Third Sunday in Lent, March 11th, Year of Our + Lord 2012
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Bringing Your A-Game John 2:13-22, Exodus 20:1-17, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
It’s time for me to bring my A-game, this being the Third Sunday of Lent today, and with the funeral of Selma Damm on Tuesday, then two sermons on Wednesday, one for the St. John kids and an different one for the Lent series here at Trinity, then another Lenten service Thursday night, and then of course, the 4th Sunday of Lent coming up fast. Add to this the fact that Palm Sunday is also Confirmation Sunday, which means the joyful task of scheduling and completing 11 confirmation examinations between and then, along with preparing guides for our last couple of Sunday School lessons before Palm Sunday, and thinking about all the Holy Week festivities. Yes, it’s definitely time for me to bring my A-game, setting aside distractions and diversions, focusing on study, writing, preparation, putting first things first, and letting second and third things take care of themselves. It’s a good thing my taxes have already been filed!
It’s also time for you to bring your A-game, maybe not so much between now and April 1st, but soon. Because the days are getting dicier. I predict it will become harder and harder to be a Christian, in particular a Lutheran Christian committed to the pure Gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone, based on the Scripture alone. This is the only way to be, founded firmly on the person and work of Jesus Christ alone, but making this good confession is becoming more and more challenging, and I think it’s only going to get harder.
Oh great, you say, it’s going to get harder, as if it hasn’t been hard enough already. One hundred years ago, the great majority of churches in America practiced communion the same way, that is to say people understood that when differences exist in the teaching and practice of two different congregations, members of one do not seek to commune at the other. What churches taught and people believed was widely understood to be very important, the most important thing, actually, important enough to keep us from communing together when real differences exist. But not so much anymore today. What you believe and confess about God in Christ is still the most important thing, but not as many people believe this. Today the trend in society and among churches is to go along to get along. In fact, an outward show of getting along is often valued more highly than anything else, and so being a faithful Lutheran, refraining from communing when visiting some other church, and explaining our practice to visitors here, well, this is understood by few, appreciated by fewer, and enjoyed by no one. And that’s just the Sunday morning tip of the go along to get along iceberg.
We still teach the Ten Commandments. We are still called to uphold the sanctity of marriage, and the Biblical teaching that sex is reserved for a man and a woman within a marriage. We are called to reject pornography and suggestive clothing and T.V. shows that celebrate sex as a consequence-free recreational right, instead of the holy gift from God that it is. We are called to reject homosexuality, without falling into the error of mistreating people who struggle with homosexuality. Sexually, our culture is a complete mess, so it’s not easy to uphold the truth.
We are called to reject the overwhelming mass of argumentation for evolution and all the Christ-denying teaching that comes with it. To do this is to risk ostracism and ridicule in school, and at the office, if you work in the sciences. And of course, we are called to uphold the value of every human life, from the moment of conception in the womb, regardless of the less than perfect circumstances that may surround the creation of the unborn child. Somehow speaking up for life in the womb earns us the title of woman hater, even though half of the unborn are women!
It’s going to get worse. The Handbasket factory in our state capitol is almost complete. The evil of our unbelieving world grows, coming closer and closer.
You’ve heard, I suspect, how the Department of Health and Human Services is mandating our Lutheran colleges and other religious institutions to provide free coverage for abortifacients, drugs taken by women which cause a chemical abortion, the so called Plan B or Morning After pills. The media is only talking about the free birth control side of the mandate, trying to make Roman Catholics look bad, ignoring as best they can the abortions being mandated, along with ignoring the attack on religious freedom that this mandate truly is. How will we respond?
And, speaking of Roman Catholics, one of the leading candidates for President is a very devout Roman Catholic. And one is a devout Mormon. Meanwhile, the incumbent embraces a thoroughly modern and Social Gospel focused religion. As confessors of the Small Catechism, as grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone, Christ alone Christians, we have significant issues with all three of these faiths, which seem more and more likely to take center stage as we head toward November. How will we respond? Great differences exist between religions and between various denominations of Christianity, regardless of how hard anyone tries to go along and get along. These differences are going to challenge us to respond with a good confession. It’s time we all bring our A-Game.
Jesus brings His A-Game in our Gospel reading today. Five or six thousand years of warm-up are over, all of the history of salvation since the serpent won his victory over Adam and Eve merely served to set up the confrontation that Jesus incites today. The single, original ‘Thou Shalt Not’ of the Garden, which forbid eating fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, was later augmented with 10 more major commandments, and dozens of other rules for living, given by God to Israel through Moses, that they might stand apart as His people, much like we are called to stand apart, to be different, to be recognizably His people in the world, today. Thousands of verses of Hebrew genealogy traced out the line from Eve through Seth through Noah and Abram, Isaac, Jacob, Judah and David, all headed toward a stable in Bethlehem. Evil repeatedly threatened God’s people, sometimes overpowering them, leaving them in need of rescue, again, and again, rescue which the Lord provided. Prophets thundered God’s warnings, and bound up the broken hearted with His promises, from Elijah to Malachi. All of this was just the pre-game.
