Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent – March 7, 2021
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
I don’t know about you, but my garage has a tendency to get cluttered with stuff. There are often piles of clothes my boys have outgrown which are bagged up and ready to donate. There are sometimes household items out there which have broken and need to be disposed of. There’s usually a pile of stuff that needs to be taken to the recycling center. And as that stuff accumulates, it starts to get in the way. It needs to be cleared out.
People have already been doing a lot of this clearing out during our COVID quarantine. A couple of weeks ago, for the first time ever, I actually waited in a long line to donate stuff at the thrift store! People have been using quarantine time to clear out their houses, to clear out that stuff that has been getting in the way. Now with spring just around the corner, people will be clearing things out even more.
Today we hear a story often referred to as “Jesus cleansing the temple.” We hear today how Jesus did some spring cleaning in what he refers to as his Father’s house.
The temple was a very special place for the Jewish people. It housed the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. The temple was an architectural wonder built by Solomon and Israel’s most important place of worship. God was understood to be most powerfully present in the inner sanctum of the temple, called the Holy of Holies, wherein was found the Mercy Seat, where sin was forgiven. Jews from all over the world would make pilgrimages to the temple on certain holidays to worship and make their sacrifice to atone for their sins.
Jesus loved the temple. He had been going there faithfully since he was a baby, when Mary and Joseph brought him there for his presentation and he was fawned over by Simeon and Anna. When Jesus was twelve years old, he went to the temple with his parents, who accidentally left without him, leaving him there! When they scolded him for staying behind, he cheekily said to them, “Did you not know that I would be in my Father’s house?” Jesus loved the temple. It was his Father’s house.
But his Father’s house had become cluttered. The courtyard surrounding the temple, called the Court of the Gentiles, looked like a county fair. It was cluttered with stands selling animals to be used for the prescribed sacrifices, their droppings littering that hallowed ground. There were merchants calling out like carnival barkers. There were tables lined up for the moneychangers who, for a price-gouging level transaction fee, would exchange those pagan coins for Jewish shekels, the only currency you could use for offerings at the temple. That precious, beautiful temple was cluttered with all this tacky, corrupt garbage that was getting in the way of God’s presence in that holy place. The bleating of sheep and the clanking of coins and the shouts of swindlers drowned out the chants and prayers of priests in the inner court.
But it wasn’t just these merchants and moneychangers who were cluttering his Father’s house, there was also a mentality, a mindset, which was getting in the way. Too many people who had come to the temple had come to see their relationship with God as a transaction. They weren’t there to visit the Mercy Seat and receive God’s grace, but to merely to casually pay their fine. They weren’t there offer sacrifices as a sign of genuine contrition and repentance and faith, they were there to pay their annual dues in their God club. They didn’t see themselves so much as recipients of God’s gift of salvation so much as they were participants in a religious system whereby God could be bought off with a handful of shekels or a sacrificed critter or two. They had turned the temple into a marketplace – not only literally, but spiritually. And it was getting in the way of their relationship with God.
Well, out of zeal, out of fierce love for his Father’s house, Jesus cleaned house! Jesus got to work clearing out the clutter! He made a whip of cords and drove them all out – the sheep and the cattle and the merchants. He dumped the coins of the moneychangers all over the floor and flipped over their tables. He demanded that someone take those cages of doves out of there. He said, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
When the religious leaders asked what authority he had to be doing this, asking him for a sign, he said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The religious leaders scoffed at this. It had taken forty-six years to build that temple! No one was going to raise it up in three days!
But then the Holy Spirit whispers into our ears through the voice of John, the narrator, telling us: “But he was speaking of the temple of his body.” You see, one day Jesus would return to Jerusalem to bear the cross. And on the cross Jesus would clear out everything that separates us from God once and for all. By offering himself up as the Lamb of God, Jesus would end the sacrificial, transactional system once and for all. His body would become the new temple, the new Mercy Seat. Through his death and resurrection, people would come into God’s presence in a new way – through him.
This Lenten season we are called to do a little spring cleaning ourselves. We are called to clear out anything and everything that is getting in the way of our relationship with God. For some of us, this means literal, tangible things that are cluttering up our lives – like too much TV or phone scrolling or other distractions. For many of us it also means clearing out the casual ways we think about God. It means clearing out those attitudes and actions that belittle God, bringing him down to our size with our bartering and bargaining. It means taking our complacent, cultural Christianity to the dump and falling to our knees in true repentance. It means clearing out the spiritual garbage in our hearts and minds that turns our relationship with God into a transaction, a deal, or something we buy or earn by our sacrifices, and instead turn to the Mercy Seat that is Christ Jesus.
It is him, God’s only Son, who has saved us through the sacrifice of himself. It is him, our savior, who has cleansed us by his saving work on the cross, the fruits of which we receive in Holy Baptism. It is him, our Lord Jesus Christ, who has earned for us a place in his Father’s house forever. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church