Sunday, March 15, 2009

On the Road to the Cross: Worship on the Way

(A sermon based on John 2:13-22 for the Third Sunday in Lent)

We are getting quite far along now on our journey toward the Cross, although in John’s Gospel, in which today’s text is found, Jesus is quite a long way, in terms of time at least, away from it, since John places this “cleansing of the temple” narrative at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and thus years before the crucifixion. Even though it is true, however, that Jesus was a long way temporally from the Cross, it is also true, as John’s account reminds us, that from the beginning of his ministry (From the beginning of his life? From the beginning of his self-conscious life?) Jesus was never personally far away from the cross; here, three years before the event, Jesus’ words reveal that he was vividly aware of his coming crucifixion—and of his coming resurrection.

John’s narrative also makes it very clear that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus should never be far from our minds either; as a matter of fact, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus should not only never be far from our minds—they should be the main thing on our minds, the main thing in our hearts, the main thing in our lives and, to the point of this particular sermon, the main, yea verily the only, focus of our worship.

Since Jesus’ entire life was a journey to the Cross, we can fairly say that here, at the beginning of his public ministry, he stopped off to worship on his way to the Cross; as the festival of Passover drew near, he went to the temple and we can fairly assume that the reason he went to the temple was to worship. There, he found merchants doing what merchants do—selling things. Now, we need to know that the merchants were not selling soft drinks or jewelry or Happy Meals—things that had nothing to do with worship; they were rather selling things that were necessary to worship—exchanging temple currency for Roman money and selling the animals that were required for offering sacrifices.

Notice what Jesus said: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” In other words, Jesus told them to stop focusing on the business of the temple because that focus was taking away from the legitimate worship of God. Even if such practices as money-changing and animal selling were necessary to the practice of worship as it was done in that day and place and time, which they were, they were apparently being carried out in such a way that they detracted seriously from true worship. Here’s the bottom line: if the focus of worship is on anything other than God, then something is wrong and things need to change.

Some of the people who witnessed what Jesus did very understandably wanted to know what business he had doing it and in response to their query Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Also understandably, his questioners misunderstood his answer, since they were all standing on the temple grounds when he gave it, and so they said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But Jesus, John tells us, “was speaking of the temple of his body.”

Those people having that conversation with Jesus on that day had no way of knowing that was what he was talking about; so far as we can tell from the story as it is written, Jesus did not even tell them that was what he was talking about.

But John did tell us.

John told us, the readers of his gospel, what Jesus was talking about and so, if we are truly followers of Jesus, we are responsible for taking his words seriously, and what John was telling us in reporting this narrative and those words of Jesus was that the true focus of worship is and should be the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ.

Jesus was not talking about the temple--he was talking about himself; we should not be talking about the temple—we should be talking about him.

Lent is meant to be for us a focused time of reflection and repentance and so here on this Third Sunday in Lent I want to propose that we repent of our too much focusing on the business of the church and of our too little focusing on the crucified and resurrected Son of God. Then I want us to move in that repentance—which after all, biblically speaking, means to turn around and go the other way—to a positive commitment to focus much more on the crucified and resurrected Son of God and much less on the business of the institution of the church.

We can frame our thinking about this by asking two related questions: (1) What were you thinking about as you came to church this morning? (2) What will you be thinking about as you leave church in a little while?

Question one: what were you thinking about as you came to church this morning? Were you thinking things like: “I need to get ready to go to church this morning” or “I hope we have a good offering at church this morning” or “I hope nobody sits in my seat at church this morning” or “I bet it’s going to be too cold in that sanctuary this morning” or “I hope it’s not as hot in the sanctuary today as it was last week” or “I don’t think that anyone serves on as many committees as I do” or “I hope we sing something I know this morning” or “I hope we don’t sing those old hymns this morning”? Or were you thinking, “Thank you, God, for this opportunity to worship my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ whom I most fervently want to worship because he died on the cross for our sins and he rose from the grave that we might have eternal life”?

Really, it comes down to this: was your focus this morning on coming to the church building or was it on worshiping the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ?

In a book he wrote about travel and vacations, humorist Dave Barry joked about driving past wonderfully interesting attractions at eighty miles an hour; sometimes we get so engrossed in the trip that we miss the point of taking it. Church is important. Remember, though, that the church is not the buildings in which we meet or the grounds on which we gather; church is the people of God who have been saved by the grace of God and who have been filled with the Spirit of God so that we can worship God in spirit and in truth and so that we can serve him in the world. The buildings and the structure may be the vehicles that help us take the trip but let’s not forget the point, which is to worship and to serve the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ.

True, we have work to do in maintaining the buildings and in keeping the institutional side of the church operating effectively and we appreciate those who have the gifts to do those things, but let’s remember that all of that is done so that we can worship our crucified and resurrected Lord—that is our focus.

Let’s grab it and not let it go: the focus of our worship is not the institution; the focus of our worship is the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ.

Question two: What will you be thinking about as you leave church in a little while? Will you be thinking “I hope the line’s not too long at the restaurant?” (I think almost nobody actually thinks that but we preachers have to throw it in because people expect us to) or “I have so much to do at work tomorrow” or “I have so much homework to do before tomorrow” or “When is he going to preach a decent sermon?” or “Boy, the crowd was down today” or “Wow, the crowd was up today” or “I’ll try to come back on Easter”? Or will you be thinking, “I’m so grateful that I had the privilege of worshiping my crucified and risen Savior today” and “How can I live in the world this week as a disciple of the crucified and risen Savior so that I will glorify and serve him?”

If you leave thinking in those latter ways, then your worship will extend into to your daily life as God intends for it to do and you’ll give of yourself for the sake of others and you’ll face your trials in light of the facts that you have been crucified with Christ and that you have been and will be raised with him.

Listen: of all people, I understand how we can get caught up in the business and in the institution of the church; I would be ashamed for you to know how many times I spend an entire day focusing on the nuts and bolts of the church without giving hardly any time to focusing on the Savior who gave his life and then took it up again. But I want you to know that on those days, I’m wrong and I’m out of focus and I’m off track.

We are the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. On our way to the Cross, let’s remember that it is him—and not the institution—that we worship, because it is his crucifixion and resurrection that have made all the difference.

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