The Scriptures tell us of Solomon’s soaring prayer of thanks to God at the dedication of the great temple in Jerusalem. It was a day they would never forget. God had finally fulfilled His promise to dwell among His chosen people in a special way. The temple itself, in its totality and in its separate parts, testified to the coming Christ who tabernacled among us.
But there came a time when there was trouble in the temple. The 7th chapter of Jeremiah tells the story. The people of Jeremiah’s day chanted: “The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” like some cheap slogan – like a person who says: “Confirmed! Wisconsin Synod all my life!” as though that in itself could ever be a substitute for a living, breathing faith in Jesus Christ.
For the people of Jeremiah’s day, for the people of Jesus’ day, the temple and its outward services had become a cloak to cover evil. Show up for Passover. Buy the lamb. Offer it up. Smile at the priest. Go home and sin.
God got in their face about it. He said: “Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 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 or robbers to you?”
The Gospel of John records the first time Jesus drove the merchants from the temple at the start of His ministry.
But old problems keep coming back. During the very week when Jesus goes up to Jerusalem as the ultimate Sacrifice, the Savior cleanses the temple a second time. As he turns over the furniture, He cites the words of Jeremiah: “It is written, My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.”
We know what a den of robbers is, don’t we? It’s the hideout, the cave, the hole in the wall, like in those old grade B western movies. It’s where the bad guys went to hide, to split up the loot, to feel safe to plot the next crime.
When the church becomes a safe house to turn liberty into license, a crack house to peddle the narcotic of Christless living beneath a crucifix, it’s time for a housecleaning. This marketing in the temple was but a symptom, as it usually is, of what was not there – real repentance and genuine faith in God’s appointed Lamb. Small wonder that the church of Jesus’ day had lost its power to change hearts.
The temple was the symbol of God’s presence among His people. But is not every earthly temple an empty husk if it is not filled with the glory of Christ Himself – God’s ultimate presence among us? And how else does Christ make His presence known among us except in the Word and Sacraments? If the polls are to be believed, the true temple (which is Christ and His gospel) holds little appeal to most folks in a so-called post-modern age. Some wish to keep one finger on the horns of the altar “just in case.” They want membership, not discipleship. They are their own Bible. It won’t save them.
We can wring our hands over it. We can suggest a half dozen gimmicks to fix it. But the real danger is not that we will fail to succeed, but that we will succeed in what doesn’t matter.
In the end, the only remedy for trouble in the temple is when, as the prophet put it, “the Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to His temple!” We need Christ to come to us with His word. We need to welcome Him when He does.