Take These Things Away!

Delivered March 18, 2001 by Rev. George Antonakos.
Theme: Jesus wants to cleanse the temple of our hearts.

Sermon Text:
John 2:13-22

Little Teddy Roosevelt had a problem. Yes, our president. When Roosevelt was a child his mother, Mitty, found that he was so afraid of the Madison Square Church that he refused to set foot inside of it alone. He was terrified, as she discovered, of something called “The Zeal.” It crouched in dark corners ready to pounce upon him. And when she asked him what a zeal might be, he said that he couldn’t exactly describe it, but he thought it might be something like an alligator or a dragon. And he heard the minister read about it in the Bible. So using a concordance, Mitty read him those passages containing the word zeal until suddenly he stopped her very excited, and said “that’s it!” The line was from the Book of John, Chapter 2, verse 17, and it was the King James version- “And his disciples remembered that it was written the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.” Let’s read from the NIV version, this text. John, Chapter 2, Verses 13-22. And listen in fact to how the zeal of God’s house did eat someone up, Our Lord Jesus Christ.

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the moneychangers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! How dare you turn my father’s house into a market!’ His disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ Then the Jews demanded of him, ‘What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’ The Jews replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’ But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 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.

If Jesus had a caption for what was going on it would be–“What’s wrong with this picture?” Instead of people zealously supporting God’s honor, they were holding a flea market. And it was dishonoring to God. And that’s what got Jesus so excited. You know many people have been embarrassed by this text; many Christians have tried to explain it away. I remember as a college student trying to share my faith with a classmate and he defended himself in terms of not needing to believe in Jesus by saying, “Look Jesus was sinful. Look at what he did in the temple. Jesus sinned, he got angry.” Well, I didn’t know how to answer him at that time. And I discovered later that not only was I trying to figure this out, but even the writers and the translators of the ancient Greek text were trying to find some way to soften this image of Jesus. In one textual version, one copyist wrote that, “He made kind of a whip of cords. It was almost like the copyist was trying to play down that Jesus would do such a thing. Now while it’s true that blowing your stack will only create air pollution, this is not the type of anger that Jesus expressed. Jesus was not losing his temper. He was exercising the authority of God whose holiness was forgotten in the name of commerce and religion. Divine anger is intolerance for that which blocks us from a healthy relationship with God and others. God got angry. The prophets in God’s name got angry. Jesus got angry. Paul got angry. In fact, the scripture says, “In your anger, don’t sin.” So it’s not that we get angry, it’s why we get angry and how we respond. And Jesus was responding in a certain way, not to destroy or to be hostile, but to restore. God’s anger is designed to restore, it’s like our book of discipline. That when the discipline of the church is needed, it’s not for tearing down; it’s for the building up and the restoration of people.

Two types of people walked out of the temple that day. The “Who” people and the “How” people. The Who people said, “Who does he think he is? And by what authority does he do these things?” The How people said, “How in the world did I let myself become so spiritually dense?” Jesus desired to restore right relationships and practices of worship of those in the temple of Jerusalem, so He comes today to all who are called in the scriptures the Temple of the Holy Spirit, that’s us. We’re the temples of the Holy Spirit. And He comes today to seek, to confront, to cleanse and to release what needs to be changed in the temple of our hearts. Our lives are an intricate system of relationships and exchanges. The currency we deal with may not be shekels and sheep, but each Sunday we come here to do business with God. And too often we go about our business painfully unaware that we need to be reoriented in our relationship with God. I like the way C.S. Lewis tries to communicate this idea through his book, The Screw Tape Letters. Many of you are familiar with The Screw Tape Letters; it is about Screwtape, a demon, who writes a series of letters to his nephew advising him how to separate people from God. Screwtape says, “You will say that these are very small sins and like all young tempters you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember the only thing that matters if the extent to which you separate the man from the enemy.” Screwtape refers to “the enemy” as being God. He continues by saying, “It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the light out into the nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one. The gentle slope, soft under foot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. Now I ask you, “What is a safer road to Hell than religion?” What is a safer road to Hell than being surrounded by that which makes us think we’re just fine.” Practices that should have been leading people toward God were leading people away from God, and Jesus would have none of it.

I remember a family therapy line that had really stuck with me and makes sense in terms of how this applies, not only between God and us, but how it applies in our relationships with each other. Anger re-negotiates boundaries. Have you ever had family explosions from time to time? I’m sure none of our families has this ever happened. But in some families, there are family explosions. You know like mom says, “I’m tired of being taking for granted. You guys make your own dinner.” That statement re-negotiates boundaries. And if they’re controlled explosions based on what is right in God’s sight they can be very effective in waking up the emotionally and spiritually sleepy. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in our parenting or other important relationships, we could correct unhealthy behavior and hear folks say “Thank you for correcting me, I don’t know why I didn’t see it that way myself. I’ll change right away.” Wouldn’t that be wonderful? But sometimes you need the 2 x 4 method. Not to hurt, but to restore. Let’s face it, we’re not so spiritual, many times. Hopefully, when we’ve been obtuse, we catch it and confess it, and we make things right. But other times we just kind of go sailing along not aware of how we are hurting people, devaluing people right in our own homes. And sometimes we need a 2 x 4, a divine one, to help adjust things. And our Lord wants to come into those areas of our lives where we have been taken over by sin and of lulled to sleep He wants to overturn and correct those attitudes and actions that detract us from the number one commandment: “You shall have no other God’s before me.” Now if Jesus said to you today in the privacy of your own heart, “Take these things away.” To what would He be referring? The NIV says, “get these things out of here.” To what would He be referring? And remember the ones who makes us aware of our sin are also the one whose come to cleanse us from our sin.

