On Mark 11: A New Temple

This is the a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, October 18, 2020 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It’s part of a chapter-by-chapter series on Mark’s gospel, the goal of which is to get to know, love, and follow Jesus more fully in our daily lives.

It’s based on Mark 11:12-25.

You can view worship and sermons at BBUMC.orgYouTubeVimeo, or Facebook. (FYI, both of the preached sermons included things that aren’t included here, or at least came out differently, so if you’re curious, see the above links).

Jesus drives out the merchants – John 2:13-16, JESUS MAFA. from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48271 

Why do we have WD-40, but we don’t have WD-39 or WD-41?

According to the WD40 company’s website, the rust prevention and degreaser product we likely all know, WD-40, was developed in 1953 by the Rocket Chemical Company after 39 failed attempts. When they landed on the fortieth formula, they realized they’d gotten it right, and they stuck with it. As the product’s popularity grew, in 1969, the company changed its name to The WD-40 Company, which was the only product they made or sold at the time.

There’s something obvious, but also meaningful in the story of WD-40: we develop and grow a thing until it serves our needs as well as we can imagine, and then we stick to it. When it works, we feel a sense of assurance – peace, even. It’s a bit of a sweet spot. And then, as time and needs change, if we recognize that the thing doesn’t work as well as it did once for us – or we’re unconvinced of the results – we describe ourselves as somewhat “stuck,” and, hopefully, we change. We can see some of this happening in Jesus, especially in today’s passage.

As Mark 11 begins, Mark describes Jesus entering Jerusalem for the first time in Mark’s Gospel, and the way Mark tells it, there are loads of scriptural allusions in this scene. Jesus rides a colt of a donkey, like the patriarch Judah (Gen 49:11), and as the hoped-for savior would in Zechariah 9:9. There’s a large crowd of people spread out before and behind him. They lay their clothes on the ground before him, like they did for Jehu when he became king (2 Kn 9:13). They’re waving branches (we often think of them as palms because John’s Gospel says that’s what they are [Jn 12:13], but Matthew and Mark just describe them as leafy branches, and in that region, they’re quite likely to be olive tree branches). They’re shouting “Hosanna!” – meaning, “God save us now!” or “God has saved us!” – thus enacting the royal entrance depicted in Psalm 118. These allusions to past scriptural events are important, because they show the hopes and the reality of the people gathered there, as well as all hearers of Mark: they wanted a savior.

Like the Rocket Chemical Company, the people of Israel had a thing that worked: they were God’s people in God’s land, chosen to be a blessing, and they met with God at the Temple. When they were in the Promised Land, with the Temple, this language worked well. But when they were exiled, or when things didn’t go well, or when they were in the land, but ruled by occupying powers – as they were in Jesus’s day – that identity felt a little less certain. That’s where the scriptural allusions come in. They remind the people of their identity and God’s purpose, and they proclaim the promise of a day when all that God had intended would come or be restored. When Jesus rides into Jerusalem, all the messages and hopes of the prophets and the people are riding along with him. But he enters, and then, it’s getting late, so he departs to the nearby town of Bethany. And this is where our reading begins.  

The next day, after leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry.  From far away, he noticed a fig tree in leaf, so he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing except leaves, since it wasn’t the season for figs. So he said to it, “No one will ever again eat your fruit!” His disciples heard this.

Mark 11:12-14

This is a good place to stop for just a moment for a mini-lesson in Bible reading, since we read scripture to listen to God. If we only stopped here, what do we learn about God or how to be faithful? Is there any way to read this without Jesus coming off like a bratty son of god cursing a tree when he doesn’t get what he wants? It’s strange. It’s totally out of character for Jesus in Mark, and therein lies the lesson: when something in scripture stumps us, it’s an invitation to read around the passage. Mark’s writing style nearly demands that we do this, that we keep listening and reading. Mark orders his gospel so that one scene sheds light on another. Frequently, Mark puts one scene or story in the middle of another one, so that they can interpret each other. (Think of Mark 5 when the story of the hemorrhaging woman is sandwiched between the story of Jairus’ daughter). This is all to say, interpreting one passage of scripture works better when we read what’s around it. So, let’s continue.

They came into Jerusalem. After entering the temple, he threw out those who were selling and buying there. He pushed over the tables used for currency exchange and the chairs of those who sold doves. He didn’t allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He taught them, “Hasn’t it been written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you’ve turned it into a hideout for crooks.” The chief priests and legal experts heard this and tried to find a way to destroy him. They regarded him as dangerous because the whole crowd was enthralled at his teaching. When it was evening, Jesus and his disciples went outside the city.

Mark 11:15-19

Again, in this passage, Jesus packs in some rich biblical references. He speaks of the Temple as God’s “house of prayer for all nations,” drawing to mind the prophetic promise of the day when God’s kingdom would be restored (Is 56:7). But instead of this reality, Jesus is disgusted by what he sees, and so he quotes one of the biblical prophet’s harshest judgments of the temple system, calling it a “hideout for crooks” (Jer 7:11).

In this, there’s a strong sense that something new is needed, or something old needs to be renewed. But which is it – renewal of an old thing or a new thing – and can it be both? Does Jesus want the Temple cleansed, or is he calling for the end of the Temple system as they know it? And now, with either answer, we can see why the religious leaders are intent on destroying Jesus. Either way, he’s questioning, challenging, or threatening everything they hold dear.

