David Kolander

Ashes for Sale!

by David Kolander on March 8th, 2023
Matthew 21:12-17

12 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’[a] but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’[b]”

14 The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. 15 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.

16 “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’[c]?”

17 And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night. The Word of the Lord

 

It seems like a long time ago already in a way, but if you think back to two weeks ago, you may remember we had to postpone our Ash Wednesday service due to the threat of bad weather, but we were able to observe that day the next day on Thursday, meaning this year we had “Ash Thursday.” Many of you were at that service, and many of the adults and children who were at that service took part in receiving the sign of the cross on their head or hand from the ashes that had been prepared for that solemn purpose. I hope that was a meaningful experience for those who participated in it – a meaningful time of reflection on how all of us will someday be reduced to ashes after we die, but also a meaningful time of rejoicing that because of the death and resurrection of our Savior, we will rise from the dead and live with him forever with bodies that will never again die or decay or fade away.

So, what would you have thought if when you walked in here tonight there had been a huge sign in the entryway that said Ashes for Sale – and if during the pre-service music our ushers had been going up and down the aisles like vendors at a baseball stadium offering you special deals on purchasing ashes – and even better deals, if you bought at least five vials of the most expensive kind of ashes, credit cards accepted.

Obviously, that would have been disrespectful, not to mention just plain odd and weird, but maybe that thought of something so outrageous as Ashes for Sale can help us get a little glimpse into what Jesus was getting at when he overturned the tables and benches in the temple courts just a few days before he died, just as he had done another time near the beginning of his ministry. That’s what we’ll think about tonight as we see how some of Jesus’ final steps led to the temple, a place that should have made him feel content and at peace, especially as he thought about where he knew his final steps would be leading him in just a few short days.

Well, what was Jesus getting at? The selling going on at the temple wasn’t really great, obviously, but Jesus wasn’t really primarily getting at the selling of things. This was Passover week, one of the most important religious festivals which the Jews celebrated every year, much like you and I celebrate the days of Christmas or the week of Easter. At Passover time, people didn’t buy Christmas decorations or Easter candy, but they did buy animals – lambs and doves and pigeons – animals they offered as the sacrifices that were traditionally made at Passover time at the temple in Jerusalem. 

So in and of itself it wasn’t strange to have people buying and selling and exchanging money in the temple area, though the impression we get is that there was all kinds of noise right near where people were worshiping, and that it may have been hard to walk from one area of the temple grounds to another, and that some were possibly gouging people financially, taking advantage of them with highly inflated prices, which is just part of human nature, of course – and has always been common — even today, of course. But even though this type of disrespect and distraction were concerning to Jesus to the point that he went around knocking over the benches and the tables, and said, “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers,”  those words – “you are making it a den of robbers” – help us see that Jesus was getting at something far deeper, something that really gets to the heart of the problem and something that you and I need to also reflect on for ourselves for this evening and for the rest of our lives.

To see what Jesus was really getting at, we need to think about where he got those words from that he said to them, “You have made this house a den of robbers.” He was quoting a Bible verse from the book of the prophet Jeremiah, who was a preacher hundreds of years before Jesus came to earth. Jeremiah had to confront the people at his time about something that was also the real problem at Jesus’ time – something that led people to show such disrespect and to cause such distractions. And this is what it was. The people at his time – just as so many people today – were going through the religious motions, which made them look good or at least pretty decent to other people, but they were behaving like people who didn’t care one bit about God in their everyday life. Jeremiah said to them, “Reform your ways and your actions… Do not trust in deceptive words and say, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ Will you steal and murder, commit adultery, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods, 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.” And then he said that if they did not repent and reform their ways, he would thrust them from his presence…  That is what Jesus was primarily concerned about on this day during the last week of his life, when he entered the temple, which bore the name of the Lord and thrust those tables from his presence. The reason the people were doing such things in the temple courts was because they thought they were safe to do whatever they wanted in their lives, because they put their confidence in their outward actions of being involved in something good – like selling stuff at the temple — rather than knowing and believing and thanking God that real goodness, true goodness, could only come from their Lord God, who would give his goodness to them, purely because he loved them.

So, while Jesus wants you and me to take the same things to heart in a serious way, so we don’t think that just because we have a connection to a Christian church or a Christian school, we can go about taking his love for granted and end up acting in a way that does not give glory to him in every way, on the positive side, we want to remember that he gives us every reason to give glory to him in every way because of who he is and what he has done. What do these words tell us was going on as Jesus was taking care of those tables in the temple area? “The blind and the lame came to him,” Matthew said, “and he healed them.” Even during this last week of his life, when he knew very well that in just a few days the very things we heard about in our reading tonight in the Garden of Gethsemane were going to happen to him, he still took the time to continue to do what he had done throughout his entire ministry to show people that he really was the Son of God – the long promised Messiah and Savior that all of us need. He continued to do those miracles to help people in their sadness – wonderful miracles that even led the children in the temple area, Matthew says, to shout out in a different way than the money changers, as they sang, “Hosanna to the Son of David” – the very words they had heard their parents say just the day before when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on the back of a donkey.

Those songs of praise that are part of your life and mine, too, caused the chief priests and the teachers of the law to get all angry and indignant, but Jesus quoted a verse from one of the Psalms that said that’s just how it has to be when God’s people think about who Jesus is and why Jesus came. We sing and give him shouts of praise. Yes, we sing and give Jesus our praise, because even though we know we must bow down in dust and ashes when we think of how what you and I have done wrong – such as how we have taken Jesus for granted and acted good only on the outside – should give Jesus every reason to knock over the table of our lives with nothing but sadness and death, still we also know he will not do that to those who are his own. The entire reason he was in those temple courts that day was because he was on his way to the hill the outside of the city to there on Calvary’s holy mountain pay the price for everything you and I have ever done against him and every wrong we have ever done against anyone else… 

I can’t imagine we will ever see an “Ashes for Sale” sign in our church, but as we stay in God’s Word together and in that way as we keep treasuring the truth that there is no cost at all on our part to pay for what God has done for us through Jesus Christ our Lord, because through our Jesus Christ our Lord the forgiveness of our sins and salvation in heaven after we die are for free, let’s make it our heartfelt resolve while we are alive to treat our Lord and his Word and one another with a holy respect that also leads us to join those children in the temple with Jesus way back then in making noise in this temple and in our lives with songs and shouts of thanks and praise, even if our songs and shouts of thanks and praise are a little quieter during this special and most meaningful time of Lent. Amen.

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