March 8, 2015 I Corinthians 1: 18-25 John 2: 13-22
Rev. Catherine Purves
It’s almost time for spring cleaning. It has to be. This winter has dragged on long enough. We have been more or less housebound for months, only venturing forth between snow storms and sub-zero days, patiently driving behind snow plows and blessing homeowners who salt their sidewalks. It feels like an awful lot of my energy and efforts are focused on just staying warm and coping with the snow. It’s tiresome living in layers of clothing. It’s exhausting having to dig yourself out of a perpetual snow drift in order to leave your house. The last week or so we’ve had to shovel our walk every time we went to pick up our mail from the mailbox. Then we have little puddles of water and dirty footprints all over the floor. And if you’re busy with that, then the piles of unattended stuff – mail and sweaters and books and such – just keep on growing. Who has the time or the energy to keep things tidy in the winter? But spring is coming; the snow is melting; soon we can get down to the necessary business of cleaning house.
The event that John described so graphically in our Gospel reading for this morning is usually referred to as the cleansing of the temple. And we are certainly left with the impression that this bit of sanctuary spring cleaning was way overdue, as far as Jesus was concerned. Even more than the other three Gospels, John presents us with a vivid picture of an angry Jesus, a violent Jesus, wielding a whip and driving animals and tradesmen out of the temple where they were exchanging money and selling cattle, sheep, and doves for sacrifice. You can imagine that the temple forecourt, filled with Passover pilgrims and farm animals, was in a terrible state. It’s no wonder that Jesus shouted, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” It was time to clean house.
This acted out lesson is not hard for us to understand and apply. As we consider our place of worship, we can see the danger of becoming overly involved in the business of fund-raising just to keep our congregation afloat financially. I frequently get mailings and even telephone calls from people who want us to consider selling chocolates or pens or calendars in order to raise money for mission. Actually, I don’t think they care what we do with the money, as long as we give them our business. And this can easily draw us into the mindset of thinking of the church as a business with bills and salaries to pay, upkeep and repairs to worry about, stewardship strategies and fund-raising projects to plan. Of course, these needs are a reality that we cannot ignore, but when they start to clutter up the life of the church, encroaching on the sacred space needed for prayer and worship, study and compassionate service, then it is time to clean house.
As we order our life together, this is an important lesson to remember. The Sanctuary is to be a house of prayer, a place where we encounter God and where God speaks to us through Scripture and by his own abiding presence. This is where God guides us, where the Spirit moves in mysterious ways to claim us, to give us gifts, and to direct our lives. This is where we meet Jesus and can speak with him in a hallowed silence. This is where forgiveness is sought and found. This is where we are energized for ministry and strengthened to face the ordinary trials of our daily lives. You can’t do these things in the midst of a marketplace where we are constantly distracted by the bottom line, by money-making schemes, or by our own projects and plans. Every so often, we have to clean house, because it is easy to become so overwhelmed by the clutter of keeping this show on the road that we forget what road we are supposed to be on and where we are meant to be going.
At a deeper level, we can also interpret Jesus’ act of cleansing the temple as a repudiation of the old way of worshiping God and the inauguration of a new way of coming into God’s presence. This too is an important lesson for us. The sacrificial system was too easily misunderstood and abused so that the temple was turned into a place of bartering, buying, and selling, not only literally, but theologically. When rightly understood, the sacrifices were meant to represent the offering up of life to God. For the believer, it was an act of utter submission to God to which God responds by communicating his life, thus restoring the relationship between the worshiper and God. The sacrifice does not ‘buy’ God’s forgiveness and acceptance. The sacrifice represents the complete offering of the life of the worshiper, the acknowledgment of guilt, and the need of forgiveness. The sacrifice of the life of the animal stands between the worshiper and God and becomes the place where the divine gift of reconciliation is given and received. That was how it was intended to work. But we see that in Jesus’ day the temple had been turned into a marketplace where the holy act of communion with God had somehow become a human enterprise of buying and selling so as to extract forgiveness from a judgmental God through ritual acts of obligation. It was time to clean house.
A new way of coming into God’s presence was about to be established. A new act of reconciliation was going to take place which would supersede the old sacrificial system. A new ‘temple’ would be raised through which our worship would be offered. That new way, that new act, that new temple was Jesus himself. Jesus was Emmanuel, God with us. In and through and as Jesus, God would reconcile us to himself, forgiving our sins, and giving us new life. In that sense, Jesus took the place of the sacrifice, because he would be the bond that sealed our new relationship with God. His life would be the source of our life. And this was obviously going to be a gift from God to us. Just as Jesus cleansed the temple, God has cleaned house and provided a new way for us to stand in God’s holy presence through Jesus Christ our Lord.
So let us be sure that we have cleared away the old clutter of mistaken sacrificial worship from the church. We cannot buy God’s love and forgiveness. We should not try to barter with God by offering either good deeds, or faith, or promises that we will amend our lives. These ‘things’ will not win God’s favor and cannot be used to avoid God’s judgment. Jesus has already accomplished our salvation. We do not have to earn it through perpetual sacrifice. But, when we come into God’s presence through Jesus Christ, we do offer these things as a way of expressing our thanksgiving to God for our life in Christ. So, our good deeds, our faith, and our promises to God do not enable us to be reconciled with God. Christ does that. But these things are the result of that reconciliation. These important aspects of our life in Christ just need to be kept in the right place, in a house that is clean and tidy and wholly ordered by Jesus himself.
Now, it may not seem obvious, but Paul is actually talking about much the same thing in his first letter to the Corinthians. If you read the entire letter you will see that the Corinthians had real problems. Theirs was a divided church. They didn’t quite know which way was up. In this letter Paul has to warn them about the dangers of trusting human wisdom, the lure of immorality, the proper celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the nature of Christian love and fellowship, and the significance of the resurrection. The Bible contains two letters to the Corinthian church, but it is thought that there were at least four, and Paul visited Corinth to get them back on track at least three times. The Corinthians were not thinking straight, their behavior was not consistently moral, and their worship was also in question. A thorough housecleaning was needed, and Paul set himself to the task.
In our passage, we see Paul trying to put Christ crucified back into the center of the life of the Corinthian church. If the cross of Christ (and that is shorthand for Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension), if the cross is at the center, then other things can be put in order and the clutter of worldly ideas, trumped up human wisdom, lax moral practices, and sloppy worship are shown to be things that must be cleaned out of the church, just as Jesus cleansed the temple. So Paul wields his words just as Jesus snapped his whip. And again we see that what was at issue was the necessary truth that it is only through Jesus Christ that we can now enter the presence of God and have a relationship with God.
So, it is time for us to clean house. Look at your own life. Examine your own mind. What kind of dangerous clutter is lying around? To what extent have you put your faith in worldly wisdom? Do you have stacks of secular ideas piling up in the dusty corners of your mind? How do you know what is moral? Where does true authority lie when it comes to your decision-making? How disciplined is your private and your corporate worship? Does the cross have pride of place in your sense of the ordering of the universe? These are all important housekeeping questions.
A church elder once told me, “It is easier to keep a clean house clean.” That was a thought that had never occurred to me, and I marveled at the truth of it. Keeping a house clean, keeping a church in order, and keeping a life centered in the cross of Christ requires diligence. As we continue through this season of Lent, let us engage in some serious spring cleaning. Throw out everything that may get in the way of your knowing and worshiping and serving God through Jesus Christ. Look at how you are using your time, your gifts, your energy. Reexamine your prayer life. Confess your sins and receive the cleansing mercy of forgiveness. By God’s grace, may your house be in order by the time we get to Holy Week.