And when He approached, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, "If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days shall come upon you when your enemies will throw up a bank before you, and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation."
And He entered the temple and began to cast out those who were selling, saying to them, "It is written, 'AND MY HOUSE SHALL BE A HOUSE OF PRAYER,' but you have made it a ROBBERS' DEN." And He was teaching daily in the temple; but the chief priests and the scribes and the leading men among the people were trying to destroy Him, and they could not find anything that they might do, for all the people were hanging upon His words.
The Misuse of Religion
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Using things in ways that they were not designed to be used or for purposes other than what they were designed to accomplish can be dangerous. At the very least, it can be silly or wasteful, and at its worst, it could be fatal. Imagine trying to clean a pool with a vacuum cleaner. A pool vacuum might work - although in my experience they do a poor job - but a carpet vacuum would just short out, and if you were standing in water, it could become quite shocking! The wrong tool can create havoc. The wrong task for the tool - like using a hunting knife as a screwdriver or a curtain rod as a pry-bar - can be just as bad.
Our text this morning presents Jesus addressing the Misuse of Religion, using religion for something other than what it was designed for. It may sound odd to put it that way, but the misuse of religion is more common than many people would suspect. This morning we are going to talk about what religion is for and what uses it has been put to. Our theme, this morning, is The Misuse of Religion.
Our text takes place late in the ministry of Jesus. You can tell that by the chapter number - 19 - in a Gospel of just 24 chapters. The context tells us that Jesus spoke these words after His Palm Sunday ride. The Jewish leaders were seeking to destroy Jesus, and we know that they were not too far from the day they would crucify Him. Jesus was aware of how close that day was, too. He was looking at the Holy City of Jerusalem, and grieving over what He knew was coming, and how unnecessary it all was. If only. But the Jews did not follow their religion. They did not take it for what it was worth or use it for peace and security. They had something else in mind.
The result of their misuse of religion was the complete and utter destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus described the siege work of the Roman Army as they destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD. He prophesied the crushing of the city and killing of the inhabitants, and He wept over it. If they had only known what it was that made for peace! But now, in the harsh light of their apostasy and hatred of God - and of their own Messiah, for whom they claimed they were waiting - even the possibility of understanding and finding peace and security was gone. But now they have been hidden from your eyes.
What they did use their religion for is not all that important, because they did not use it to come to know God or to understand His nature or His will. They did not seek or find peace of mind or soul. They did not confront their own sins honestly nor seek the forgiveness of God with any sincerity. We can tell from the second half of the Gospel lesson that they used their religion as a money-making scheme. They took advantage of the tourists, their fellow-Jews who came to Jerusalem out of a religious fervor and sought to participate in the holiest aspects of their religion, at least as far as they understood it.
Now, some of the Jews did understand their religion, and sincerely followed it and looked for the Messiah, and they identified Jesus correctly as the One. But they were in the minority, and Jesus was addressing the inhabitants of the city of Jerusalem, and the leaders of the faith , so called, in Jerusalem - the Priests and the Levites and the Lawyers and the Rabbi's and the High Priests, and the Sanhedrin - those who were responsible to know the truth and lead the faithful in Israel, but who did not. They were the ones who turned the holy space of the Temple into a marketplace, and took ungodly advantage of the religious pilgrims of Israel. They sold them inferior animals at exorbitant prices simply because they knew that they would be needed for Temple sacrifices. They changed the pilgrims' money into local currency and Temple shekels at a usurious rate of exchange because they could. They profited from their brothers in direct violation of the covenant, and they did it in connection with the worship involved in the same religion which was supposedly founded on that covenant!
