Saturday 10 December 2011

All I want for Christmas is... Faith (Matthew 21:12-22)

This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!”
Jeremiah 7:3-4

A Chinese friend from Hong Kong once told me that going to the temple in Asia is a lot like doing a business transaction. You go and make your offering - money, joss sticks, prayer. And the temple gods repay your act of worship with a blessing - good exam results or a big fat bonus.

In today’s passage, Jesus encounters people who were “buying and selling” in the temple and immediately he gets angry. So angry, in fact, that Jesus starts overturning the tables of the money changers as well as the chairs of the people selling the doves for the sacrifice (verse 12). You can just imagine the scene of Jesus tearing up the market square - coins scattered across the pavements; the merchants chasing after their animals; doves flying everywhere - and at the centre of it all: Hulk Jesus, fuming with anger going, “Arrrrrgh! Jesus smash!”

But notice that amidst all the havoc, Jesus tells us why he was so angry.

“It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.’”
Matthew 21:13

He begins by saying, “It is written.” Meaning, Jesus is quoting the bible and if you look below the page at the footnotes in your bibles you will see the two Old Testament passages that Jesus is quoting from. What these passages teach us is that God is angry. God is angry with the business that was going on in the temple.

The first quotation is from Isaiah Chapter 56. Here God says that the temple was a place of worship and of prayer for all nations. Not just Israel, the chosen people of God. But for everyone.

Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.
Isaiah 56:7

The second quotation comes from Jeremiah.

“‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.
Jeremiah 7:9-11

(It’s really easy to remember these two Old Testament passages: Just remember 5-6-7 and 7-Eleven - that is, Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11)

The temple of the Lord

Why is God angry with this business of buying and selling in the temple? Well, if we didn’t look up the two passages, someone might say it was because people were being ripped off. And in a sense, that would be true. The temple officials found a way to provide a service to worshippers but make some money out of it at the same time. You see, every worshipper had to do two things: (1) Pay a temple tax (kind of like an offering); and (2) bring an animal sacrifice. That’s why we see two different kinds of businessmen in the temple area: the money-changers and the people selling doves.

Does this means that churches shouldn’t have bookshops? If you go to King’s College chapel the first thing you will see as you enter the building is a shop selling postcards, CDs and tea-towels. Is the bible saying that the next time you visit King’s College chapel you should overturn the CDs and display cases?

This is where reading the Old Testament really helps. Remember that Jesus says, “It is written,” meaning he is thinking about these passages from Isaiah and Jeremiah right at this moment. Both are talking about the temple. Both refer to the temple as God’s house. But notice that in Isaiah, it is a “house of prayer” for all the nations. Not just Israel, the one nation and people of God. All nations.

You see, the temple was divided up into different courts or areas. There was firstly the Most Holy Place symbolising God’s presence and God’s throne. Only the High Priest could enter the Most Holy Place. Then there was the Holy Place - only the priests could enter. Then there was the area where only men. After that the area where women could enter. Finally, there was the court of the nations. In the design of God’s temple, God wanted other nations to come and know him. However, what had happened was, this court of the nations was turned into the Grand Arcade. That it, the space was used not to welcome outsiders, but to make money. It’s true, they were providing a service for the worshippers - only the temple currency was accepted so you needed to change your pounds, HK dollar and yuan into the right denomination. Also, you couldn’t simply bring your cat, your dog or your pet hamster and say, “I’m sacrificing this to God!” No, only certain animals that were spotless and approved by the priests could be offered up at the temple. So again, they were providing a service to worshippers who wanted to worship God in the right way. And yes, probably they were making lots of money in the process!

But the real issue was not the money - we need to see that. The issue was, for the sake of money, they were excluding the nations from knowing God. “My house will be a house of prayer for the nations.” We need to be very careful, friends, of using money as an excuse for side-lining missions. We just approved the church budget a couple of weeks ago, didn’t we? It is very tempting when drawing up our plans for the year, what we are going to spend our money on - to put our own needs and concerns first and then think of missions as an optional extra. This passage is God telling us that missions should be the very heartbeat of the church. “Go and make disciples of every nation,” Jesus says. “With your blood you purchased men from every tribe and language and people and nation,” Revelation says. Missions is not to be measured in terms of what we can afford but in terms of what Jesus’ blood is worth. It is worth the praise of every single nation on this planet.

We ignore this truth to our peril. Jesus says, “you are making it a den of robbers.” Again, when we go back and read Jeremiah 7:11 we understand better what Jesus was referring to. The people in Jeremiah’s day (who lived 600 years before Jesus was born) were saying to themselves, “We’re safe” - safe to continue sinning; safe to do all these detestable things - murder, adultery, false worship. Why? Because we have the temple - the temple of the Lord.

Or put it another way: Because we go to a impressive church. Because everyone knows that our church is a gospel-centred church which teaches the bible; we have a long history of missions and evangelism; lots of people come to our church and our pastor has published many books. We’re safe from condemnation and criticism because we go to church every week.

God says, “You are hiding. You think you are safe. You think that you can even hide from me.”

