Friends, I want you to picture a car. Any car will do, but you can only choose one. In fact, go with the first car that came to mind when you heard the word “car.”
Now, how many of you chose an SUV? Raise your hand. How many pictured a truck? Raise your hand. How many pictured a van? Raise your hand. How many pictured a convertible? Raise your hand. How many pictured something else entirely (midsize, compact, John Deere Tractor or whatever else)?
So consider that for a moment. The word car alone can conjure up all sorts of different images. And even those who pictured the same kind of car were probably visualizing different models, or different manufacturers, or likely even a different color.
Alright, now here’s round two. I want you to picture Jesus. I want you to imagine what he looked like, and not just his physical features, but I also want you to imagine what he’s doing as you picture him, and picture his demeanor and facial expression as well.
Chances are, just like it was with the word car, the name of Jesus conjures up all sorts of different images, many of them wonderful and glorious and in many ways accurate.
And yet I sometimes fear that when people think of Jesus, someone like this comes to mind. (show Bob Ross photo)
Alright, will someone over the age of 40 please tell us who this is … (Bob Ross)
Bob Ross for many years had this show on PBS where he would paint a painting all while guiding and instructing the viewer to join in and paint along with him from home, with this quiet and soothing voice, with soft little lullabies almost lulling you to sleep.
And this is who I sometimes think we have in mind when we think about Jesus. A Jesus meek and mild, who’s over painting fuzzy little trees with Bob Ross.
And this idea of Jesus kind of holds up, when we read about Jesus who so tenderly puts his hands upon the sick to heal them or when he welcomes the little children and says, “Let the little children come to me.”
And yet, can you imagine this guy turning over the tables at the temple? Seriously, there’s no way. Our story today almost conjures up images of Jesus as Indiana Jones or straight out of an episode of Chuck Norris: Walker Texas Ranger.
And you all, this is what I love and find so compelling about this Jesus. He defies almost all of our images, he confounds our expectations, shatters our categories, he challenges our assumptions as to who he really is. And out of all the stories in all of the gospels, this story, where Jesus turns over the tables in the temple might challenge our understanding of Jesus more than any other.
So let’s get after it. We’re going to focus on two questions and two questions only today, questions that will on one hand help us understand the story itself then just as importantly, help us understand how it all applies to us today.
And so here’s the first question:
Why is Jesus so angry?
In other words, what compels this man to turn over the tables in the temple?
Truth is, if you’re anything like me, my anger is often both unjustified and undignified. I get angry for the wrong reasons and then say or do foolish things in my anger. But yet, not Jesus. When Jesus gets angry, he gets angry about things that are worth getting angry about and his anger is always expressed in such a way that he does not sin.
And so to understand what’s going on here, to understand what’s got Jesus so angry, we first need to talk ever so briefly about the temple.
The temple, simply put, was where a faithful, religious person would go to worship. It’s where you went to be in the presence of God. And yet, there’s slightly more to it than that …
Within the temple there was the sacrificial system, centered around animal sacrifices and mediated by the temple priests.
And central to this sacrificial system is the idea of atonement – essentially each Jewish person would bring an animal sacrifice of some kind, the priest would then take it to the center of the temple, into the Holy of Holies, it would be an animal that would then cover over their sins, effectively saying, this animal stands in my place, it died the death I should have died.
And now with that in mind – a religious person, who would be offering regular sacrifices throughout the year, would need to get the two things that are hinted at in this story 1) get ahold the temple currency from the money changers and 2) then go over to the benches of those selling doves to purchase an animal that could be sacrificed.
And here we begin to get at the root of the problem – those who are running this whole temple operation are making it very difficult and nearly impossible for people to worship and be in the presence of God, all while benefiting and making themselves rich in the process.
Here’s what I mean: First, there are the money changers. You’ve got to exchange your currency for the special Temple currency and then use some of it to pay the temple tax. So from the start you’re already in the hole and so it’s kind of, sort of, not really like exchanging your dollar for the pound in Britain anytime in years past.
