Posted by: Johnold Strey | March 14, 2009

Sermon on John 2:13-22

LET THE CHURCH BE THE CHURCH!

  1. Don’t bring the world into the Church
  2. Bring Christ and his work to the world

Text: John 2:13-22

Introduction

Some things will make you roll your eyes.  The driver who cuts you off, oblivious to the fact that you were behind him while he was yapping away on his cell phone.  The excuses your children concoct as they try to explain why they didn’t clean their rooms like you told them to.  Then there are things that will get you a little more upset.  Politicians who can’t seem to get along and who spend insurmountable amounts of money by raising your taxes.  Octomom Nadya Suleman who used IVF to conceive multiple children even though she was unmarried, unemployed, already had six children and was already on public support.  But then there’s another category.  There’s that category of things that will really, really get you angry.  Those things will vary from person to person.  As a Lutheran pastor, I get pretty upset by ministers and churches that claim to be Christian and biblical but don’t preach much about Christ and the cross.  I get worked up by church politics, by church leaders who use their positions to advance themselves instead of the gospel.  And depending on your situation in life, you probably have a few different things that will really get under your skin.

You will never find a person who walked on this earth as patient as Jesus.  There weren’t too many things that got him upset.  But that doesn’t mean that he didn’t get upset.  And while sinful humans are prone to letting righteous anger become sinful rage, the perfect Son of God was always justified when he expressed his anger.  So on those few occasions when Jesus’ displeasure was on display, we sit up and take notice, because we know that if Jesus is upset, something must be seriously, seriously wrong.

That’s why we need to sit up and pay close attention to the Gospel for today.  In John chapter two, Jesus is more than a little upset at the scene he encounters at the Jerusalem temple just before the Passover celebration.  And Jesus’ righteous anger at the problems in the temple has something to teach the church today.  Today’s Gospel says loudly and clearly: Let the church be the church!  Do not bring the world into the church; rather, bring Christ and his work to the world.

I.

You may not have known it, but there is a problem that some have identified with today’s Gospel.  John records Jesus cleansing the temple at the start of his ministry.  But the other Gospel writers record this event at the end of Jesus’ ministry.  And that begs some questions.  Which one is right?  Why would the inspired and unerring Scriptures contain such an obvious mistake like this?

The issue that critics find in this reading isn’t an issue at all.  For one thing, Jesus may have cleansed the temple more than once (or even more than twice) during his ministry.  None of the accounts say that this only happened once.  Parents know that their children will make the same mistake more than once and that they will have to correct them more than once.  If that’s obvious in daily life, why can’t that be the case here?

A second possible solution is that John is not following chronological order.  I don’t think that’s the case here, but I admit that it is possible.  We’ve noticed, for example, in our current Sunday morning Bible Class that Matthew sometimes groups events or sayings of Jesus together thematically, not chronologically.  Perhaps John was doing something similar.  But in either case, the accuracy of Scripture is not compromised, despite the critics’ claims.

That’s the issue about this account.  But let’s look at the issue in this account.  It is almost time for the Jewish Passover celebration.  Jews from surrounding nations traveled quite some distance to be present at the Temple.  People needed to purchase lambs for the Passover meal.  Obviously that was easier than bringing a lamb with you over dozens or hundreds of miles.  And for someone from a foreign country, currency had to be exchanged first.  Because the demand for local currency and lambs was high, guess what that did to exchange rates and prices?

It seems that at one point, an area of the city had been designated for these transactions.  But now the selling place had moved inside the temple, specifically in the “Court of the Gentiles.”  Just imagine if you had walked into church today and you found a currency exchange booth right in the entryway, with animals for sale before you even get to the pews.  That sounds more like a flea market or a county fair than the house of God!  Do you think the animal stench and the business atmosphere would disrupt your worship?  Would it seem that the one place you could escape from the world had been invaded by the world?

Jesus certainly didn’t take it lightly.  “In the temple courts [Jesus] found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money.  So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.  To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here!  How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!”

In past Sunday Bible classes, we have talked about the elements of Greek command words that can’t be easily translated into English.  In Greek, you can make a command that means “Do this now!” or a command that means “Keep on doing this all of the time!” just by changing a few letters in the word.  Jesus tells the sellers to do both.  “Get this stuff out of here now, and do not ever do this again!” This is righteous anger at full throttle!  But Jesus’ perfectly righteous anger does not lead to any sin.  He drives the animals out but he does not steal or harm them.  He tips over the money changers’ tables but does not confiscate their money even though every last coin ultimately belongs to him!

Jesus did not take it lightly that the world was brought into the temple.  How was one supposed to focus on the meaning and message of the temple sacrifices or on personal prayer with the bleating and baaing and bartering in the background?  Sure, it was entirely practical to exchange money and sell lambs in the temple, but the church does not run on worldly pragmatism!  The church runs on the gospel good news of Jesus, the Lamb of God.

Will we benefit people today if we bring the world into the church?  Will we be in a position to save more souls if we market the church to provide people what they want just as any successful company would today?  Will we bring more people to Christ if we make the church look like the world that tempts us with sin and deception every day?  Will we see more people in the family of God if we use giveaways and gimmicks to replace the means of grace?

This may be the one time worth asking, “What would Jesus do?”  Would Christ suggest that we promote the smell of worldly popularity and the profits that come from marketing to people’s desires instead of preaching the judgment our sinful flesh needs to hear and the Jesus that repentant souls long to hear?  Or would Christ drive our sinful desires out of the nave and tip over the tables of self-centered narcissism in the entryway and say “Get this out and keep it out!”?