Do you understand now why Jesus got so angry? He saw people using religion to hide their sin and to keep others from knowing God.

Some of the most painful and discouraging conversations I have ever had are with people who use their church membership and at times, their positions of church leadership, to cover up their sin, and maybe even, justify their sinfulness. It is very hard to get through to them that they are fooling themselves when they think that they can use God’s name to make a profit for themselves, to advance their own personal agendas, to act unlovingly towards outsiders; that they are fooling themselves when they think that they are somehow protected from church discipline - and God’s discipline of his church.

How do you deal with such foolishness? How to do confront such stubbornness? Anger? (“Arrrrhrhhhhagh!!!!”) We’ve seen that Jesus deals with it in anger, yes. But actually, we shouldn’t miss the fact that Jesus confronts and exposes sin with God’s word. He does it again the next few verses where he says to the religious leaders, “Haven’t you read your bibles?”

Have you never read?

The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.

“Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him.
“Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read,
“‘From the lips of children and infants
you, Lord, have called forth your praise’?”
And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.
Matthew 21:14-17

This is all still happening in the temple. Jesus has cleared out the money-changers, the businessmen - they are all kicked out of the court of the nations. But now tell me, who comes to Jesus in the temple? Answer: the blind and lame (verse 14). The children (verse 15). These are sick people, probably helpless and poor people. These are insignificant people - children, who are often ignored; and considered unimportant; inconsequential. But isn’t it interesting that after clearing out all the businessmen from the temple, these are the people who gather around Jesus? None of them would be let near the sacrifices. None of them would be asked to lead a church committee or to speak at a big national conference for church leaders. None of them contribute to the church budget or help out with making tea after service.

But they come anyway. Why? Because Jesus is there. He heals them - intentionally, I might add, right here in the temple. As if to make a statement: These are exactly the kind of people God is looking for.

Still, not everyone would agree.

“When the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did (Jesus was healing the sick - it was amazing!) and the children shouting, ‘Hosanna to the son of David,” their first instinct is to complain. They were indignant.

“How inappropriate!” they thought, “Children singing in church? Well, we must put a stop to that at once!”

Kids, I want you to see what Jesus says next. “From the lips of children and infants, you Lord have ordained praise.” God wants – he has ordained - the youngest person here today to know him and to praise him! So young, in fact, that it says there that even babies should be praising God. Now you might say, “Babies? How can babies praise God? All they do is cry and poop!” But you see, the religious leaders were trying to limit the kinds of people they wanted in church and what Jesus is doing is removing all restrictions. He is saying, “You’re mad to see kids singing in church? I want even the babies singing about me!” (“Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.... Jesus!”)

Ah! But some of you might have been observant enough to notice that it wasn’t a question of “who” it was that was singing that got the religious leaders all riled up, but “what” they were singing. Verse 16: “Do you hear what these children are saying?” And you look back at verse 15 to see the answer: “Hosanna to the Son of David!” That is, they were calling Jesus God’s King. That’s what the title “Son of David” means. It was a way of referring to the Christ, God’s chosen King.

And when Jesus answers by saying, “Haven’t your read your bibles?” he is actually telling the religious leaders, “Yes. I am God’s King.” Which is why he quotes a psalm that talks specifically about God’s King, Psalm 8 which says, “You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet” (Psalm 8:6).

Jesus was saying, “Yes, I do hear what these kids are saying. They have got it spot on. I am God’s king. He has put everything under my feet. The real question is: Do you hear? Do you hear what Psalm 8 is saying?” You see, what is so interesting is to go back and read the whole verse that Jesus quotes from, because there’s actually more to it than just kids singing praise:

From the lips of children and infants
you have ordained praise
because of your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
Psalm 8:2

Did you catch that? Psalm 8 is saying that the kids will sing, but also that the enemies of God will be silenced. The religious leaders have nothing good to say. Even after witnessing all the “wonderful things” that Jesus did; even after seeing children praising Jesus in the temple, the religious leaders and teachers of the law open their mouths to criticise Jesus and to silence the children.

Psalm 8 says God ordains the children to sing and he will silence his enemies. The fact that these children are able to recognise who Jesus as, and you can’t, is a sign of God’s judgement on you – Jesus seems to be saying.

Here in the temple of God we see two different groups of people – two communities gathered before Jesus. One recognises who Jesus is and one rejects him. One comes to him for help and healing, the other comes to Jesus just to tell him off. One praises him as God’s King – and indeed, if you understand Psalm 8, as God himself. The other does everything they can to silence their praise and exclude outsiders from worshipping God.

Here in the temple Jesus seems to be forming a new community of God’s people. At the same time he begins to hint at the rejection of God’s enemies.

'Cause you gotta have faith-a-faith-a-faith

Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.

When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.

Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
Matthew 21:18-22

These words have been used to justify all manner of unreal expectations and selfish ambition in the name Jesus Christ. “Name it! Claim it!” Isn’t that what Jesus seems to be saying? “If you believe, you will receive!”

