3rd Sunday in Lent Sermon March 7, 2021 John 2:13-25
Trading is as American as baseball cards, automobiles, and rummage sales. Some of us have mastered the art of “let’s make a deal.” Others of us still pay the full sticker price! There’s nothing inherently evil about haggling, unless you try to take unfair advantage of someone’s financial situation.
Nor was there anything inherently evil about setting up a market in the Court of the Gentiles outside the temple in Jerusalem. The rationale was that the sellers made it easier and more convenient for people to purchase animals for the sacrifice—easier than dragging some sheep or bull along by a leash for many miles. Or to change out the gentile coins for Hebrew coins.
Yet like anything in this temporal life, what seems to look good on paper, many times gets all messed up because of self-interest and greed. Thus the market was despicable, so despicable that Jesus went on a righteous rampage—not once, but twice, as recorded in Scripture—driving out merchants and animals alike from the temple of God. Why? First, the practice showed a huge insensitivity to the Gentiles, who were being deprived of their one and only place to pray. Second, selling animals became a huge moneymaker, lending credence to the accusation that the temple leaders were in the business of making a profit. Third, the practice was dishonest. To pay the temple tax, people coming to worship from a distance had to exchange their money for the required currency. The worshiper was at a disadvantage and had to pay whatever exchange rate was asked. He had no other source for a sacrifice animal and had to pay inflated prices.
Last year (an it continues), there was all sorts of chatter about once again the church that boast to follow Jesus Christ is putting financial gain ahead of the welfare of people as it insists upon meeting during a pandemic. I vividly recall accusations last year that the churches who were pressured the government to gather and worship were accused that real concern was to fill the offering plate instead of the welfare of their worshipers.
The voices protested that the government never prohibited worship and that Christian worship should happen safely through the leverage of technology, including the distribution of the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
Since its creation, the church has always been defined as God people gathering around Word and Sacrament. There was no bargaining that due to the hostility of the world, isn’t there a safer way?
In the early church, the technology wasn’t streaming images but parchment and ink. The Epistles of the New Testament could have easily offered a “virtual” presence with instructions that could have been read outload as members ran to their cupboard to find bread and wine. But this never happened. Instead, we believers are encouraged to gather as the writer of Hebrews encourages, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:23-25) Did you catch that? All the more to gather around Word and Sacrament as this earthly life comes to an end.
For those Christians who believe in the true presence of Jesus Christ in/with/under the elements of bread and wine, we must gather. We do this knowing that Jesus Christ’s actions and words were in the intimate presence of his disciples. When the Lord commanded that we “do this,” the church has understood that the pastor is to represent Christ Jesus by speaking the words that He spoke in the presence of the persons who were to receive the salvific gifts that He promised. If the words and actions of the pastor are disconnected from the elements and the people, there can be genuine question about whether the celebration has been conducted in accordance with the Lord’s commands.
To be sure, there are many Christians who cannot or will not gather until it is deemed safe. They are not lesser Christians. By being here, you are not a more superior Christian than those who are not. We are all beggars and we pray in earnest that that day where all Christians can worship together come quickly.
The one thing we never what to do is make our worship a form of bargaining with God. This kind thinking is what truly desecrates God’s holy house. In the time of Jesus earthly ministry, the greatest threat was the mistaken notion that somehow, in some way, a worshiper could bargain with God. Perhaps many people thought, Let’s make a deal. I’ll offer this sacrifice, and then God will turn around and bless me. Too often, I suspect, it was a matter of bargaining with God for selfish, human ends.
We see the same principles at work today. The “health and wealth theology” of popular tv or radio evangelists is the most blatant form of bargaining. “Send $50 to this ministry and watch for God to create a financial windfall for you. It’s not simply an offering; it’s an investment!” Or from a slightly different perspective: “Follow these seven steps, and watch God help you get the promotion, succeed in relationships, even win the lottery.” It’s time to make the deal, and we’ll start the bargaining…
Maybe it might not be in your worship life but we are very tempted to approach God and maybe we can succeed in entering some sort of agreement. A little this, for that… “God, if you get me through this surgery, I promise I will be more faithful at church.” “God, if you get us through these rough spots in our marriage, I promise I will be a better husband and father.” “God, if I get to keep my job, I promise I’ll give more of my paycheck to the poor.” “God, if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours!”
Even beloved Martin Luther, who in the midst of a crashing thunderstorm was knocked to the ground by a bolt of lightning, vowed, “St. Anne, help me! Get me on my feet again, and I will become a monk!” While Luther appears to be an exception, few people really follow through on their promises, once the crisis has lifted.
I once read a story of a woman in horrible pain and discomfort, unable to leave the hospital because of her dependence to pain relief. She had a son who planned to be married. When she realized that she was in danger of missing the wedding, she pleaded with the physicians to do whatever necessary to make it possible for her to attend her son’s wedding. The doctors managed to get her out of the hospital for a few hours as an “elegant lady.” According to the doctor who had orchestrated this feat, “I will never forget the moment when she returned to the hospital. She looked tired and somewhat exhausted and—before I could say hello—said, ‘Now don’t forget that I have another son!’”
Bargaining is really an attempt to postpone; there is usually some sort of prize attached for “good behavior.”
You know what is coming next: we can’t make deals with God in any context or situation. We can’t “buy off” God with pigeons, the correct coins for the offering or promises. The only sacrifice he will accept is a broken and contrite heart, not trinkets bought at a religious “open market.” We are sinners, one and all, and sinners have nothing to trade for God’s favor. Neither does God owe us anything: a second’s worth of time; one extra dollar; an easy life or carefree living. All that we have—everything—is God’s gift to us. As Job said, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21).
Above everything else, the Lord gave us the cross; the Lord gave his life for ours; the Lord gave us a slate wiped clean of our sins. The Lord has taken away our guilt, our fear, our attempts to find favor with him through our empty promises. He has forgiven those too and restores us to life now and eternally. The bargain he made in the Gospel was on his terms: destroy this temple, destroy this life of mine at Calvary, and I will raise it again in three days. Our Savior’s trade with us is life for death, salvation for sin.
That is why Jesus was so zealous about cleansing the Father’s house from all that would detract from the message of the cross. The reason that we have this “house of God,” this temple, is that the people of God have a place to come together to worship and celebrate his rescuing, cleansing compassion.
God is zealous about mercy. Jesus has opened God’s house of prayer to all people, with no admission charge. This place is not run on dollars and cents. Sure, we have a budget and operating costs but that is not what is important as much as this place is where people are receive that grace of God, free and limitless. In the name of Jesus.