Cleansing to Consecration
Topic: Biblical Verse: John 2:13–2:22
Third Sunday in Lent
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
“Return from Exile – Cleansing to Consecration”
How do you make things right with God? Or do you even need to?
If you were to go around and talk to people you know, how do you think they’d answer if you asked them, “Is life the way that it should be?” It’s a different kind of question than “How are you doing?” or “How’s it going?” This question might dig a little deeper than we’re prepared to go. Who’s got time to think about if life is the way that is should be when you’re so busy living it? What about you? How would you answer? Is life the way that it should be?
What if we asked a different question: “Is your life the way that it should be?” You’ve been shaped by the world around you: your family, your friends, your education and experience, the culture and society in which you’ve lived. In turn, you make choices each day that shape the world around you. Have you always made the right choices? They say nobody’s perfect, right? None of us, at least.
That being said, how’s your relationship with God? You might think you’re in pretty good standing with your Creator – well, OK standing, at least. You haven’t done enough really bad things to get on God’s naughty list, right? Or maybe you’ve done enough good things to outweigh the other stuff – or at least to level it out. Maybe you’ve done enough to get by and work off anything you might have done, said, or thought that would make you fall short of God’s standards. What’s His answer to “Is your life the way that it should be?”
If you’re looking for a way to live your life, you could turn to the Ten Commandments, the instruction that God gave to His chosen people from Mt. Sinai in today’s reading from Exodus 22. You could do far worse for a guidebook for living, don’t you think? When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees about the greatest of the commandments, he summed them up, saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40) So just do that, and you’re good to go!
The problem here, though, is that God doesn’t grade on a scale: you’re either perfect or you’ve fallen short. If you break even one of the commandments in the slightest, you’re no less imperfect that someone who’s broken them all. And if nobody’s perfect, then we’re all in trouble.
God knows nobody’s perfect. He knew that His people would fall short and fail to live according to His instruction and design. He knew that life would not be the way that it should be. What’s more, He knew that nothing they could do would make things right with Him.
God gave Moses and His people the tabernacle, the place of His dwelling where He would come to be with them. It was a holy place for them to offer the sacrifices that would symbolically substitute for them in making atonement. The tabernacle, and later, the temple in Jerusalem, would be the place for the people to go for things to be made right with God.
But by the New Testament era, the sacrificial system had become polluted. The business side of atonement was edging out the true purpose for the temple, with vendors selling sacrificial animals to the pilgrims who’d made the journey up to Jerusalem. Jewish males were required to pay an annual temple tax with the Tyrian shekel, a coin that the moneychangers would gladly provide – for a fee. And all this took place in the Court of the Gentiles, people who could only worship there in this outermost of the temple’s courts.
Entering into Jerusalem and going to the temple, Jesus saw the pollution. And he acted to make things right. It’s why he came into the world in the first place: to make things right with God.
Jesus cleanses the temple to ensure that the business side of atonement did not interfere with the actual business of atonement, yes; but there’s more to it than that. Jesus removes the sacrificial animals from the temple court, those beasts that would be offered up for the sins of the people, because their time is done. No animal, no creature, could truly accomplish the atonement that was required for our sin. The sacrifices of the past prefigured the one that was to come, the ultimate sacrifice that would finally take the place of God’s people in making things right with Him.
How do you make things right with God? You don’t. God does.
Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice, to which all the others pointed ahead. All those burnt offerings in the temple, all those sheep and oxen and pigeons, were offered up because of the sin of the people. And there was a lot of sin that needed atoning for, everything that humanity has done in an attempt to deny God’s instruction – summed up in the Ten Commandments – everything that human beings have done in opposition to God’s authority. Jesus gave himself for them. He gave himself for you.
God’s wisdom was shown in the seeming foolishness of the cross, the sign which dominates this season of Lent. Lent points us to the divine sign that God offered up in Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, the sign of Jesus’ authority – but most of all the sign of his love for us.
With the old temple cleansed, Jesus has consecrated for service the new temple of his body. God has come to be with his people in flesh and blood. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to restore the relationship we once enjoyed with Him. The body of our Lord, that temple that would be torn down and raised up again in three days, would hang upon a cross as the ultimate sacrifice, offered up for the sins of the people. With the arrival of Jesus on the scene, there’s no longer any need for a temple in Jerusalem or anywhere else: we don’t need to go there to be made right with God, to return from our exile of sin. We have the cross. We have Jesus.
The evangelist shows that Jesus’ entire ministry is kind of an extended Passion Week, framed with the cross and resurrection in sight. In John’s Gospel account, Jesus’ cleansing of the temple happens early on – it’s only the second chapter, after all. Jesus came to make things right with God, knowing from the outset of his journey the price that he would pay. Jesus offered himself up, consecrated as the ultimate sacrifice, because he knew that life was not the way that it should be. Jesus offered himself up, consecrated as the ultimate sacrifice, with you in sight. Jesus offered himself up, consecrated as the ultimate sacrifice, so that you might live and have life as it should be: with God.
Through Jesus, you are cleansed. You are now set free from the debt of sin, washed in the blood of the Lamb of God.
Through Jesus, you are consecrated. You are now set aside for service to all as an agent of God’s grace.
How do you make things right with God? You can’t.
You can’t do it through moralism. Even so, as we follow Jesus we listen to his instruction. The Ten Commandments show us what it looks like to live as God’s cleansed and consecrated people.
You can’t do it through sacrifice. Even so, you are free to fast and pray during the time of Lent as a practice of spiritual discipline. If you feel the need to give something up, surrender an hour each week and come to join with the people of God for a midweek Lenten service to hear God’s Word.
How do you make things right with God? You don’t. Jesus has done it for you.