Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

Third Sunday in Lent (3-15-09)
“Cleaning House” (John 2:13-22)

Imagine sitting at home in your favorite “comfy” chair. The lights are all out. It’s pitch black. You’re relaxed. Everything seems fine. You have no sense at all that your house may need cleaning.

But then, turn the lights on, and you suddenly realize how filthy your house is. There are piles of clothes. Piles of newspaper. Piles of old mail. Dust an inch thick on the furniture. Dirt stains on the carpet. Food stains on the sofa. A shaft of light beams through a break in the curtains and you notice millions of dust particles floating in the air, revealing that even the air in your house is dirty. Now that everything has been exposed to the light, you definitely know it’s time to clean house!
Sometimes the phrase “it’s time to clean house” is used figuratively. A business fires some people for not getting the job done and they call it “cleaning house.”

Just like sitting in a dark room not realizing how dirty it really is, we often wallow in the darkness of sin. We don’t recognize our need for cleaning.
Especially during this Lenten season, we need to recognize our need to “clean house.” We need to have the house of our hearts and lives cleaned, because there is a lot of dirt that exists there. This morning, Jesus brings His light and shows the need to “clean house.”

Jesus brought His light into the temple in Jerusalem and “cleaned house.” The courtyard of the temple was filthy with the stench of dung and sweat from the animals that were being sold for sacrifices. But the courtyard was more filthy because of the spiritual stench. Unbelief and a severe disregard for the holiness of God’s house was causing the stink. The people who were selling the animals for sacrifice in the temple were evidently more concerned with their profits. In order to buy animals for sacrifice, you had to exchange Roman currency for temple currency, hence the presence of money changers. But their practice was to offer an unfair exchange rate. And the bargaining and bickering that went on over the sale of animals must have been offensive to Jesus, too.

Humanly speaking, this was good business! But God’s house was not a place for marketing products and making a profit. This was the Father’s house. It was the place of worship. It had become a “den of robbers.” All this sinful hubbub was dishonoring to God and to the very place where He had promised that His presence would dwell.

And so, Jesus made a whip and cleaned house. He drove everyone and everything out of the temple area. He overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, with coins flying everywhere. He cleaned the temple of those who loved making a buck more than loving God and loving the true worship of God.

This is quite a different picture of Jesus that John gives us here. This is not the helpless little Babe of Bethlehem. This is not the meek and gentle Good Shepherd. This is the Son of God showing His divine righteousness and holiness. You might think that Jesus “lost it” here ... that He went crazy with rage. But no ... this was Jesus demonstrating the righteous wrath of God against those who abused the holy place. This was the Son of God who had come to take the place of all these animal sacrifices, to be the once-for-all sacrifice at the cross for the sins of all people. The animals being sold as sacrifices were now truly obsolete in the presence of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

The religious leaders did not recognize the divine authority of Jesus. They demanded a miraculous sign as proof of His authority to “clean house.” Their intent was to expose Jesus as just another false prophet. They'd seen his kind before. Every now and then, some self-proclaimed prophet would pop up and challenge the authority of the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish council. They figured that Jesus would prove to be a failure, just like all the others.

But their request for a sign further proved that they had not learned to live by faith. They thought they were keeping God’s commandments. They failed to recognize that their attitude in the temple was dishonoring God and His commandments and His holiness. They failed to recognize the divine authority of Jesus. Moreover, Jesus revealed their murderous intentions with His reply, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” As the Gospel writer explains, Jesus was not speaking about the temple made of stone and mortar. He was speaking about His own temple of flesh and blood. Jesus in effect said to the Jewish leaders, “Go ahead and kill me if that’s what you’re determined to do. But I will rise to life again after three days.”

And that’s just what they did. The Jewish leaders eventually had Jesus executed, figuring they needed to “clean house.” They needed to get rid of this guy from their midst who was challenging them and their way of worship, which was not really the true worship of God. The true worship of God is faith in His Son. This they did not have.

Even the disciples were still in the dark as all this was going on. They failed to understand the meaning of Jesus’ reference to the destruction of the temple. It was only after the resurrection of Jesus when they finally understood and believed that Jesus had predicted the cleansing death and resurrection of the temple of His body.

The earthly temple was filthy, full of people engaged in stealing, cheating, and unbelief. It needed to be cleaned. The temple of Jesus’ body, on the other hand, needed no cleaning. It was holy and righteous, without any speck of sin whatsoever.

And our Lord Jesus brings His light into the temple of our hearts and “cleans house.” Our hearts are filthy with sinful thoughts and sinful attitudes which sometimes work their way out into sinful actions. Our hearts are filthy with the stench of death, because “the wages of sin is death.” God’s Law beams into our hearts and exposes the dirt and the filth that is there, the ways in which we have broken God’s Holy Commandments. It’s time to “clean house.”

Take another look at the religious leaders in today's Gospel reading. Maybe we’re more like them than we think we are. When God’s Law comes to us and exposes our sin, we may be tempted to question the authority of Jesus and His Word to challenge us. We put up our defenses and make excuses for our sin. Or maybe we are tempted to question the authority of Jesus and His Word to cleanse us. We think that we must engage in various spiritual exercises to aid the cleaning process. We just have to try harder. We just have to do more.

Maybe we want a sign, too. We want God to give us some clear sign of His power and love in our lives. If we don’t get a sign, we begin to doubt whether He’s really there or whether He really cares about us. But that’s living by sight, and not by faith.

Jesus has given us a sign. The same sign given to Jesus’ enemies in our text today is the same sign that is given to us. It is the death and resurrection of the Clean One, Jesus the Innocent Son of God. He paid the wages of our sin with His own life. God the Father would have been completely justified in “whipping” us with His wrath and punishment and driving us from His presence as Jesus did to those who were sinning in the temple. Instead, Jesus endured whipping and flogging at the hands of the Roman soldiers. Just as He drove the merchants and moneychangers from the temple, Jesus felt the hellish pains of being driven from the presence of God, as He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” God the Father “cleaned house” once and for all at the cross. There, His righteous wrath over sin was laid upon Jesus.

Now, God comes to us and “cleans house” with His grace and mercy. He “cleans house” by putting to death our old sinful nature. He gives us a new heart and makes us a new creation by His Spirit. And He gives us two other visible signs which assure us of His grace and mercy in our lives. He gives us the sign of Holy Baptism, where He “cleans house” by washing away the sinful filth in our hearts and gives us His Holy Spirit. He give us the sign of Holy Communion, where we receive the body and blood of Jesus which assure us that Jesus has “cleaned” the temple of our hearts and has now come and taken up residence there.

It was only after Jesus had risen from the dead that John says his “disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” In the light of the resurrection today, we, too, can recall the words of Jesus and the words of His Apostles which “preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor. 1:23-24) In those words, we are pointed to the cleansing death and resurrection of the temple of Christ's Body. Through that cleansing, we are enabled to believe His Word and to receive the benefits of His cleansing power in His Word and the Sacraments.

With our dirty, sinful hearts exposed to the light of God’s Word, we receive the cleansing of Jesus. His temple was destroyed and built up again in three days. Now His Word comes to our temples. He cleans house, and sets up residence there, so that we may believe His Word, and rejoice in His cleansing, forgiving love.


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