Cleansing the Temple: Pure Worship

13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”

19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.

John 2:13-22

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 11th March 2012 at St. Martin’s Church, Dorking (Methodist Congregation).

This morning we’ll be looking at the idea of purity of worship, but before we begin, I want to ask you a quick question.

Have you ever flown with Ryanair?

Having travelled with them several times in the past, I have to say that I would only fly with them again if there really was no other choice.  I find the seats very uncomfortable.  It irritates me that they have scrimped so much on their aircraft that there is no storage on the back of the seat in front.  I can’t stand the way they promote their lottery scratch cards.  What irritates me the most, though, is their pricing strategy.  It seems designed to catch people out and grab as much money from them as possible.  Yesterday I checked the cost of flights from London to Rome.  Ryanair’s headline figure was £25.99, but when I clicked through, the total cost came to a staggering £203.09.  Even at that high price, there is still the possibility that customers may have to pay additional fees.  Should a passenger turn up at the gate with hand luggage that is deemed too big, from this summer they will face a massive £100 fee to check the bag into the flight.  Ryanair’s staff actually get a 50 pence bonus for each bag that they make customers check in.  To me, the whole set up seems designed to fleece their customers for as much money as they possibly can.

This picture of an organisation trying to fleece people for all they can by embracing rather questionable tactics is not dissimilar to the Temple as visited by Jesus in today’s Gospel reading.  Just like Ryanair, the Temple had developed strategies that seemed intended to catch people unaware and to rip people off.  Unlike Ryanair, which is, after all, a commercial operation, the Temple was intended to be the House of God, the place where Jews and non-Jews alike could come to worship in the presence of God.

It’s not surprising, then, that Jesus was angry.  Here he was, in his Father’s house, and it was being treated as nothing more than a money-making venture for the authorities.

So, to our first point.  The first issue I believe we see raised from our Gospel reading today is the idea of purity of corporate worship – the worship of God with other people.  That, after all, was the focus of the Temple in Jerusalem, and that’s why we’re here today – to worship God with other people.

The Temple in Jerusalem was the focus of the Jewish faith, the beating, pulsating heart of Jewish life.  It was more than a mere place of worship, however; Jewish people believed that it was the dwelling place of God amongst his people.

At the time of year we read about in our Gospel today, the Temple would have been a particularly busy, crowded place with Jewish people from far and wide in attendance to celebrate the festival of the Passover. This was a commemoration of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, a particularly important date in the Jewish calendar. The festival of Passover saw Jewish people from far and wide make a pilgrimage to the Temple.  It was this busy, bustling Temple that Jesus arrived at in John chapter two.

John records vividly what happened when Jesus arrived in the Temple. Jesus, a man we normally think of as a calm, quiet, placid character, was greatly angered by what he saw, and was not afraid to let his anger show.

Why, though, was Jesus so angry?

As soon as Jesus entered the Temple, he was confronted by people selling cattle, sheep and doves.  These were the animals which, under Jewish law, were required for sacrifices.  At Passover in particular, they would be needed in large number.  It might seem perfectly natural for the Temple to have these animals on hand, ready to purchase.  Some people, after all, would have travelled a considerable distance to make their sacrifices.  It would have been a rather arduous task to bring their sacrificial animals with them, so surely the Temple was offering a useful service.

Sadly, the stalls which Jesus saw in the Temple were not there to provide a service for the pilgrims, but to fleece them of as much money as possible. What angered Jesus was the way in which those selling sacrificial animals, the Temple authorities, were ripping off ordinary worshippers.  Animals for sacrifices cost up to ten times as much if they were purchased inside the Temple, compared with prices outside.

What was to prevent a worshipper buying an animal for sacrifice outside the Temple gates, in the bustling markets of Jerusalem?

Animals for sacrifice had to be pure, blameless and spotless.  All animals that were brought to the Temple had to be checked by an inspector, for which a fee was payable.  Unsurprisingly, a large number of the animals that were brought to the Temple were failed, requiring pilgrims to purchase new animals, which had been pre-approved, from the stalls within the Temple.

