Clean Up the Clutter (March 4, 2018)

Clean Up the Clutter (March 4, 2018)

March 6, 2018
Benjamin Ehlers

Clean Up the Clutter

John 2:13-22

I have a confession to make: there are a couple problem areas in my house when it comes to clutter. And no, they aren’t back corners, out of the way; they are actually a couple very important places. The first, is my nightstand area, right next to the bed. That’s where I pile up the clothes I’ve worn to be put away later before I crawl into bed. That pile has gotten pretty big and I’m still not sure when later is. The other area is on the desk in our study/guest bedroom. It’s an area I will occasionally use when I need to work from home. It is currently piled with junk mail, documents I need to file, and a few kids’ toys as well.

The problem is, both of these areas have an important function – and no, holding clutter is not that function. If I would just take the time to clean up the clutter, I’m sure I would have a more relaxing time going to bed and a more productive time working at home. But isn’t that often the way we live our lives, piling up a little clutter here and a little clutter there. Making room for this unimportant thing while carving into time and space for something much more important. With spring finally in the air, and with a timely Bible reading about cleaning up, it’s time to clean up the clutter. Why? Because we have one of the most important Christian holidays coming up very soon, and we don’t want any clutter distracting or detracting from the solemn hours of the Last Supper and Good Friday and the renewed joy and excitement of Easter!

Between the time of Jesus first couple years of life and his public ministry, we really only have one snapshot of Jesus. It’s when he was 12 years old – about 18 years before the reading we are focusing on today. It’s the same place and the same festival, but a very different picture is painted. When Jesus was 12 years old, we find him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions (Lk 2:43). Real teaching was going on! And real learning was taking place in the temple!

What happened between the time when Jesus was 12 years old and when he was 30, where now we see the temple looking more like a place to gain a profit than to gain eternal life?! I’m sure it wasn’t an overnight change. I’m sure it was already beginning to take place at the time when Jesus was 12 years old. An important detail not to miss from the account when Jesus was 12 is that this learning took place “After the festival was over,” while everyone was returning home (Lk 2:43). The high festival was over. Vendors were cleaning up their clutter. And worshippers were going home. But what did they gain from their experience? What was it like for them? Did they go home renewed and refreshed by the focus on the Passover Lamb and the foreshadowing of the Messiah? Or were they weary and burdened from a week of haggling over prices and the assault of smells and noises?

We get a picture of it all in John chapter 2. As you approached the temple in Jerusalem and climbed up the temple mount, you were likely singing some of the Psalms of Ascent: “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’” (Ps 122:1). And suddenly it hits you. Not the sweet aroma of incense but the pungent stench of oxen, sheep, and doves. Not the sounds of prayer or hymns of praise, but the bombardment of bartering and the din of drachma being poured out onto the scales. There it was, the most important place in an Israelite’s life, cluttered with the contamination of corruption.

There was one who entered the temple that day who had had enough. And he had complete authority to do something about it. Jesus made a whip out of cords and cleansed the court of the filth that had accumulated from animals and people alike. He overturned tables and scattered money. He forced cages of birds into their sellers’ hands and drove them all out. “Get these out of here!” he said, “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market” (Jn 2:16). And it’s very hard to imagine, but he did all this firmly, promptly, yet without a hint of rage or anger. The disciples recalled a prophecy that described Jesus’ action as “zeal for [God’s] house” (Jn 2:17). The only thing I can think to compare it to today is when a parent firmly prevents their child from doing something harmful all while keeping a level head.

What I find most amazing in all of this, though, is that there doesn’t seem to be much objection or pushback from those he is driving out. Yes, they demand a sign of authority by which he does all this, we will get to that in a bit. But see what’s going on here. You have one man, who successfully drives out, I don’t know 20, 50, maybe even 100 vendors along with all their animals, goods, and tools. And it says that Jesus drove all of them from the temple area. He actually did clean up all the clutter! If they wanted to push back or even just remain there defiantly, they easily could have done so. Could it be that he had actually pricked the consciences of hardened and perhaps dishonest businessmen? Was it because the episode took place so fast and with so little warning? Did they not have time to think of an excuse or a rebuttal? Or did they all still have some sliver of a conscience that knew what they were doing was wrong.

In the heat of the moment, it certainly looked as if Jesus was the one destroying the temple and causing chaos. He was the one scattering money, overturning tables, and causing a commotion as the animals scattered into the streets of Jerusalem. But in reality, the destruction of the temple had been going on for a long time. It was their buying and selling, their exchanging of currency, and their focus on human business which was all along destroying God’s business and the reason his house stood there. As Jesus cleaned up the clutter and gave back the space to the true worshippers of God, everything came back into focus. Everything had its place. Yes, worshippers needed to purchase animals to sacrifice. And yes, travelers from afar would need to exchange the coins they had so carefully counted so that they could be used in service to God and his house. But the temple was not the place for that. The time when worshippers were preparing their hearts was not the time for that.

