SERMON from 3-11-12: “Jesus’ Final Week: The Den of Robbers”

Matthew 21.12-17

12 Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.  13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”  14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?”  17 He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.

Jesus’ Final Week: The Den of Robbers

I let a whim of mine take me to a weird place on the internet this week.  DO NOT WORRY!  It is a weird place, not a bad place.

I had the opportunity for some exploration and personal indulgence.  I have recently began to plan my sermons a year in advance.  It’s still new, but this means that the idea for this sermon series was hatched last fall–and planning for it began then, as well.  However, the plans included flex Sundays–where the scripture and topic weren’t completely chosen.  This is one of those weeks.

We are currently in the midst of our Lenten sermon series called “Jesus’ Final Week.”  Essentially, the intention is to delve into the final week of Jesus’ life–from the entrance into Jerusalem through the resurrection.  Besides the four main days the church at-large observes, there are other significant events and lessons.  So far, we have looked at Jesus’ words about the Second Coming and the Parable of the Wedding Banquet.

This week, I chose Jesus’ first confrontation in Jerusalem–the turning over of the tables of the moneychangers.

What’s different about this narrative is the type of Jesus we envision when we read this story.  All of the sudden, we go from the peaceable prophet to masochistic messiah.  What he sees happening in the temple is beyond reprehensible.  So much so, that he commences with table-tossing and name-calling.  It’s definitely different.

Which brings me back to my weird stroll down Google lane.  I was looking for images of Jesus.  When you search for Jesus and the Cleansing of the Temple–and you keep looking–you might very well end up finding doctored and created images such as these:

(show images of Jesus: not available here)

Now, that may have been a bit disturbing to you.  Some of it might be a bit amusing,  but some of it could be pretty jarring.  Which is what we might expect the disciples and gathered crowds to have thought when they saw Jesus raise a ruckus in God’s house.

I actually think there were two ways the crowds could have reacted.  First, some were still under the impression that Jesus was the messiah that was going to right all the wrongs that had been perpetrated upon Israel.  Hence, the large display upon entering Jerusalem–palm branches and hosannahs.  They had–for far too long–felt the dusty sandal of the Roman Empire push slowly onto their sweaty necks.  They were tired of the scribes and pharisees making faithful living an impossible and soul-breaking task.  Jesus was the promised messiah who was going to save them from all of that.  They were relieved, excited and thrilled–God was fulfilling his promises.  Though they wouldn’t realize how he was fulfilling them until later.

Second, I think there were those who had seen Jesus at work and might have been taken aback.  These were the disciples and crowds.  The disciples had already seen how Jesus was just a bit different than they had imagined the messiah.  Jesus dined with sinners and welcomed them into the fold.  His work was for “the least of these.”  He spent his time healing the sick and reaching out to the world where the world was.  He looked at the world as his mission field, not as a battle field where spiritual warfare must be waged.  He spoke up when he needed to–no more.  He ministered to those whom had been deemed “lost.”

Imagine for a moment that you had seen Jesus defend a prostitute, cure a leper and call all the little children to him.  To see this Jesus erupt in this manner would have been a bit jarring–to my mind.  Heartening, yet jarring.

Imagine, also, that you had not yet met Jesus–but you had heard the prophesy about who he was supposed to be.  Then, you see him ride in on a Colt–being praised with hosannahs and waved at with palm branches.  This is more like it.  Our problems are over, because our messiah has come to deliver us from our sufferings.  See, he is willing to throw the moneychangers out of the temple.  This guy is for real.

These are some of the impressions that the gathered crowds could have had that day.  And to some extent, they represent portions of how we view this event today.

What’s important for us to understand about this story today is why Jesus did this?  By overturning the tables of the moneychangers, Jesus is showing his distaste with the sacrificial system which had overtaken the temple.  You purchase the sacrificial element; you are absolved of your sin.  Does this sound familiar?  Martin Luther?  Catholic Church?  Reformation?  Jesus objected to the idea that someone would profit from the sacrifice of another–almost like what Martin Luther brought our attention to with indulgences and the Catholic Church.

Jesus uses a specific phrase to describe what the temple had become, in the wake of people’s desire to profit from the misfortune of others.  He called it a “den of robbers.”  A den of robbers is exactly as it sounds–a place where criminals would gather to escape prosecution.  Putting it together, we can see some pretty heavy charges leveled at those responsible for what the church had become.  Someone has sinned and I am going to sell them a way to be free from it.  I sell them this “indulgence” and they enter into the temple; feeling they have been absolved–or at least feeling they had gotten away with something.

This is what Jesus cannot tolerate.  The purpose for which the temple was built had been long forgotten, in favor of those who would seek to make money from the misfortune of others.  Considering Jesus’ ministry prior to this moment in time, I would say that anger at these people wouldn’t be out of the question.

After he makes his point, Jesus begins to reclaim the temple for use by God’s people, for God’s glory.  He calls it, “a house of prayer.”  He begins to heal people and further rebuke those who would challenge him further.

There are some questions we should be asking ourselves.  First, is there anything from which we are hiding within the community of faith.  Now, you may not be hiding from anything but yourself, but that’s no good either.  Our relationship with God–and the point of Lent–is based upon an openness with ourselves.  We need to be willing to spill ourselves open before God.

This is not limited.  It also includes those of us who just show up because we always have–and always will.  Or, you come because somehow you think that just by being here, you are doing better.  I would hold that being here–or within any type of faith community–is better than being anywhere else.  Eventually, though, it should change you.  You should find yourself transformed by the power of God through the Holy Spirit.

Which brings me to the most important point: the temple–read “church”–is to be a house of prayer.  This house of prayer is to be a place that is inhabited by God, so God may delight in the prayers and praise of God’s people.  Jesus was cleansing the temple so God may do what God desires–be with and delight in the praise and prayer of his people.

What are you here for?  Why did you come today?  Do you feel as if you have some sort of obligation to be here?  Do you feel as if you are better off here than somewhere else?  Whatever the answer to this question, you need to know what this place is for.

Of course, I say “this place” only because it’s where we are right now.  But, we should understand that the place where God dwells is where God’s people dwell.  It’s about the presence of his Spirit and not where we build it.

This place is to be a “house of prayer,” a gathering place for God’s people to gather for God.  We are all invited, no matter.  And, amazingly, we might even find that God reaches and touches us in the midst of it.

The reason this lesson is so important–and why it needed to be identified over others–is pretty simple.  We see the importance of community to the church all throughout history and the scriptures.  It needs to be treated as a holy gathering housed in a holy place, and we need to understand the importance of our participation in it.  This isn’t some cheap ploy by a pastor to make sure you are in church next Sunday.  This is the truth.  Jesus took the importance of this place and made a capitol case out of people misusing it.  It think it would behoove us to follow Jesus’ lead and preserve this place for us and all who would come.

AMEN

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