Text: Mark 11:12-25
Seminary Chapel Service, Niagara Circuit Pastors’ Meeting.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Place yourself for a moment in a church service in medieval England. The service is violently interrupted by a hoard of Vikings determined to pillage and plunder. As a parishioner, what might you be thinking or feeling? What would your reaction be as the pastor or liturgist who was interrupted? What if the interruption extended into desecration? Would you be shocked, angry, frightened?
Now this illustration only partly parallels the astonishing scene in the Temple. We are so used to the Bible story that we can forget how shocking it must have been. And the questions it raises are: what was wrong with the Temple? Why did Jesus do what he did? And can we be guilty of the same thing?
I. Confrontation in the Temple
Our text recounts the events of the Monday in Holy Week, in which our Lord recognized in the Temple an enduring problem. If we’re not careful, it can still be an issue for us as well, just as it was in the days of the prophets. The spiritual elite of Israel, like some today, thought that they had forgiveness and fellowship with God no matter how they acted on the outside. They used the temple and its rituals as an excuse to omit repentance. Their religion was only external. They ran to the temple like bandits running back to their hideout. More than that, they used it to fatten their wallets and exclude those they deemed unworthy.
Did you notice that the scene at the Temple begins and ends by the story of the fig tree? It wasn’t a hunger-induced temper tantrum which caused our Lord to curse the fig tree. Instead we see a dramatic parable – an object lesson. When Jesus overturns the tables, he is interrupting the commerce needed for the Temple to run. Our Lord demonstrates God’s judgment upon the spiritual elite and their temple. Our Lord saw all the showy leaves, but no real fruit.
If our Lord Jesus were to show up in one of our churches, would his reaction be the same? As the Temple of the Holy Spirit we are called to bear fruit. This is especially true of those who have spiritual leadership among us. When we sin we can run to the bare externals of religion instead of showing sorrow over our sin and embracing the forgiveness offered in Christ. So, there is a warning to us – we can put ourselves on the wrong side of God’s grace, the side which rejects it and must face the consequences. We might not reject God’s grace out rightly. But nevertheless, saving faith only exists in repentance, and produces the good fruit of love for God and others.
God forbid that we become barren trees with no fruit or desecrated temples! Like Israel, we can use our religion to excuse our deadly embrace of sin. The Church can become a hideout for hypocrisy. It’s so easy to think that we’re just fine because we have absent mindedly rattled through the liturgy. How many times have you taken the Lord’s Supper while thinking about the football game or your brunch plans? It’s so easy presume that because we have gone through the motions we are in God’s favor. Dear Christian brothers, do you continue by daily contrition and repentance to drown and kill the Old Adam in you with all sins and evil desires? Does that new man daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever? “Beware, brothers, that none of you have an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” (Heb. 3:12).
Even though we are God’s justified people, his Spiritual Israel, yet, we should not suppose that we can deliberately and willfully embrace sin! Just because you go to church, sing in the choir, tithe regularly, read your bible and pray, or maybe you’re a pastor in the church, that doesn’t mean that you can live like the devil! If your faith is without daily contrition and repentance, then you will face the same judgment that Israel did. Our liturgy, apart from both faith and repentance will save us as little as the Temple saved the Jews from the Romans. If we insist on clinging to our sin and use religion as a hideout for our hypocrisy, there can be no salvation for us.
II. Comfort from the Tree
If Our Lord has shocked, frightened, or unsettled us with the threat of judgment, he also gives us the same comfort which he offered Peter, “Have faith in God.” God is still completely trustworthy, even though the Temple was barren and withered down to the root. The promises to the patriarchs remain, even if the temple mount is thrown into the sea. In spite of the widespread belief that God’s earthly address was the Holy of Holies, the temple, Jerusalem, that would no longer be the focal point of the Almighty’s presence among the people. God was establishing a new temple before their very eyes, indeed that same week! “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again.”
Yes, Christ is the true temple: He is the Word made flesh, the place where the glory of God has chosen to make his dwelling. He is the reality to which the Temple itself points: Heaven and earth, united in His Person. And through Holy Baptism, you are brought into his Church. You have been incorporated into His own mystical body – a temple not made with hands. He is the vine, and in him you will bear much fruit.
Our Lord is the true temple, and His sacrificial death for you is the reality foreshadowed by the temple sacrifices. ‘The son of man’, he said in the previous chapter, ‘came to give his life as a ransom for many.’ Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He curses the fig tree, yet He dies a cursed death on the tree of the cross. The devil, who used a tree to bring a curse upon us, would in turn be cursed by the tree of the cross. Through his once-for-all sacrifice upon the Cross, your access to God is not walled off but opened up. The veil separating us from God was torn in two. The Temple and its sacrifices were removed forever. In their place, Christ institutes the Holy Eucharist, his own true Body, his very Blood, given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of your sins.
The Church is not a hideout for your hypocrisy. Instead, the Church is the place where repentance and forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you in Jesus’ name. On our altars every Lord’s Day, that saving, once-for-all sacrifice becomes really present and is distributed among us. It strengthens and preserves us in the true faith, to life everlasting. At His word a tree was cursed and withered. At his word, you are forgiven. Have faith in God, and be strengthened to bear fruit.
And may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.