In other words, they took the most holy things and did the most evil things with it. Centuries earlier, something like nine centuries earlier, Solomon had consecrated the first Temple with a prayer, recorded in 1 Kings 8 and 2 Chronicles 6, about how, as the name of God rested upon the building, that when the people of God prayed toward that building, that God would listen to their prayers and answer. And God has descended in a cloud and had consecrated the building by allowing His glory to fill the place in a visible way for a brief period, and promised to listen to the prayers of His people offered toward that temple. Although many things were to be done in and around the Temple, it's first purpose and use was to be a house of prayer, and a place where the people of God could know for certain that God heard their prayers and would answer. That House was what they had turned into not just a marketplace, but a place of dishonest gain, of cheating and overcharging. Perhaps worst of all, the whole sordid business was under the supervision and control of the leaders of the Temple - the High Priests and the experts in the Law - so-called, who took dishonest gain from the enterprise. And so Jesus said, "It is written, 'AND MY HOUSE SHALL BE A HOUSE OF PRAYER,' but you have made it a DEN OF THIEVES."
They used their religion for political power, for control over people, for crassly taking money unjustly from others and enriching themselves. Their misuse of religion was going to cost them their lives, their country, and any hope of salvation. God had said to them, "Here is rest, give rest to the weary," And, "Here is repose," but they would not listen. (Those words come from Isaiah 28.) They would not take His comfort or His love from their religion, and so they found judgment and destruction. And in our Gospel, Jesus cleansed the Temple by disrupting their trade and overturning their tables, and driving the animals out of the Temple. It was all meant for forgiveness, comfort and peace, but they misused it and used it for something else, instead.
We stand in a similar place today. Our faith is also given to us by God. It is not wrapped up in a single building in a single city, but it is the entire Gospel, and it is wrapped up in the Church and in God's people. He has given it to us for the express purposes of forgiveness of sins, comfort in the face of the distresses of life, and peace of mind and soul. Is that what we use it for? Not everyone does. Some people still insist on misusing their religion. They are intent on finding rules and so-called "principles" by which they can manipulate others. People misuse the Christian faith to establish new laws and mire people in guilt and shame. There are also still plenty of people who would misuse it to make money, just like they did in the Temple of old. These things are the modern misuse of the religion.
Jesus died on the cross to redeem us from our own sin. He poured out His forgiveness on all mankind, that those who believe and trust Him to do what He has promised to do, would have forgiveness and life and salvation. It is for your comfort and peace of heart and mind. God would have us know Him and His nature and His will toward us. And what is His will for us? (Our Salvation.) God would have us live without fear of death, or fear of His wrath because we know Him and trust His promises, all made in connection with Jesus Christ and His life and death and resurrection.
He would have us fear to be ignorant of Him. He would have us fear His wrath so that we would not deliberately walk in sin. But He would have us know His will for us and trust His grace, and believe Him when He says that He loves us and has forgiven us, and find our peace and joy in Him - because we have seen Him in His Son and know the truth which sets us free.
The proper use of our religion is comfort. It will teach us the dangers of sin, and show our own sins to us, but it will comfort us with forgiveness when we repent, and guide us to peace of mind when life challenges us with troubles and threatens us with sorrow or difficulty. The proper use of our religion is to know God and see that He is a loving and compassionate Father who desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.
The misuse of religion leads men to fear. It causes men to hate God because it has been used to drive them by fear and guilt, rather than leading them like a shepherd with grace and forgiveness and love. The misuse of religion kills because it is a species of unbelief. It denies men the comfort of the Gospel in favor of the scourge of the law. Those involved in this misuse may not disbelieve every word of Scripture, they simply twist what their religion does receive into something alien that works against the very faith it is supposed to be teaching, because it finds its center somewhere other than in Christ and forgiveness.
Your religion is not properly used when all it does is tell you what to do, or how to be good, or give you merely information upon which you may or may not choose to act. The proper use of your religion is to teach you to pray, and to comfort you with the knowledge that God is listening, and that He loves you, and that you are safe and secure in His love. Anything else - anything that fails to teach you that - is the misuse of religion, and is just as dangerous today as it was for Jerusalem back then.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
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