We are continuing our journey through each day of what many in the Christian community now call Holy Week or Passion Week.  Last Sunday, we spoke about Jesus’ decision to make an unmistakable entrance to Jerusalem. Crowds saw Jesus as the king come to establish a restored earthly kingdom of Israel.  The Pharisees and Sadducees saw Jesus as a threat to their status, the Temple itself, and to the nation of Israel.  Jesus saw His entry into Jerusalem as a cause for grieving because everyone missed seeing God was among them.  It was a very emotional day for everyone.

After resting for the evening in Bethany, a town about 2 miles from Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples retraced their steps back to Jerusalem on the next morning, what we would now call Monday.  On this day, there would be no riding on a donkey, no palm waving crowds, and no encounters with the Pharisees along the route to the city. But it would be a tremendously passionate week and one that would have much meaning for the people then and for us now.

What exactly happened on Monday?  While the gospels differ somewhat in the sequence of events, it seems clear that two things of significance happened.  One event was private to Jesus and his disciples, and it involved a fig tree.  The other event was very public and involved a temporary stop to sacrificial activities with the Temple of Jerusalem.  These very different events had a common message.  We will look at the fig tree event first, then the Temple activities, and then conclude with the fig tree.

I want to use the oldest of the gospels, the gospel of Mark, as our primary source of events for this day.  In looking at Mark, we will find that Mark presented his readers with what some theologians call, “A Goldened Oreo Cookie.”  Mark uses Jesus’ first encounter with the fig tree as the outer layer of the cookie, the events in the Temple as the sweet filling of the cookie, and then uses Jesus’ second encounter with the fig tree as the remaining layer of the cookie.  What even kids understand is that the center of the Oreo cookie is the main attraction. Our conversation will follow similar lines with the Temple clearing as the center of Jesus’ activities.

The gospel of Mark tells us that after Jesus left Bethany, Jesus became hungry.  Seeing a fig tree in the distance, Jesus went to find out if the tree had any fruit.  This is Jesus’ first encounter with the fig tree. When Jesus reached the tree, he found the tree had nothing but leaves, because Mark says it was not the season for figs.  According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ disciples heard Jesus say to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (Mark 11:14).  In reading the account of Jesus and the fig tree in the Gospel of Matthew, we would find no commentary about Jesus’ state of hunger, or on whether it was fig season.  But we do have Jesus saying to the tree, “May you never bear fruit again” (Matthew 21:19). Neither Luke nor John recount an event with a fig tree in their gospels.  What is going on here that the original readers of Mark and Matthew would have understood? 

First, fig trees, in and around Jerusalem, sprout leaves in March and yield two types of figs.  The early figs appear as knobs on the older branches.  Those early figs appear before the tree sprouts new leaves.  The early figs are not ripe until late spring.  The second figs appear on new branches in late spring and are harvested from August to October.  The fig tree described in the gospels was full with leaves so the tree could have or should have been early figs as knobs on the old branches of the tree.  But the tree did not have any early figs, and did not have summer figs because it was not yet the season for summer figs.  The tree only looked inviting with its leaves, but it bore no fruit. 

Second, the first readers of this story, the Jewish ones in particular, would know that fig trees and figs relate to Old Testament prophecies about God’s judgement upon Israel.  The prophet Jeremiah is most relatable here.  Jeremiah said that God would judge Israel for being unfaithful.  In that judgement, Jeremiah said, “13 I [God] will take away their harvest”, declares the Lord.  “There will be no grapes on the vine. There will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither. What I have given them will be taken from them” (Jeremiah 8:13). Jesus’ encounter with a barren fig tree sets the stage and helps the disciples recall that God will judge Israel for unfaithfulness. Jesus’ words in this encounter with the fig tree reinforce that sense that a divine pronouncement of judgement has been made against Israel. 

Jesus’ first encounter with the fig tree may seem like a small episode of prophesy but as the outer layer of cookie, this encounter was preparing the reader for something much more important to follow.  There was coming a greater encounter and reminder of God’s judgement as the group moved forward to the Temple.

After the encounter with the fig tree, Mark reported Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem and made his way to the Temple and its outer courts.  The Temple was the prized centerpiece of the Jewish religion and its sacrificial practices.  The Temple at this time had just completed a 46 year long rebuilding program to make its splendor pronounced and awe inspiring.  This week of celebrating the Passover, the Temple was busy with visits with Jews from across the known world.  Mark said that as Jesus entered the outer court of the Temple, Jesus acted decisively and without warning.  As soon as Jesus enter the Temple courts, Jesus “began driving out those who were buying and selling there” (Mark 11:15a).  What were they selling?  Namely, there were people selling and buying sheep and cattle for sacrifices in the Temple. Jesus drove them all out the Temple court, the buyers, the sellers, the cattle, and the sheep.  Jesus here ended the buying and selling of sacrifices in the Temple.

Mark then said, “Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers” (Mark 11:15b). Moneychangers were there to exchange pagan coins, for a fee, for the silver coins made by the Temple authorities and acceptable for offerings to the Temple.  Jesus sent the coins of the world and the coins of the Temple scattering and mixing across the courts of the Temple, effective ending the exchange of money.

