Monday, March 16, 2009

Jesus Cleans House

I was the preacher at a local retirement home yesterday afternoon. They asked for a longer sermon than I usually preach, but it was well received and I thought I'd share it with you. Hope you like it! (Some historical and theological information taken directly from, and websites.)

Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
I Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, *O LORD, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
This story of Jesus and his anger, yes anger and physically acting on that anger, sounds like a great deal of chaos in a holy place, doesn't it? We will look at what was going on and why Jesus did what he did.
But first, let's start out with our Old Testament reading of the Ten Commandments. As those of us who study the Bible know, these rules we call the Ten Commandments were far from being the only laws of the Hebrew people, but they are the first we come to in the Bible, and the ones we Christians focus on.
From a 21st century perspective, we can look at these commandments in four groups. The first three deal with the worship of Yahweh as the only invisible, holy God who makes a claim on the Israelites as their Savior. The next two, on the Sabbath and the honoring of parents, focus on economic and family aspects of life. Rest is necessary for productive labor and the family is the fundamental unit of human society. The next three have to do with the life of the family or individual in the larger community. They deal with such basic realities of human society as the sanctity of life, of marriage and sexuality, and the respect for property as an extension of persons. The last two are of a social nature speaking of truth in the law courts and honoring the rights of others.
It is strange how we view laws as things that hinder our happiness rather than as something designed to maximize it. Any parent, worth their salt, can tell you that they don't make up rules just for kicks, just to be arbitrary. They make up rules to keep their children safe and to enhance the peace and harmony of home and family life. The Law, the Ten Commandments are "cords of love," fences if you will, demarcating healthy boundaries. When we truly follow these rules with our hearts interpreting them fully, our lives engender a freedom which allows us to live in peace and harmony with God and one another.
A disclaimer here, I don't usually spend much time in my sermons teaching history, but I found the following information so interesting, I want to share it with you.
By the time of Jesus, the temple had been around for a very long time. It had existed in various forms: the first construction by Solomon, then its destruction during the Babylonian wars and its re-construction after the Hebrew people returned from exile. During Jesus' lifetime, King Herod had made dramatic improvements, even over and above the splendor of the original plan. And over those millennia many laws had been set up about how the people were to act and be when in the temple, where they could and could not go within the temple precincts.
Sacrifice of animals was an aspect of almost all religions in the ancient world, and the worship of the Hebrew people was no different. Gifts of the best lamb or kid of the flock, and a portion of the best produce of the fields or vineyards was what they gave to God. We must not forget that only a portion of that gift to the temple was burned on the altar. The remainder was used for food for the priests and their families. It was a way of supporting those who devoted their lives to interceding with God for the people.
Before there was a temple, from the Book of Exodus, we read, "When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his soul to the Lord when you number them…half a shekel…the rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less…And you shall take the atonement money from the people of Israel and shall appoint it for the service of the Tent of Meeting; that it may bring the people of Israel to remembrance before the Lord, so as to make atonement for your souls." This tax was to cover the expenses of the Levites, the priests who devoted their time caring for the tent of meeting, worship and sacrifices, to provide a livelihood for them and their families.
From then on, every Hebrew male over the age of twenty was expected to make an obligatory donation of a half shekel for the atonement, for the sacrifices. At the time of the Temple's construction, this modest sum allowed all Jews, of all economic levels, to participate in the building of the Temple. After the construction was completed, they continued to collect the tax for the purpose of purchasing the public sacrifices and other needs of the Temple. The collection began every year on the first day of the month of Adar, which was probably in late January, and it ended on the first day of the month of Nissan, in the spring.
Now most of the money to be found in Jerusalem was Roman coinage, which had the head of the emperor stamped on it. The temple authorities, in obeying God's word concerning idols from the Ten Commandments, would not accept any coinage which had the image of a person on it, because they considered it blasphemous. And so, bankers set up their stalls outside the temple, to exchange the coinage of Rome for silver shekels and half-shekels from Tyre, which had no such images.
