharisees, do finally manage to trap Jesus, sending him to his death on a cross. There is no cleverness in the final trap they set. Anger trips the trigger; lies and betrayal serve as its jaws.

But God proves his supremacy, anyway. Nothing in this world, not even murderous evil, can overcome God’s plan to remake a broken world.

Thus, Christ’s resurrection from death; thus, resurrection and eternal life for those who follow Christ. And in the resurrection, Christ solves what seemed insoluble by setting all things under him, even the emperors of the world and their coliseums.