“God has left the building”
Last week, we talked about the Jewish hope for a Messiah that would come and restore the temple, overthrow Rome, and bring God’s justice. We looked specifically about how Jesus defied expectations by refusing to be involved in a uprising against Rome. This week, we’ll take a closer look at another Messianic hope: the restoration of the temple.
First, we need to understand what the temple was and its significance in Jewish worship. The purpose of the temple was twofold: it symbolized the presence of God with the people and it was a place where sacrifices were performed.
The temple was a visible symbol that God was where the people were. The people could look at the temple and know that God was in control. Of course, God was a powerful force that the people had a healthy fear of. God’s presence was concentrated in the holy of holies. No one could go in to that room except the high priest, once a year, because encountering God’s unmediated presence would mean certain death.
The temple also offered a means by which sins could be forgiven. The sacrificial system, established in Leviticus 1-3, allowed the restoration of the covenant relationship that was broken through sin. If you committed a sin or violated God’s law, you could come to the temple and make a sacrifice from the goods you had produced. Through that sacrifice, your relationship with God would be restored.
By the time of the Old Testament prophets, the original purpose of the temple had been obscured by corruption. Jeremiah noticed in his day that the temple had become a “den of robbers” (Jer. 7:11). Malachi foretold of a day when a messenger from God would come to restore the temple to its original purpose (Mal. 3). Isaiah envisioned this restored temple as a place where all people could come to pray and offer sacrifices (Isaiah 56:7).
By Jesus’ day, corruption in the temple had hindered its ability to function as a meaningful symbol of God’s presence and a place where the sins of all could be forgiven. There was corruption in the high priesthood, taxes and exchange fees that put a burden on the poor, and a whole market devoted to the purchase of sacrificial animals that missed the point of sacrifice. Far from Isaiah’s hope that the temple would be for all people, Gentiles weren’t allowed to go past their designated area.
In todays’ Gospel reading, Jesus comes on the scene to cause trouble for those who profited off the corruption of the temple.
What Jesus did was more radical than we may realize. Imagine someone going up to the gate of the White House and causing a ruckus. They say something like “this palace has been under construction for 215 years, but I will destroy it!”.
What do you imagine the Secret Service would do with such a person?
The temple was a sign of authority in Jesus’ day, just as the White House is to modern Americans. It’s no wonder that Jesus was executed by the Romans with the blessing of the religious leaders.
This image of Jesus is scandalous to most of us: a violent Jesus. Jesus isn’t meek and mild. He’s a revolutionary!
Certainly Jesus acts with a divine anger in temple, but we need to notice that Jesus doesn’t act violently to the people selling goods and exchanging money. He only throws out the products and overturns the tables of money.
Jesus reacts zealously against those who have misused his Father’s house. Are we similarly zealous? Certainly, I’m not saying we should overturn the tables of the girl scouts selling cookies, but how has our church become corrupt? And how can we cleanse it as Jesus did?
I think the central issue for Jesus probably wasn’t the selling of goods itself. They were just providing a necessary service! People needed sacrificial animals. They needed to exchange their Roman coins for temple coins. Rather, the problem was that people were exploiting God’s temple for profit, creating a barrier for access. The sacrificial animals were cost prohibitive to buy for the poor. The rich could buy expensive animals as often as they wished to make amends with God, but the poor spent most of their funds buying one animal.
How have we erected similar barriers of access in the modern church?
One of the themes I’ve been exploring this lent is how Jesus, the Christ, changes the expectations of what the Messiah would do. In this scene, Jesus comes not to restore the temple, but to proclaim that “I am the temple!”. Jesus is the one who will be torn down and rebuilt in three days at the hands of the religious and Roman authorities!
Jesus’ death was the final sacrifice, rendering the sacrificial system of the old temple unnecessary. God no longer demands the death of an animal to atone for the sins of God’s people. Covenant restoration no longer comes through death, but through the life of Jesus Christ.
We acknowledged at the beginning of worship today that we have broken the commandments of God, but we also hear the words “In the name of Jesus Christ, YOU ARE FORGIVEN!”
Sacrifice in the temple was an effective way of achieving forgiveness for sins in its time, but Jesus tore down that structure bring the temple in its fullness. God’s presence is no longer constrained to the temple, a structure that would soon be destroyed by the Romans. Rather, Jesus is the true temple. Jesus is the person in whom we can find God’s presence with us. Jesus is the person in whom we can find true forgiveness.
Where can we find God today? Do we restrict God’s presence to the walls of the church, or has God really left the building? Can you find God’s presence in your workplace? Can you find God’s presence in the darkest corner of our world, in the place where we’re sure that God cannot possibly go?
How can we as the people of God bring God into those places? Do we try and contain God, or do we try and take God into unreachable places? Do we erect barriers for access to God, or do we allow, as the prophet envisioned, all people to come and call upon the name of the Lord?
Thanks be to God for giving us all access to God’s real presence through the person of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with our Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.