The temple. The dwelling place of God most high. He himself chose the place. He appointed Aaron and his descendants as the priests. It housed the ark of the covenant. Inside the ark were the tablets of the Law, inscribed by the finger of God himself. The staff of Aaron, miraculously made to bud, to show that he was the true priest of the Most High God. And the Manna – bread given from heaven. These were proof of the presence of God among the people. Proof that they were His people. He gave directions for the construction of the tabernacle. The blueprints were His. And the temple was the successor to the tabernacle. A permanent place to carry out the sacrifices, just as God had described them to Moses. The location of the temple was the old Mount Moriah -where God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and then stopped him, giving him a ram in the thickets instead. Rechristened Mount Zion, it was the heart, the religious center of the nation of Israel. There is not a single place on earth that can lay claim to being a holy site like this. Chosen by God himself, it was the dwelling place of God. The temple was built with the cedars of Lebanon, beautifully carved stone, overlaid with gold. Brass and gold fixtures. It was, one supposes, unsurpassed in beauty.
And we must say “one supposes”, because no one has seen even the smallest portion of it in 2500 years. God brought Babylon into Jerusalem to carry out his judgment. And not one of the mighty timbers remained.
In Jesus day, it was rebuilt. The second temple era. White stones so brilliant, that rumor has it, if you approached the city on a sunny day, you could not look directly at it, because the reflection was so bright.
And again, we must say, “rumor has it”, because it was destroyed within a generation of Jesus words in the Gospel reading. And that destruction was so complete that, even 2000 years later, no one has attempted to rebuild it. We have only artists conceptions based on other buildings of the period.
The Temple of God – arguably the holiest building on planet earth, utterly destroyed. Twice.
Two possibilities. One: Either the gods of Babylon and Rome are bigger, better, stronger gods. And that’s certainly a possibility. But those gods are dead now. They were only ever alive in the imaginations of the people of those pagan cities. So, if those gods are bigger than the God of Israel, then it means only that the imaginations of Babylon and Rome were greater than the imaginations of Israel. If those imaginary gods could beat the God of the Jews, then our God must be as dead as they are.
Option Two: God can use, even his enemies, to bring about his will. And while that does not leave us hopeless and alone in the universe, such a thought may not offer much comfort. After all, according to this theory, no matter how sacred something may be in this world, how beloved, God will destroy it if necessary to bring about his judgment against sin.
And, God actually announced beforehand, in both cases, that he would do just that. To the people of ancient Israel, who believed that, as the children of Abraham, they were untouchable, they were his special people and nothing bad could ever happen to them. They had the blood of Abraham in their veins. And didn’t God make promises to Abraham? So, what could he do them? Even if, perhaps they occasionally wandered away, sometimes worshipped other gods, ignored the word given to Moses. So what. Were they not his people? Didn’t almost all of the holy men of the day prophecy “peace, peace!” Of course there were a few flies in the ointment. The Jeremiah’s and Isaiah’s, the Elijah’s and the Elisha’s. But they were few and far between. And they said things that were just impossible to believe. God abandoning his nation? Sending them into exile? Certainly he would not do that. Certainly the temple was not in danger.
In Jesus day, the people did not go chasing after other gods. They were faithful to the law. They had experts, highly respected, who did noting but study the law and the prophets. Certainly they would not be destroyed. Certainly the temple was safe for them. After all, the sinful ways of their ancestors had been abandoned. They knew the law. They kept the law. They kept it so well, God had to love them. Certainly Jesus words were the ramblings of a fool.
But of course, the temple was destroyed both times. The first, because the people assumed that the law was something they could just ignore. Things were going well, why bother with all that religious stuff. The second time they were convinced that their works would make God happy.
In both cases though, they went after idols. The first time, literally after stone idols. The second, after their own works. We see both errors in Israel’s history. The error of ignoring God’s word entirely. And the error of trying to earn your way into God’s grace. Neither is safe.
The first is outright rejection of God. It ends in judgment and death. No question. The second, though. The second appears righteous. It speaks pious words, quotes the scriptures, and even tells you how to follow the law of God perfectly. But while the first rejects God’s word openly. The second does it quietly and secretly. Because we aren’t saved by our works. Our keeping the law can not get us even one step closer to salvation. Because, of course, we can’t keep the law. God demands perfection. And we aren’t there. The law of God is good and wise, and we don’t keep that law. And so, we face destruction. As God said to Adam and Eve, the day you eat of it, you will surely die. And humanity has been dying ever since.
So, when we assume that our works will earn us anything before God, all we really do is try and make ourselves into our own versions of god. Which is to say, we become the idols. The truth is that we have nothing we can offer him that he did not first create and give to us to use.
That is why we must let God do the saving. That was the mistake of the people in Jesus day. They didn’t think they needed a savior. But Jesus is the only way to be saved. His death and resurrection save you from your sins. He is the way the truth and the life.
Those who will not come through him, will not come at all. And Jesus prediction here of the destruction of the temple is not because God hated the people. It is because the temple ceased to be needed. The final sacrifice was Jesus. And yet, the people continued looking, not to the promise, but to their own actions for salvation. The temple was destroyed because of the idolatry of the people, even as they claimed to worship god. But it was not the God who sent his Son Jesus to die in their place.
Jesus cleanses the temple. He must do it. If we try and make a temple fit for god, we invariably make an nothing but a throne for idols. The people thought they were doing so well. But in their rush to follow every jot and tittle of the law, they forgot that the word of the Psalmist – the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart oh God, you will not despise.
As John the Baptist said, “Repent!” Of course, in church, we have already repented. We have been the waters of holy baptism, we have been washed with the water and the word. We have confessed our sins. Certainly we have enough repentance that we can now move on and do something truly worthy of him.
But that is the sinful flesh talking. We never have enough repentance. We live lives of repentance. But what is it? Two parts: Sorrow over sin. And then faith which trusts the promise. But the faith isn’t our work either. It is God’s work in you, through his spirit. When the law is preached and you hear that law, and recognize your sin, that is true sorrow. But sorrow is not enough. Faith also trusts the “for you” of God. This is my body, this is my blood, given and shed “for you.” That is the where the salvation of God becomes yours. In the for you spoken by Jesus.
Don’t set up your own idols in the temple of God. Don’t make the temple of God a place of works. It is the place where you receive the gifts he gives. That’s what was missing in Jesus day. The people had faith in their own works. The sacrifices merely pointed in faith to the promise of a savior. Now we have the savior, crucified for you. Risen for you. Ascended for you. Returning for you.
Thanks be to God.
In Jesus name.