By Paul Koch –
Tradition is an important part of our lives. Sometimes we scrape against our traditions, especially if they are in our way, or somehow slow our progress. Of course, there are traditions that we don’t really understand, and so we would rather not worry about them. Yet traditions are important. They carry with them an ancient understanding of things, a working of the world and our place in it. Our traditions are how we can evaluate new things, how we can understand worth, and even how we chart the future. No matter how cutting edge and modern you might be, we all have traditions that we value. All of us have traditions that we think should be upheld. In fact, we all know that when long held traditions are done away with, there will be consequences. Therefore, older generations will shake their heads at younger ones when they change a tradition because they know it will lead to something unpredictable.
Now in the church, tradition is amped up to a whole new level. Tradition, when it comes to worship, is a huge issue. After all, tradition in the church doesn’t just tie us into an ancient practice but is connected to the very gifts of Christ himself. You might think of it this way; good traditions keep us from straying off the path into some nonsense of our own making. Like G. K. Chesterton said about orthodoxy, it is giving a vote to the most obscure class of people: to the dead. Those that have gone before us, those faithful saints of the past, they carefully handed down these traditions and so their voice is still heard today. What we do in the church, how we worship, is not some new thing of our own making. Its very pattern and flow have been formed over hundreds and thousands of years of practice.
But then something profound can happen. Most notably, the traditions that worked so well for so long just don’t seem to work anymore. They don’t convey what they once did. They don’t retain the faithful like they used to. Our children grow up, leave home, and find other places of worship with different traditions. Along with the different traditions comes different practice, and different practice will have consequences on what is believed and taught and held on to when the dust settles. Those who hold to the old traditions scoff at the idea of change. They fear what might happen if we adapt our current practice. But then again, we look at ourselves and see a dying church, an increasingly shrinking gathering of the saint and we wonder if perhaps our traditions are holding us back. We may, perhaps slowly at first, begin to chase after a different tradition. We may search for one that has proved to be more successful.
Now, today’s text from John 2 deals with a tradition more profound and ancient than anything we know. It has nothing to do with what hymnal to use in worship or whether to have a praise band or not, or even how to organize the parts of service. No, what comes into view in this text is the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was a structure built off the pattern of the ancient tent of meeting where God’s glory was visibly present for his people. The temple was where the people of God could approach his holiness through regular sacrifice, and therefore be made holy themselves. The tradition and ritual built up around this place makes our traditions pale by comparison. The place was a massive hub of activity where traditions guided the acts of all who entered the place. The voice of Moses and the practice of Aaron were very much alive in that place when our Lord entered it.
And what does Jesus do when he comes into the temple? Does he take his place among the rest of the faithful, following the established traditions? Does he do what has always been done for generations? No, not by a long shot. No, our Lord enters that place and he sees all the activity; he sees the people selling animals for sacrifice, he sees the money changers hard at work making sure everyone can pay the temple tax and begging to braid together some cords. He fashions a whip. And in a shocking moment of violence he begins to drive out those selling the animals. Imagine the insanity of that moment. Everyone is going through the traditional way of doing things when Jesus starts whipping people and then takes a hold of the money changers table and flips them over.
Now, it is the impact of this action that is important. When Jesus drives out the animals and turns over the tables, he has in fact stopped the machine that is the temple. He stops it. For a moment, albeit a brief moment, the temple ceases to operate. No more sacrifices, no more paying of the temple tax. It just all stops, all the traditions come to a halt. And as the dust settles the only thing that is left in action, the only thing that is left to look at is Jesus himself. He is defiant and bold, he stands against everything that was taking place. Finally, they ask him by what authority he does these things. Those in charge who ran the temple, they demand some sign that shows he has such authority to do this. What proof does he offer that he has a right to stand against the ancient traditions of men? Why should he be able to stop the working of the temple?
But he is unmoved. With the whip still in his hand he looks right at them and offers them a sign. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
Here, then, we begin to see the meaning of this whole scene. The location of God’s presence with his people, the place of sacrifice and holiness had always been that temple. But not anymore. No, tear it down he says, and he will raise it up in three days. The temple, the place of God’s gracious presence with his people, the location of holiness itself is the body of our Lord Jesus Christ. He stops the working of the temple for that moment because it will in fact cease forever. Not on that day but on the day when his zeal for the Father’s house will consume him. The day that that zeal takes your sins and mine to the place of the skull. The day he is consumed by wrath and death for the salvation of mankind. Tear it down and in three days he will raise it up.
The only tradition that matters, the only thing that lasts, the only thing that is eternal is Christ himself. He will rise on the third day and that temple will cease to exist. It means that salvation does not rest in the traditions of man, no matter how lofty and well meaning. Salvation cannot be found in the correct ordering of things or the more ancient practices. Salvation lies in Christ alone. Our traditions are only beneficial if they point us to him and him alone.
Perhaps in your zeal you have loved the tradition more than the Savior. In your zeal for the house of your fathers you have gone through the motions without repentance and hope. You have flowed along to the point that ritual has become void of the threat of death and the promise of life. You may even chase after other traditions hoping that you might find the one that will save the church, make her strong and prosperous and appealing to the younger generation. But don’t worry, for he has died for your zeal as well. He died for your love of traditions. In fact, he may even break and destroy your tradition so that all that is left standing is our Lord alone. See, he will hide in your failing traditions so that while you love them you will find you are really loving your Lord instead.
He will drive out the money changers and the sellers of sacrifices. He will stop the traditions of man so that he alone stands at the center of your hope and life and freedom.
His body is the temple of God’s presence and it is into that body that you are baptized. You are connected to the one who stand when all the dust settles. It is his body that is the location of God’s holiness and it is that very body that he gives to you to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of all of your sins. His body was consumed to set you free and it is his body that he freely gives now to each and every one of you. Zeal for the house of God is not the building, or the tradition, or anything we have created ourselves. Zeal for the house of God is zeal for Christ alone. Christ who is found in his Word and Sacraments, and in the lives of those who sit beside you this day. That is the focus of our zeal for that is the source of salvation.