Purging the leaven

When we think about the question “why do we go to church?”, our answers can often include an emphasis on what we get out of it. For example, we might say “I like the worship music”, “I enjoy the sermon”, “I like the social aspect”, or “I appreciate having a time and space to pray”.  Please don’t get me wrong, all of those answers to the question are not bad answers – I would certainly hope that our experience of church is a positive and fulfilling one, with equal measures of challenge and encouragement as we seek to live out our faith in fellowship today.  But it isn’t necessarily a case of “what’s in it for me?” which all too often seems to be the underlying sentiment we encounter today in a consumerist and experiential society.  What we call worship is all too often entertainment. And we evaluate the effectiveness of worship by how it makes us feel. But worship is really about what we give. Not what we receive.  So I would like to suggest that the primary reason for us going to Church should be about God, and the opportunity we have to come before him bringing all that we are, all that we have, and offering ourselves to him.  The primary reason for our existence is to worship God and to be in fellowship and relationship with Him.

Worshipping God is not always convenient is it?  We may have had a busy and demanding week, we may be grappling with worries and anxieties, and there can be a multitude of distractions that all too often get in the way.  Yet our worship of God demands our true devotion and self-sacrifice and I would say is as important as breathing.  We are to worship sincerely, reverently, and humbly in spirit and in truth. No wonder St Paul implores us to “continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in us to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Philippians 12b-13)  We don’t worship God because God needs it, we worship God because we need it.

We learn of what happens when our focus and emphasis is distorted in today’s gospel reading.  Jesus went up to Jerusalem to attend Passover, one of the most significant pilgrim feasts and “in the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money.” (John 2:14)  The focus had shifted from worshipping a Holy and awesome God to becoming a commercial enterprise for some and in the place of worship itself.  Not only that, but the merchants and money changers were dishonest and over-charging. Their presence and practice detracted from the opportunity to worship. What message would that have sent to people coming to Jerusalem to attend Passover?  That gives us opportunity to pause for thought and reflect on what the message is that people receive when they come to our Church?

There are so many parallels between what Jesus did next and the practice of purging the leaven and people “getting their house in order”. “So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.  To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”” (John 2:15-17)  Jesus was cleansing the temple, and in a time of Lent we have an opportunity to “purge the leaven” and “get our spiritual house in order too”.

Jesus was angry, but his anger was righteous indignation and not uncontrolled rage.  There are times in life when it is OK to be angry!  Jesus was then asked: “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” To which Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” (John 2:18-19)

Sometimes we need to allow things to die and come to end for new life to begin.  It is as if we need to reboot to get back on track.  Sometimes we need to have a short, sharp shock before we stir from complacency and spiritual slumber and come to our senses.  That’s precisely what happened with the temple. Only by ‘destroying the temple’ would Jesus be able to offer all believers personal access to God in a right way and in a right spirit. Only by fulfilling the system of sacrifice could he become the perfect and final sacrifice for all mankind. The eventual destruction of the temple in 70 AD was the final evidence that the old system had been superseded by Jesus’ work on the cross and in the lives of those who believe in him. As we continue our journey through Lent, let’s have the courage together to purge the leaven and worship God in spirit and in truth. 

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Amen

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