Third Sunday in Lent
March 7, 2021
To our modern sensibilities, the Old Testament describes a strange and foreign world. There are rituals that we do not understand and stories distant from our lived reality. Sure, there is some nice poetry and a few catchy sayings that we like to put on bumper stickers. But for the most part, we are functionally a people separated from the Old Testament. This is to our detriment. For if we do not know the Old Testament, we cannot know the New. On the surface level, I think lots of us are are uncomfortable with the stories of divine judgment and wrath in the Old Testament. And we tell ourselves that God in the New Testament is just a lot nicer. Today I hope to dissuade you of that notion.
To begin, we must go to the beginning. Genesis, chapter 4. Adam and Eve have been driven out of the Garden of Eden. They “know” each other and Eve bears two sons, Cain and Abel. The story goes on, “Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (Genesis 4:2b-5a). It appears that Cain’s offering displeased the Lord because it was simply an offering, and not the best offering. “Abel, for his part, brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions.” Cain becomes angry, and rather than improving his offering, he murders his brother in a jealous rage. All because Cain refused to give the best of what he had to the Lord.
Later on in the book of Leviticus, we hear another story of an offering that falls short. Remember, Moses has led the people out of slavery in Egypt and into the wilderness. Moses’ brother, Aaron, has become the high priest for the people and Aaron’s sons are to carry on the priestly line. But two sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, offer to the Lord an “unholy fire” and they themselves are consumed by the Lord God (Leviticus 10:1-2).
This is a theme throughout the Old Testament. God demands a righteous offering. God does not want our leftovers, God does not want our unrighteousness. Cain’s offering is rejected by God because it’s not his best. The sons of Aaron are consumed because what they offer is unholy. God has given us all that we have and all that we are – God has created us, formed us of the dust. So God is displeased with our cheap offerings. As it was in the Old Testament, so it is in the New.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus has gone up to Jerusalem during the Passover with tens of thousands of other pilgrims to worship and to offer sacrifices. And what does Jesus find there, in the very courts of the Lord? He sees the money changers; he sees coins stamped with the image of the Roman emperor. The Lord Jesus sees an unrighteous offering in his Father’s house. William Temple put it this way – “The place which should be ordered with the reverence appropriate to the dwelling-place of God is cluttered up with worldly ambitions, anxieties about our possessions, designs to get the better of our neighbours” (William Temple, Readings in St. John’s Gospel, 39). The Lord God has no regard for Cain’s measly offering. The Lord God consumes the sons of Aaron for their offering of unholy fire. And now the Lord God makes a whip and kicks over the cash registers in the Temple. This is a symbolic action of judgment. This is not some aberration. This is who God is, in the Old Testament and the New.
The question is then turned, quite obviously, to us. What about our offerings? What about our halfhearted prayers to God? What about the leftovers we give to a God instead of the first fruits? Why do we give so little back to a God who has given us so much? And most importantly, what is God going to do about it?
William Temple again puts it this way: “[The] coming [of Jesus] means a purge. So it is always, not less with the shrine of our hearts than with the Jewish Temple” (39). “His coming means a purge.” This is the God we know and worship. Not only a God of comfort and grace, but a God who makes a whip of cords and comes rampaging into our cluttered hearts. This God demands our best sacrifices, our best offerings. And God will not stop at anything until we are drawn to that higher standard.
This is the good news of Jesus Christ. God is so concerned with us, God is so focused on purifying our hearts that God will do whatever it takes to make us righteous and holy. Even if it means making a whip, kicking over a few tables, and starting a stampede. You cannot keep your worldly ambitions and make your offerings – God will not have it.
This is how Jesus came into my life. Not as the meek and mild Savior – but as a jealous God who demands that there is only room in my heart for Jesus. Day by day, I feel the Holy Spirit making that whip and knocking over the tables in my heart that count up all my unholy offerings. I feel the Spirit knocking over my ego, my lack of concern for others, my half-hearted offerings. I would rather it not be this way. I want my life with Jesus to be easier. I want to give a little off the top and keep the rest to myself. But Jesus won’t have it that way.
In our story today, the people say to Jesus that the Temple has been under construction for forty-six years (John 2:20), insinuating that the age of the building means that it’s just too difficult to change course now. Too much has been invested in what has already been built. I know how they feel. This last week I had my birthday, another lap around the sun, and I want to say with them, “But Lord, don’t destroy this human heart of mine. I’ve been carefully building it for all these years.” And yet I know that God will not stop at anything less than transforming my heart into a pure offering.
Consider carefully, then, the temple that is your heart. What are you giving to God and what are you keeping back? Are you offering to God just a little bit off the top, or are you giving your best? Do you spend your days thinking how to make more or how to give more? This is about money, but it’s more than that, too. This is about all that we do and all that we are and all that we have. God has given us everything, and God desires that everything is given back as an offering. This is how God is revealed in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, and even now. This is hard news, but it is the good news.
And this is the Lenten journey. This time of preparation, this time of looking forward to Easter means a purge. The Holy Spirit is coming to knock over the tables and start a stampede. It’s going to hurt, it’s going to be disruptive. Your old ways will be overturned. The clutter will be cleared out. The offerings you kept back will be given. God will not stop until you offer all that you are. Because the Lord Jesus is consumed with zeal for your heart.