It was most likely a shekel of Tyre that Jesus and Peter used to pay the Temple head tax (a half shekel each): From Matthew 17, you may remember the story of the coin in the fish's mouth, when Jesus tells Peter: "Go thou to the sea, and cast a hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money. That take, and give unto them for me and thee" Moreover, Tyrian silver coins probably comprised the thirty pieces of silver infamous for the payment to Judas Iscariot for Jesus' betrayal.
However over time, over hundreds of years, these money changers moved from being outside the temple, to doing their work on the stairs at the entrance, to eventually moving into the outer courts of the temple. The people who were selling animals for sacrifice had done the same thing. It must have been total chaos in that place. Yet somehow, this movement happened so slowly that the priests of the temple paid no attention to the fact that commerce was happening in this holy place devoted to worship. And not only was that commerce not even-handed, it had become usurious, the marketplace had become a place of greed.
Jesus was incensed - and rightly so! He, who loved his Father above all, could not abide what was happening in his Father's house. So he took off his belt and wreaked havoc upon those who had denigrated the holy places. He cleaned house. He knew the laws of the temple, as well as the laws His father had given the people, and he believed they should be followed.
Isn't this what Jesus did throughout his ministry? Although this is the only time we see him angry and physically demonstrative, his entire ministry, all the words he said, were calling people to clean the houses of their minds, and see the law in the way God meant for us to see it. He said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill." He wanted us to realize that the laws were meant to be read in the recesses of our hearts and souls, which brings joy and peace, not followed blindly as rules and strictures, which have no life in them.
This marketplace within the temple, had become a place of greed: does it not sound a lot like our world today? It appears that our nation has been consumed with commerce and greed. Certainly our country as a whole, and many who have been in control of our major monetary institutions, have been consumed by it. And it has impacted the entire nation. Our economy has been turned upside down, just like the moneychangers tables were upset by Jesus.
Now I don't want to give anyone the wrong impression. I do not believe that God has in any way impacted the national and world economy. What I do believe is that greed, and conspicuous consumption among our society at large has brought down our house of cards. Many of us built our lives on a foundation of sand rather than rock, and lived our lives as though our debts would never have to be paid. There are also many of us who have lived within our means, and yet now find ourselves caught in these bad times by unexpected illness, or from placing our savings into the hands of people we trusted who were untrustworthy, or the failure of financial institutions we depended upon.
Since most of us are on fixed incomes, living on our savings, pension plans, and investments, there may be some here who have succumbed to fear and worry. We have all seen our investments shrink in value, and it's hard when we don't feel we have control over what's happening. So what do we do in this time of cleansing, this season of Lent which is happening in a time of change? What can we do to brighten our days and calm our worries?
I would suggest to you that we look to the words of Jesus, and change our hearts. Look to the words of our Psalm for today, remember that God loves us, and that the law as Jesus fulfilled it is a way out of fear and a portal into joy and peace.
Rather than dwelling on what may go wrong, worrying over what may happen in the future, look around you and see where you might spread Christ's love. Stepping out of the focus on our own concerns and looking for ways to increase the joy of others, takes us into a place where Christ's light shines forth into the world, and his peace will begin to dwell within us.
Is there someone who tends to eat alone, or spend little time in company with others? Even if you've tried before, invite them again to join you and your friends. I've been told that this is a mighty friendly place, and that's certainly what I've experienced. Yet there is always more. How frequently do you personally go down the hall to the nursing wing, without a specific destination in mind? Might there be people down there who don't get visitors? Someone who is so frail that they cannot speak or perhaps even open their eyes? Simply going into the room and holding their hand for a moment, whether they can respond or not, is a way of spreading God's love into the world. A quick smile and "how are you?" can make someone's day.
In whatever way we can, Jesus calls us to embody God's love. When we shine that love out into the world, it is reflected back into our lives, tenfold. As the Psalmist said, "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork." How can we, as people of God, do any less? Amen.

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