Holy Week | Cleansing the Temple
The countdown to Easter is officially on. We’re now just five weeks away. But this year, we’re treating the weeks leading up to Easter a little differently than we usually do. Most years, we spend the weeks leading up to Easter talking about how we can reconnect with God, how we can grow closer to God, or how we can take our faith to the next level.
And there is absolutely nothing wrong with talking about any of these things or all of these things as Easter draws closer...especially if Easter happens in a vacuum. But Easter doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Easter happens in the real world.
Easter happens in the real world.
And, in the real world, pandemics don’t go away just because Easter is coming. In the real world, viruses aren’t miraculously cured just because Easter is coming. In the real world, problems don’t get solved just because Easter is coming. In the real world, struggles don’t go away just because Easter is coming. And, in the real world, hard times don’t get easier just because Easter is coming.
So this year, instead of pretending that life is all rainbows and sunshine because we all know it’s not, we’re going to spend the weeks leading up to Easter talking about some things that we need to know that will help us follow God even in difficult times.
And let’s just be honest here, we have all been living through difficult times for the last eleven months. I mean, it has been over eleven months since the last time we met together to worship in-person. So even though we’re doing the best that we can to connect with each other online each week, we’re all feeling at least a little isolated. On top of that, we haven’t really been able to leave our houses to enjoy even the small things in life--like dinner at a nice restaurant or a trip to the movies--so we all have at least a little cabin fever. And that doesn’t even mention the anxiety that we’re all still feeling because we’re living through a pandemic that has contributed to the deaths of millions of people across the globe.
So, we need to spend some time talking about things that will help us follow God in difficult times. And we’re going to do that by exploring some of the events that take place during one of the most difficult times in the history of our faith. So we’re working our way through some of the events that happened in the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion and his resurrection--a week that we, in the church, refer to as Holy Week.
And we started last week by exploring what happened on Sunday of Holy Week. And on Sunday of Holy Week, we saw Jesus come riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, while a crowd greeted him like a conquering king. And that story taught us the first thing we need to know to follow God even in difficult times. And the first thing we need to do is to keep the right perspective. We need to remember that no matter what the world may bring, Jesus is always king.
But that’s not the only thing that we need to know to help us follow God in difficult times. So, today, we’re going to put Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem behind us. And we’re going to focus on an event that took place on Holy Monday. Now, just like last week, we’ll find today’s story in Mark 11. And just as a reminder for you, the book of Mark is one of four books in the Bible that we call the Gospels--there’s Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And we call these four books gospels because the word “gospel” means “good news,” and these four books tell us the good news of Jesus. They are essentially biographies of Jesus.
So in the book of Mark, you’ll find stories about Jesus’ ministry and the miracles that he performed. You’ll also find stories of his crucifixion and his resurrection. But today, we’re going to be looking at what happened on the Monday of Holy Week. So let’s see what Mark tells us, starting in Mark 11:15. Mark writes:
11:15 [Jesus and his disciples] came into Jerusalem. After entering the temple, he threw out those who were selling and buying there. He pushed over the tables used for currency exchange and the chairs of those who sold doves. 16 He didn’t allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 He taught them, “Hasn’t it been written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you’ve turned it into a hideout for crooks.” 18 The chief priests and legal experts heard this and tried to find a way to destroy him. They regarded him as dangerous because the whole crowd was enthralled at his teaching. 19 When it was evening, Jesus and his disciples went outside the city.
Mark 11:15-19 (Common English Bible)
So, as this story plays out in the book of Mark, it’s almost unimaginable for us. I mean, let's face it, the last thing any of us would expect to see outside of our sanctuary on a Sunday morning when we start meeting in-person again are cows, sheep, or doves. But that’s exactly what’s there when Jesus and his disciples arrive at the Temple.
And it doesn’t take long before Jesus is rushing through the Temple turning over tables and releasing these animals. But why does Jesus do that? I mean, it may seem clear to us that cows, sheep, and doves don’t belong in our churches today. But why didn’t they belong in the Temple?
