Mark 11: 12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, 16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.19 When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.20 In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”22 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
So, which would you rather be, a table, a temple or a tree? Not literally, of course. But do we want to be like what the table, the temple or the tree stand for in today’s Gospel passage?
The tree? We probably don’t want to be that. It got cursed and withered from the roots up because it was fruitless. Of course that begs the question as to why Jesus would curse a fig tree when it wasn’t the season for figs anyway, as the Gospel writer himself notes. Basically, it got cursed and withered for the same reason that Jesus turned over the tables in the Court of the Gentiles, of the Temple.
So we probably don’t want to be a table, either. On one hand, Jesus found the tables in the Court of the Gentiles piled and loaded with tons of money, from the money-changing business, and from selling sacrificial animals. That sounds good. But then Jesus flipped those tables over. Not so good.
And why did he flip those tables over and send the money flying in all directions? For the same reason that he cursed the fig tree. Both actions were demonstrations, predictions, even prophetic street theater, like Jeremiah wearing a yoke on his shoulders to demonstrate Israel’s coming exile. Every devout Jew there who knew his Bible would know that Jesus was demonstrating and predicting that the whole temple-based system of priests and merchants and scribes and animal inspectors and money changers was again going down, along with temple. This was prophetic drama, about how God was soon to bring an end to Israel’s corruption, exploitation and abuse of the poor. For what you had going on in the Court of the Gentiles was the polar opposite of yesterday’s Twin Cities’ MCC Relief Sale. That was a celebration of generosity and of giving, in the name of God, while the temple money changing racket was a celebration of exploitation and of getting, in the name of God.
And if anyone could conceivably have missed the shocking point of those two very provocative demonstrations, then there was one more shocking, provocative thing Jesus said about the temple. Its all in that very common little four-letter word, the demonstrative pronoun, “this,” as in “this mountain.” As in “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them.”
When Jesus says, “this mountain?” he must have had some particular mountain in mind. He is not telling us we should be able to go about flipping any old mountain. Last I looked, Mt. Rushmore was still where its always been. We haven’t even managed to get a nose down, or an ear. Oh, we of little faith? Even Devil’s Tower in Wyoming is still there. You’d think that would be first on our mountain-flipping list, wouldn’t you?
But when Jesus said, “Say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’” everyone who heard him would have trembled, their jaws would have dropped to their knees. Because “this mountain,” is logically and obviously the one on which he was standing, was Mount Zion, “The city of the Great King,” the navel of the earth, the footstool of heaven. Atop that mountain stood the temple. Flip that mountain and you flip the temple, the priesthood, the sacrifices, indeed the whole political and religious shebang. I don’t know how Jesus could have been more clear and severe. Within forty years of the events in today’s Gospel, that frightening prediction would be current events. For 2100 years, after the Romans tore it down in 70 AD, all that has remained of it is the Wailing Wall, one side of its foundation.
Maybe we don’t want to be the temple either.
What does that leave? It leaves the other temple. What other temple, you ask? The temple that Jesus talked about when he said, “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
Now, how can anyone say so categorically that if you just don’t doubt whatever it is you ask for, it will be done for you? At our Tuesday morning sermon roundtable breakfast this week, we talked about how so many people have been hurt by the ways in which these verses have been applied. Someone winds up in the hospital with an inoperable condition or a terminal condition, or someone struggles all their lives with a disability or a disease, and they or their family think it must be because of their lack of strong Christian faith that they have not gotten better. Or other Christians tell them that. Or someone dies, and added to the survivors’ grief is guilt for not having had enough faith to save that person. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours?”
Speaking personally, I can rattle off a lot of unanswered prayers. So can Garth Brooks, the Country/Western singer, who sang “I Thank God for Unanswered Prayer.” Its about going to his high school reunion with his wife, and meeting his former high school sweetheart, whom he once wanted to marry. He prayed to God to be her husband, and she said No. But so many years later, seeing his old high school flame again, he realizes how much better off he is with the woman who did say Yes to him a few years later. So he sings, “I Thank God for Unanswered Prayers.”
Whenever our prayers have not been answered as we would like, or something bad has happened, did we feel like it was our fault, because our faith was weak? Did we think that maybe God was punishing us for having entertained a moment’s doubt going through our head? A lot of people do, I’m afraid.
But to use this passage that way is to ignore the context in which Jesus said these words, and his purpose in saying them. Its to ignore this very important little word, “this,” as in “say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea.’
Now the disciples would have worried and wondered, If this mountain goes head-first into the sea, along with the temple and the priesthood, then how can we even be the people of God? What takes the temple’s place?. Where are we going to meet God? Where will his footstool on earth be? Where will we go for reconciliation, purification, and forgiveness of sins? Where will we gather, as the Tribes of Israel, to remember who we are, and to celebrate it? Most importantly, where on earth will be the glowing, glorious presence of God shine over the throne of mercy?
