“Take me past the outer courts, into the holy place, Lord I hunger and thirst for your righteousness but it’s only found one place, take me into the Holy of Holies, take me in by the blood of the Lamb, take me into the Holy of Holies, take the coal, cleanse my lips, here I am.”
That’s one of the worship songs that I grew up with, and I remember it being one of my favorites. It seems especially appropriate for this time of year with its haunting minor chords and earnest longing for transformation.
But I’ve started to wonder whether those words are true. Do we really want to go deep with God? Have we really invited him into the deepest, darkest points of our lives and asked him to cleanse us?
I know that there’s great pain and upheaval that results in walking down, down, down into the deep ravines of our sin, and I doubt that we do that very willingly, even with God by our side.
When Jesus cleanses the temple in today’s Gospel passage, he purposely conflates the physical temple building itself, the stones placed one on top of another, and his own physical fleshy body. He says something that makes no sense to anybody at the time, “Destroy this temple, and in three days, I will raise it up.” But after his crucifixion and resurrection, his disciples remember that he’d promised this. Those who do not believe in Jesus as Messiah, as Savior, as God, they do not understand his meaning even after the history-shifting events of Easter take place.
A bishop from the South once told me that southerners would be the first to invite you into their living rooms, but the last to invite you any further. I resonate with that — eager to let people see the well-polished and vacuumed parts of my life and my personality, but doing my best to keep the doors to my disheveled and unrepentant sides locked tight, the windows of those rooms adorned with heavy curtains, drawn. I don’t actually want God or anyone else to see the selfishness that I stash under the bed, the pride that I’ve shoved into the closet, the envy that I gorge on like ice cream at night.
I don’t want God to see them because I’m not sure that I want to give them up. Sin is so a part of us that we fear it might feel like losing an arm if we were freed of it.
I wonder if this is what Jesus is talking about elsewhere in the Gospels where he tells us to cut off an arm or gouge out an eye rather than letting the sin consume and kill us. This painful, messy analogy is revisited in our Gospel lesson this morning; when Jesus visits the temple, we learn two things about the way that God cleanses and the way that he brings dying things back to life.
First, when Jesus comes to clean, it hurts. When I was little, I remember this story making me uncomfortable, because it seemed like Jesus was yelling and losing his temper, flipping tables, throwing out animals. And in that flipping-over-of-tables, in that throwing-animals-out, Jesus makes quite a mess. In the Gospel passage, the animals stampede out of their stalls, coins are scattered all over the ground, tables lie in shards, bird cages are smashed. It’s a total ruin.
This is the truth of what happens when Jesus comes. When God comes into your life, the carefully-arranged knick-knacks are thrown down from their shelves, the precarious but comfortable assumptions that made the foundation feel steady are cut off at the knees. When Jesus comes to cleanse, the very floor is shook akimbo, the space seems as if it must be declared a total loss — easier to walk away from rather than to renew.
This might hit awfully close to home for some of you, I suspect that the end of St. Paul’s and St. George’s and Epiphany felt like deaths, and despite best efforts, must have been at least a little bit messy. It might have even felt tempting to walk away from the whole carnage rather than to march through it, seeking renewal. The healing scars from that grafting surgery are still fresh and still learning to move again, still growing in strength and gaining range of motion.
But the good news, brothers and sisters, is that God has resurrected the destroyed, wounded mess that carried so much weight and so much pain. God has created St. Augustine’s, and it is beautiful in his sight. The further good news is that God has more work to do with St. Augustine’s and with each and every person here today, whatever your age or your income or your past or your story, God is knocking at the door of your heart. God seeks to be let in to even the deepest ravines of sin in your life. God wants to clean out the darkness, to free you from the burden and chains of evil and let you enjoy the resurrection that he has for you.
So as I see it, there are three places we might find ourselves in reference to the Scripture story this morning.
First, we might be standing behind some door in our hearts, Jesus standing right outside, knocking and saying, “Open the door, let me come in there and help you.” And we must choose whether we want to let God in or not. We might know what he’s done other times we’ve opened a door, the havoc he’s caused, but perhaps we also remember the healing.
Or we might have seen what’s happened in others’ lives and we’re not sure we want to endure that kind of suffering in order to come to new life. It might not be worth it. Maybe I’ll just turn the music up a little louder to cover the knocking, maybe I’ll just keep my head down and fill up my calendar with my busy engagements. I really don’t have time for a major cleaning right now. Maybe another year
The second place we might be this morning is that we’ve opened that door; Jesus has come in, armed with his mop and his paint scraper, and he’s totally redecorating. He’s stripped the wallpaper that we thought was really all right, and he’s ripped up the floorboards that were sort of rotting, if we were honest, but we thought might somehow be salvageable. Did they really need to go?
We might be questioning our decision to let Jesus into this particular room. We might be asking God, “Does that carpet really need to go?” Or “Do you really have to open that closet?” For God to work, does the dying, diseased, precious, comfortable sin really, truly have to die? “God, couldn’t you just clean around that gluttony that gets me through the dark hours of night?” “Jesus, couldn’t you just look the other way about this pride that helps me to keep going through my job and marriage?” “Lord, surely you can let me keep just this one junk drawer; the addiction to online shopping is totally manageable, the inclination to watch handsome people on the street is just recreational, the desire to pretend everything’s okay is what gets me through the day.” This is the uncomfortable, bargaining stage; it’s like when you know you’ve got the stomach flu, but you still sort of hope that you can avoid the trip to the bathroom somehow. You’re already on the roller coaster, and the only way to get off of it is to ride through to the finish, but you’re still trying to figure a way around the inevitable. It’s not a pleasant place to be, and that’s just the truth.
The third place you might be this morning is standing in calm after the storm, surveying the wreckage. God has already passed through. You’re standing there at the bottom of the ravine, you’re wading amongst the broken tables and ripped up carpet of your life, or of your relationship, or of the job you lost, or the security you used to feel, or the way you thought your life would turn out. You may be standing in the destroyed temple, wondering what on earth you’re supposed to do now. This is the moment, brothers and sisters, you either cash in the ruin in front of you, you give up and you walk away, you throw up your hands and you double down on your noise, your addiction, your eyes-squeezed-shut attitude, OR, you realize you’ve been freed. Your life will not look the same way it did before, you’re stripped down to the studs now, the new thing that God wants to build in your life, in place of this trash heap, is something that might feel uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and it will be completely new.
“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
This is God’s promise to each and every one of us, this is God’s promise to every single human being throughout time. Jesus talks about the temple of his body when his listeners think he’s talking about the church building they’re standing inside of. Each and every one of us is made by God to be a temple, a building, a dwelling place for God in the Holy Spirit. We do all kinds of things to destroy the temple that God has made, our sins make us isolated from one another, they make us stumble around in the darkness, sin tells us lies that there is no hope, there is no love, there is no redemption for someone like us.
“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
Jesus promises that no wreckage is too far gone for him to repair. Jesus promises through his own death and his own resurrection that there is no disaster too big for him to clean up. Whatever we might do to destroy the temple God made each one of us to be, it is not enough for God to lose hope, or for God to turn his back on the mess, or for God to leave us alone.
This morning, take a moment to think about where you might be, if Jesus is knocking, wanting to clean out the temple inside of you; if Jesus is roaring around inside of you, making all kinds of painful messes that will lead to healthful healing; if Jesus has come through, and you are facing the stunning challenge of resurrection from the death of this sin; you are in this story. The God of Scripture is active in you this very morning. Whatever suffering, whatever pain, whatever joy, whatever healing, God in Jesus is the author, the redeemer, the sustainer of your very breath.
Thanks be to God. Amen.