THE CLEANSING OF THE MYSTICAL TEMPLE
THERE are three occasions recorded for us in the Gospels when our Lord became angry. The first was when He came to heal the daughter of the president of the congregation. They told Him she was dead, but He disagreed, and they laughed at Him. The second time was when the mothers were bringing children to see Him, but His disciples tried to keep them away. Our text presents the third time, when He entered the courts of the Lord's house and found how commercial it had become. He not only became angry, He chased the salesmen out. The two Scriptures that He quoted were directed at the wicked situation He saw. Isaiah 56 said God's house would be a house of prayer for the nations. Jeremiah 7 accused the false scribes of turning the temple into a den of robbers.
That was the Second Temple, a building made of stones. It is gone. But every Christian heart is also a temple, a mystical temple, so it ought to be a house of prayer, a place of spiritual sacrifice, decorated with patience and wisdom, prudence and courage, sincerity and honesty. The doors of our hearts should always be open to those who come seeking sanctuary. The light of God's Word should brighten every corner, while the incense of prayer ascends without ceasing.
God created our hearts. We owe this to Him. None of us deserves to be the dwelling place of the Infinite. Yet by God's grace that is what we are. Jesus was the Third Temple. He said He would raise it in three days. He was speaking of His body, crucified but now risen and indeed ascended. But we are His body, His mystical body, so now He speaks of us as His temple of living stones. He gives us this purely out of love. In a similar way we love our pets who cannot begin to understand us. He loves us even though we could never understand such love.
What was this churchly trade? During the Exile the Jews became an urban ethnic group. They had lost their farms in Israel, and had to turn to commerce in the urban centers of the Middle East. As a result, they had no livestock which they needed for offerings at the major festivals. So the merchants of Jerusalem made a thriving business selling animals to those who wanted to worship. They were making the temple user friendly. And not just the temple. The economy of the whole city would boom at the festivals. This was a major wave of business. Almost everyone was happy because of it. Not Jesus. He was furious. When He was twelve He had sought out the temple because people were reading God's Word there. This time He saw none of that. Instead, merchants were bickering over the price of a goat. Is it any wonder He chased them out?
The merchants were polluting the Second Temple. How have we treated the mystical temple? What kind of dwelling place does God find in the depths of our personalities? Have we not, from the time we were children, harbored thieves in God's house of prayer? Have we not let them in one by one, drawn by our inclination to love ourselves above all? First comes the little pre-school thief, who says "I want this…I want that." Then comes the schoolboy who says "I need this … I need that." The first evidence that they live inside us is that we are grabbers and takers from the time we learn to talk. These thieves have a mother, Madam Security, who always worries about tomorrow, and her sister Nag, who never shuts up. We get older. We meet rich Uncle Playboy, or perhaps his poor brother, Drudgery. Then we discover the other side of the family. There is Aunt Glitter, and Uncle Sportsfan, and Miss Ecstasy - who isn't really a relative. In time we reach the patriarch himself, Father Pride, whose chief lesson is that you have to make yourself an important person.
No one has all these thieves, but everyone has some. And once they come in, there's no way to get rid of them. The economies of our bodies and minds becomes as dependent on them as that of Jerusalem depended on the temple sales. And if we're really honest, we admit that we don't really want them to leave. God must be very vain and jealous to want us to put these demons out of our hearts. True, we admit they are pretty rotten company, but we can't bring ourselves to dump them out. Can't we worship God in His place and indulge our amusing guests the rest of the time? God says NO. He is never vain, but He certainly is jealous. He will not allow us to tell Him where His place is. As long as we harbor those thieves, we are putting something else in His place. Our whole life is His place.
But let's take a closer look. Is Jesus holding a whip? Remember, He came into this world not to beat, but to be beaten, not to lay cruel hands on us, but to lay Himself in our cruel hands. It was not anger that made God incarnate, it was love. So how does He cleanse the mystical temple? Not with the whip, not with the sword, but with His own blood. So He draws all the thieves out of our hearts so they may be houses of prayer. He draws them upon Himself, because His is the one human heart they can never corrupt. They curse Him, they insult Him, they torment Him, even as He reigns from the cross we see all the little robbers grimacing at the dying Jesus. But then, as He rises from the dead, they have no defense.
Jesus had to act alone in this because no one else was worthy. But He has overcome that condition. He joined Himself to us in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, cleanses His mystical temples even as He is uncorrupt. It does not matter how old you were - Baptism isn't about what we say. It depends on God's Word, and on water which we use in His name. Our Baptism is eternal, but we have to live in time, therefore we have the experience of being cleansed, yet inviting the thieves back in. God cleanses us again by Absolution, the special assurance the pastor gives you that all of your imperfections you have brought in cannot haunt you for all eternity. Be sure that the Absolution the pastor speaks has full power to cleanse you. The Father loves you, Jesus is your High Priest who sympathizes with you in your struggle against temptation, and the Holy Spirit continues to make you His temple. We all know what it means to pollute that temple. So draw near with a true heart on the Lord's Day, bow before His altar, hear the words of forgiveness from the sacred liturgy, and receive the nourishment of the Holy Eucharist. That is how Jesus cleanses the mystical temple, each temple, which we call by our own names. AMEN.
Rev. Lloyd E. Gross