The Temple authorities had a similar racquet going on with coinage.  Every Jew over the age of nineteen was required to pay a Temple tax of half a shekel, equivalent to about two days’ wages.  This had to be paid in either Galileaen shekels or in sanctuary shekels, since ordinary coins were deemed to be unclean.  The money changers in the Temple were there to provide a service, changing coinage into a form considered clean.  The problem was that the money changers charged exorbitant fees for their services.  A straightforward change of a non-clean half shekel to a clean coin would require a fee.  If change was needed, another fee would apply.  Suddenly, just like an airline’s credit card fees, paying the Temple tax could become very expensive.

Jesus was not just angry about what was happening inside the Temple.  He was also angry about where it was happening.

The Temple complex consisted of a number of different areas, from the Holy of Holies in the centre, then the sanctuary, and then the Court of the Gentiles.  This was the section of the Temple to which non-Jewish people could come to meet with God.  And it was this section in which Jesus had discovered the animal sellers and money changers.  Not only were the Temple authorities ripping people off, but they were preventing people who wanted to worship God from doing so.

It’s not surprising, then, that Jesus was angry.  The Temple, a place of worship, had been utterly desecrated.  The noise and bustle prevented people from meeting with God.  Worship was pretty much closed off to all non-Jews by the market atmosphere in the Court of the Gentiles. The Temple authorities were ripping people off, trying to fleece them for as much cash as they could.  And this was happening in his Father’s house, the dwelling place of God and the focus of Jewish worship.

Jesus was aroused to such great anger by what he saw that he made a whip out of cords and drive the animal sellers out of the Temple, before overturning the tables of the money changers, sending their coins flying.

Jesus was absolutely furious, because the Temple was no longer a place of genuine worship. It had become a place marked out by corruption, dishonesty and hypocrisy. It had become the centre of an empty, formal religion. It was a place where those who ran it were not concerned for the souls of those whom they encountered, or genuinely serving God, but were out for what they could get. It was a place where many of the worshippers, having been brought up to know a corrupt Temple, worshipped out of a sense of duty and obligation rather than because they genuinely wanted to know God.

The corporate worship of the Jewish people had been utterly destroyed by the ungodliness of the authorities.

I wonder what Jesus would make of our places of worship today if he visited?  How would our corporate worship stand up in the face of a visit from Christ? I wonder if Jesus would be happy with the way we conduct our worship, or if he would be enraged by what he saw?

Jesus demands a purity from our corporate worship, and a genuine focus on God.  He wants our church authorities, our leaders and preachers, to be genuine people of God who feel called to lead God’s people in worship and to preach the message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  I wonder how our churches would stand up to Jesus’ scrutiny?

Jesus expects a clear focus on God from all those who serve in our churches, to ensure that every aspect of our corporate identity is directed towards worshipping God.  He expects those who lead our music, or sing in the choir, or make the tea and coffee, or edit the church newspaper to be clear that the tasks they are undertaking are directed towards worshipping God.  He wants all of us, every single person in the church, to be inspired by a genuine desire to live out the Gospel and to serve Jesus Christ in all that they do.

I wonder what Jesus would make of our church buildings? Have they become like the Temple in Jerusalem, closed centres of commerce, or are they open, welcoming and friendly to all people.  Jesus expects our churches to facilitate our worship, not to distract from it.  Is there anything that we need to change in our church building to ensure that the main focus of our church is the worship of God?

What about newcomers and visitors to our congregation? Is there anything in what we do or what we say that prevents them from knowing God? Jesus expects our our services to be clear and straightforward, not burdened with complex language and strange music that makes it difficult for visitors to understand what we’re doing.

What would Jesus think if he visited our churches today? Would he be pleased with what he saw or would he be angry? Would he see genuine worship or a place too concerned with empty ritual? Would he feel forced to take up a whip to cleanse and purify our churches, or would he sit amongst us and worship his father with us?

The second point I want to consider today is concerned with personal worship – worship which is made very important indeed by Jesus’ words in our Gospel passage today.

In the second part of our reading today, Jesus totally turns the whole concept of the Temple on its head.  The Jewish people in the Temple had clearly been deeply disturbed by what they had seen. Their response to seeing Jesus’ anger is to demand a sign from him to prove that he has the authority to clear the Temple.  Jesus knew, though, that faith does not come from signs, and so he does not give them the sign that they demand.  Instead, he them rather cryptically, saying, “destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

His audience clearly think this statement is ridiculous.  They tell him that it took forty-six years to build the Temple, and he is claiming, it seems, to be able to rebuild it in three days.  They know that there is absolutely no way Jesus could do as he claims!

