Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
On the 8th of June in the year of our Lord 793, Vikings launched a devastating attack on the island of Lindisfarne, off the coast of England. The the church of St. Cuthbert was destroyed, goods were stolen and much innocent blood was shed. This was an event that shook the Christian world to its core. It was so traumatic that historians have agreed it should mark the official beginning of the Viking Age.
Place yourself for a moment in that church service. The service is violently interrupted by a hoard of heathen Vikings determined to pillage and plunder. As a parishioner, what might you be thinking or feeling? What would your reaction be to so much violence? What if the interruption extended into desecration? (Mistreating the body and blood of our Lord). Would you be shocked, angry, frightened?
Now your feelings and emotions in such a situation are similar to those watching the astonishing scene in the Temple from our Gospel reading. We are so used to this Bible story that we can forget how shocking it must have been. It raises some questions: what was wrong with the Temple? Why did Jesus do what he did? And can we be guilty of the same thing?
Confrontation in the Temple
When Jesus entered the temple area the smell of the animals entered his nostrils; and the noise from the moneychangers’ tables beat on his ears. Animals were being sold for sacrifices. Our first reading says that the temple was “the place where sacrifices were offered” (Ezr. 6:3). For the convenience of pilgrims, an animal selling businesses was set up in the Court of the Gentiles. When Jesus sees this, he is not happy. The meek and mild Jesus was nowhere to be found when he made a mess of the money-changers. There was nothing sweet and tender on display when Jesus pronounced this resounding judgment on the Temple.
So why was Jesus upset about this? Gentiles were not allowed entry into the temple itself. The court of the Gentiles was the only place in the temple where non-Jews were allowed to worship God. The religious leaders were preventing Gentiles from worshiping God. Isaiah spoke of a day when “all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob’” (Isaiah 2:2–3). Instead, the temple was turned into a nationalistic symbol that served only to divide Israel from the nations. he Temple, supposedly sanctified by God, had become a “den of robbers.”
When Jesus calls it a “den of robbers,” he’s not saying that they’re price gouging the people. Robbers are not swindlers. They’re bandits and they do not do their robbing in their den. The den is the place where robbers go after having committed their crimes. It is their hideout, a place of safety and refuge. 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 thought God was easily hoodwinked by a show of piety.
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 of races they deemed unworthy.
If our Lord Jesus were to show up in our church, would his reaction be the same? We are the Temple of the Holy Spirit. When we sin we can run to the bare externals of religion instead of actually being sorry about our sin and embracing the forgiveness offered in Christ. So, there is a warning to us – we can can reject God’s grace. Saving faith is always accompanied with repentance.
God forbid that we use our religion to excuse our sin. The Church can become a hideout for hypocrisy. It’s so easy to think that we’re just fine because we have absently 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 favour. 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? “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (Heb. 3:12).
Even though we are God’s forgiven people, his Spiritual Israel, do not assume that you can deliberately and wilfully embrace sin! Just because you go to church, sing in the choir, tithe regularly, read your bible and pray, that doesn’t mean that you can live like the devil! If your faith is without daily contrition and repentance, then it will save us as little as the Temple saved the Jews from the Romans.
Comfort From the Clensing
If our Lord has shocked, frightened, or unsettled us with the threat of judgment, he also gives us much comfort. You, dear brothers and sisters, are the nations Jesus is referring to. It was love and concern for you which moved our Saviour to act so harshly towards the religious authorities. Jesus’ desire is that you, dear Christian, would have a place of prayer. There is nothing you can achieve or offer to God to earn his favour, that’s why the Church is should be open to all men everywhere. God’s Temple, the Church, accepts one and all, including the outcasts. It does not matter what your race or sex— God welcomes any who come in a humble spirit.
If you are a Christian, it isn’t that you only have occasional dealings with God when you doing ‘religious’ things. The point of the Temple was that God lived there; part of the point of being a Christian is that God himself lives in you. Christ comes to take up permanent residence.
The Church is the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit. God is establishing a new temple. Christ is the true temple. Our first reading says that the temple was the place where God “caused his name to dwell” (Ezr. 6:12). Jesus 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, were united in the Holy of Holies, but in Jesus God and Man are united in His Person. And through Holy Baptism, you are brought into his Church. You have been incorporated into Christ’s 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. Just before our text Jesus 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 with bread and wine for the forgiveness of your sins.
Jesus paid the price of his own life, his own blood, to rescue human beings like you and me, ordinary sinners, muddled sinners, great and small sinners. If you pay a lot of money for a wonderful book, you don’t start tearing pages out to make shopping lists, or writing rude words in the margins. If you pay a lot of money for a lovely house, you don’t spray-paint graffiti on the front door. Those who have been ‘bought’ at tremendous cost must remind themselves of what special people they are, and learn to behave accordingly. God won’t leave you where you are.
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. Have faith in God, and be strengthened to bear fruit.
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.