Love and conflict are not opposed to each other. In fact, it’s the absence of healthy conflict that may signal a deep indifference. That’s why Paul says to the Ephesians, “Speak the truth in love and grow up in Christ.” When we use anger constructively in healthy confrontation, we’re saying that we want two things in our relationships. This is for husbands and wives, parents and children. And this text is really for all of us to think about. When we are feeling devalued, it’s okay to take a stand. When people are being abused, it’s okay to take a stand. I mean when Jerry made that announcement today about Anthony being paralyzed, I got angry. I bet you got angry, too. I mean, there was a mixture of sorrow and anger all at once. When basic values, essential values are being denied we ought to stand up and be angry, but do not sin. We need to use our anger constructively. And so in our relationships we want two things. We want the relationship, but we also want it to be honest. Interpersonal communication at it’s best says, “I want to stay in a respectful relationship with you, and I want you to know where I stand, too. In what I need, what I value, and what I want.” And that’s exactly what God is doing with us in this text and what’s He’s saying today. “I want a relationship with you, but it needs to be honest.” And that’s why we need a Savior, because on our end we can’t be honest with God until we’ve come out of our sin and into a right relationship with Jesus Christ. You know that’s the other theological point of this text. That, and something that’s not so obvious. John puts this temple cleansing in the beginning of the Gospel. All the other Gospels put it at the end connected to the Passion Week. Why does John put it at the beginning? Because John is saying that Jesus is the fulfillment of Judaism. There are no more animal sacrifices that can bring us to God. Now Jesus’ body is the temple in which humans and God are made One. And God is coming to us today and He’s saying that in order for this to happen, in order for this relationship to be honest, we need to clear out whatever it is that makes you think that you’re okay. For a non-believer it could be the currency of my good works, the currency that “I’m such a good person,” or the currency of the track record of church attendance. None of that is worth anything before God. God wants to cleanse your heart. He comes and entrusts Himself to the person that gives Him their whole heart. It’s an interesting passage at the end of this text, it says that some people saw Jesus’ signs and believed, but Jesus did not entrust Himself to them, because they only believed because of what He did. They didn’t believe because of who He was. And it’s says that Jesus will not entrust Himself to them because He knew what was in people, but Jesus will entrust Himself to the person who says, “God, do your cleansing work. Come in to my life, cleanse my sin.” And that’s what God wants. And sometimes we forget spirituality, we forget holiness, we forget values, we forget relationship. And so I ask you, “What in your life does God need to deal with?”

Let me share with you the story of one other divine 2 x 4 and then we will close. The restoration of First Community Church had been completed. The 150-year-old house of worship with its fresh paint and newly installed multi-colored stain glass windows, seemed to glow in the warm April sun. And inside the sanctuary the old hand made pews were carefully refinished and heavily lacquered. New paraments covered the pulpit; bright red cushions covered the pews and new carpet. And above, in the center, very similar to the way our sanctuary is in a way, except with a beautiful stain-glass window of Jesus preaching at the Sermon of the Mount, was a huge white cross. Pastor James surveyed the sanctuary with great pride as he stood before the lectern and he called the first business meeting to order at First Community. George Hendricks stood up and said, “I think our first item of business should be the discussion of brass nameplates for the new windows.” “I agree,” said Harold Wickenham, jumping to his feet. “I’d like the large one in front, the one with Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount.” “No”, said Harriett Monkfort, “that window was mine. I was the chairperson of the stain glass window committee. And I think I should have first choice.” “That’s ridiculous,” Percy Winfield said as he waved his arms, “Nobody’s given as much as I have to this campaign, and besides my great grandfather was a chartered member of this congregation. I want his name under that window.” The pastor getting, a little anxious, started to calm everybody down and said, “This is not the way to decide the issue, friends. Anyway I assumed that the names of all the churches pastors would be under that window.” “I will not stand for this,” said Henrietta Anvil. She stepped heavily on Harry Johnson’s toes as she moved out beside the pew. She went toe to toe with Pastor James. “I give more money to this church than Percy Winfield, and if anybody gets a name under that window it will be ——.” A large tearing sound interrupted her. The top of the cross came unhinged and the church members watched in shocked silence as it swung down, crashing into the stained-glass window behind it, sending colored glass and thousands of pieces. And the Pastor and Henrietta taking cover under the first pew, looked up and from the safety of their refuge and stared at an upside down cross in a broken space where the image of Jesus Christ had been. What is it that’s in that empty space where the face of Jesus once had been? For First Community it was pride and envy and conflict. Today, our Lord wishes to cleanse the temple of your heart and to give you the strength you need to stand tall in His grace. “His disciples remembered” the text says and believed his word. May the disciples today do the same.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, we thank You for Your word. We pray that You would indeed come and cleanse the temple of our hearts. We need Your grace. We need Your strength. We asked that once again You would renew us and conform us to Your image. Give us the courage that we need to say no to the things that You want us to say no to and yes to those things You want us to say yes to. We recognize our humble reliance on your Holy Spirit and pray in Jesus name. Amen.