We live in the post-game to the main event, and Moses lived in the pre-game. The pre-game and the post-game are connected, and are very important to know and understand, but today we see the A-Game of salvation coming into focus.
It is instructive to consider Jesus’ violent Temple house-cleaning from the perspective of the commandments being broken, primary and secondary. Any time we see money-changers and merchants, selling to travelers forced to buy the things they need at the last minute, we suspect the 7th, 9th and 10th commandments to be under attack, those with money and goods conspiring to fleece, to steal from those who are in need, those with riches coveting the few things of those without. And of course the keeping of the Sabbath and the other Holy Days of God seems somehow not very holy when a market has been set up within the Temple walls, the house where the Name of the Lord dwelled, not to be misused. We also should not forget that Israel was called by God to be a light to the Gentiles, a light of hope to all nations, not just to Jews. For these buyers and sellers didn’t take over the Court of the Jewish Men or the Court of the Jewish Women, but rather the Court of the Gentiles, the outer court set aside by God as worship space for people from other nations who were seeking to know the True God of Israel.
Jesus makes a whip from cords and drives the money-changers and animals-for-sacrifice sellers out of the Temple. Zeal for His Father’s House consumed Jesus, His righteous anger against sin finding just a few moments outlet in this cleansing by whip of the House of God. And oh, how we would like to do similar things sometimes, wouldn’t we, to sweep away the immorality and sinfulness we see all around us, to smash some windows on some evil businesses and really clean house, if not with whips, then with bulldozers, or maybe with restrictive zoning laws.
We probably should be bolder in our challenge to open sin in our world. But before you run off to confront the wickedness you’d most like to see gone, you should know one thing. This is not Jesus’ A-Game. Yes He made a whip, and yes He violently corrected the sins that were being openly committed in the House of God. But this is not His A-Game, not His way to victory. Rather, Jesus today is inciting the Pharisees and the Priests and the Elders of the people, attacking their stronghold, not in order to sweep them away forever, but rather to get them to bring about His death, that He might save them from themselves.
The leaders of the Jews confronted Jesus, “Where do you get off, making a whip and driving all these merchants and animals out of the Temple?” “Who do you think you are, what miraculous sign are you going to do so that we can know this cleansing is truly from God.
Jesus answers, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."
“What?” the Jews cry, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?" But he was speaking about the temple of His body. When therefore He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the Word that Jesus had spoken.
The A-Game of God is not merely to confront and drive out sinners from His House, in hopes that they will straighten up and come back to do better. God knows this would be a losing battle, because we can never of our own reason or strength keep ourselves from returning to the same sins, over and over. The A-Game of God is not even simply to destroy the wicked, even though by our sin, all human beings justly deserve His punishment, both today and forever and ever. God would be just if He did destroy all sinners, but He could have done this in the Garden, or any time since, with only a Word. It would be no great effort for God to destroy sinners and all our sin along with us. But this is not His A-Game, not His desire, to see the sinner die eternally, but rather that sinners come to the knowledge of the Truth, the Truth which saves the wicked from sin and damnation.
And revealing this Truth, indeed, being this Truth, is the A-Game of Jesus Christ. “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” declares Jesus. The A-Game of God is Jesus Christ taking on the sins of the whole world, drawing the wrath of His Father, deserved by us, onto Himself, in order to extinguish God’s righteous anger against sin in His own broken body and shed blood. This is God’s way of condemning and punishing sin, but at the same time saving sinners, the way of Jesus becoming sin for us, that in Him, we might become the righteousness of God.
And so, Jesus’ A-Game is you’re A-Game. Our goal in meeting and responding to evil and lies in the world is not to merely drive it away from us, nor to destroy evil by strength of arms, nor even to simply make the world a little better place for a little while. No, our primary goal, our A-Game as Lutheran Christians, is to reject and condemn evil for the sake of proclaiming the Cross of Christ, which is the very wisdom of God, and the salvation of every sinner who repents of their sinfulness and is brought to confess what we confess: I believe the forgiveness Jesus died to win is for me.
Jesus’ A-Game required proclaiming the Law, it required confronting sinners, especially outwardly religious sinners, so that the Cross could be seen for what it is, God’s gift of salvation. So also our A-Game, our best effort as Christians in the world will require speaking the truth about sin and God’s Law, for the sake of also telling the greater Truth of forgiveness in Christ. As forgiven sinners, as Christians who still sin and so must continually come to Christ for forgiveness, we approach this task with humility, for we know our salvation springs not from us, not from our goodness, but from Christ alone. And we approach this task knowing that speaking the Truth of Christ will also bring suffering, for until faith and forgiveness come, the world and every sinner naturally hate the foolish, scandalous message of the Cross. But suffering cannot last, suffering cannot defeat us, for God is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected is you’re A-Game. Therefore, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord." Amen.