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                     of Almelund, Minnesota

         

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Spring Cleaning for the Soul

Pastor Marla Amborn

Immanuel Lutheran Church

January 21, 2017

John 2:13-25

 

Picture this: It’s Passover – Israel’s biggest holiday. The streets of Jerusalem are filled with people heading to the temple. Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem to worship at the temple during this most holy time. When he gets there, he is appalled by the scene.

 

There are livestock salesmen selling cattle, and lambs, and doves – right in the temple square! Travelers didn’t want to bring their animals all this way to sacrifice them. So local merchants saw an opportunity to make a buck and businesses sprung up in the temple.

 

Just down from the animal stalls are the moneychangers. No one wanted to give their tithe with Caesar’s image on it declaring Caesar as god. So, the money changing business went on.

 

Oxen lowing, doves cooing, and coins rattling. Quite the cacophony greeted Jesus as he arrived at the temple – the place of worship. God’s house was to be a house of prayer, not a marketplace.

 

Filled with righteous anger, Jesus kicked over a rickety table covered with coins. Then he took a whip from one of the cattlemen, snapped it over the crowd’s heads with a loud crack and started freeing the animals. Down the temple steps went the calves and sheep, followed by the pigeons and doves flapping all about. Owners dashed around frantically trying to re-corral their lost flocks and squawking birds. Moneychangers shoved coins into leather pouches, and quickly darted down the street.

 

Jesus shouted, “Stop making God’s house a marketplace!” as he single-handedly cleared out the temple.

 

The crowd got out of his way! “What got into him?” they wondered. “Who does he think he is, anyway?”

 

It’s not how we like to picture Jesus. We like to think of Jesus as loving and gentle, healing the sick, patiently forgiving people, and inviting the kids to sit on his lap. We don’t like to think of Jesus brandishing a whip and overturning tables.

 

We find this portrayal of Jesus troubling not only because he is angry, but the target of his anger is also unsettling.  The merchants selling animals and making change are not unbelievers or crooks. They're supporting the worship practices of the temple. Nowhere does it say in this gospel that anything shady is going on. Jesus doesn’t condemn them here as robbers or criminals. But he is upset that they have turned the temple into a market place. Consumerism has taken hold, and it is interfering with worshipping God and seeing God at work in their midst.

 

As I’ve been thinking about this text this week I heard a news story about a church of Minneapolis, that is located across the street from US Bank Stadium. For the last eight years First Covenant Church has hosted a homeless shelter. But during the days leading up to the Super Bowl, the homeless people will need to go somewhere else. First Covenant Church is closing its homeless shelter and letting the folks associated with the Super Bowl use its facilities. They will be paid a pretty penny for this.

 

The pastor says that with tight security measures it would be difficult for the homeless people to be there. He justifies their decision to close the shelter during the time around the Super Bowl saying that the money that they will be paid will help support the ministry for the homeless well after all the Super Bowl guests have gone home. He seems to have rationalized it in his own mind, which is easy to do. We can rationalize lots of things to justify doing what we want – especially when the dollar signs are big enough.

 

What do you think Jesus would say about this? The words that come to my mind are “As you did to the least of these, so you did to me!” Just because something makes business sense doesn’t necessarily mean it is the right thing to do. We need to approach worship with our hearts and minds open to God, not as consumers.

 

One way of thinking about this gospel story is that Jesus is sweeping out an old worship practice and bringing in the new. He is cleaning out the temple, so to speak.

 

In the Old Testament, people were told to sacrifice animals to God in atonement for their sin. Jesus puts an end to the need for such sacrifice. Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” No longer do we need to sacrifice lambs or pigeons or doves; Jesus paid the price for us. Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice.

 

The people around the temple that day had always sacrificed animals as part of their worship practice. That’s the way it had always been done. They were just doing what they believed to be the faithful thing to do. Although God’s Son was in their midst, they didn’t recognize him. They were so accustomed to sacrificing pigeons that they failed to recognize Jesus as the one who paid the price for their sins.

