The Third Sunday in Lent

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“The Temple of God”

John 2:13-22

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild?  More like angry Jesus, violent and wild.  He comes to the Jerusalem Temple for one of the three high feast days of the Jewish calendar, and what He finds causes Him to do a little spring cleaning in His Father’s House.  Jesus becomes, literally, the scourge of the money-changers and sellers of sacrificial animals.  He causes a stampede of cattle and sheep and no doubt some of the money-changers felt a whistle of whipping air at their backs.  “Get these things out of here!  Stop making the house of My Father a house of business!” (John 2:16).  The temple had one purpose: to be the place of God’s gracious presence.  From His appearances to the Hebrew patriarchs, to the burning bush, to the mountain of Sinai; from the tabernacle in the wilderness, to Solomon’s temple, to the temple built by returned exiles, to this Herodian temple, God had always chosen to be present among His people in specific and physical ways.  But unlike the gods of the surrounding nations, Yahweh instructed His people about how and where He would be present with them; Israel could never choose how and where to worship God, like making a golden calf and calling it “Yahweh.”  No, God would tell them where and how to worship; particularly in the book of Exodus, He is very specific about the dimensions, materials, and furnishings for His tabernacle.

Then Solomon built a temple for Yahweh, though he knew that “heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain [God]; how much less this house that I have built” (1 Kings 8:27, ESV)!  Nevertheless, God had promised that His Name would be present in the temple (8:29), and wherever the Name of God is, God Himself is present to save, forgive, and instruct (8:31ff.).  But the people, including Solomon himself, rejected the instruction of Yahweh, and the prophecy of 1 Kings 9 was carried out: “…then I will cut off Israel from the land that I have given them, and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight…And this house will become a heap of ruins” (1 Kings 9:7-9, ESV).  So it happened, in 586 BC, as the Babylonians destroyed the city and made exiles of the people.  But God did not leave the remnant of His exiled people without a place of His presence forever.  He used a pagan king, Cyrus, to restore a temple on the foundation of Solomon’s ruined temple.  But after 500 years, again the people rejected Yahweh’s instruction (Daniel 11:30; 1 Maccabees 1:11-16), again the temple was defiled, partially fulfilling Daniel’s prophecy (11:31; 12:11).  Finally, Herod the Great built an opulent temple, which was in Jerusalem during the life of Jesus.  And it was from this temple that Jesus drove out those legitimate businessmen, approved by the religious leaders.[1] Jesus appears to fly off the handle without warning, completely unprovoked.  Jesus’ whip-wielding is offensive enough to those who disdain all forms of violence, but it is not the most offensive part of this account.  The most offensive, as we can see from the response of the Jews who question Jesus, is that the newly-cleansed temple was done as far as the presence and worship of God was concerned.  “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it,” Jesus says (John 2:19).  To restore Herod’s temple in three days sounded absurd enough, and would itself require divine power.  But St. John tells us what Jesus was really talking about: “He said that concerning the temple of His body.  Then, when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that he said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus said” (John 2:21-22).

No longer will that or any other temple be the unconditional location of God’s presence with His people.  There will be no end-times restoration of the temple and the sacrifices.  The temple is obsolete; that one particular building in Jerusalem, to which all God’s people were supposed to go, or at least turn toward when they prayed, had ceased to be the place of worship.  “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23, ESV).  Thus says Jesus, anointed with the Spirit, who says, “I am the Truth;” Jesus, the new and final Temple; the unconditional location of God’s presence with His people.  “The Word became flesh and dwelled-tented! tabernacled!-among us” (John 1:14).  Just as Yahweh chose to dwell in the tabernacle in the wilderness; just as He chose to dwell in the temples built by human hands; now He chooses to dwell among His people in the Man, Jesus.  But God is not just present in the Man, God is the Man; the Man is God.  God had long been present in fire and cloud, on ark and altar, but never had He been present in this specific and physical way, so that St. Paul could write: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…in him the whole fullness of the deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 1:19; 2:9, ESV).  This is an offense to anyone who thinks that the infinite God cannot possibly be present in the finite stuff of creation; as well as to Jews and Muslims, who cannot believe God as a Man or that the God-Man could die.  But that Temple, the full and holy presence of God as Man, God with man, was destroyed.  The scourge He used to empty the temple of business disguised as worship was used to empty Him of His blood.  By the time the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, it was irrelevant, because the Temple of God had already been destroyed by the Romans 30-some years earlier on a cross.  Zeal for His Father’s House consumed Him, as He allowed Himself to be swallowed by death.  But then the fulfillment of His promise: the Lord raised His own bodily Temple after three days, never to be destroyed again.  That is why the curtain of the temple was torn in two, opening the way into the Most Holy Place.  That is why we have access to God through the body of Christ, why we “have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus,” and why we can “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:19, 22, ESV).

But we draw near to God only through the body of Christ.  We are not free to seek God outside of Jesus.  We are not free to seek God in ourselves, or in Mother Earth, or in politicians, governments, or economies.  We are not free to worship Him however we see fit, with our golden calves of contradictory doctrines and practices that contradict our doctrine.  We are not free to turn the House of God into a marketplace, where the best advertising, the most consumer services, and smooth, business-like efficiency will bring in the most “customers,” to whom we can sell our “product.”  All those temples will be destroyed, and their idols with them.  God will be present to save, forgive, and instruct only in Jesus, and only where Jesus has promised to be: in His holy Word, in His Baptism, in His Absolution, and in His Supper.  And where He is present in those ways, He is present to make and preserve His Church.  That is why we call them the “marks” of the Church: they alone show us infallibly where the Church is present, because they show us where Christ is present.  And where Christ is present in His Church, there is grace.  Unconditional grace for you and grace for me: grace for us, who have made the Divine Service of God into a law about what we are to do, rather than a gift of God for our salvation; for us, who have not followed the disciples’ example of an uncomplicated trust that Jesus is who He says and does what He promises; for us, who say that we do not need to be in the Lord’s House because we can just as well hear His Word and worship Him at other times and in other places.  But if we say that, we should be ready to ask the hard questions: do we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest His Word at home, with our families?  Do we pray and teach our children to pray?  Do we encourage our children, our families, our friends to come and find Jesus where He has promised to be found?  But how can we do those things if we are not at the eternal Temple of God’s Presence, His Son, Jesus.  Our private and individual devotion, our love for others, always flows out of our public and corporate communion with Jesus and with His Body, the Church.  It is here, where Christ is in His preached Word and in His sacramental service, that there is grace-for us, who crucified and destroyed the Temple with our sin, and who daily defile our own selves, which are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:18-20).  Here there is grace, as Jesus by His bodily Temple cleanses our bodily temples with His absolving Word.  Here there is grace, as we receive a foretaste of that glorious and eternal City, which has no temple because “its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Revelation 21:22, ESV).  O God, “Blessed is the one you choose and bring near, to dwell in your courts!  We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, the holiness of your temple!” (Psalm 65:4, ESV).

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).  Amen.

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/11/09

[1] This and some of the following thoughts borrow from Joel D. Biermann’s “Homiletical Help” for Lent 3 in Concordia Journal 35:1 (Winter 2009), 77-79.


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