As is so often the case, however, they misunderstood what Jesus was saying. As John makes clear in his account, Jesus was referring not to the stone building he was standing in, but to his own body.  His statement foreshadows his death on the cross and subsequent resurrection.  He knew, right from the start of his ministry, that his ultimate calling was to die, that the next three years would lead him to the cross.

Jesus’ statement is more profound than anyone at the time could have understood. Indeed, John comments in verse 22 that it was only after Jesus’ resurrection that they fully understood the significance of this statement.

Jesus’ claim to be able to raise the temple in three days, which John understood to mean his body, is significant because it turns the whole concept of worshipping God on its head.  As a consequence of Jesus, the Temple became totally irrelevant; God no longer dwelt in the Temple. John makes this clear right at the start of his Gospel, when he states the the Word, which is God, “became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”  Jesus is the new Temple, the new focus for the worship of God.

Jesus statement that the Temple would be destroyed but that he would raise it again in three days is a direct reference to his own death and resurrection.  When Jesus was nailed to the cross, the Temple was destroyed.  When Jesus rose from the dead, the Temple was raised.

We see in the Gospel accounts that at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, the curtain in the Temple, which separated the Holy of Holies from the sanctuary and prevented people from approaching God was ripped in two.  When Jesus died, the barrier between man and God was removed.  At a stroke, the Temple in Jerusalem, and all that happened there, became utterly irrelevant.

As Jesus predicted in our Gospel reading today, however, three days after his death on the cross, he rose from the dead, having defeated sin and death, a triumph of good over evil.

With Jesus, the Temple in Jerusalem is irrelevant.

Thanks to Jesus we do not need to go to a building to worship God.

We no longer need to sacrifice birds and animals to God.

As a consequence of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can approach God directly.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, the irrelevance of the Temple as a centre for worship is made even clearer.  In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul describes the Church as the body of Christ.  If the Church is the body of Christ, and the body of Christ is the new Temple, then we, the Church, are the new Temple.  God no longer resides in a building, but in all of us.  We don’t need to go to a building to worship God, because he, in the form of the Holy Spirit is in us.  Instead, if we chose to worship God, we should do so with the temples that are our bodies, our minds, our hearts and our souls.  Worship, in the context of the death and resurrection of Jesus, is something that we should do with every fibre of our being.  Our whole lives should be offered to God as a spiritual act of worship.  As Paul famously states in Romans chapter 12, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.”

As the Temple should have been focused entirely on worshipping God, so now should the temples of our bodies.

This is personal worship taken to an entirely new level.

I wonder what implications Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem has for the new Temple of our lives?  If the Temple is now not a building but our bodies, our hearts and our souls, I wonder how we ensure that we are right before God?

Perhaps as well as looking at our church buildings and our services, we also need to look at ourselves, and ensure that we do not taint our worship of Christ.

Perhaps we need to look at our own motivation.

The Temple authorities in Jerusalem were more concerned about what they could get out of their position rather than facilitating real worship.  I wonder what our motivation for worshipping God is?  Is our worship hollow and empty, merely going through the motions? Or is our worship based on a genuine, deep felt, life changing passion for Jesus?

Why are we here today?  Is it out of a genuine desire for worshipping God, for learning about Christ, and for sharing fellowship with one another?  Or are we here out of a sense of duty to someone else?  Do we come to worship with reluctance?  Or maybe we’re here because our friends are here, and it’s a nice thing to do, to come and chat with out friends once a week?

Are we like the Jews who responded to Jesus’ clearing of the Temple, demanding signs and miracles?  Or are we passionate about hearing his word?  Do we listen to God, diligently reading his word in the scriptures, and listening to him in prayer?

I wonder if we keep the Temples of our bodies, our hearts, our souls and minds clear of detritus that prevents our worship, or that taints our worship?  Do we live for Christ, seeking to serve and honour him in all that we do?  Or is there something that prevents us from truly worshipping Jesus?

Do we need Jesus to come into our hearts and minds, and to clear away all the stuff that prevents us from genuinely worshipping him?

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