How does your Sunday morning routine look? Thankfully it’s not potluck week, because I know we are often fretting about what to bring and when to make it the night before or even the morning of! There’s communion today though. Did you know that before you entered the sanctuary or did it come to mind only when you saw the signup sheet or the veil on the altar? Did you know there’s a page in the front of the red hymnals for “Personal Preparation for Holy Communion”? It’s on page 156. If you know about that page, do you go through it the night before so you have time to contemplate it, or did you go through it quickly as you took your seat and realized that there’s communion today? A person is properly prepared for receiving the Lord’s Supper only when they have examined themselves and believe the words of forgiveness which they proclaim.

And it’s not just communion. What other thoughts are cluttering your physical or mental worship space this morning? I’ve got to talk to so-and-so… I wonder how much money is left in my wallet for an offering… what should I have for lunch today… how long is this sermon going to be… There are many things that clutter our minds and compete for the attention of our hearts. Sometimes it takes a disruptive force to clean house and drive out the real destructive clutter which we allow to interfere with true worship. This account of Jesus cleaning his Father’s house forces us to take a hard look at ourselves and clean up the clutter in our hearts as well.

The Jews wanted to know the heart behind Jesus’ actions. Was it from his own heart and by his own authority that he did these things – keeping in mind they only considered him as a teacher or even a rebellious leader. Or, was it actually a heart for the Lord and by his authority that Jesus was doing these things? The Jewish leaders give the impression that they were willing to give Jesus a chance to prove himself. They wanted to appear to be fair in their judgement of Jesus when, likely, they had already judged him from the start. You see, from time to time, self-appointed prophets had challenged the authority of the Sanhedrin, but all of them had failed in their purpose. These Jewish leaders wanted to expose Jesus as just another false prophet, who would also be a failure.

They asked for a sign. Interesting because these people had all the Old Testament prophecies pointing to Jesus as the Messiah. If anyone, they should have known first. They should have known in their hearts that this was the promised Messiah before Jesus even openly claimed it! But instead of their hearts being filled with God’s Word, they were cluttered with all the customs and traditions handed down since the time of Moses. Not that these customs and traditions were bad. They were all meant to enhance and focus their worship of God, but they allowed these outward trappings to become their religion in and of themselves. So, since they couldn’t see through all of their own clutter, the asked for a sign. They needed Jesus to prove that he had the authority to clean up the clutter – their treasured customs – of God’s house and of their hearts.

Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (Jn 2:19). “Go ahead. Destroy this temple, if that’s what you’re determined to do.” Outwardly, Jesus looked like the one destroying the temple. The fact was that those buying and selling and the leaders who allowed, encouraged and participated in it were the destructive ones. Under their leadership the temple had gone from being a house of prayer and teaching to being a marketplace and stockyard where thieves worked. As they heartlessly destroyed the true worship of Israel, they would destroy the temple of his body by crucifixion. When they carried out that act, they would have the undeniable sign that they had been the temple-destroyers, not Jesus. And only God could rebuild it. Only God could raise Jesus to life. Only God could raise true worship from the clutter of contaminated worship.

I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen cases where certain people allowed their time for true worship to become cluttered – whether it be sports events, work deadlines, or even just laziness crowding out time for their Lord. Then it hits. God overturns the tables in their lives and drives their livelihood out into the streets. Lands them flat on their backs. And they may protest, shaking their fist, “Why would God allow this to happen to me right now?! Who does he think he is?” And as I’ve seen some of these cases develop, soon they realized that God was cleaning up the clutter in their lives so that they could rest from their own business, and be refreshed by God’s business.

Because the fact is, there is much worse clutter than a pile of clothes where you sleep. There is worse clutter than a frenzied Sunday morning routine. There is even worse clutter than distracted thoughts in worship, and God’s wants to remove all of this clutter so that he can get to the real heart of the matter: your heart. It is cluttered with sin. It is corrupted by sin. And this sin has terminal effects. It’s eternally damning. So God wants you to listen, and listen carefully. Listen to John who pointed to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Listen to Jesus’ words from the cross again in just a few weeks that, “It is finished,” all your sins have been swept away. Listen to your Savior on Easter tell you, “Peace be with you.” You have peace with God, because Jesus cleaned up the contaminating corruption of sin in your heart.