Well, the first thing we need to remember is that worship in the Temple is completely different than worship in our churches today. The truth is that worship in the Temple is radically different than worship inside of Jewish synagogues today. You see, throughout most of the Old and New Testaments, worshipers were required to offer burnt offerings or sacrifices when they came to the Temple. So cattle, sheep, and doves would have been a common sight because they were all animals that were commonly used for burnt offerings. So just because we'd never see livestock in our church on a Sunday morning, that doesn't mean these animals had no place in Jerusalem's Temple.
And there's also something else we need to remember about worshiping in the Temple in Biblical times too. Nowadays when you get out of bed on Sunday morning and decide to go to church, we have a lot of churches to pick from. With just a quick Google search, I counted over 500 churches--including 170 Baptist churches, like ours--in the city of Louisville alone. Even in the small town where I served before coming to Louisville, there were almost a dozen churches inside the city limits. And that’s just if you wanted to attend church in-person.
The truth is that right now because of the way that COVID-19 has changed our world and our churches, you could literally worship online with tens of thousands of churches all across the globe whenever you want to. At Melbourne Heights alone, we have had people worship with us from 43 different states and 37 different countries since we started worshiping together online last March.
And before we breeze right by what I just said, stop and think about that for just a second. This time last year, we had around a hundred people from two different states that were worshiping with us regularly on Sunday mornings. But over the last eleven months, we have had thousands of people from 43 different states and 37 different countries worship with us. And we appreciate every single one of you whether you live in Kentucky, Connecticut, California, Korea, Cameroon, the United Kingdom, or anywhere in between. And I think that is an amazing testament to just how great our God is, that he could use a church like ours to minister to people all across the globe.
But, getting back to what I was saying a minute ago, when we want to go to church today we have countless different options. But in Biblical times there was one Temple. That's right, one Temple. And everyone who wanted to worship at the Temple had to travel to Jerusalem to do so. And it was a whole lot harder to get to Jerusalem in those days than it is to find a church service online today.
And it meant that people from all over the world travel to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple. Now, some of these people might come from just down the street. But other people would’ve traveled hundreds if not thousands of miles to reach the Temple. But, no matter where they came from or how long it took them to get there, once someone arrived at the Temple they were expected to bring a burnt offering or a sacrifice. And this meant that people had to travel all the way from their homes--however far away they may have been--all the way to Jerusalem dragging a cow, or a sheep, or a dove right along with them.
And if you were traveling all those miles, you couldn't just pack up Ole Bessy or Baa Baa Black Sheep. You also had to pack enough food for them to eat along the way. And let's just say it isn't exactly convenient to haul an animal and all its food hundreds of miles just to visit the Temple.
So the people in charge of the Temple came up with a brilliant idea. Instead of forcing people to haul their own animals from all over God's green earth, they would allow vendors to set up shop and sell the animals that were needed for burnt offerings and sacrifices to visitors when they arrived at the Temple.
So all of these animals that Jesus drives out of the Temple were there for a reason, they were there for the convenience of worshipers. They were there to make it easier for people to come and worship.
And what about the money changers? Well, once again, it would be a strange sight in our churches today to see miniature banks set up outside of the sanctuary. But you have to remember that the Temple was very different than our churches are today.
Today churches rely on the generosity of our members and guests to make sure our bills are paid, but that's not how it worked in the Temple. In the Temple, everyone had to pay a tax and they weren't allowed to use just any money. They weren't allowed to pay with any money that had a human image, like a picture of the emperor's head, on it. And that meant that visitors to the Temple weren't allowed to use any foreign currency.
What did this mean? It meant that people had to be able to convert their money into appropriate currency to be used in the Temple. And how did they do that? Well, it's just like the way we convert money today; if you're planning a trip to Europe and want to take cash then you stop by the bank and have your American dollars converted to Euros. But instead of visiting banks before they left home, the Temple offered money changers to once again make a visit to the Temple more convenient for worshipers.
But Jesus doesn’t start overturning tables and running people out of the Temple because they’ve made it more convenient for people to come and worship God. There was something else that had infuriated Jesus. In verse 17, Jesus said, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you’ve turned it into a hideout for crooks.”
So why is Jesus mad enough to cleanse the Temple and drive animals and money changers from this sacred space? Because these money-changers and vendors had taken something that was meant for good and they had turned it into something that was used for evil.
