Saturday 17 December 2011

Empty packaging

Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves.
Matthew 21:18-19

The fruitless fig tree was Jesus' illustration of empty packaging. All form but no fruit. It was like walking into a Blockbuster store with thousands of movie titles on display but not a single actual DVD in stock - just rows and rows of empty plastic cases on shelves. Here in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus walks up to the fig tree and finds lots of leaves, it tells us, but not a single fruit. Jesus found “nothing”, the text says.

Jesus went on to use the fig tree as a parable for the emptiness of religion. The disciples would have remembered that just the day before, Jesus had driven out the money-changers and dove-sellers from the temple. They had never seen their teacher lose his temper in public like that before, overturning tables and chairs. As far as we can tell, they probably just stood there like idiots looking at one another with confusion and embarrassment. Nobody wanted to bring that incident up again. Nobody that is, except Jesus. You see, he was still thinking of the temple. And Jesus wanted his friends to understand why it was such a big deal.

It wasn’t the money. A lot of people think Jesus was ticked off by the unscrupulous practices of immoral businessmen, though I can understand why. It’s partly because of what Jesus said, “My house will be a called a house of prayer but you have made it a den of robbers.” It’s not unlikely that the temple officials had found a way of profiting from the worshippers. There was only one authorised temple in the Jewish religion and every Jew had to bring their offering to this temple alone. Each Jew was charged a temple tax - not an exorbitant amount, but it still added up to quite a bit. Furthermore, sacrifices had to be ‘temple-approved’. A priest had to inspect each and every animal. It was just a lot more convenient to get one from the official animal-sellers who had set up shop in the temple itself. Again, it wasn’t unlikely that the temple got a cut from these transactions. So many people think the Jesus is referring to the shady operations between the greedy religious officials and the opportunistic businessmen as “a den of robbers.”

But when you notice that Jesus was actually quoting the bible when he said what he said about the house of prayer and the den of robbers (“It is written”, verse 13 begins), and then you look up these verses in the Old Testament, you begin to realise that Jesus is concerned about something entirely different from just money. He is actually concerned about - and angered by - the emptiness of the religion. For Jesus, all he saw in the temple was empty packaging.

The first bit comes from Isaiah, where God says, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:7) This is significant because the one and only place in the whole temple where these merchants could have set up their stalls was an area known as the Court of the Nations. It was the part of the temple - indeed, the only area in all the temple - where outsiders could enter and worship God. However, the temple authorities had decided it was more important to use this space for business, yes, but moreover to serve the needs of the Jewish worshippers. After all, the merchants were providing an important service to the people of God - enabling them to offer up sacrifices prescribed by God. But in doing so, they had neglected the other nations in favour of their own. Isaiah says God wanted the temple to be a house of prayer for all nations. The temple authorities had conveniently forgotten that - not by closing down the Court of the Nations, of course - but simply by “re-allocating” its use.

Here is God saying in Isaiah that missions is right at the centre of the true worship of the people of God. And yet isn’t it tempting to think of missions as an optional extra? When deciding on your church budget do you put missionary commitments as the last item up for discussion - after the stationery and photocopying needs? When reaching your city or your college isn’t it just prudent to focus on those who are most like you - who speak your language, who are within your own age-group, who are part of your own denomination - and leave all that troublesome ‘international work’ to other organisations while you focus on God’s calling for ‘your church’?

Missions is the at the very centre of the true worship of the people God. Revelation 5 praises Jesus, the Lamb of God, with these words: “With your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Missions is measured in terms of Jesus' blood. His death paid for men and women from every single nation, tribe and language there is.

The second bit of Jesus’ quotation from Jeremiah where God again is speaking and he says, “Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 7:11). Now we know that God isn’t just referring to thieves and terrorists when he talks about the “den of robbers” because just a few verses earlier he lumps the whole lot together with those who commit adultery, perjury and idolatry. But the key thing to notice is that God says he is watching them when all this while the perpetrators think that they are safely hidden from God’s sight. Why? Because they have the temple. Also, not only do they think they can get away with sinning in God’s presence, but they even delude themselves into thinking that they can sin in God’s name! “We are safe,” they said. “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” reassuring themselves that they were OK as long as they were in the right church, they had the right pastor, the right bible translation.

They were caught up with the packaging - the temple, their religious practices - and as long as the packaging still looked good, that was all that mattered. But Jesus is saying that God deals with empty religion the same way we deal with empty packaging. He throws it in the bin.

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, 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.
Matthew 21:21

The mountain Jesus was referring to was a specific mountain - this mountain, Jesus says. He was pointing to Jerusalem, the mountain where the city was built; the mountain where the temple was situated. Like the fig tree, the temple was all form but no fruit. And like the withered tree, the temple would be cursed and destroyed.

Indeed, we know that the temple was destroyed in the year 70AD. You can go to Jerusalem today and there is no temple standing. But you see, there is no need for the temple anymore. There is Jesus. He has come to be God with us.

The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them.
Matthew 21:14

Right after Jesus clears out the temple area, what does he do? He fills it again! With the blind, with the lame and with children - the very kinds of people who would not be permitted to go anywhere beyond the Court of the Nations. These guys couldn’t go up and offer sacrifices. None of these guys could serve as priests. Definitely none of them would ever be able to enter the Holy of Holies and see the throne-room of God. But what could they do? What did they do? “They came to Jesus at the temple”. Here in the Court of the Nations, Jesus came to them and they went to him. They had full access to Jesus.

Jesus gets rid of all the empty useless packaging that is religion and reveals himself as God to us. Now some people hate that because all they want is the packaging. They want the image of being respectable, the reputation of being a Christian, the honour of serving on a committee. But if that’s the case with you, Jesus warns us that all that empty religion is going straight into the bin.

Jesus is God with us. That’s wonderful news. You don’t have to get on a plane and travel to some holy place to be with God - he comes to you. You don’t have to do anything to earn his love, well, because you can’t - you are just like the blind and the lame and the kids in the temple who go to Jesus - he heals you; he welcomes you. More than that, he went to the cross to pay the full price of your sin and die for you.

You have full access to God through Jesus Christ. Why hide any longer behind empty religion? Why not come instead to Jesus and live?

Weak and wounded sinner
Lost and left to die
O, raise your head, for love is passing by
Come to Jesus
Come to Jesus
Come to Jesus and live! 

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