Sermon for the 3rd Sunday In Lent

Below are the notes to the sermon. You can listen to the audio HERE

CS Lewis has written a wonderful little book on prayer called Letter’s to Malcolm. It is made up of some fictional letters to a friend called Malcolm. Each chapter is a response to a letter. While it is a fictional book it lays out CS Lewis’ view of prayer. For example he explains what he loves about the 1662 Book of Common prayer – it helps him keep in touch with sound doctrine and it shows him what it is he should be asking for in prayer. But in response to the question why use is a set liturgy, his response is very revealing about what he thought of worship. For Lewis, a set liturgy meant that the congregation could:

use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best—if you like, it “works” best—when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance…..The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.  

What a wonderful picture – what a wonderful goal – that we would be unaware of our service because our attention is on God.

I love the liturgy. I love it’s beauty, it’s theology, it’s power, it’s familiarity. All these are good things. The problem is that such things can also become a danger. We can end up revering and, even, worshipping the liturgy and not accepting it as it is meant to be accepted – a vehicle which allows us to come before God to give HIM and HIM alone praise and worship.

We can end up elevating the liturgy into a position of importance which is way beyond where it should be.

When the liturgy becomes the focus, when the ritual becomes the focus, when the building becomes the focus, when the priest, or the quality of music or anything else becomes the focus of worship we have lost the point of worship and we have moved away from God’s purpose for us in worship.

This is what Jesus encounters in the temple.

Jesus has come to the temple for Passover. He walks through it’s doors and he encounters something which makes him furious.

Now, let us understand straightaway, the issue is NOT that there is selling of animals going on. This was a needed service. Pilgrims who traveled some distance to celebrate the Passover would find it difficult to arrive in Jerusalem with an animal still unblemished and acceptable for worship. So to be able to buy an animal for sacrifice was a helpful thing. Also, the money changers where necessary. Only the temple, or Jewish coinage was acceptable in the temple because it bore no image. All other currency had the image of Caesar on it and therefore, technically, could not be used in the temple. The temple tax, which was a requirement for every worshipper, was payable only in the temple coinage. People needed to change their money.

The problem for Jesus was three fold: 1. Those selling the animals were exploiting the worshippers. They were charging exorbitant prices – one example was that a pair of doves, which the law allowed the poor to use as their sacrifice, if they could afford a bull or a lamb, worth say 5 cents, were being sold for $4. Also, the Priests in the temple were in on the deal – the likelihood was that they were rejecting every animal brought to them for inspection for sacrifice, thus forcing people to go and buy from the ‘authorized’ dealers. 2. The same thing was happening with the money changers. They were charging huge fees to change the money – and the exchange rate was ridiculously high.

People should not be profiting from worship. Worship was not for exploitation.

But it was the 3rd issue that was the biggest problem. These transactions were taking place in a part of the temple called “the court of the gentiles”. It was the place where Gentiles could come to give their worship to Yahweh in the temple. It was the only place they were allowed to go to.

The vision of the temple built by Solomon was that those who were not jews could come and worship God. 1 Kings 8:41-43:

“Moreover, concerning a foreigner, who is not of Your people Israel, but has come from a far country for Your name’s sake 42 (for they will hear of Your great name and Your strong hand and Your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this temple, 43 hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to You, that all peoples of the earth may know Your name and fear You, as do Your people Israel, and that they may know that this temple which I have built is called by Your name.

Isaiah 56:7 says Even them I will bring to My holy mountain,

And make them joyful in My house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
Will be accepted on My altar;
For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”

The temple was meant to be a place for all people, from all nations to come and worship Yahweh.

The problem was that by Jesus’ day, the temple had become a Jewish nationalistic stronghold – a place where gentile worship was obstructed, where Gentiles were despised. The Jews of the day seemed to not care. They would gather, buy what they needed and go and enter the temple reserved for only Jews or those who had converted to Judaism.

By making a market place in the court of the gentiles the Jews had effectively ended gentile worship in the only place where it was possible.

This is what makes Jesus furious.

The obstruction of worship in his fathers house through blatant disobeying of the laws of God.

The principle is clear – ANYTHING which obstructs or gets in the way of the worship of God needs to be removed.

Someone once said to me that if I ever wanted to know if an item of furniture in the church had become an idol – try and remove it and see what happens.

Jesus removed all that was obstructing worship in the Court of the Gentiles and what happens is that the leaders are angry.

And so they ask Jesus for a sign of his authority – what gave him the right to do this. This is in fact a very stupid question. The very act of cleansing the temple was a sign. Malachi 3 talks of the Lord coming to his Temple to purify the Priests. Jesus had very clearly purified the temple. The Leaders, who had not dealt with this travesty of not letting worship happen in the temple, now refuse to accept the correction of their Lord. They were unwilling to admit guilt.

The leaders should have been ashamed and repented. They didn’t. What was more important to them was that THEIR way’s, THEIR tradition, THEIR authority was being challenged.

And so Jesus tells them that the sign he gives of his authority will directly challenge everything they hold dear – Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days.Will they look to the temporary, and the temporal or will they recognize the true, real temple, which everything else points to. The leaders focus had become so materialistic that they had lost the ability to see and discern spiritual truths.

When at any point we elevate a sign, or a tool, a ritual or a place into the focus of our worship we are obstructing the worship of God for others and placing ourselves into bondage. Paul explains this in Romans 7. What is it like to live a spiritual life under the law? It is impossible. The law was a sign, a temporary solution, a pointer to something greater and better. The Law was incomplete without Christ – it needed fulfilling – it needed completion. And when you place yourself under the sign, under something which was incomplete, you discover it cannot save you or fulfill you. In Romans 7 Paul reveals the struggle, I do what I do not want to do, and what I want to do I do not do – there is a battle within. Why? Because there is no life in the law. It shows us a truth which it cannot fix.  The Law reveals that we are sinners. It shows us HOW we are sinners. That is all the law does. That is why Paul cries out “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

The tragedy was that the very place where God’s glory is to be revealed – the temple – becomes the site where his glory in Jesus is rejected by his people.

Could that be the case for the church today? Might that be the case in our lives?

It is a question that we must constantly ask ourselves. The situation in Jesus’ day had not happened over night – nor was it a deliberate attempt to disobey God – it was a slow, long slide away from the center into a situation whereby man made rules, man made rituals, man made laws had become more important than the plain worship of God.

Do the wrong vestments nullify the worship of God? Does saying the wrong prayer nullify the worship of God? Does processing in the wrong order nullify the worship of God? Vestments, the right order of the liturgy, the procession and recession – yes we should

We must regularly ask the question and examine ourselves to see if there is anything that might be in the way of our relationship with God – or whether we have placed something into a position of authority in our lives that it should not be. We must ask regularly “are there things in my life which I am holding more dear than Christ?”  “is ______ in the way of my relationship with God; in the way of my worship of God”.

And if there is something – we must deal with it.

And if we don’t, then expect the Lord to send someone to you to deal with it. The Lord’s cleansing of our lives, of our traditions, of our excess is not pleasant or welcomed – but it is necessary.

The seven words of a dying church are “We have always done it that way”. The seven words of a living church are “The Lord is the center of all”.


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