A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on March 11, 2012.
Exodus 20:17; Psalm 19; John 2:13-22
Marketplaces have their place.
I was reminded of that just yesterday when I learned reading the Winston-Salem Journal that we are getting a Trader Joes store in our community! Joani and I love Trader Joes, and Joani usually shops there every time she visits her sister in Chapel Hill. We have other favorite stores, of course, especially those tried and true outlets where you can still find a good bargain.
It would be bizarre, even for a Baptist preacher, to say there is no place for the shopping bazaar, and you wouldn’t listen to me if I did! We’ve had commerce since we’ve had people, and goods to buy, sell, and trade among people. Marketplaces have always had their place, and likely always will.
Even so, marketplaces have no business taking over the sacred spaces of our lives. Like our churches. And our souls. If we ever needed an illustration of that principle, Jesus provides it in the shocking story of his cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem.
It was the Festival of Passover, and Jerusalem was jammed with thousands of Jews who had come to celebrate their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Every adult Jewish male within a fifteen mile radius of Jerusalem was required to come, and many other Jews from around the Roman Empire made the trip at great personal expense.
The Jewish pilgrims enjoyed all the celebrations connected to the festival of Passover. But the focal part of their pilgrimage was a solemn visit to the temple which still housed the Ark of the Covenant containing the tablets bearing the Ten Commandments) the most visible symbol of the presence of God. In this most sacred of all spaces the Jews hoped to encounter God in a fresh and life changing way.
That’s certainly what Jesus had in mind as he strode into the temple. Instead, he found a three-ring circus. First, he saw the money changers plying their trade. Jesus understood that every Jew had to pay the annual temple tax and that Gentile coins from other countries were unacceptable, making it necessary for money changers to be on the scene. But he also knew these money changers charged exorbitant exchange fees for personal profit, turning sacred space into a marketplace.
And that was just the beginning. Jesus observed temple officials selling sheep and oxen and doves in the outermost Court of the Gentiles. (Gentiles were allowed to come into this temple court—but no further—if they wished to worship God.) Jesus understood these animals were necessary for the obligatory sacrifices that must be made to God. And he knew most Jews were forced to buy their animals at the temple because they didn’t possess animals unblemished enough to sacrifice.
But Jesus also understood that the noisy racket of these animals, and the financial racket of the animal vendors auctioning off their animals at ridiculously inflated prices, made it impossible for the Gentiles to worship God. By now Jesus’ blood was beginning to boil.
Jesus remembered what it cost God and his people to be delivered from Egypt. He remembered how far many of these Jews had come, and how much they had sacrificed to worship their God. He looked again at the whole sorry mess of cow manure and temple con-artists stinking up his Father’s house. And be blew a gasket!
What happens next is well-known. Jesus goes on a rampage and cleans house. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling doves, “Take those things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
“Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
This infamous story challenges our meek and mild image of Jesus. And along the way, it communicates a truth we dare not miss: any time we allow a sacred place to be turned into a marketplace, we are committing an abomination in the eyes of the Lord. And Jesus will not hesitate to aggressively confront us when we do.
By the way, Jesus’ would never have become so angry had he not loved the temple so. It was because he loved his Father’s house and his Father’s people that he literally cracked a whip over the backs of those who turned the temple into a marketplace.
By the way, I believe Jesus loves his church in the same way. And I can’t help but wonder what Jesus would observe were he to slip into our church today. Would he see any practice, or tradition, or attitude that needed to be driven out of here? Would he find any ways we overtly or covertly dishonor God by what we do or think or say? Would he be pleased or put off by the way we treat our Gentiles, the outsiders of our day?
But that’s another sermon.
In this season of Lent, when we are particularly focused on our stewardship commitment to God, I want us to picture our own souls as temples of God. Of course, I am not the first to make this comparison. In 1 Corinthians 3:16, the Apostle Paul writes, Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? Since the coming of Jesus, Christians have believe the church, the body of Christ, is the temple of God. And so is the soul of any Christ-follower.
Your soul is that sacred space inside you where God dwells. It is also that truest part of you that has a deep and never-ending desire for God.
When God created you, he gave you a soul pure and undefiled. But because of the pervasive influence of sin in human experience, your soul becomes deformed over time. And one of the best evidences of a deformed soul is desire that becomes misplaced.
And so the earliest set of laws God gave to humanity, otherwise known as the Ten Commandments, begin and end with the object of our desire. The first commandment says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” In other words, we should never desire any thing or anyone in this world more than God. Being with God, serving God, obeying God should be our deepest desire.
The tenth commandment reinforces this idea. “You shall not covet (literally, ‘desire’) your neighbor’s house…wife, or…anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Desiring what does not belong to you is misplaced desire. And it is this kind of deformed, over-the-top desire for profit or people or possessions that turns the temples of our souls into the very kind of temple Jesus cleaned out 2000 years ago—a marketplace that reeked of desire gone bad. The problem, of course, is that we typically are blind to our deformed desires. The author of Psalm 19, traditionally thought to be King David, knows something about desire run amok. David coveted and took another man’s wife for his own. Then David convinced himself he hadn’t done anything wrong. David knows whereof he speaks when he writes, “But who can detect their (own) errors?” It wasn’t until David heard God’s painful word of truth through the prophet Nathan that he finally acknowledge his hidden faults.
One of the hard truths David illustrates is that by ourselves we don’t have it in us to see the truth about ourselves. And we certainly don’t have the power within us to transform ourselves into fully developed disciples of Jesus.
We learn these kinds of truths about God and counselors by meditating upon God’s word. Now, in all honesty it’s possible to read God’s word and still have a manure-filled marketplace of a soul. I’m confident the money changers and merchants driven out of the temple were quite familiar with the Old Testament Law. But that just proves it’s possible to read the word with a heart as hard as stone.
The spiritual discipline of meditating on the word involves inviting God to change our hearts and renew our minds as they are exposed over time to the penetrating word of God. Now we are not reading for information but transformation. When we meditate over the word, and marinate in the word, it revives our soul, gives us wisdom beyond our own, fills our hearts with joy, and sharpens our spiritual eyesight. That’s why, says David, the ordinances of the Lord are more to be desired than gold, even much fine gold.
If you desire money more than the word of God, your soul is more marketplace than temple.
If you desire financial profits more than the biblical prophets, your soul is more marketplace than temple.
If you desire your neighbor’s spouse or belongings more than your own, your soul is more marketplace than temple.
If you desire time on the golf course or at the mall more than in God’s word, your soul is more marketplace than temple.
If you simply can’t find time in your busy schedule to incorporate spiritual disciplines like meditating upon the word into your life, your soul is more marketplace than temple.
Friends, if all our cherished church practices and traditions somehow cause us to forget that we are first and foremost to be about the business of spiritual formation for ourselves and others who have yet to accept Christ, then we may well hear a whip cracking above our heads. That’s why in this stewardship season I am asking, without apology, that you commit to arrange your life in such a way that God has ample time and opportunity to transform you into a person who conforms to the image of Christ, who employs your God-given gifts for the sake of others. And by the way, if you live out this commitment you’ll find that this was your deepest, truest desire all along.
Imagine the impact on your life and on our church if our individual and collective desire was the same as Jesus’—to know and do the will of God? We’d no longer just be a church. We’d be a veritable temple of the Almighty God.
I’m asking you to commit yourself today to that kind of spiritual formation in 2012. So…what’s stopping you?