The great classic novel Moby Dick is a story of obsession and revenge. If you’ve read that book, you know that almost everything from the beginning of that book leads up to a final confrontation. From the moment we are introduced to Captain Ahab with his peg leg and we’re told that it was the great white whale with the crooked jaw that was responsible for the missing limb, we understand that the hunt is on.
And when Captain Ahab promises a gold coin to the first man who spies Moby Dick, we know that the whale will be spotted and a battle to the death will ensue. So, at the end of the book, when we see Captain Ahab standing on top of the whale, plunging his harpoon into its back, with both of them finally sinking into the sea, we’re not surprised. This is exactly the kind of climax that Herman Melville prepared us for throughout the book.
The gospel of Mark tells a similar story. We know almost from the beginning that everything in this book is leading up to a great and final confrontation between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. From the moment we are introduced to the Pharisees, Mark lets us know that things will not go well between them and Jesus. And as the story progresses, we see that matters are going from bad to worse and will ultimately end in a fight to the death.
In Mark chapter 2, the religious leaders accused Jesus of blasphemy because he claimed to be able to forgive sins. Later in that chapter, the Pharisees objected to the kind of people Jesus associated with and they complained about his behavior on the Sabbath day.
In Mark chapter 3, the Pharisees began to plot how they might kill Jesus. In that same chapter, the teachers of the Law accused Jesus of being demon-possessed. In Mark chapter 7, the Pharisees were angered by Jesus’ disregard for their traditions.
And then three times, as we’ve seen in Mark chapters 8, 9, and 10, Jesus prophesied that the elders and chief priests and scribes will kill him.
So, as we approach the end of this book, the story builds to its inevitable climax. Jesus comes to Jerusalem – which is “enemy territory” — and he becomes bolder and more confrontational. And, as a result, the Jewish leaders are even more determined to do away with this nuisance. And so, in the end, when the Pharisees are successful in their attempt to kill Jesus, we’re not surprised. This is what Mark has prepared us for throughout this gospel.
This morning, we come to Mark chapter 11. As Jesus comes into the city of Jerusalem, he is still popular with the common folk. In fact, all the people are eager to make Jesus their king. And so, we find in this chapter a coronation ceremony, but it’s a bit different from what you might expect.
In just a few months, in May, we will be able to view the coronation of King Charles III of Great Britain. I’m not sure what all is involved in a coronation ceremony these days, but in the past, the coronation of a monarch has involved a lot of splendor and pageantry. The king is dressed in the most expensive robes and jewels and is driven through the streets of the city in an ornate carriage drawn by stately horses. Accompanying him would be his courtiers and foreign dignitaries, and following him would be a large regiment of the nation’s finest soldiers.
At the climax of the event, the king is presented with a scepter or crown and participate in a ritual signifying the transfer of power and authority into his hands. Musicians play and sing, and crowds break into choruses of praise. Every part of the ceremony is designed to highlight the majesty, the glory, the power and the dignity of the king.
In Mark chapter 11, we read about the most significant coronation ceremony the world has ever known, but it was very different from what I’ve just described. It was the coronation of the King of kings, but there was no pomp and no splendor. In fact, the most significant part of this ceremony involved a donkey.
In Mark 11, beginning with verse 1:
“Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” say, “The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.”’
“And they went away and found a colt tied at a door outside in the street, and they untied it. And some of those standing there said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ And they told them what Jesus had said, and they let them go.
“And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!’” (Mark 11:1-10)
It’s obvious that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem had some strong Messianic significance for Mark and his readers. Mark spends six verses discussing a donkey! It’s obvious that Mark has in mind the prophecy of Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’” (Zechariah 9:9)
As strange as this may sound, the donkey was actually a traditional mount of kings. Even Solomon, the richest man who ever lived, rode to his inauguration on a donkey.
And as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on this donkey, the response of the crowds had Messianic implications. They laid their cloaks and palm branches in front of Jesus, because, in those days, that was how you treated a king! It symbolized their respect for Jesus and their submission to his authority. It was as if they were saying, “We place ourselves at your feet.” They were celebrating the coming of the King! This group of people was convinced that the Messiah was riding on a donkey right there in front of them!
And they were certain that Jesus would demonstrate that he was the great Conqueror. And this was the right time of year for the Messiah to appear. They were about to celebrate Passover, which commemorated the Lord delivering Israel out of their Egyptian bondage. What better occasion could there be for the Messiah to bring about the ultimate and final deliverance of his people?
With all this celebration, this should have been a happy occasion, but for Jesus it wasn’t. And it’s not just because he knew he was going to die. Luke tells us that, as he came into the city, Jesus wept. He wept because he knew these people were clueless. They thought that Jesus was a king, but they didn’t understand the nature of his kingdom. Like Pilate, they didn’t realize that the kingdom Jesus came to bring was not of this world. And so, they showed honor to Jesus, but they really didn’t understand what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah.