Mark then said Jesus overturned the tables of “those selling doves” (Mark 11:15b). Doves were reserved for sale to the poor to offer as sacrifice in the Temple.  Here too, the tables with the coins from dove sales were overturned effectively ending the sales of doves.

Then Mark said, “And [Jesus] would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the Temple courts” (Mark 11:16).  Everything associated with the sacrifices within the Temple ended abruptly on that Monday. With everyone’s attention focused on Jesus, Jesus said this, ““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.’” (Mark 11:17).  “Is it not written,” is another way of saying, “You know that it is written,” it is written in the Old Testament, the prophesies of Isaiah of God’s desire for the Temple and Jeremiah of God’s judgement upon violators of God’s desire.

First, let’s look at Isaiah, Chapter 56. God revealed through the voice of Isaiah God’s desire for the Temple.  God said the house bearing His name would be open to all, Jews and foreigners, who would bind themselves to the Lord, who would love the Name of the Lord, who would serve the Lord, who would keep the Sabbath, who would hold fast to God’s promises. Each person would be accepted and honored within this Temple, for God’s temple was to be “a house of prayer for all nations.”  But Jesus observed that it was not a house of prayer for all nations, because not all were welcomed.  First, non-Jews were excluded.  In the context of that period, how could the non-Jewish world encounter God and revere him without being able to access God’s house?  There was no alternative to them.  Second, even Jews could not access the Temple without spending money on sacrificial animals and without providing a separate Temple tax.  God’s house was no longer as God desired, God’s house was a money making machine.

Through Jeremiah we would hear the prophetic words of judgment for failing to do as God desired.  “Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the Lord. 3 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. 4 Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” 5 If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. 8 But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.  9 “‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 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? 11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord (Jeremiah 7:2b-11)

          Jesus words, “den of robbers,” invokes all what God had said through Jeremiah with a recognition that the leaders of the Temple were engaged in worthless and useless activities designed primarily to line their pockets with money.  The leaders of the Temple, Sadducees and Pharisees, were acting as though the Temple was a safe haven that shielded them from accountability.

          The combined effect of Jesus’ actions and statements in the Temple were to first stop all sacrifices and offering of gifts to the Pharisees and Sadducees. Why?  Because worship of God was to be and must be for everyone without regard to giving favor to any man.  Second, the leaders of the people were charged and indicted as mere robbers who conspired with each other to impoverish the people they were supposed to lead.  The call upon them to “Repent” had gone unanswered and now God’s judgement would be upon them. 

Did the leaders repent?  Not at all.  Instead, the religious leaders were furious at Jesus’ actions and words vowing among themselves with murderous breaths to kill Jesus just as soon as they could do so secretly for the leaders feared the people. 

This is the sweet part of the Golden Oreo cookie – the very heart of the day.  Jesus clearing of the Temple and proclamation that God was to be worshipped by all was the central message on Palm Sunday and was the central message of this day.  Worship of God cannot and must not be restricted and turned into a money-making machine.

          After this encounter and the indictment of the religious leaders the Jesus and his disciples returned to rest in Bethany.  The ending of the story occurs with a return to the fig tree which in the gospel of Mark occurs the following morning.  In the gospel of Matthew, the conclusion of the fig tree occurs on the same day as the first encounter with the fig tree.  The conclusion with the fig tree is very much the second cookie of the Oreo as it draws emphasis to the filing in the middle, namely, the cleansing of the Temple.

          Mark wrote that when Jesus and the disciples encountered the fig tree again, “20b 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!”  The judgement upon the fig tree was symbolic of the judgement coming upon the unrepentant religious leaders and their fruitless worship practices.  Like the fig tree with its lush leaves was very much like the adorned Temple and practices of the Sadducees and Pharisees.  Both were fruitless.  The return to the fig tree finding the tree withered was symbolic of what would happen to the Temple and the religious leaders in Jerusalem.  The day was coming in which that whole system would wither and die.  As we mentioned last week, that happened in 70 AD with the destruction of the Temple by the Romans.  Since that time, nearly 2,000 years there has been no buying and selling of cattle, sheep, and doves for sacrifices.  There have been no moneychangers.  No merchandise that needed to be moved.  The system of the Temple simply withered and died.

          The heart of the story of the fig tree and the Temple is again the worship of God. God desires earnest prayer.  The Lord’s Prayer that we recite calls us towards ACTS.  In prayer, we offer Adoration of God.  “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name.”  Holy be your name over all the earth.  It is an act of worship to adore God.  In prayer, we offer Confession to God.  “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” We are acknowledging to God the need for our forgiveness and restoration.  It is an act of worship to confess to God.  In prayer, we offer Thanksgiving to God.  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  We are giving thanks to all that God has provided to us, is providing, and will provide to us.  It is an act of worship to give thanks to God.  In prayer we give to God our Supplication, our requests.  “Give this day our daily bread…Lead us not into temptation.” We are asking God to sustain our bodies and protect our souls.  It is an act of worship to ask God for mortal and eternal protection.

          God’s house shall be a house of prayer, a place of worship, where we are free to adore God, confess to God, give thanks to God, and seek God’s help.  Jesus’ clearing of the Temple was to show what God desired from people of all nations, simple, unencumbered worship.

          Let us then be glad that we are here today in God’s house cleared by Jesus so that through the power of the Holy Spirit we can worship our wonderful Father and our Savior his Son.  Amen and Amen.