“Jesus answered, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this third Sunday in Lent is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, the Third Commandment goes much farther than not working on Sunday. In our Old Testament lesson for today, Yahweh delivers this commandment to Moses: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work... For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” God established the Sabbath rest for His people, it is meant to be a time set aside to receive His gifts, as Luther teaches us in the explanation to this commandment in the Small Catechism: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” There is both a positive and negative side here. We are not to despise His Word, but instead we are to hear and learn it gladly. That is what the Sabbath is all about. That is what church on Sunday morning is all about. That is what this church building is all about. Here we set aside time to receive His great gifts, gifts He is yearning to give us.
But what happens when other things get in the way of God giving His gifts? What happens when the things of this world intrude into the church service and church building? Jesus saw the results with His own eyes, He saw what God’s house, the house of worship, the location of God’s presence in grace upon this earth, had become. “The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there.” The temple mount was simply a structure, a great mass of stone pillars and courts surrounding the temple building itself, but Jesus knew that it was much more than that. It was the place where God had promised to receive the sacrifices of His people for their sins. It was the very location where His grace would go forth, where the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed. It had been set aside for the giving of God’s gifts, and now God’s Son saw what it had become- and He was not pleased. “And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, ‘Take these things away; do not make my Father's house a house of trade.’”
But why should Jesus get so angry? The people were hardly committing a vicious sin- they were simply watching their bottom line, trying to connect with the convenience that travelers sought. They were simply trying to ‘market’ the temple a bit, make it more attractive to Jerusalem’s visitors. Why should Jesus have a problem with that? But Jesus saw right through them: for them, money had become more important than the primary purpose for the temple- the giving of God’s gifts. The financial bottom line was their focus, and it obscured everything else. We also so often worry about the bottom line, whether our own or that of the church. In increasingly desperate economic times, we are searching for anything to keep us and our congregation afloat. Worry for our own checkbook can cause us to hold back from the Church, and worry for the Church’s checkbook can drive us to desperation. We so quickly forget that our first turn is always to prayer, bringing our requests and petitions before our Lord. To be sure, the church needs money to pay the bills, but when we are sucked into a focus on our money, when we see new visitors as only an additional source of funds, when we spend our time worried about our checkbook or that of the church, our eyes are turned away from the one thing needful, the focus of our lives and the focus of the Church- Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
Jesus takes all of the tables we construct in our churches, all of the tables that cause us worries in our lives, and turns them over. He cleans them out just as surely as He did the tables in the temple courts. “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” Jesus had a passionate, intense love of His Father’s house, a love that compelled Him to take on the marketplace of the temple and clean it out. The zeal of Jesus has an intensity that contrasts sharply with the image of a meek and mild Jesus that we often see in our mind’s eye. “And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.” It is the same zeal that God had for His people throughout the Old Testament, the zeal that preserved the messianic line from Eve onward. But why would Jesus have this same zeal for the temple? What was so special about this edifice of stone and mortar that made it worth cleansing?
Many then and even today think that Jesus came to destroy the religion of Israel, with its Levitical laws and barbaric sacrifices. But Jesus shows us here that He has come for a much different reason. “So the Jews said to him, ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking about the temple of his body.” How can the one who has in one breath shown respect for God’s temple with the next speak of destroying it? The answer comes from Matthew chapter five: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” He has such zeal for the temple because it points to Him, He has such zeal because He has come as the fulfillment of the temple. “But He was speaking about the temple of His body.” The human frame of Jesus is God Himself in the flesh, God come to this earth to deliver His people. Jesus will fulfill the Temple as the location of God amongst His people, His body is the new temple, the temple that is established for all eternity. But because His body is a temple, it will also be a place of sacrifice. The flesh of Jesus will fulfill each and every sacrifice offered by the people of Israel in the temple, the blood that runs down from the sheep, cattle, and pigeons will be fulfilled by His blood.
For the zeal of Jesus is not only for His Father’s house, it is for His Father’s will. And the Father’s will is centered squarely on the salvation of all people from the bondage of sin. “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” Jesus’ love for His Father, His love for the Father’s will, His love for His Father’s house, will end up consuming Him. The reason that sheep, cattle, and pigeons gave their lives in the temple was that sin requires blood. Therefore Jesus, as the fulfillment of the temple, as the temple incarnate, needed to shed His blood for our sin. But His shed blood would be unlike that of sacrificial animals, which could never completely wipe away the sins of the people. His sacrifice, His shed blood, would be for each and every person who has ever lived, or will ever live, for each and every sin ever committed, or that ever will be committed. His zeal for His Father would lead Jesus to offer up His life on the cross for the sins of all, there His zeal for you and me, that intense and passionate love, would cause Him to suffer abandonment by the Father for our sake. His zeal consumed Him, and it consumed Him for us.
“So the Jews said to Him, ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’” Jesus, as the true fulfillment of the temple, invited the religious leaders to destroy Him, with the promise that He would raise Himself back up. His authority would be tested by whether or not He kept that promise. The Jews took Him up on that offer, they destroyed Him on the cross, there His zeal consumed Him. This Lenten season we look to that moment where Jesus hung dead on the cross, having faced God’s wrath for you and me, and we try to place ourselves there on that day. Would Jesus keep His promise? Had the victory truly been won? I don’t know about you, but I love Lent so much because it is a crescendo building until Good Friday, then a three day pause before the trumpets finally sound. Jesus kept His promise. He rose from the dead on Easter morning, confirming not only His authority over the temple, but over death and hell itself. Both are defeated, cast down, they have no more power over you. All becomes clear at the resurrection- there Christ’s victory is sealed. Without Good Friday, Easter is meaningless, and without Easter, Good Friday is a day of defeat. But thanks be to God that Christ did arise, saving us from sin and death, confirming the victory won when the zeal of our Lord for us consumed Him on the cross! The resurrection is the foundation of our faith, it forms the basis of all that we believe: “When therefore He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the Word that Jesus had spoken.”
The Church is built on the same foundation as our faith- Christ’s death and resurrection. Therefore, it is not in the business of selling, it is in the business of giving away- it is a location for the free distribution of the salvation that Jesus won through the cross and empty tomb. In Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the Word, Christ’s gifts are offered freely to all people. Our focus is not on the bottom line- ours or that of the church- but instead upon Christ and His gifts. Sure, the Church needs money to operate, but this should never obscure the true reason for its existence- to give away Christ and His gifts. This whole enterprise is the height of foolishness to our world, as Saint Paul tells us in our Epistle lesson: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” How can all people be delivered by the death of one? How can the Church simply give away salvation? The answer is that Christ is not an accountant- He is a Savior, the Savior of you, me, and all people. May the death and resurrection of Christ bring us to our Father’s house in the new heavens and the new earth, where we will dwell forever in His glory, Amen.