And here’s what I find ironic. When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, the Jews expected him to drive out the Romans, but what happened instead was that Jesus began driving out the Jews!
Verse 15, “And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, ‘Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”? But you have made it a den of thieves.’” (Mark 11:15-17)
Whenever we picture Jesus, there are certain images that seem to stand out. I love the picture of Jesus the Good Shepherd putting a lamb on his shoulders and carrying it to safety. I love the sweet image of baby Jesus in the manger. I love the pictures of Jesus sitting around a table with people from all walks of life. I’m amazed as I picture Jesus bursting out of the tomb on Resurrection morning. But here in Mark’s story, there is a picture of Jesus that quite frankly, doesn’t seem to fit. It’s so strange that I sometimes wonder why God would even put it in the Bible.
The twelve apostles seemed to have been just as stunned as everyone else, because nothing is said about any of them helping Jesus to clean house. All by himself, Jesus started turning over tables, blocking people who were carrying things, and saying, “Get out of here with that! You can’t bring that through the courts.” He stormed over to the merchants of oxen and sheep and doves, and said, “Get out! Get your business out of here!”
As the feathers were flying and the coins were clattering to the pavement and the businessmen were shouting for the police, Jesus said above the noise of the crowd, “This place looks and feels more like a marketplace than it does a temple. Whatever happened to Isaiah’s words about the real purpose of this building – that it is to be a house of prayer for all nationalities and all races? Get out! All of you, get out!”
The odd thing about this event is that if Eyewitness News had interviewed any of the merchants that day, every single one of them would have defended their right to be there. They would have said, “We provide an essential service to the worshipers. How else are people going to get the required animal to sacrifice? If you live any distance away, you can’t be herding your sheep and cows through the streets of Jerusalem. We’re just trying to help folks.” But the truth was, they weren’t really concerned about helping anyone; the only thing they were interested in was turning a profit.
According to the Law of Moses, any animal that was approved by the priests could be offered in the temple. But these priests made sure that any animal that wasn’t bought from them was found unacceptable, thus forcing everyone to come buy from them. This may be the first example of a monopoly in business.
According to one historian, a Jew would often have to pay as much as ten times what an animal normally cost. It was like trying to buy a generator in Florida after a hurricane has swept through. Oh, you may be able to find one, but it’s going to cost you big time.
The money changers would have acted innocent, too. They would have said, “Everybody has to pay the temple tax, and people can’t be walking in here with Greek or Roman money. Those have images of people who claim to be God on them. Everybody has to use the special coins that we make here in Jerusalem. We’re just helping people with their currency problems.” But once again, they were tacking on big-time profits.
Jesus was not using a figure of speech when he called the temple, “a den of thieves”. That’s literally what they were. And so, Jesus restored this area of the temple to its original purpose. He gave the courtyard area back to the Gentiles so that they could have a place where they could pray to God.
The problem was that, in the temple, there was the appearance of worship, but there really wasn’t any worship. Nobody’s mind was on God. Nobody was concerned about glorifying God. All they thought about was themselves, and what they could do to get what they wanted.
There’s a legend about an ancient village in Spain. The villagers learned that the king was going to pay them a visit. This was something special, because in the past thousand years, a king had never come to that village. Excitement grew. The villagers all said, “We need to throw a big celebration!” But it was a poor village, and there weren’t many resources.
Someone came up with a great idea. Since many of the villagers made their own wines, the idea was for everyone in the village to bring a large cup of their very best wine to the town square. They said, “We’ll pour it into a huge vat and then we’ll offer it to the king for his pleasure! When the king draws wine to drink, it will be the very best wine he has ever tasted!”
The day before the king’s arrival, hundreds of people lined up to make their offering to the honored guest. They climbed a small stairway, and poured their gift through a small opening at the top. Finally, the vat was full! The king arrived, he was escorted to the square, given a silver cup and was told to draw some wine, which represented the very best the villagers had to offer.
The king placed his cup under the spigot, turned the handle, but what came out was nothing more than water. You see, every villager thought to himself, “I’ll withhold my best wine and substitute water. With so many cups of wine in the vat, the king will never know the difference!” The problem was, everyone thought the same thing, and the king was greatly dishonored.
That’s what was going on in the Jewish temple. It appeared that everyone was giving God the very worship that they could. In reality, they weren’t giving him anything at all. And that’s what sometimes goes on in our worship services and in our lives. We go through the motions. We appear to be giving God the very best we have to offer. Everyone around us would say we have given our best. But sometimes it’s just a show, and God gets nothing.