Still, we ought to be generous with the religious leaders of Jesus’s day in the Temple. There’s much to hold dear with the Temple itself and what it stood for spiritually. Herod oversaw the reconstruction and expansion of the Temple just before Jesus’s birth (in the late First Century BCE). It stood as the crowning symbol of a system created to help people connect with God, to confess sin, and to receive forgiveness. Further, the Temple was a unifying symbol for the people who needed the hope of being a people called especially by God for a purpose: to be a blessing to the nations. And, this outer court of the Temple where Jesus turns over the tables, where the animal sales and currency exchangers were, was a place to bring that mission into reality. It was known as “the Court of the Gentiles.” It truly was, at its best, a place for prayer for all nations. It had served its purpose well. It was their WD-40.

So why is Jesus so mad? Well, scripture and scholars suggest that there were some injustices in the system: like the poor widow we see in chapter 12, as well as high fees, compounding debt, and cost beyond the purpose of tithing for the benefit of the priests to eat and care for others – not grow wealthy and powerful. In a sense, he’s recognized that the WD-40-Temple had been useful, but that they needed something more in order for all God’s people to connect with God. And this leads us into the last part of this section of Mark 11. 

Early in the morning, as Jesus and his disciples were walking along, they saw the fig tree withered from the root up. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look how the fig tree you cursed has dried up.”

Jesus responded to them, “Have faith in God! I assure you that whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea’—and doesn’t waver but believes that what is said will really happen—it will happen. Therefore, I say to you, whatever you pray and ask for, believe that you will receive it, and it will be so for you. And whenever you stand up to pray, if you have something against anyone, forgive so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your wrongdoings.”

Mark 11:20-25

In this scene, Mark brings the story full-circle, and in so doing, sets up the fig tree as a symbol of the Temple. When Jesus causes the fig tree to wither and then critiques the Temple system, Jesus is enacting the language of the prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah, Joel, and Hosea (Jer 8:13; Is 28:4; Joel 1:7, 12; Hos 9:15). Each of them speak of God’s people as being like a withering fig tree or vineyard.

Now, we see that Jesus doesn’t curse the fig tree out of spite or because he’s spoiled. Jesus causes the fig tree to wither to explain what he does in the Temple: he cleanses the Temple, because the entire Temple system is itself withering before them. The fig tree had a season of fruit; so did the Temple system. It’s served its usefulness, but in Jesus, God reveals something new, a new formula, a new way of receiving permanent forgiveness and connection to God: him. In the Temple season, people experienced God in a mediated way – through the rituals and the place, and for outsiders, through the people of Israel. In the season of Jesus, we experience God directly.

Jesus initiates a new season so people can experience God beyond a particular time and place. Jesus proclaims that he’s not just restoring an already restored and refurbished Temple; rather, he’s creating a new thing, a temple in our hearts, a temple in us as a people of faith in God, and a people of forgiveness and prayer. Jesus creates a new dwelling place for God in our hearts, and in us, as God’s people of faith, forgiveness, and prayer.

So, here’s the question: since we don’t have a Temple system, does any of this stuff relate to us, in our personal lives or as the church?

Maybe it’s worth thinking about WD-40 for a minute again. Presumably, it’s still the 1953 formula, the fortieth one. It works. But, have you ever lost that little red straw it sprays through? In 2005, WD-40 created a new straw nozzle to fix this problem.

Similarly, we might ask ourselves some questions like these. What in our faith lives has served us well in the past, but if we’re really honest, isn’t serving us as well in the present? Are we going through the motions of Christians and being church, without experiencing the fire, passion, and Spirit-presence that we once had, or want? As a church, our leadership is asking these questions, so that we can grow together in our spiritual intensity and sense of being part of God’s mission in Broken Bow.

We can take our cue from Jesus beside the withered fig tree for how to step forward in faith. Jesus creates a new dwelling place for God in our hearts, in us, as God’s people of faith, forgiveness, and prayer. So our next steps in faith, toward planting Jesus firmly in our hearts, are through faith, forgiveness, and prayer. So here’s the challenge today: what next step can we each make this week to plant Jesus more firmly in our hearts? Perhaps you can write it on your bulletin to remind you. Is it a Bible reading or worship practice that re-centers us in our faith in God that moves mountains? Is it doing some hard soul work to forgive someone else, or ourselves – to set ourselves free from the desire for revenge or retribution? Is it starting a new or renewed daily prayer practice? Today, these are the types of steps Jesus calls us to, so that we can be the Temple through which we and others experience God. May it be so.

Reflection Questions:

  1. What do you think about the idea of this sermon, that Jesus proclaims that the season of the Temple system has served its purpose and he’s inaugurating a new season of connection to God through him? Is there anything startling about this to you?
  2. Do you think there’s anything else significant about Jesus causing the fig tree to wither, beyond it being a symbol for his cleansing of the Temple and creating a new system?
  3. What next step in growing your faith in God, a faith that can move mountains, can you take this week?
  4. What next step can you take in the area of forgiveness this week?
  5. What next step in your prayer life can you take this week?
  6. This sermon didn’t develop the idea of “moving mountains.” An interesting connection is that Isaiah 2 and Micah 4 speak of the Temple or Jerusalem as “the mountain of the Lord’s house,” or something like that. In saying the disciples can move mountains, Jesus could be saying, “You’ll move the ‘mountain of the Lord’s house’ from the Jerusalem Temple to your hearts.” What do you think of this interpretation? What else do you make of Jesus’ reference of faith moving mountains?
(Holy cow! That sermon got out of hand. Another case of taking on too much text. I’m finding this is the risk or temptation of preaching a chapter at a time – and with limited or no notes.)

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