The Real Presence
God manifested His Real Presence in the temple. He dwelled in the holy of holies in a cloud. He manifests His Real Presence in the Person of Jesus. All the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily in Him. And He manifests His Real Presence in Holy Communion. It is the Body and Blood of Jesus. Our text speaks to all three manifestations of the Real Presence.
When God manifests Himself it doesn't always look all that holy or powerful. Herod's temple was a site to behold. Remember how the apostles themselves were gaga over it saying to Jesus how beautiful and magnificent it was? Yet the original temple was sacked, pillaged, and destroyed with impunity by Nebuchadnezzar and Antiochus Epiphanes IV.
The Old Testament Church was commanded not to enter the holy of holies lest they die. Uzzah, a young man having grown up with the Ark of the Covenant in his home, was struck dead when in an effort to keep the ark from falling he touched it. When the Philistines captured the ark in a battle, they were afflicted with various aliments till they were forced to give it back. Yet, Nebuchadnezzar and Antiochus could just waltz into the temple unaffected. Where were the lightening bolts? Where were the plagues? Where was the divine judgment for such an outrage against the Lord's Real Presence?
The same with Jesus: True God in flesh and blood. When you see Jesus, you see God. Touch Jesus; touch God. Yet Jesus was driven out of Nazareth. He was mocked and taunted, not just on the cross, not just in His trials, but during His life. They called Him the prince of demons, a Samaritan, a fellow, a guy, some dude. Again no judgment, no punishment, not even any scolding for these outrages against the Real Presence of God.
The Real Presence of God Almighty in Bread and Wine is just as easily despised, derided, abused, and misused as it was in Flesh and Blood. In fact, the scorn that rested on the Person of Jesus while He visibly walked the earth now rests on His altar. Nothing holy, powerful or impressive here. As the temple looked like just another building, as Jesus looked like just another person (no halo, no angels singing), so this looks like just bread and wine. If this is God's Real Presence on earth today, where are the timpani drums, where are the blaring trumpets?
I have news for you. As ordinary and weak as all the manifestations of God's Real Presence are, God's Real Presence will judge those who profane it. We aren't to be fooled by His patience. Peter warns that we are not to mistake God's patience for slowness. If we are to beware of the wrath of a patient man, how much more so of a patient God? Yet men judge that because God doesn't act when they think He should, He can't or won't. This is confusing mercy with weakness.
Our text illustrates that when God wants to judge the profanation of His Real Presence He can do so easily. Remember the Jesus of our text is the same Jesus they openly taunted, ridiculed, and chased, yet see how easily He clears the Temple. He is only one Man, yet He takes a whip to cattle, sheep, and men and drives them out. He scatters the coins of money changers and overturns their tables, and He orders those selling the doves, "Get these out of here!" And they obey.
The co-opting of the temple into a marketplace took the same route as all sin does. The market started out in the lower parts of the city; then it was brought to the gates of the temple, and finally into the very courts of the sanctuary. Read your Old Testament; this is the progression of Lot into Sodom and the homosexual prostitutes into the temple. This is the path of all sin, even the most obviously wicked, into the church. It starts in the world; the church tolerates it on her doorstep, and finally accepts it in her sanctuary. This is why Peter says judgment must begin with the house of God. The fact that God's name and presence are profaned in the world is no surprise. It's another matter in the church. It's an abomination. It's surreal, and so is the Lord's response.
What we see in our text is like a scene from a horror movie where a house suddenly comes alive. Jesus draws the connection between the temple and Himself. He is the true temple built without human hands. The Jerusalem temple was the symbol of the real one. As disrespecting a flag is disrespecting the country it stands for, so profaning the temple profanes the God it stands for. So the true Temple comes alive and easily spits out His profaners.
Judgment falls on those who misuse the Real Presence. We see in our text how Jesus judged those who misused His House, how much more will He judge those who misuse His own Body and Blood? We post-1950's Lutherans don't remember how carefully our forefathers approached the altar. No one dragged themselves in on Sunday morning and decided, "Hey I think I'll take Communion." Lutherans had agreed in their Confessions that no one was to be admitted to Communion without being examined and absolved first. So people announced to the pastor their intention the week before usually on Saturday. Later when people or perhaps pastors were too busy to do this personally Confessional Services were held prior to Communion. Now there is no announcing beforehand, and people come whenever they feel like it.