II.

You can imagine that Jesus’ tipping of the tables didn’t go over well with everyone in the temple.  John refers to the response of the Jewish religious leaders in our reading.  “The Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”  This sounds a lot like what Paul wrote in today’s Second Lesson.  “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).  The religious leaders in charge of the temple were not willing to reexamine their ways unless they could get a miracle out of Jesus.

Jesus gave them an answer.  It wasn’t exactly the answer they were looking for.  It wasn’t an answer they even understood.  In fact, Jesus’ own disciples really didn’t understand the answer until after he had risen from the dead.  “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’  The Jews replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’  But the temple he had spoken of was his body.  After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said.  Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.”

The proof that Jesus had the authority to tip over the tables and drive out the animals would be seen in the future.  The religious leaders would incite their sin-filled hatred against Jesus to the point that they would seek and secure his execution on the cross.  But on the third day, Jesus would rise from the dead.  That resurrection testified to the world that Jesus had completely paid for the sins of the world.  But the resurrection would also testify to the Jews that Jesus was not just Mary’s son but God’s Son.   That means that the temple was his Father’s house and he had every reason to clean house if they had dirtied it by bringing the world into the church.

Jesus did not want the world in the church.  He wants the church to be the church.  But those from the world who gathered in the temple and those from the world who had never stepped foot in the temple all needed to hear about Christ and his work.  Jesus wanted the world out of the temple so that the message about Christ, portrayed in the temple sacrifices, would remain unadulterated.  Even his rebuttal to the Jewish religious leaders confronted them with his upcoming resurrection from the dead-the future proof that he had every right to get the world out of the church so that the church could bring Christ and his work to the world.

Do you know what one of the most misunderstood verses is in the Bible?  There are several candidates, but the one I’m thinking of today is 1 Corinthians 9:22, where St. Paul wrote, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”  This verse has been used to justify the practice of bringing the world and its culture into the church.  This verse has been used to justify the practice of marketing the church to a particular audience, even though the gospel is supposed to transcend ethnicity, age groups, and other demographic divisions.

Too much has been read into Paul’s words.  We would be better served if we let Paul interpret Paul.  Look at the way Paul carried out his ministry.  When he preached in a Jewish synagogue, he began with a natural starting point for Jews:  He talked about the God of their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  When Paul arrived in Athens (Acts 17:16-34) and found himself surrounded by statues of Greek gods, he preached in a way that would communicate the gospel to this different culture.  He started with the natural knowledge that God existed and had created them.  He quoted some of their poets as proof that they recognized this.  And he turned that into his avenue to get right to Christ and the resurrection.  If you know the story, that’s when Paul lost his audience.  The resurrection was too much for these Greeks who “looked for wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:22), as today’s Second Lesson mentions.

There is a big difference between bringing Christ and his work into a particular culture versus bringing the culture into the church.  But there’s only one way to serve any culture.  Bring Christ and his work to the world!  Yes, we should understand our local culture and setting so that we can serve it.  But let the church be the church!  Serving the culture is not the same as becoming the culture.  And this is so important because there is so much at stake.

Jesus rid the temple of its worldly influences so that it could return to a house of prayer and a place for sacrifice.  And what was the unspoken sermon in those sacrifices?  The altar and the sacrifices testified to Christ, the Lamb of God, whose sacrifice takes away the sin of the world.  The altar testified to the blood of the Lamb of God who cleanses us from all sin.

So what should this place of prayer and worship be all about?  Our altar tells you.  Let the church be about the Lamb of God.  Let the church be about Jesus’ sacrifice to end all sacrifices.  Let the church tell the story about the greatest drama the world has seen with a surprise ending no one could have predicted.  The almighty God has become one of us in Jesus Christ!  The almighty God has traded places with us under his own law and demands in Jesus Christ!  The almighty God paid the punishment for our sin and guilt himself in the innocent sacrifice of Jesus Christ!  The almighty God, who cannot die, died our death in Jesus Christ!  The almighty God, who lives and reigns eternally, rose from the dead and conquered death for us in Jesus Christ!  And no worldly pragmatism or cultural gimmickry can make that message more beautiful or powerful or stunning or effective!

When you are weighed down with guilt, what better news can you hear than your guilt has been removed in the blood of Jesus?  When you are filled with uncertainty about the future, what better news can you hear than your eternal future is secure in the resurrection of Jesus?  When your heart is plagued with fear about your status with God, what greater comfort could you feel than the waters of the font?  What greater comfort could you taste than the body and blood of Jesus given you in his Supper?

Conclusion

Over the past 15 months or so, our little congregation has seen many families and members move out of the area, and a few long-time faithful members called home to their Savior.  One look at our attendance statistics and you can see the difference.  But that’s not all bad.  It gets us thinking about who will be the souls that take the place of those who have gone to other parts of the country or gone to heaven.  That gets us thinking about evangelism, be it as an organized church effort or a personal opportunity placed in our path.

We’re seeing those opportunities before us right now.  We have a nice sized Bible Information Class.  After some aggressive advertising, we have many more families interested in our Kindergarten than we’ve seen in a long time.  The only question is how we will respond to these opportunities.  And that’s where the lessons from Jesus’ cleansing of the temple come to mind.  Don’t bring the world into the church.  Let the church be the church.  Let Christ and his work be the essence of our teaching and preaching and confessing and evangelizing.  Let the church be the church, and then let the gospel do its work.  Amen.

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