Secondly, you’ve got to purchase a dove. And you’re definitely going to want to buy that dove inside the temple because your sacrifice is only good if the animal doesn’t have a defect. And shoot, if you travel with an animal, much less a bird, it might get scratched or fly away or get eaten alive, rendering your sacrifice null and void. And so you would want to buy your animal in the temple.
And yet, what’s a possible consequence here - What can you do as a business when you’ve got control of the market?
Well, of course, you can jack up the prices and charge a small fortune. Folks, this is one reason why airport food is so dang expensive. Location, location, location.
So we’ve got this notorious dove monopoly going on here and the sellers are taking advantage of the system. And so Jesus says to these guys, “you’ve made this place a den of robbers.”
And so this is really, really bad. But yet it’s even worse than that! These guys, as the passage says, are selling in the temple courts, the one place in the Temple that the foreigners, the Gentiles, the people who don’t know much if anything about God, yet want to worship God are allowed to worship. These foreigners are trying to pray and worship and be in the presence of God and yet they’re distracted by all the commotion surrounding them. And so you can imagine - they’re trying to pray and all they can hear is a guy in the corner yelling about how he claims to have a 2 for 10 special on doves! This is why Jesus also says, “My house will be a house of prayer.”
And so to recap - those who are selling are 1) robbing the faithful, religious people, charging a fortune as they try to worship God as they’ve been instructed to 2) making it virtually impossible, making it painfully difficult for the foreigners, the newcomers to worship and encounter God for possibly the very first time.
I mean, this is so, so bad on so many levels. And understandably so, Jesus is not just going to stand by passively and watch this unfold. And so he’s flipping over tables, you’ve got money scattered across the ground, doves flapping their wings in the air. Jesus clears the temple.
People who say they believe in God are making it difficult, putting up barriers for other people to worship Him and experience Him, all while benefiting and making themselves rich in the process.
So, what do you think, is that something worth getting angry over? Well, yeah, you better believe it. Jesus gets angry and rightfully so, for people’s worship is at stake all while exploitation is taking place.
And now with all that established, we’re ready to turn the corner to question number two, and that is,
What does this all mean for you and me?
In other words, what’s the warning and caution here for you and me? What would make Jesus angry here at our church? What literal or metaphorical tables would we find him flipping over?
Or maybe more simply put, where do we put up barriers for people to worship and experience Jesus ourselves?
Well, first let’s briefly take one point of application off the table here.
Occasionally, you’ll come across those who say that Jesus here is condemning the exchange of goods and services or commercialization of any kind in a sacred space or house of worship. This I think extends the application of this passage way too far.
For example, a couple months ago we were selling Advent Blocks and Swags downstairs in our Fellowship Hall. Do you think Jesus would walk in these doors and flip over those tables? I don’t think so. And I think the reason is rather simple and boils down to this:
Does the exchange of goods and services distract people in their worship of God or enhance it? In this case, it of course, enhances it. They increase our enjoyment of God.
In addition, nothing being sold here is sold with the intent of making a handsome profit or for exploitive gain. Now, if we were selling blocks and swags for $500 a pop and forcing you to do so, then that’s a different situation altogether.
But the point is this, this story is not a referendum on the exchange of money, goods and services writ large in a house of worship.
Nevertheless, we still need to think thoughtfully and carefully about ways in which we put up barriers, ways in which we distract people and keep them from experiencing Jesus, from experiencing the very presence of God.
For example, I’m going to tell on myself here. I like to greet you all and shake hands with you all before worship, even during the prelude. Now, what would Jesus do about that? I’m not totally sure. Now am I greeting people because I’m looking to get rich like the temple leadership once did? No. But am I distracting people in their worship, creating commotion in a house of prayer. Maybe. This passage has really got me re-thinking this one and I’d welcome your thoughts after the service.
