Sermon, Lent III

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.


Last month a friend of mine and I went up to the city, New York City, to make a tour of several of the midtown churches. We spent a lot of time at St. Mary the Virgin in Times Square: the organist was practicing as we slowly walked the chapels, and he blessed us with some calm and slow music while we knelt in front of the Blessed Sacrament. The organist was playing at St. Thomas’ as well, this time the music was a bit more upbeat for our time in front of the tabernacle, and we spent the expected amount of time gazing at the saints and angels carved into St. Thomas’ amazing reredos. We decided to head over to St. Bart’s to admire her Byzantine architecture, and as we ascended the front steps I noted that St. Bart’s, even with all their money and size and programs, they too had a sandwich board out front on the sidewalk. So we reached the top of the steps, opened the door, and that’s when the trouble began. The first thing I saw when stepped inside was….wait for it…..a cash register.

St. John told just told us the story of the Cleansing of the Temple. Hearing that Jesus made a whip out of a handful of cords can be a bit jarring to us; the images of Jesus we have in here show Him to be an exceptionally well composed Baby, a gentle Shepherd, and a slightly hippy-ish man with incredibly long arms. A handful of cords made into a whip, the overturning of tables, the yelling and driving and chaos seem foreign to us. But Jesus acting this way didn’t seem to disturb the disciples that much; they seemed only shocked enough to recall the Scripture that says “Zeal for your house will consume me.” So let’s see if we can unpack some of this, let’s see if we can see what Jesus saw, see what made Jesus so angry.

St. John tells us that the Passover of the Jews was near, and that Jesus went with His disciples to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice in the Temple. It was required of every Jewish male to make at least one pilgrimage to the Temple for Passover in his lifetime, and even though we know that Jesus had made that trip before, St. John tells us that Jesus made the trip again, He walked the eighty or so miles from Capernaum for the Passover. Passover meant chaos in the city. Jerusalem was just not that big – the Old City was not even a half-mile square – and Lord only knows how many people were packed in, trying to get into the Temple to make their obligation. Jesus would have had to His way through the crowds, He probably met up with friends and family, He was probably recognized here and there as that guy who had turned water into wine at that one wedding back in Cana. To make sacrifice for the Passover, you had to either bring your sacrifice with you, risking that your dove or ox or whatever was not up to Temple standards, or buy the animal from the merchants at the Temple. This buying and selling took place in the Court of the Gentiles, the courtyard outside of the Temple proper, where just about anybody could walk around.

Now how many of you have ever been to Great Adventure or Disneyland or Madison Square Garden? Remember how a Coke cost like 37 dollars there? Same thing in the Temple courtyard, they got you. Now, historian Josephus informed us about the “bazaars of Annas.” Annas was high priest, and he had four sons and one son-in-law (Caiaphas) who were also high priests. This family made big money off the temple business. It was the biggest racket in town. The Jews would bring their Roman and Greek coins with images of the emperor, but such coins were inadmissible in the Temple because they were unclean due to the pagan images of the Caesars on those coins. Those coins with the image of Caesar would have to be exchanged for Jewish “kosher” coins. The money-changers made good profits off of these exchanges. Larger animals like oxen and sheep were bought and sold with the changed-out Temple coins, as were pigeons for the sacrifices for poorer people. The costs of sacrifices were inflated fifteen times. That is, a pilgrim would pay a dollar for a lamb outside the temple and fifteen dollars for a lamb inside the temple grounds, like paying a dollar for a hot dog on the street in the Bronx and fifteen dollars for a hot dog in Yankee Stadium. This practice was plain and simple extortion.*  In equivalent dollars of today, Annas had an annual 170 million dollar business going, roughly equivalent to the gross domestic product Micronesia or the actual cost of President Obama’s Inauguration.

The Temple had become a marketplace, perhaps a needed one, but a marketplace nonetheless. And not only a marketplace, but a courtyard of robbers, a den of thieves, a racket run by extortioners posing as priests. God’s anger had been kindled, and it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the Living God. St. John tells us that Jesus said that He “can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner. For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself does; and He will show Him greater works than these, that you may marvel. For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son, that all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father.” (John 5:19-23, with omits) The first thing Jesus saw when He mounted those steps and opened the proverbial door was a cash register. The Father’s anger was kindled, so His anger was kindled, zeal for His Father’s house consumed Him, a whip was made, and the marketplace was cleared, cleansed of those thieves who preyed on His people.

Throughout the Gospels we see that anyone can come to Jesus: “no matter what his background, no matter how far he has gone wrong, no matter how evil he has been — murderers, prostitutes, swindlers, liars, perverts, drunkards, self-righteous prigs, bitter, hard-hearted cynics, religious hypocrites, proud self-sufficient snobs — anyone who realizes there is something wrong in his life, that something has seized him, that sin has gripped him and introduced evil, hurt, pain and heartache, anyone who wants to be free can come to Jesus. “Come unto me all travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” But we also see that Jesus doesn’t leave us alone either. “Go and sin no more,” He says, Jesus gives us a chance to clean up our act, many chances, but if “we mistake that delay for acceptance, we are in for a surprise. If we refuse to deal with what He puts his finger on, (the sin that bothers our consciences), then one day we will find Him coming with flaming eyes and with a whip in his hand.”*

Yes, Jesus is that exceptionally well-composed Baby, He is the gentle Good Shepherd, He did in fact stretch out His arms of love on the hard wood of the Cross that everyone might come within the reach of His saving embrace. But the God of mercy is also the God of majesty and righteousness, and it is a fool’s game to tempt that majesty, that righteousness, that mercy. So today I ask you the same question I have asked myself: What is it in you that needs to be cleared, needs to be cleansed? Jesus can and will clear it, with grace and mercy or with fire and whip. I guess that’s our choice.

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

*Sermons from Seattle

*Ray C. Stedman

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