For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 11, 2012 (The Third Sunday in Lent, Series B)
“What sign do You show for us for doing these things?” Another way of putting that question might be, “Who do you think you are, coming in here and chasing away the businesses we’ve allowed to set up shop?” This isn’t just an abstract theological question, this question of who Jesus is and what authority He has. The money-changers were there because the temple tithes were supposed to be paid in Jewish money, while what most people had and used in their daily business was Roman money, which carried on its face the symbol of their hated oppressors. The animals and those who sold them were there because it was easier to buy animals for the sacrifices at the temple than it was to bring them from all over the empire, especially for those who lived elsewhere than Judea. Not to mention the fact that this guaranteed that the animals used would be ritually clean and without blemish, something that not everyone knew how to inspect for, especially since those who raised livestock for a living were a much smaller percentage of the Israelite population than had been the case centuries ago when the sacrificial regulations were revealed to Moses. The fact that both the money-changers and the sale of sacrificial animals both made a nice profit, a portion of which went to these businessmen’s landlord, namely the Temple priesthood, well, that was just icing on the cake, you know.
So Jesus upsets their applecart by evicting the businessmen from the Temple. It’s perfectly natural that the Jews would ask what authority He has to evict people from this building. Who does He think He is, the owner of the building, or something? Of course, as we know, that’s exactly who Jesus is. He is the Angel of the Lord who appeared to the Israelites in the pillar of cloud and fire, whose glory rested on the first Tabernacle and then Solomon’s Temple (which had been built on the exact same spot as the current Temple), who met His high priests in the Holy of Holies every year between the golden cherubim who flanked the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. It really is His temple. Of course, as the creator, everything is His, but this was the place He had established for the Israelites to meet them in grace and mercy and forgiveness rather than wrath and judgment, and so this place is His in a way that nowhere else in the world at that time could claim.
Now, if He had simply said that, of course, it would have proven nothing. In fact, He does indirectly say that when He refers to the Temple as “My Father’s House.” So the Jews ask for a sign that He really is the one who has authority to do these things. But Jesus doesn’t give them the sort of sign they are asking for. He doesn’t do some miracle on the spot to prove He is the Son of God. Nor does He pull out His Galilean driver’s license that says “Son of God” on it, or the title deed to the Temple grounds. He instead tells them about something that is going to happen in the future. He will be put to death, and on the third day He will rise again. But He says it in kind of an odd way. He talks about “this temple,” referring to His body, which, of course, simply confuses everybody. They think He’s talking about the building they’re standing in. In fact, that’s one of the things that is brought up at His trial before Caiaphas early on Good Friday morning, namely that He said He was going to destroy and then rebuild the Temple.
One could argue that Jesus was simply being obscure here, telling some sort of parable or riddle to confuse the Jews. And there’s an element of truth there. Jesus’ parables aren’t so much intended to make the lesson easy to understand (despite what you may have been told by the advocates of using lots of stories and object lessons in sermons) but to make it more difficult and confusing for those who are not of the Faith. As Jesus Himself says elsewhere to His disciples, “I speak to you plainly, but to the rest in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’” The same thing is true here. Jesus is saying something that will only be understood later by His disciples after He has risen from the dead, and not at all by the Jews who asked Him the question.
But, at the same time, what He says is perfectly true. The Temple was the place of sacrifice. That was the whole point of having all these different animals for sale: they were to be presented for sacrifice. But Jesus is the true Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the true sacrifice for sin. The whole elaborate system of sacrifices that was laid out in the books of Moses was designed for one thing, and one thing only: to point forward to the once for all sacrifice which would take place very soon now, which we will celebrate a little less than a month from now. Jesus is the true sacrifice. He is the true temple. He is the true altar. His death on the cross is what makes the whole Old Testament sacrificial system worthwhile. The animal sacrifices do nothing by themselves; it is only as sacraments tied by the Word and Promise of God to the true sacrifice of the Son of God on the cross, that they mean anything at all.
And, by the way, that’s part of why Jesus chases them all out. It wasn’t just that His holiness was offended by the crass profiteering the priests were engaged in, though that was part of it. The bigger reason why He chases out the money-changers and the livestock brokers is because soon they will no longer be needed. The true sacrifice is at hand. They were never intended to be an end in themselves, they only pointed forward to the sacrifice of God Himself outside the gates of Jerusalem at the hands of the Roman authorities.
And so it is also with our worship here in this place. The one true sacrifice for all sin is really present on this altar, Jesus’ body and blood, the true temple, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. We don’t re-sacrifice Him, and our sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise is just that, a sacrifice of thanksgiving, not a sacrifice that atones for sin. But the One who was sacrificed for all is really present here, and His body and blood which you eat and drink really do, at the very same time, stand before God’s presence in the heavenly temple to plead for you before the Father. The sign that He has done away with the animal sacrifices is the same sign that your sins really are forgiven and that you will live forever with Him in eternity. The temple of His body was destroyed, and then it was rebuilt in three days. His resurrection is what proves that your sins are forgiven, that you are no longer separated from your Creator, and that you will dwell with Him in eternity. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +