Lent MW 2.18 “Rejoice” Deuteronomy 14:22-29
I hardly ever do this, but here’s the Old Testament reading that we really should have for this Sunday upcoming, the 3rd Sunday in Lent, to match up with the Gospel of Jesus driving out the money changers with a whip—I know; I’m excited about this Sunday too. Highly athletic! I stick with the lectionary, but since there is no lectionary for mid-week Advent and Lenten services, we’re really on our own tonight anyway (free-text baby!) so this would be the reading that I think helps illuminate the point of the Gospel best. On Sunday you’re going to get Exodus 20, the ten commandments. What does that have to do with Jesus driving out the money changers? Right? I know. I’m with you. They’re not all first-round draft picks, the OT lections. You have to remember they are very recent (20th century the OT lections) so it’s something the Church might want to review more carefully. The church is always reforming, after all.
The reading we just heard from Deuteronomy punches a hole in the most popular explanation of why Jesus flipped over tables and chased people out of the temple with whips—because they shouldn’t be selling animals and concessions for money in God’s house! Sacrilegious! Same reason we can’t have bake sales at church—no trading of money for food should ever take place on holy ground. Says so in the bible, somewhere. Doesn’t it?
And, uh actually… as our reading we had just now demonstrates—no; it doesn’t! In fact, the Bible actually demands that the Old Testament church provide at the place of worship, the place where the tabernacle rests, some sort of concession stand where people could bring their money they had taken for their grain and animal tithes and offerings back home and exchange it for oxen, sheep, goats, grain, wine (as much as their heart desires!) to feast with the Lord in His Holy Place(!!). Boom. That’s the sound of half the sermons that will be preached on this text this Sunday getting shredded…
I guess I see why they don’t match up this Old Testament lesson to this Gospel. Too many guys would actually have to tear up their file sermon, read and think and have to write a new one just for today—which could take hours and hours of real work. Horrors! I say that with a ton of sarcasm, as a guy who’s never gone into the file or “Preaching Today” or the back of the Concordia Journal for a sermon, ever, but writes every single one fresh after pouring over the texts all week. My homiletics teacher Leon Watts made us all take a solemn vow (my second year in div school when I was 23) never to go into our files to preach an old sermon, and never to use someone else’s from some stale journal, because the Word of God is living and active and demands our full and fresh attention every single time we proclaim it. Because God didn’t call some anonymous schmoh hacking away for some Christian magazine or seminary journal a thousand miles away to preach to the flock over which He’s made you shepherd; and He didn’t call you to preach for three years and then just rehash what you said to the flock years ago, over and over for the next 20. No, He calls you, every day anew, as you are today, as your flock is today to bring the Word anew, each and every service, with something old (the Story of Jesus) and something new (how it hits us today), just as Jesus says in Matt. 13:52 that His scribes, trained for the Kingdom, are to bring out of their treasures things new and old (and as my former vicar, Professor German beautifully reminded us in the sermon he preached last summer for the 25th anniversary of my ordination). I have to thank you again for that and tell you that the joy of learning something new from your old student is one of the greatest ones there is in life.
Back to trading money for animals in the temple. This wasn’t just a good idea. It’s the Law! I’m not sure what that says about church bake sales, but it says something. And it raises a great question: “so the money changers in the temple hawking sheep, goats, animals, wine, grain, cinnamon buns, for cash were not doing anything wrong!!?? They were following the Law of Moses rather precisely?” Yes! Yes, indeed! And there is absolutely no indication either that they were ripping people off by over-charging (which shredded most of the other half of the sermons that will be preached this Sunday. You’re welcome!).
So why would Jesus get so angry and flip over their tables, and chase them and the cattle out of the temple with a whip if they were actually following the letter of the Law? What were they doing wrong?
That’s a great question. You have a lot of great questions! But you just answered it in the way you phrased it. They were following the letter of the Law, but not the Spirit behind it. For years the picture I had of the sacrifices in the tabernacle (and later the temple of Solomon) was a somber affair. People dutifully obeying the law to give up the best 10% of their flocks and fields and vineyards to God. Trudging miles and miles with their offering, or their hard earned cash, to fulfill the Law’s stern requirement—with no blended fibers on their backs either. I didn’t see many smiling faces in the crowd. Didn’t hear any beautiful music or joyful worship.
But when you read this lesson from Deuteronomy or read how Hezekiah held a Passover for all Israel after so many years of it not being held, you get a totally different picture. And you see how the modern church too, maybe, has missed the Spirit of the Gospel by being too focused on the letter of the Law. The key words are in vs. 26 describing the exchange of money in the tabernacle that “you shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink, for whatever your heart desires and you shall rejoice!” Rejoice! Whatever your heart desires. The worship of Israel’s pure, unadulterated joy. It’s a Feast. It is a party—Spirit driven, not Law-bound. The tithe was permission to take a few weeks off work, hit the road, and if bringing your flocks and grain and wine made the trip less than a joy, then trade it for money, travel light, and buy that and more at the tabernacle. Because God will always provide more and better on the journey than what we leave home with.
Old Testament worship was never about fulfilling the letter of the Law but finding the joy of sharing God’s Spirit that comes from Feasting with God on the Lamb that is Jesus. We do not live to work. We work to live, to feast with God in His Kingdom. And the Feast, the joy, the heart’s true, pure desire—this is what worship of God is all about. This is what our whole life is to be all about! And when it is, the “work” to get there becomes not work but delight…
Jesus didn’t drive anyone out of the temple because they were having too much fun, but because they weren’t having any fun at all. The joy of worship was lost. Hermann Sasse wrote in the 1950’s that he worried the Missouri Synod has lost the sheer joy of the pure doctrine of Jesus, the Festal nature of the Divine Service, getting caught up in the letter of the thing and missing the Spirit, the wonder of being made God’s people through Gospel Word and Sacrament, anew, by Jesus, so that the joy of His Spirit and the Peace surpassing all understanding would guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.