The answer is that now we don’t have to go anywhere. “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours,” Jesus said. Wherever you are. Whoever you are. Whenever you pray. Jesus went on to say, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” So if its forgiveness and reconciliation that you need, no more temple, altar, priests, animal sacrifices and ceremonies are necessary. Forgiveness is ours, wherever we are. Whoever we are. Whenever we ask. That makes us the new temple, the new priesthood, the new footstool of God on earth.
Peter was one of of the astonished people there, with his jaw hanging down to his knees. When Jesus first said to him, “Come, Follow Me,” he could never have foreseen that he would be leading them to a world without a temple of stone and wood, a world without a specialized, tribalized priesthood. It would never have been on their mental radar screens that they would be the new priesthood, even, the new temple. But Peter finally got it, as we can tell from his first letter, chapter 2, when he says that “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” And, in verse 9, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
So, what are the application implications of us being the new temple, the new priesthood of God? One is that we can stop beating ourselves up whenever bad things happen to us, and whenever our prayers are not answered as we would like. We can stop beating ourselves up over the questions and doubts that naturally arise in our heads whenever we pray or act in faith. Faith always implies an element of “in spite of.” The strength of our faith lies not in the strength of our faith, but in the strength of The Faithful One. The true test of our faith is not in how full of faith we feel, but how faithfully we live and act. So we can stop trying to gin up our faith and squeeze out more feelings of confidence, deny or ignore our sorrows, doubts and fears, as though faith were not a struggle. Of course it is. So, we can stop trying to bear on our own shoulders all the responsibility for whether things go as we wish or not. As though we were God Almighty.
For when Jesus says, “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours,” this is not a blank check approval on everything that we might pray for. Its a blank check approval on everyone who prays. The most important word here is not “whatever” as in “whatever you ask for” but “you” as in “whatever you ask for.” Your prayers, our prayers, are welcome and wanted by God just as much as if we were a divinely appointed priesthood, like the Levites of the Bible. For such we now are.
If we are doing our job praying, then expect some unanswered prayers. I hope we are praying often enough, and boldly enough, for God to have to say, “Be patient, my child.” Some of the answers to prayer that God has promised us, and that God wants to give us, are given as Jesus, and will come only when Jesus returns in the fullness of his kingdom, when the last chapter of John’s Revelation is no longer prophecy, but history. But God is still pleased that its you who came to him.
Which is the second application implication of this passage: Our identity as the living, breathing temple of God, the church, not to be confused with the temples of wood, brick and stone that we often call “the church.” Jesus has given us today a reminder and a call to be the temple of God, personally and together, where forgiveness is given and received, and where prayers continually ascend to heaven and grace comes down.
For an example of this the new temple, of which Jesus spoke, I’m thinking of one in North Philadelphia, PA. Its inside a building that could be confused for a temple. Like the ancient Israelite temple, it had a priesthood, an altar, even places for burning incense. Forgiveness and reconciliation were offered whenever the priests heard confessions and celebrated the Mass, which is a kind of sacrifice. People sacrificed money there, but I doubt that there ever were animal sacrifices. It was called St. Edward’s Cathedral. In the 1990’s it sat abandoned by the local archdiocese, in an effort to consolidate parishes and save money.
But that’s not really the temple I’m thinking of. It only housed Peter’s temple of living stones. That living temple was made up of homeless people and families who moved into the abandoned cathedral as the winter of 1996 approached. The heat was off, but at least it got people shelter from the rain, the wind, and from thieves and gangs. Not only did they live there, they worshiped there, without an ordained priesthood. And they helped each other with food, clothing and other resources that they brought in from their jobs, from food shelters, social service agencies, even dumpsters.
The archdiocese and the city of Philadelphia moved several times to evict them from the premises, except that college students at nearby Eastern University moved in with them, including Shane Claiborne, from whom I heard this story. Other friends showed up, too, like some fire fighters actually who installed smoke detectors, fire alarms and extinguishers, so that they wouldn’t get evicted on those grounds.
There you have all the elements of Jesus’ new temple, not in the architecture nor the facilities, but in the people and the life they lived together. A life of worship and prayer, of mutual aid and interdependence, a life of reconciliation between ethnic groups and social classes. In those people, and those relationships, you find the glory of God glowing over the throne of mercy, mercy in the form of shelter from the snow and the wind, even shelter from the cold shoulders of society.
That’s a sterling example of the new temple of God, and the new priesthood which Jesus came to establish. It is a temple that cannot be flipped into the sea because it is already so lowly and humble. So there’s no need to wonder and worry about the strength of our faith, and whether or not God finds it acceptable. Assume that he does, on the strength of his goodness and power, and keep on keeping on with the business of being the living, loving, serving, helping, reconciling, praying priesthood of Jesus, the temple that stands forever, because it is made of living stones, you and me.