And Jesus says, “It’s time to clean house! It’s time to get serious about your worship.” Because the temple today isn’t located in Jerusalem. The church is the temple of God. Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. And so, the question I want to raise this morning is this, “If Jesus came today, would he need to clean house? Is there anything in our lives and in our worship that Jesus would need to get rid of because it interferes with our ability to worship him properly?”
It’s a serious question, but what Jesus does here in the temple is serious, so I think he expects us to ask some serious questions. I’ll come back to this in a minute.
In the story of Jesus, though, the plot is beginning to thicken, as they say. What Jesus said and what he did in the temple was a direct rebuke of those who had the responsibility to oversee the temple. And when Jesus took control, he was basically saying that they weren’t worthy to run God’s temple.
And the religious leaders understood exactly what Jesus was saying. They saw Jesus’ actions as a threat to their authority and their position. That’s why, in verse 18, “And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching.”
But then, what happens next is a bit puzzling. Actually, part of this story takes place before the cleansing of the temple and part of it takes place afterward, so we have these “bookends” with the temple cleansing in between.
This is something that Mark does several times in his gospel. He takes one story and he puts it in the middle of another story. Remember back in chapter 5, Mark tells the story of Jairus’ daughter getting sick, and he sends some men to get Jesus and Jesus goes to the house and raises the little girl from the dead. But, right in the middle of that story, Mark tells us about Jesus healing a woman with a hemorrhage of blood.
It’s called the sandwich technique because Mark sandwiches one story inside another one. And he does this several times throughout this gospel. So, here, we have the cursing of the fig tree told in two parts, with the story of the cleansing of the temple sandwiched in between. And that’s significant, because the two stories are related
In Mark 11, beginning with verse 12, before Jesus came into Jerusalem,
“When they came from Bethany, [Jesus] was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.” (Mark 11:12-14)
And then, after Jesus cleansed the temple and left Jerusalem, in verse 20, “As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.’” (Mark 11:20-21)
When Jesus cursed the fig tree, he was giving what you might call an “action parable”. The fig tree symbolizes the temple and the religious leaders. And when Jesus came to the temple, he was hungry – hungry to see God’s people honoring him. There were “leaves” on this tree – everybody was busy doing what appeared to be worship – but those leaves concealed the fact that there really wasn’t any fruit on this tree. There was nothing there to satisfy the hunger of a true worshipper. Like with the fig tree, Jesus came to the temple expecting to find something and it wasn’t there.
So, when Jesus cursed the fig tree saying, “May no one ever eat of you again”, what he really was talking about were the religious leaders. And it won’t be long before the religious leaders and the temple itself will be completely destroyed.
So, what lessons should we learn from this chapter in Mark? I think the most important lesson is this — if we are going to proclaim that Jesus is our king, if we are going to cry out to him “Hosanna, save us!” then we had better be prepared for the kind of king that he is.
Because Jesus is the kind of king who will come into our lives – his temple – and start cleaning house. And if we truly believe that Jesus is our king, then we’ve got to give him the right to be able to do that. We’ve got to give Jesus the right to cleanse us. Now, there are two different ways that God can cleanse us of sin.
The first is that God can forgive us of sins that we have committed against him. Our sins can be washed away and we can be made as white as snow. As Ananias said to Saul, “And now, why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” (Acts 22:16). And we all want that cleansing – we want to be forgiven.
But when Jesus cleansed the temple, it reminds us that there is a second kind of cleansing – a cleansing that involves getting rid of things that don’t belong there. A cleansing that gets rid of habits that we have allowed to take hold of our lives. A cleansing that removes the hypocrisy of going through the motions in our religion. A cleansing that changes what we do and what we say on a daily basis.
It’s like spring cleaning around your house. Part of spring cleaning is getting rid of the dirt and washing things down. But another part of spring cleaning is getting rid of all the junk that has accumulated in our closets, attics and basements.
And I wonder perhaps if we are sometimes more interested in Jesus cleansing our lives by forgiving our sins, than we are in letting Jesus clean house and toss out all the stuff that shouldn’t be there.
When you read Psalm 51, you see that David was concerned about both of those things. He prayed to God, “Blot out my transgressions, Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” (Psalm 51:1-2).
But he also prayed for changes to take place: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)
This morning, are you ready to proclaim that Jesus is king of your life. More to the point, are you prepared to let him “clean house” in your life? Is it possible that what ought to be filled with worship and holiness is cluttered with distracting things of a material nature? Does Jesus ever come looking for fruit in our lives only to be disappointed at what ought to be there, but isn’t?
Perhaps we all need to invite Jesus to do a little housecleaning in our temple, to get rid of those things in our hearts and our lives that have no place in a temple of the Lord. I can’t think of a better way to start off a new year!