I mean, how does our worship service begin? After our opening hymn, you stand up and the first thing out of your mouth is… “God, I confess that I am by nature sinful... God, I disobeyed you. I chose to do wrong and ignored the right. I deserve your wrath, your anger; God, I deserve to go to hell.” What a way to build self-esteem, right? An admission of guilt?
Then there’s the sermon. Each sermon takes a Bible-reading, explains cultural traditions and simplifies Jesus’ teachings; it takes the core truth taught and compares your life to it. You hear applications to your life, reminding you that you are not as perfect as you might think you are. Wow! Who wants to hear that? Isn’t “church” a place to learn how to live a happier Christian life? That we stop talking about the gospel and actually live it?
Now, we could stopping talking about “sin” and “evil” and “bad.” We could just start service with: “Yes, you aren’t perfect, but that’s ok! No one’s perfect here. Just forget about the bad things you do. Know that Jesus loves you!” We could sing something upbeat to get our hearts pumping, our minds excited, and our emotions raging. We could do all those things, but we still zero in on this issue of “sin.” Why?
Well, for the same reason Jesus does.
In our reading, you watch Jesus arrive in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. This once-a-year festival reminds believers that God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. This rescue also pointed forward to a spiritual rescue. God would send a Savior to lead people out of spiritual slavery and into the freedom from sin’s deadly consequences (Exodus 12).
When Jesus steps into the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money.
Now, a few things first. The temple breaks down into two major parts: (1) the temple itself and (2) the courtyard of the Gentiles. Only Jews could enter the temple building, offer their sacrifice and worship. Some Gentiles [non-Jews] also trusted in Jesus as Savior. They worshipped in the courtyard surrounding the temple.
Passover worshippers are pouring into Jerusalem. Some travel long distances. Instead of dragging your sacrificial sheep across the desert road, you could purchase your appropriate sacrifice in Jerusalem (see Deuteronomy 14:24-26). In addition to the sacrifice, God required paying a temple tax (Exodus 30:12). Since many worshippers lived in the Roman Empire, they had Roman coins. Pressed into those coins is the image of the emperor—an emperor who claimed to be god. Such an arrogant boast stole glory from God. So, those entering the temple would exchange their Roman coins for Jewish coins. Then they could pay the required temple tax.
You see, selling animals and exchanging money was not wrong. Yet, there’s two things wrong about the actions taking place here. (1) Where this business is conducted. Normally, you bought animals and exchanged money outside the Gentile courtyard. Now, someone brought this business into the place where Gentiles worship! Imagine someone bringing the barn into your church. As you pray, a cow bumps into you. You lift your eyes up to heaven in prayer and cannot help but notice a sheep pooping just a few feet away from you. The lemony-pine smell of your incense blends in with the swampy stench of sweaty cattle. You try to meditate, but someone shouts: “Exchange your money here! Low transaction fees!” What could possibly move someone to bring business inside a church?
Well, that leads to the second issue: (2) The motivation behind this business. Money took precedence over the worship of God. Instead of assisting people in their worship, the Passover became a convenient tool to make money.
No wonder Jesus 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!”
Here’s the point: God is serious about all of his Word. The Jews felt that because they had the temple, the sacrifices, the Word, they had the freedom to behave however they desired. They put their trust in what they had, not why they had it; they rejected the need to change their hearts.
Do you see why we still address sin? Jesus demands your heart. And yes, I know, you are a Christian; the Holy Spirit already lives in your heart by faith (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Yet, worldly filth can clutter it up. Greed. Pride. Arrogance. The stubbornness to refuse admitting that you are wrong. That your lifestyle actually does not match up to God’s commandments. That your cursing and swearing should not be. That your thoughts need to change. Your heart can get filled up with all this filth.
If this spiritual filth remains there, then, like these Passover-marketers, you find no reason for Jesus. If you do not think you have sinned, then you do not need someone to remove that sin. When, by chance, you need spiritual certainty, you begin placing your trust in something other than the Savior. You point at your church membership: “All is well because I completed [Adult] catechism class. I never worshipped, but I completed the steps.” You point at your family history: “My great-grandfather built this church. I may not include God in my life, but I want him included at my funeral.” You point at your service: “I planted the flowers. Grandma cooked the dinners. We gave a big offering. I always lent a hand. Yes, I may have created every excuse to stay out of worship, but how dare you question what I believe!” Do you see what happens? If you forbid God’s Word to cut into your heart, you will simply whip at Jesus to leave. You, like those Passover-businessmen, will believe God’s Word does not apply to you.
For many, the most shocking thing about this account is Jesus’ demonstration of anger. Does he lose control? Is he being too mean? Does he sin? Focus on something far more shocking than that: Jesus stays in the temple.
