Editor’s note: It’s hard to believe, but the Easter season is right around the corner—Ash Wednesday is March 1. Just like in the past, CTA is offering seven FREE sermon outlines to help you prepare your worshipers for Resurrection Day. This year, the theme is A Love That Never Dies, based on Jeremiah 31:3. You’ll find the third sermon below and be sure to download the entire packet of sermons in CTA’s Resource & Idea Center.
Some of you may recall the days when, at church especially, God was portrayed as a harsh, unyielding taskmaster. In those days, many pastors preached and lived the demands of the Law with uncompromising authority and rigidity. Often, the ushers were more like sergeants-at-arms, and children were taught (at times, under threat) that as soon as they entered the sanctuary, they were to be seen and not heard.
I am not going to suggest today that we return to the fear and foreboding. The Bible encourages us as God’s people to be warmed by his love, rather than living in terror at his wrath. However, a sense of awe that our sanctuary is the “House of God” is good, right, and proper.
Jesus taught this in the days right before his crucifixion to people who should already have known it. Matthew records the details for us:
Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”
And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,
“‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies
you have prepared praise’?”
And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there.
Matthew 21:12–17 (ESV)
For decades now, many who claim to follow the Savior have picture him as the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” This picture has small resemblance to the Christ of the New Testament. Caricature Christ if you must, but know that you do so at your own spiritual risk. Such a caricature gives us a Christ who is so indulgent as to be unloving, a weak, good-natured fellow, so tolerant of sin that he applauds it, someone who gives us a rope so long we could not possibly see its end.
To be sure, the pages of Scripture do paint Jesus as having unbelievable patience, infinite mercy, compassionate love. But there is another side of the Savior, one that we dare not ignore. Consider these instances:
- Mark’s Gospel tells about one Sabbath day when Jesus’ enemies tried to trick him into disobeying the Law of God by “working.” A man with a shriveled hand comes to the Lord, looking for healing. So Jesus asks them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4 ESV).
- When the Lord’s enemies condemn themselves by their silence, Jesus looks “at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart.” Then he says to the man, “Stretch out your hand” (Mark 3:5 ESV, emphasis added). As the man does, he receives a miracle from Christ. But Mark tells us, “The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (Mark 3:6 ESV).
- On numerous occasions, Jesus called such persons “hypocrites,” and even “white-washed tombs” (Matthew 23:27 ESV). They look pious and godly on the outside but, inwardly, they are spiritually depraved. It is no wonder they plotted to kill him—the only and truly Holy One of Israel (Isaiah 12:6 ESV).
If the religious leaders Jesus encountered needed a “spiritual housecleaning,” so did Jerusalem’s temple. The Gospel of John places this housecleaning at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Mark tells us it happened a few days before Jesus’ arrest and trial. Some scholars suggest that our Lord cleansed the temple twice, once at the beginning of his earthly ministry and then again at its conclusion. In any case, both Gospel writers show us Jesus’ passion, his zeal for the temple, for his Father’s house. In righteous anger, he whipped and stripped the courtyard clean of the moneychangers and traders. But why?
First of all, Jesus was angry because these people had set up their booths in the only place where the Gentiles could worship, thus making their worship impossible. They made the temple their own private club where only the elite (for example, Jewish men) could gather. There was no space for Gentiles who wanted to worship. There was no reverent silence for Gentiles who wanted to pray.
Second, Jesus was angry because the profiteering of the religious leaders lent credence to the idea that worshipers could barter with God, just as the money traders and those selling sacrificial animals bartered with their customers. That’s risky business. You can’t trade a good work or two for God’s blessing. You can’t say to God, “I’ll give you this much of my time or money or talents, in exchange for good health, prosperity, or even your love.” God is not some salesman or customer with whom you try to make your best deal. That’s crude, crass, and dangerous. Jesus here was introducing a new order of worship, radical and based upon the sacrifices of a contrite heart.
“The House of God” is so named because that is where God’s people gather at least weekly, to place before the Lord our confession of sins, our praise and prayers. Here, we receive God’s forgiveness and grace. The House of God is, indeed, a sanctuary, a place of refuge. Here, we expect to receive God’s Word of judgment and of mercy. We especially receive the good news of his love for us in Jesus, a love that never dies, never fades, never gives up on us.
To gather at the House of God is not an obligation, but a privilege; not an hour grudgingly given from among the 167 busy hours that we keep for ourselves, but a time to be refreshed and renewed in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is not a place to be entertained, but a place to offer all that you are and to ask for everything that you need before the throne of Almighty God. Here, he responds in the fullness of his grace toward you in the cross of his Son, in a love that is sure, and true, and everlasting. As he says to us in Jeremiah 31:
I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.(Jeremiah 31:3 ESV)
No wonder Jesus was infuriated at what the temple had become. For Jesus, the temple was a symbol for his own death and resurrection, as he said of himself, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19 ESV). For us, the House of God is that holy place where we focus on the cross and the open tomb, the true and only source of our hope, our life, our eternal futures. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
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