Sermon on St. Luke 19:41-48
12 August 2012
It is written, “My house is a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves – Lk 19:46
“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” the people cried out. Jesus was approaching Jerusalem, the Holy City, on the first day of the week of Passover (Palm Sunday on our calendar). Many pilgrims in Jerusalem had seen His mighty works (Lk 19:37) and welcomed this King with cries of “Hosanna,” and the waving of palm branches. But see how Jesus did not take this opportunity to announce his candidacy for ruling an earthly kingdom. Rather, Jesus wept over Jerusalem. This is where our Gospel Lesson begins. He saw the City of Peace, the capital of the Promised Land. He knew all that would happen to Him that week: betrayal, trial, and denial; suffering, death, and burial. No wonder Jesus wept over Jerusalem, for most of the Jews did not know the time of their visitation in Christ, i.e., the time that Jesus invited them to be a part of His heavenly kingdom through repentance and faith.
Perhaps nowhere is this tension between Jesus’ kingdom and the kingdoms of this world clearer than the Temple cleansing, which immediately follows Jesus’ lament for Jerusalem. Was the Temple, the magnificent “cathedral” of its day, a house of prayer or a den of thieves? Under Solomon, it was consecrated as a house of prayer. Do you recall, for instance, Solomon’s prayer of dedication? In I Kings 8, we read that Solomon asked, “Will God indeed dwell on earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!” (27). Yet God chose to live in this house of prayer and to bless His people with forgiveness and salvation. And so Solomon continued, “Yet have regard to the prayer of your servant and to his plea, O Lord my God, listening to the cry and to the prayer that your servant prays before you this day, that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house” (28-29). In short, the Temple was a house of prayer – a place where God’s people prayed to the one true God. And when He heard their prayer, born of faith, He forgave their sins.
However, the unbelievers of Jesus’ day made the Temple into a den of thieves. Solomon’s Temple had been through quite a few changes in the 1,000[-ish] years from Solomon to Jesus. It was destroyed under a Babylonian King, rebuilt about 70 years after its destruction, and beautified under Herod the Great. But more to the point, buying and selling had entered the Temple. During the great Passover feast, each family had to bring a sacrifice to the Temple. In the case of Jesus’ family, for instance, you would probably buy the sacrifice after you arrived in Jerusalem, rather than drag your goat or lamb some 90 miles from Nazareth. The result was a massive market in Jerusalem for buying and selling animals during festive weeks. What is offensive, however, is the curious practice of buying and selling animals in the chambers of the Temple itself. For the record, there is nothing in Luke’s Gospel to indicate that they sellers were price hiking per se. But they were violating holy space, i.e., doing something in God’s house that they should not have done in God’s presence. Yes, liturgy matters! How we behave and what we do (and don’t do) in God’s house is important! And so Jesus drove them out, for they had turned His house of prayer into a den of thieves.
These two, contrasting views of the Temple – the house of prayer vs. the den of thieves – converge in our own day in marketing the church. If I may recommend some good summer reading, please be sure to pick up a copy of the book, Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World by New England theologian, David F. Wells (Eerdmans 2005). In a critique of the postmodern church and her efforts to market the church to white, suburban families, Wells criticizes the curious presence of buying and selling within our churchly temples (church marketing). One community church in the Chicago area, for instance, set the pace for marketing the church by having its own food court, mimicking the local shopping mall. Building on this precedent, the author notes that in Houston, there is a church that sells fast food hamburgers. In New York, one church operates a sidewalk bistro, including Chardonnay to accompany your prayers. In Dallas, a church actually features a sauna to help you relax after the service. But the apex of turning the church into a den of thieves has to be in Florida, where one church operates an entire mall. It includes a bookstore, dry cleaner, bus terminal, café, game room, balloon shop (probably handy on Ascension Day), law office, art shop, and – my personal favorite – a pasta shop called “Angel’s Hair.” The author notes the effort and money the church is investing in “making the church seem desirable for reasons that have nothing to do with worship.” And he summarizes his critique in words that echo today’s Gospel Lesson: “[B]uying and selling have entered into the Church’s inner sanctum” (287).
To my best knowledge, very few Lutheran churches have gone to this extreme. But the den of thieves Jesus encountered and the curious trend of marketing the church remind us all of the first and the third commandments. We risk making this church something it is not when we cherish camaraderie with one another more than sacramental fellowship with the Trinity; when we are willing to invest our resources in temporal matters more so than spiritual things; when we are willing to try to help operate (read: control) the business aspect of the church, but never willing to set foot in Bible study; when we value the eating of temporal food more than the sacramental food set at this altar; when we quote constitutions and various rules of order more than we quote the Sacred Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions; when we believe that human perception is more important than the Divine truth of the Gospel; in short, whenever we put anyone or anything ahead of God (first commandment) or His Word (third commandment), we become the image of those whom Jesus drove out of the Temple.
In short, it is only through repentance that we may be restored to the NT house of prayer. See how the events of Holy Week are fulfilled in our midst in Christ. As Christ entered Jerusalem on a donkey, so now He enters the New Jerusalem through His incarnation. Since we cannot come to Him, He comes to us as one of us, to live our life in obedience to our heavenly Father. As He cleansed the Temple to restore it to its true identity as a house of prayer, so He comes to us in Holy Baptism. At this font, He cleanses us from our sins, drives out sin and death, and makes us partakers of His death and resurrection. As Jesus called Jerusalem to repentance and faith, so He calls us to repent of our sins and believe the Gospel. And as He shared the Last Supper in the upper room, so now He sets a table with His true body and blood, the NT Passover feast. Here we eat with Him, receive His life and salvation, and rejoice that we have passed over from death to life. From His incarnation to His death and resurrection to His presence among us today, Christ is the new Temple, His church is the new Jerusalem, and we are His faithful people.
And so today’s Gospel Lesson on the Temple cleansing sets before us the stark reality that false teaching and the right Gospel exist side by side to the end of days. As Jesus continued teaching in the Temple during Holy Week, the leaders of the people sought to destroy Him. They secularized His entire ministry, seeing Him as just another great teacher, his capital city as a worldly kingdom, and the temple as a marketplace. But St. Luke ends with a note of hope: “All the people were very attentive to hear [Jesus].” Even in predominantly unfaithful Jerusalem, the faithful heard Jesus’ words, believed in Him, and had eternal life. It reminds us of the Divine Service, doesn’t it? We hear Jesus speak to us in His Word. We respond in prayer. And we rejoice in the gifts given here, “that we, running the way of [His] commandments, may obtain [His] gracious promises and be made partakers of [His] heavenly treasure” (Collect).
God grant it unto us for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
The New King James Version of the Bible is quoted in this sermon.
Rev. Brian Hamer
Redeemer Lutheran Church, Bayside, NY