I mean, do you recognize Jesus could have done nothing? He could have left greed destroy the moneychangers. He could have watched people buy an animal in order to simply fulfill a ritual; go through the empty motions of meeting God’s demand. Jesus could have just left the temple. He could have left those hearts so polluted with worthless filth that would only lead to destroy— but he does not.
Jesus does not sin here. Zeal for [God’s] house consume[s him]. Jesus’ anger reveals just how much he hates sin. He does not overlook wickedness, he deals with it. So, he cleanses the temple from becoming a house of greed. More than that, he cleanses the temple of the heart.
In case you think I am overstating things here, just look at how seriously Jesus treats the Passover. He, the Son of God— the Alpha and Omega, First and Last, Beginning and End— celebrates the Passover. He has to; he is born to keep God’s law (Galatians 4:4). As a boy, he and his parents went to Jerusalem for the annual Passover festival (Luke 2:41). You watch him celebrate the Passover in this reading. Then on the night he is betrayed, Jesus again celebrates the Passover.
This is not some mindless ritual; he wants to worship. He does worship with a heart full of love. More than that, Jesus holds this intense desire to meditate, learn, and speak God’s Word. The temple of Jesus’ heart is perfectly clean.
If you (and I) still think God does not care that much about our actions, then you better look at the cross. God is serious about all of his Word. He is serious about his commands. He is serious about punishing the law-breakers and those who scoff at sin. God remains so serious about all of his Word that he punishes Jesus.
Jewish leaders succeed in destroying the temple of his body. After all, they rejected Jesus as Savior; they had no use to worship him. So, they got rid of him. And for three days his body lay under a heap of rock. Then, three days later, just as Jesus promised, God rebuilds his temple. Jesus rises from the dead! He preaches forgiveness to sin-burdened hearts. He ascends into heaven to rule a spiritual kingdom. He rules now, using his Word to rule your heart.
Yes, that same Word God has placed into your life. As you remain in the Word of God, zeal for God’s house starts to consume you. It does in three ways.
(1) You hold this sincere, intense desire to grow closer to God. You make it a priority to worship. Sunday mornings are not an empty-minded ritual; this is not something you do for the sake of doing. Sunday mornings, much like the Old Testament Passover, focuses your attention on a God who delivered you from sin’s damning effects. Sunday mornings are a chance for you to be reminded that Jesus (and only Jesus) has cleaned your heart from all moral filth.
So, you can leave here happy; you can leave in peace. God, in Jesus, forgives you! You are set free from obeying the Ten Commandments in order to earn eternal life. You have been released from hell, free of charge! With happy hearts you serve God. How? By shaping your thoughts, words, and actions to the Ten Commandments. You live to serve God not because you must, but out of thankful love for him.
Zeal consumes you, meaning, (2) you want to pay attention to what God teaches. Yes, we start service with an admission of guilt. You hear about “sin”—not because I hope to make you feel bad and little about yourself. Not because we love dwelling on the past. Rather, because the moral filth that still plagues us will start whipping at Jesus to leave.
So, you listen to Jesus. You compare your behavior to his Word. God uses the Bible to strengthen you to whip out sinful habits. He points at your baptism, reminding you how the Holy Spirit now lives in you and equips you for a life of service. In the Lord’s Supper, your trust in Jesus as Savior grows so that you may remain in the one true faith until you see Jesus in heaven.
Finally, your intense love for God moves you to (3) promote the need for worship. Chances are, you will not walk past cattle-sellers and moneychangers on your way out today. You probably will not ask a moneychanger to respect God’s house a little more. But, you will come across those who downplay the importance of worship. You may have a child who has not worshipped for years, but sighs with contentment: I’ve been baptized and confirmed. My name’s still in the book. That’s what God wants.” You may have a friend who thinks that simply by joining a church, God is now happy with him. You may hear someone say: “I believe in God, but I don’t need to worship.”
Your zeal for God moves you to address these mistaken ideas. You do not need to flip over tables and chase out animals. Yet, flip false ideas on their head. Chase out excuses. Remind everyone how Jesus has set you free so that you can worship him.
That’s what keeps you coming back. No, not stopping all talk about “sin” and “evil” and “bad.” Not by starting service with: “Yes, you aren’t perfect, but that’s ok! No one’s perfect here. Just forget about the bad things you do. Know that Jesus loves you!” Not by manipulating our emotions. What keeps you coming back is zeroing in on this issue of “sin.” Jesus cleanses the temple of your heart. By his Word, by baptism and Holy Communion, he lives in your heart. With him living in your heart, you have the peace of spiritual freedom. You have the joy to serve him now all the days of your life.