Fulfilling Our Purpose
Scriptures: Mark 11:12-20, Jeremiah 7:1-15
Some years ago there was a Doonesbury comic strip about a
congregational gathering at the Little Church of Walden. Pastor Scot gets up and says, "Okay, flock. I'd like to run through this week's activities. This Monday, of course, we have a lecture on nutrition from Kate Moss' personal chef. Tuesday and Thursday will be our regular 12 step nights." Someone interrupts and says, "Scot, would that be drugs or sex addiction?" Pastor Scot says, "Drugs. Sex addiction we've cut down to nine steps. That's on Friday at 6:30 p.m.-right after organic co-gardening. Also a special treat-Saturday night will be male-bonding night! So bring your sneaks! Any questions?" A voice at the back says, "Is there a church service?" Pastor Scot says, "Cancelled. There was a conflict with the self-esteem workshop."
You might say that in our Bible story for today Jesus cancels the
church service. Mark says, "And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves." Growing up I was told that Jesus did this because the merchants and money changers were cheating people. The Children's Bible in 365 Stories, which many of us are reading this year, explains the story this way:
Jesus knew that the traders, selling the animals as offerings for the pilgrims to give to God, were charging more than twenty times too much for them. The money-changers were cheating, too. . Jesus was very angry that the poor should be cheated and that God's house should be turned into a dishonest market (p. 362).
This may partly explain Jesus' action, but it cannot be the
whole explanation. Mark says: "And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple" (my emphasis). If Jesus were only concerned about corrupt merchants overcharging for their animals, why did he drive out the buyers? The buyers are just buying animals to present as a sacrifice to God, and they are exchanging their foreign currency so they will have money to give as an offering. What's wrong with that?
Furthermore, verse 16 says, "And he would not allow anyone to carry
anything through the temple." Jesus is not just attacking dishonest merchants; he is attacks anyone who carries something through the temple, like some object or vessel or utensil they might need to offer their sacrifices to God. Jesus is not just cleansing the temple; he is shutting it down.
This is confirmed by the verse Jesus quotes from our first
scripture reading. In Jeremiah 7 the prophet Jeremiah stands in the temple and says,
Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, "We are safe!"-only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?
In Jeremiah's time the people thought they could go to the
temple one day a week and do whatever they wanted the rest of the week: cheat on their taxes, cheat on their spouses, lie, break promises, hurt people, and live for their own self-fulfillment with no thought of God's purpose for their life. Jeremiah warns the people that if they continue to do this-if they worship in the temple but don't serve God in their daily lives-their temple will not be worth anything and will eventually be destroyed.
And it was. In 587 B. C., about 30 years after Jeremiah's
sermon, the Babylonian army marched into Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. Burned it right to the ground.
Six hundred years later, the temple was rebuilt by Herod the Great.
But Jesus stands in this rebuilt temple and issues the same warning as Jeremiah. Echoing Jeremiah's words, Jesus calls them "a den of robbers," using a Greek word that refers not just petty thieves but to violent rebels or insurrectionists. Jesus confronts not only the merchants who overcharge people, but everyone who comes to the temple in covert rebellion against God, quietly pushing God out of their lives to pursue their own agendas.
Now let me stop for a moment and talk about the fig tree.
Just before Jesus goes into the temple, he sees a fig tree. Mark says, "When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, 'May no one ever eat fruit from you again.'" And the tree dries up.
What's with that? Why would Jesus condemn a fig tree for
having no figs when it was not the season for them?
Here is a principle for reading the Bible. If a story makes
no sense when read literally, perhaps it is intended to be read symbolically. The story of the fig tree is just such a story. It is an acted-out parable. It is a symbol for what Jesus is about to do in the temple. That's why the story of the fig tree is wrapped around the story of the temple. The fig tree is a parable of what will happen to the temple. Jesus condemns a fig tree for not fulfilling its purpose. Then he goes into the temple and condemns the temple for not fulfilling its purpose. The next day we see that the fig tree has withered. So what do you think will happen to the temple?
Just as the fig tree withers because it has not fulfilled its purpose
of bearing figs, so the temple will wither, in fact it will be destroyed, because it has not fulfilled its purpose of being a house of prayer for all nations-a place where people of all races, languages, and backgrounds can experience the difference God makes in our lives.
About 40 years after this story, the temple was destroyed by
the Romans-burned to the ground-just as the earlier temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians, just as the fig tree withered because it bore no fruit.
A temple that does not fulfill its purpose will not long endure. A
church that does not serve its purpose, a church that does not help people experience the difference God can make in their lives by showing the difference God makes in our lives-a church that does not fulfill its purpose of being a witness to Jesus Christ and the new life he came to bring-such a church will eventually wither just like that fig tree.
In a book called Craddock Stories Fred Craddock, a seminary professor
from Atlanta, tells about the first church he served in the eastern hills of Tennessee, near the Oak Ridge Laboratory. When Oak Ridge was first built, the little Tennessee town where he served was suddenly overrun by construction workers who lived in hastily assembled trailer parks. Craddock writes,
After church one Sunday morning I asked the leaders to stay. I said to them, "Now we need to launch a calling campaign and an invitational campaign in all those trailer parks to invite those people to church." "Oh, I don't know. I don't think they'd fit in here," one of them said. "They're just here temporarily, just construction people. They'll be leaving pretty soon." "Well, we ought to invite them, make them feel at home," I said.
We argued about it, time ran out, and we said we'd vote next Sunday. Next Sunday, we all sat down after the service. "I move," said one of them, "I move that in order to be a member of this church, you must own property in the county." Someone else said, "I second that." It passed. I voted against it, but they reminded me that I was just a kid preacher and I didn't have a vote (p. 28).
Years later Craddock and his wife Nettie went back to visit
that little church in eastern Tennessee. A new interstate highway had been built through that part of the state, so they had trouble finding it, but finally. there it was. But the building was different. Craddock writes,
The parking lot was full-motorcycles and trucks and cars packed in there. And out front, a great big sign: Barbecue, all you can eat. It's a restaurant, so we went inside. The pews are against a wall. They have electric lights now, and the organ pushed over into the corner. There are all these aluminum and plastic tables, and people sitting there eating barbecued pork and chicken and ribs-all kinds of people. . I said to Nettie, "It's a good thing this is not still a church, otherwise these people couldn't be in here" (p. 29).
A church that does not fulfill its mission-a church that does not
fulfill its purpose of being a witness to Jesus Christ and the new life he came to bring-such a church will not long endure. In fact it be better off as a restaurant.