Why up till the mid-20th century was such care exercised over the Lord's Table? Because of the Real Presence, because a Mystery full of awe was here, because as Paul warns the misusing of Communion can lead to weakness, sickness, or even death. Closed Communion isn't practiced for the sake of Jesus but for our sakes. The fence around the power station is not to protect the electricity but you, and this text proves that. It not only shows that the Real Presence judges being profaned, it shows the even more amazing thing that the Real Presence is willing to be profaned by sinners in order to redeem sinners.
For sins against the Real Presence of God whether at the temple, in the Person of Jesus, or at this Table, the Holy God was sold for 30 pieces of silver as if He was one of the sacrificial animals He drove out of the temple. Jesus used a whip made of cords to clear the temple; there was no material which inflicted less lasting hurt on the body. But to cleanse our souls a leather whip weighted with pieces of bone and metal would be used on Him. Jesus drove out animals and men who profaned the temple thereby clearing it. But to cleanse us of our profanity, Jesus, an innocent Man, would be driven from the presence of the Father all the way into hell itself where there is no mercy, no hope, no help. And finally, this Temple would be destroyed.
For what? For you. Unless you see how justifiably angry the Holy God is at you for your sins, you cannot see how badly you need the Person and Work of Jesus. I am puzzled at people's blindness. If I would spit in your face, you would be angry enough to hit me, yet when you and I spit at the judgments of God by calling them unfair, unwise, we don't think He should be angry. I've had people go off on me because I mispronounced their name, yet we have no appreciation for the anger of God for how we have misused His holy name as an exclamation or as explanation for what He never said. I would offend you if you cooked a special meal and I treated it as plain food, or worse if I fed it to my dog; yet we think our treating His Body and Blood as ordinary Bread and Wine is no big deal, and He should understand our handing it out with no more concern than we throw scraps to a dog.
Well, He doesn't understand and He was angry, and on Good Friday you see just how angry. What Jesus suffers we deserve. There's the judgment on all who profane the Real Presence, and look sinner it's not on you is it? The lightening bolts, the hell, the divine justice hits Jesus on the cross, and nowhere else. But there's more. He proves that your sins are paid for once and for all. Jesus raises His destroyed Body and Blood. This proves He didn't die for lack of power. He gave His life as a sacrifice, and it proves the sins He died for have been paid for. If there had been even one sin of yours or anybody else's left unpaid for, Jesus would still be dead, but He lives.
The temple lives in the Person of Jesus. This is the major point of this text. The text begins and ends literally with the words "The Jesus." In the first and last sentences "the Jesus" is in the emphatic position. "The Jesus" comes to His temple to purify it, but He doesn't succeed in doing so by force. This cleansing of the temple takes place in the first year of His ministry. On Palm Sunday, in the last year of His ministry, He again comes to His temple and finds the same marketplace. The temple cannot be cleansed by force but only by grace. But grace doesn't come cheap. Jesus, the true Temple, purchased it by the shedding of His holy, precious Blood and by the innocent suffering and death of His Body.
Where is such grace available today? Where the true Temple is. Is the true Temple in Jerusalem? Not hardly. That site is now a Muslim mosque. The true Temple is where it always has been: in, with, and under Jesus. We gain access to this Temple through the nail wounds in His hands and feet and the spear wound in His side, so with the Psalmist in the Introit we say, "You are my Refuge; You are my Portion in the land of the living."
So where is Jesus today? Only far away in heaven, far removed from this vale of tears, from this land of suffering, from sinners like us? No, He is where He has promised to be until the very end of the ages. His Body is our Bread; His Blood is our Wine. He meets us at this altar to cleanse us not by force but by forgiving all our sins by means of the Body He gave for us and the Blood He shed for us.
In the King Arthur legends about the Holy Grail, the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper, the cup is taken away to heaven because the times became so evil. God withdraws His Real Presence because of man's sins (Bulfinch's Mythology, 486). Our text shows God wading into the sinfulness of man with His Real Presence to save them. Our Communion confesses that He is still here doing so. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Sunday in Lent (20090315); John 2: 13-22