 

Our gospel story for today is hard to hear, because it makes us aware that Jesus could show up here and clean out our church. There are times when we lose sight of who God is and what God is doing. We may fail to notice God in our midst.

 

We come here to worship God, and we bring our own ideas of what that looks like. If the service doesn’t fit our expectations, we may not notice the ways that God is at work in our midst. It is easy to forget that worship is not about us, it is about God. We worship a living God. We meet God in worship.

 

On Friday evening we held a young adults’ event here at Immanuel. Eight young adults attended, along with two of their children. One middle-aged adult and one of our youth provided child care while the young adults socialized over board games. Everyone enjoyed pizza and ice cream. It was a good event, a nice kick off to this young adults’ ministry.

 

One of the young adults who attended is a woman from Kenya, who came as the guest of one of our members. It was interesting talking with her and comparing notes between the experiences she has had in Kenya and I have had in Tanzania. She commented on how much shorter worship services are in the US than in Kenya. She said that back home people come to church on Sunday, planning to make a day of it. It is the Sabbath, the Lord’s day. They dedicate the day to worshipping God. They come early in the morning and worship until they are done, which may be three or four or five hours later, depending on how the Spirit moves them. Nobody is looking at their watch. She said that when she attends worship here in the US she is just starting to get into it and then the service is over.

 

There is a different set of expectations around worship. In America, we have more of a consumer mindset, so it is easy to fall into a consumer mindset as it relates to church. We begin thinking of the church as a provider of spiritual services for us. We pay our offerings and in exchange, we expect to get certain services done the way we want them. We expect to get the music we like. We expect the sanctuary is to be arranged in a certain way. We expect the service to be completed in a certain amount of time. We try to squeeze God into what is convenient for us.

 

When we come to worship with a consumer mindset, it is easy to lose track of the point of worship. It is easy to make idols out of the elements of worship. As a result, we may miss God at work in our midst.

 

I saw this in one congregation where a pastor proposed getting a new baptismal font. The font they had was made of heavy marble that couldn’t be easily moved. They needed more flexibility in the worship space, so he suggested getting a wooden baptismal font that was lighter and more portable. There was an uprising. Many of these people had been baptized at this font, as had their kids and grandkids. People were so attached to the marble baptismal font they had made an idol out of it.

 

When we focus our attention on the trappings of worship, we lose sight of the One we worship. We forget that worship isn’t about us, it’s about God.

 

Rabbi Abraham Heschel commented on complaints that were being made by members of the synagogue that he served. The people were griping because the liturgy of the synagogue didn’t allow them to express what they felt. The rabbi responded, “The goal is not that the liturgy says what you mean but that you learn to mean what the liturgy says.”

 

Worship shapes us. Worship molds us into God’s people. In worship, we bow before God because we need to give ourselves to the one who is greater than ourselves. In worship, we come into God’s presence and God re-makes us into his own people.

 

As we think about our gospel story of Jesus coming into the temple, and overturning the tables, it helps to view it as spring cleaning for the soul. Jesus shakes out the dust of the obsolete ways making room to worship God in new ways that put Jesus at the center. Jesus reminds us that worship centers around God, not us.

 

Lent is less than a month away. It is a time for focusing on our relationship with God. As we prepare for Lent, it is a good time to ask ourselves what ways is Jesus bringing spring cleaning into our lives. In what ways is God looking to clean out the impediments to a closer relationship with him? What of the old familiar is no longer serving its purpose? What is getting in the way of genuinely worshipping God? How might God be inviting you to see him with new eyes, so that you can love him with your whole heart?

 

Whatever has become an idol for you, throw it away. Whatever consumer mentality has crept in, shake it out. Let God replace it with a genuine experience of the holy. Let God open you to a fresh new relationship with him.

 

Amen.