Yet at the same time, Jesus is giving us a great promise here and I don’t want to dilute that promise in any way. “Whatever you ask for in prayer,” Jesus says. No restrictions. But there is one requirement. “If you believe,” or a better word might be, “trust”. It is the exact same word that occurs in verse 21, “If you have faith” To have faith means to trust, to rely or to depend. Which means every prayer is an act of faith; of trusting, relying and depending on God. Meaning: you cannot pray if you do not trust God. The atheist cannot pray because there is no God for him to trust. The agnostic cannot pray because even if there is a God, he cannot not know him and therefore he cannot trust him.

But the Christian prays because he knows that God is trustworthy, he depends on a God who is dependable, he relies on a God who is reliable. The bible speaks of a God who keeps his promises. And that is what Jesus is giving us right here – a promise. “Whatever you ask for in prayer, you will receive by trusting God who is trustworthy; by faith in a God who is faithful to his promises.”

Yet at the same time, Jesus is also giving an answer. The disciples see Jesus cursing a fig tree and ask, “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done.”

What does the fig tree have to do with faith? What does the mountain have to do with prayer? The answer is pretty clear from the context, but I must warn you, you might not like the answer: It is judgement. The fig tree is cursed by Jesus. The mountain is thrown into the sea.

You see, the disciples are amazed to see the immediate effects of Jesus’ curse on the fig tree. Jesus wakes up the next morning and makes his way back to Jerusalem. He gets hungry along the way, sees a fig tree, so he stops and searches for some figs for breakfast. Only thing is this tree didn’t have any fruit. So…. Angry Jesus! Oooo, he curses the fig tree.

Now I’m no agricultural expert (and I would much rather have durians than figs any day of the week) but the scholars say that fig trees typically produce their fruit the same time as they produce their leaves. Which is why Matthew tells us that Jesus “found nothing on it except leaves”. Meaning that this tree had all the appearance of having fruit – the leaves were abundant – but in reality, it was empty and fruitless. Not a single fig. Hence the curse, “May you never bear fruit again!”

But Jesus doesn’t stop at the fig tree. He uses the fruitless tree to illustrate God’s judgement on a fruitless religion. This is where the mountain comes in, because notice that in verse 21, Jesus doesn’t simply promise them they can move just any old mountain with their prayers. He says “this mountain”. This was a specific mountain. The mountain he was referring to – this mountain – was Jerusalem. The temple in Jerusalem was built on this mountain.

Jesus is saying that a time is coming when this mountain is no longer going to be the centre of worship. It’s going to be thrown out into the trash like a used toothbrush. But at the same time, it will be replaced, not with a new structure or building, but with a new community. Do you remember what Jesus said as he was throwing out the merchants and money-changers? “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers?” He throws out the robbers. Jesus gets rid of useless religion. And in its place he builds a house of prayer.

“If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

Jesus is gathering a new community to replace the old. It is a community gathered around him. It is a community built on trust in him. It is a community in relationship with him – in prayer. And he says to his disciples, “You are that community.” You will receive. Whatever you ask will be given to you.

If you get this: Jesus is promising something much greater than a blank cheque for all your desires to come true. He is giving us direct access to God. He is giving a new status as the people of God.

The great exchange

The more I think of it, my friend from Hong Kong was right. Many people do consider prayer and worship much like doing a business transaction. The question is: How is Jesus different? How different is it when Christians pray and Christians worship before God through Jesus Christ?

If all we hear in Jesus’ words is the promise of a blank cheque – that we will get everything and anything we want as long as we use the right words or pray to the right God or offer up the right offering, then quite frankly, there is no difference at all. God is just a genie in a bottle whose sole function is to meet our wants and desires. Such a god is no god at all.

But I hope you can see that Jesus is talking about something entirely different. Jesus offers us a relationship with God as sons and daughters of the living God. That’s the reason why God longs to hear and answer our prayers. Because through Jesus Christ, God is our heavenly Father.

And unlike the worshippers in temples today, Christians have nothing to offer to God except the sacrifice that was given once and for all through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Through his death, Jesus offers up to God his own body as the perfect sacrifice, he pays our full debt of sin but taking upon himself our punishment for sin, and he is the perfect worshipper through his complete submission and obedience to the will of his Father.

Martin Luther calls this the great exchange. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) We exchange our sin for his righteousness; he takes our death and we receive his life.

This is the faith Jesus is talking about. It’s not faith in a place or in a ritual or in anything you could ever do for God. It is faith in his death for you on the cross. If Jesus is at the centre of your faith, if his death is the one and only basis of your faith, then he says to you today, You are the new community of God. Doesn’t matter how young you are; how insignificant you might be; how unsuitable other people think you are. He removes all the restrictions and barriers to God and calls you to come and receive forgiveness and eternal life.

My Lord, what love is this that pays so dearly
That I the guilty one, may go free!

Amazing love oh what sacrifice
The Son of God given for me
My debt He pays and my death He dies
That I might live, that I might live.
(“Amazing Love”, Graham Kendrick)

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