And although none of the gospels spell it out for us, we're left with the impression that the money changers and vendors were ripping off the people who came to the Temple to worship. We're led to believe that the money changers weren’t executing a fair exchange rate and that they were lining their own pockets with the profits. We're led to believe that the animal vendors were either overcharging or that they were selling inferior animals at full price all in an attempt to make a few extra bucks.
But one way or the other, we can see by Jesus’ actions in this story that the practice of selling animals and changing money in the Temple, although it seemed good in concept, turned out to be evil in practice. Instead of helping potential worshipers come closer to God, they were driving people away from the Temple. And Jesus wasn’t going to stand for that. So he overturned the tables and he ran the moneychangers out of the Temple.
So here’s the question: what does that have to do with us? And more specifically, what can this story teach us that will help us follow God even in difficult times?
Well, I don’t know about you, but when I’m going through a difficult time my emotions tend to run a little high. And that means that I can get angry about even little things. And when I get angry, I never have a problem justifying my anger. And that’s because when I get mad, I know that I’m right.
When I get angry that McDonald’s messed up my breakfast order, I know that I placed the right order so their employees are the ones that got it wrong. When I get angry when the car behind me in traffic honks their horn at me, I know that I was following all the traffic laws so the guy behind me is just being a jerk. When I get angry at the referees when I’m watching a UK game, I know that they missed the call because I could clearly see it with my own two eyes.
So it doesn’t matter what it is that makes me angry. In my mind, it’s okay that I’m angry because I’m also right.
But here’s what I need to learn from the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple--and I have a feeling that I’m not the only one who needs to learn this, but here it is: Just because I think I’m right, it doesn’t mean my anger is righteous.
Just because I think I’m right, it doesn’t mean my anger is righteous.
And if my anger is not righteous, then I need to let it go.
But how do you know if your anger is righteous? Well, in his book Christians in the Age of Outrage, Ed Stetzer--who is a pastor, researcher, and the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College--points out three characteristics of righteous anger that will help you know if your anger is righteous or not.
So how does Stetzer say you can tell if your anger is righteous or not? Well, first, he says that righteous anger is directed toward things that anger God.
Righteous anger is directed at things that anger God.
And you know what, having somebody forget to take the ketchup off your cheeseburger probably doesn’t anger God. What angers God are things like injustice, racism, corruption, hypocrisy, immorality, and the oppression of the poor and needy.
The second characteristic of righteous anger is that it mirrors the way that God is angry.
Righteous anger mirrors the way that God is angry.
And God’s anger always comes from a place of love and faithfulness. So when you get mad that somebody honked their horn at you in traffic, you need to ask yourself how you feel about that person. Do you see them as a child of God, someone deeply loved by God, who has made a mistake. Or do you see them as a jerk who doesn’t know how to drive?
And the third characteristic of righteous anger is that it submits to God’s role as the ultimate judge.
Righteous anger submits to God’s role as the ultimate judge.
What does that mean? Well, it means that most of the time when we’re mad we want vengeance. We want somebody to get what’s coming to them...and sometimes we even try to figure out ways to make sure they get it. But righteous anger knows that God is the ultimate judge and he is the only one who can deliver justice.
So, if you want to grow closer to God even in difficult times, you have to keep an eye on your anger. Because when you’re going through difficult times, you’re going to get mad. We’ve seen how that plays out throughout this pandemic. We have seen people get angry with our governor here in Kentucky over mandates he’s enacted to try to keep us safe and slow the spread of the coronavirus. We’ve seen people get angry with schools for closing down to in-person learning even though it was done to protect our kids. We’ve seen people get angry when stores started requiring face masks to shop.
But all of these examples have one thing in common. None of these examples of people getting angry were righteous. Their anger wasn’t righteous because it wasn’t directed at things that anger God...their anger was directed at things that inconvenience them. Their anger wasn’t righteous because it didn’t mirror God’s anger...because their anger led to hatred and at times violence instead of love. Their anger wasn’t righteous because it didn’t submit to God’s role as the ultimate judge...instead their anger was all about getting their own way.
So, we get angry during difficult times. But if our anger is not a righteous anger...and I’d say that it isn’t at least nine times out of ten, then we have to let it go. So, if you want to follow God even in difficult times, you have to learn to let go of your anger and you have to remember to keep trusting your king.