CLEANSING THE TEMPLE
Sermon Text: John 2:13-17.
Prayer: Almighty God, merciful Father: We thank You that by means of Your servant Martin Luther You restored the light of the pure Gospel. We pray You to grant that we continue to hear Your Word in its truth and purity so that we are preserved in the true faith; through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Jesus’ cleansing of the temple has an obvious application to what Martin Luther did in the Reformation. Jesus got rid of all the buying and selling that was turning the temple into a marketplace. Luther found the pope’s followers selling “indulgences,” offering God’s forgiveness only if you bought it with money. Similar in a way to what Jesus did, Luther threw all this false selling of salvation out of the church, by teaching that forgiveness comes by pure grace alone.
But there’s a danger here, because the Old Adam is OK with this. We can take pride in not being so bad. So the help John 2 has for us is to humble us by showing that “reformation” is “cleansing.”
There’s an important Old Testament prophecy that’s behind this. It’s one of the last ones, in the last book of the Old Testament: Malachi. In Malachi 3, God promised to send His “messenger [who] will prepare the way before Me.” That’s John the Baptist. But the very next words in Malachi talk about “the Lord,” and it says He “will suddenly come to His temple,” and – here it is – He’ll be “like launderers’ soap” and He’ll do what “a refiner and purifier” does. This says the Messiah was going to come and wash people clean. Why? Because they need it. Because their sins make them unclean.
Jesus began coming to the temple when He was 12. This desecration of His Father’s house, He saw it year by year, for 18 years. But He didn’t say anything until now. What do we see Him do? “Making a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And He poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.”
What’s going on in Jesus’ mind? We assume there is simply something He sees in those people.And they certainly were sinning. The temple grounds surely had to be purified. But what Malachi 3:3 says, “He will sit as a purifier … He will purify the sons of Levi … and they will bring offerings in righteousness,” were they the ones it was talking about? Was it only so the offerings in the temple that week would be pure? No!
The last verse of our reading recites a verse from Psalm 69: “Zeal for Your house will consume Me.” This is a prophecy about the true Messiah. They are His thoughts. What’s the “house” He has such zeal for? What’s His Father’s “house?” We find out a few verses later, when Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They mistakenly think He’s talking about the building. We shouldn’t make that mistake. St. John writes by the Spirit’s guidance, “But He was speaking of the temple of His body.” This is His Father’s “house,” for which Jesus has such “zeal.”
His human body is the “temple” in which all the fullness of His Godhead was dwelling. Whose human nature is it? Ours! He was without sin, since He’s true God, conceived by the Holy Spirit. But He has our humanity! This is the “Father’s house” He has such “zeal” for. Didn’t Jesus say that “My Father and I come” to a person and “make Our home with him” (Jn 14:23)? So: you! — since it’s your human nature He took to be the temple for His Godhead to dwell in – you are His “Father’s house” where He dwells. He dwells in you by faith.
Jesus is giving a new way for you to think of yourself. He didn’t come just to cleanse that temple. He came to cleanse and purify you. He is saying you’re the temple. God made you the temple for Himself to dwell in.
Think of this “zeal” that Jesus has for you, His “Father’s house.” He has been thinking only of you, not of Himself. All He thinks of is to give you what belongs to Him. That’s what’s going on here, in this Bible story. He’s going to wear Himself out – as He does on the cross – not for some nameless multitude, but for you!
And we, what do we do? We’re always thinking of ourselves. We moan about our lives. We don’t rest in His grace. We act like we have to make it all happen. We push our own importance forward all the time. We carry our burdens and don’t lay them down. We cling to everything we build in life. We despair over what we do or haven’t done. Always showing our dependence on works. Don’t we have much in us that needs to be purified?
And yet – He has “zeal” for you, His “Father’s house,” that “consumes” Him! This shames us, in contrast with how we act. But He doesn’t ask you to compare yourself to Him. He is here only for you to see His zeal for you, for you to see how He washes you clean.
Don’t you see? His cleansing of the temple, it might make us ashamed that we need that. We think we shouldn’t need this cleansing. We want to be worthy of Him on our own. But that’s faulty thinking. He, He alone, is the one who makes us worthy to be in His presence. He doesn’t want you to think you’re clean and good enough without Him. He wants you to see how you need Him to cleanse you, and how He loves to cleanse you. He loves to do it! He loves to show love to sinners. His forgiving love – grace. It’s what the Reformation is about.
This cleansing is the thing. We don’t have time to go into this in great detail, but do you know it wasn’t the indulgences that upset Luther the most? What upset him most was what the church had done over the years with the Lord’s Supper. In the liturgy the priest re-sacrificed Christ on behalf of the people, so that they re-presented Christ as a sacrifice to God as their own work, by which they made themselves worthy.
They changed it from God’s gift of the remission of sins, into a way we work off our sins. They took away Christ, took away the cleansing from sin. So in 1523, 500 years ago, Luther presented a purified liturgy. He kept the liturgy, but removed the parts that made forgiveness depend on us.
This is what we should see in the Lutheran liturgy, that from beginning to end the service is about God forgiving our sins. It’s why we call it the Divine Service – God serving us with His gifts, with the Gospel, the Word and Sacraments, where Jesus gives us His forgiveness, gives us Himself.
These are the treasures of His “Father’s house” that Jesus is so concerned with, that make His Father’s house beautiful. But see, He’s speaking of you. You’re His temple that He comes to. These things make you beautiful, for as you have what His Word and Sacraments bring you, His complete and free forgiveness, you’re not unclean at all, but clean and good in His sight.
So He has all-consuming zeal that His Word be given to you pure and true. He is always thinking of you, with this “zeal” that “consumes” Him.
Being the Church of the Reformation is not about being such a good and perfect church as the world has ever seen, or that as individuals we don’t have many faults or that our faith is so much better. But it’s knowing how much we do need to be forgiven, how unclean we are, coming to Him for cleansing, and learning to believe that we are clean through His Word.
Then won’t this zeal consume us? Won’t we want our bodies to be true temples of the Holy Spirit? This is His work. May He do it in us! Amen!