Those are a couple reflections, here’s another. Consider the use of Powerpoint and the screen. I know some people love it, others don’t, others are wildly indifferent. Here’s why I love it; we're effectively removing barriers, removing obstacles between people being able to worship God. For example, consider the Gloria Patri and the Lord’s Prayer. If you’re a child or if you didn’t grow up going to church, there’s no reason you’d know the words. In fact, chances are you’ve heard me tell the story about the kids who thought the first part of the Lord’s Prayer was: “Our Father, who art in heaven, how’d you know my name?” And so, why the screen? We’re removing barriers and obstacles to worship between people and Jesus. And chances are the person sitting next to you has mustered up every ounce of courage to be here today, I want to remove any obstacle I can. Now, to be clear, that’s not an absolute. The church of Jesus Christ will be just fine screen or no screen, that’s just a little insight as to how I think about it.
Alright, one more reflection here. Let’s talk about hospitality in general. One of the greatest strengths of this congregation is just how warm and welcoming you all are and I want to encourage you all specifically in one area here. And that is after the service make it a priority to introduce yourself and say hello to someone you don’t know. In other words, prioritize the guest over the close friend. In fact, if after an upcoming service a friend comes up to you wanting to catch up and you see someone new walking out the door or standing by themselves, I want you to say, “Hey, let’s catch up later alright.” I want to do a better job of this myself and you are more than welcome to hold me accountable to it. The reason why is so incredibly important and the way in which this ties into our sermon is that one of the biggest obstacles and barriers to people worshiping with God and finding a relationship with Jesus is that because they can sometimes find the church to be cold and inhospitable and they never come back. People are craving for community. So let’s make it all the easier to worship and experience Jesus and to consider life with him.
Alright, we’ve talked about what this passage meant to God’s people back then and we’ve also talked about what this passage means for God’s people today. And now, let’s ever so slowly wrap things up by getting outside of these four walls, outside of this modern day temple that we know as the church or the sanctuary. Because I want you to see here that Jesus is doing something way bigger than trying to restore the temple to its original purpose. And here’s what I mean by that …
We need to see this passage in light of the entire story of the bible and the role of the temple in the Christian life today.
In the not too distant past, Jesus said crazy things like, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’ For some reason, this guy is calling himself the temple.
And now on a Monday morning Jesus comes in and clears the temple. And four days later, on Good Friday, Jesus dies on a cross. And there’s this sneaky little verse as Jesus takes his final breath, where it says, “And the curtain of the temple, the curtain at the entrance of the Holy of Holies, was torn in two.”
What’s going on here? Well it’s this - Jesus, God in the flesh, the presence of God himself, walks into the temple on Monday and on Friday, stands in as our priest and becomes the atoning sacrifice.
You all, when Jesus flips over the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves he is literally and symbolically putting an end to the temple and everything it stands for, the priests, the sacrifices, all of it. It’s over. To quote an old Queen Latifah movie, Jesus Christ is literally and symbolically bringing down the house.
You all, Jesus is the one and only true temple of God. The presence of God has nothing to do with architecture or geography.
You all, Jesus is our great high priest who steps in as the mediator between us and God.
You all, Jesus is our atoning sacrifice. Through his sacrifice and our faith in him, Jesus covers over past sins or your guilt and shame.
And then check this out, years later, as Paul is reflecting on all this, he even ups the ante a bit. He says that through the power of the Holy Spirit, you and I, the church become the temple of God, God’s presence living in us.
You all, the presence of God is found in the people of God.
Which means that this story is about so much more than how we conduct ourselves here surrounded by these four walls. It’s about all of life. It’s about the people of God bringing the very presence of God wherever we live, work, play or learn, wherever Jesus calls us to go.
And it puts before us this massive, climactic question. In every aspect of our life, from Sunday morning to Sunday morning, through our words and our actions, through our very lives, are we putting up barriers and obstacles that will keep people far and distant from Jesus and their worship of him or are we living such joyful, sacrificial, countercultural lives of faith that people can’t help but want to get to know Jesus more?
Oh goodness, may it be the latter, may it be so, may it be so.