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Lent 3 Slide

Third Sunday in Lent
John 2:13-25
March 3, 2024

It is good to have godly zeal. Godly zeal looks at the Lord’s commandments and says, “Yes, I want to, get to keep these commandments, and by God’s Holy Spirit, I can keep them, I am free to keep them.” Ungodly, resentfulness says, “I HAVE to keep these commandments, but I sure don’t want to.”

A person set free in Christ on account of faith does not see the commandments of our Lord as burdens but as gifts. He does not begrudge godly obedience or labor over it, but delights in it. He understands the steep price his Lord Christ paid to forgive him his sins and out of thankfulness, and because of the new life given him in his baptism, he seeks the will of God, to abide and do His will. No, he sins, and he falls short, but he repents, he flees to Christ for mercy and forgiveness.

The one who sees the commandments as burdens and resents them, he spends his days avoiding God’s judgment and becoming so resentful of His commandments that he leaves God behind and pursues a life of carnal desires and fulfilling only the passions of the flesh.

The Old Testament reading from Exodus is perhaps the clearest text affording us the commandments of our Lord, what we call the “decalogue.” But before the Lord gives His commandments, He says something often overlooked, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Before our Lord gives this decalogue, before He gives His 10 commandments, He reminds the Israelites of the freedom and calling they’ve already been given on account of His work. He doesn’t give them the 10 commandments so that they work for Him, so that they do good things to earn His favor. They already have His favor because He worked to set them free! They ARE His people, and He is their God, much like a parent is to a child. “You are my children,” says the Lord, “and as your Father, I want you to be safe and to live freely in My care and in My house, so here is how you stay alive, free, and prosperous…”

Through these 10 commandments, the Lord says, “You are My people; I have freed you from the yoke of the Egyptians and declared you Mine. Even so, there are enemies who will try and rip you from My hands, namely the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh. This danger never goes away, so to keep you safe and in My care, keep these commandments.”

Now, some will hear the Lord’s concern in His commands and say, “Yes, we will keep them.” They will respond in faith and trust the Lord’s words when He says that He cares for them deeply. Many Israelites continued to follow the Lord and trust His protection and thanked Him daily for delivering them from slavery. But many others will hear His commandments and deride them. The sinful flesh hates rules, hates God, and cares little for His protection and Fatherly love.

And every sinner born has this glitch, this brokenness of pride within him which says, “No one is going to tell me what to do, including God Himself. It’s MY life, MY choices, MY will, and no invisible God is going to stand in MY way.” They’ll see God’s commands as a limit to their freedom and call God a new slave driver. They’ll even go as far as to say, “This God of yours is worse than Pharaoh! At least with Pharaoh we had food. But we’ll keep these laws just to keep God off our backs, and hopefully, when He’s not looking, we can still enjoy a bit of fun in the dark.”

Grudgeful obedience to God is not faith. I mean, consider the Israelites. Those who hated God’s commandments and begrudged keeping them, they found ways to do the bare minimum, to appear on the outside as righteous, but still be rotten to the core on the inside. They pretended to be pious when seen by others, but as soon as the opportunity arose to sin, they sinned, and BOY did they sin. They willfully and joyfully broke every commandment without regret when given the chance. They hated the commandments. They hated being told things like, “Do not commit adultery, do not gossip, do not steal, do not abuse the Lord’s name, take time out of your week to rest and worship, do not hate your brother or murder him in your heart.”

In fact, their hatred for God’s commandments and their begrudged attitude toward His kindness and deliverance ultimately led them to dancing naked around their golden calf, the false god they created for themselves, intentionally snubbing God, mocking His name and calling Him useless, even calling Him a false God before their golden calf.

And what were the golden idol’s commandments? “Thou shall eat, thou shall be adulterous, thou shall fornicate, thou shall give into the passions and desires of the flesh, thou shall be merry and play and sell your soul to the devil who shall grant you all the desires of your heart…you’ll be a slave to sin and death eternal, but you’ll get your heart’s desires immediately!”

When we look at the Lord’s Commandments and we begrudgingly say we’ll keep them, what always comes next is the big “goodbye” to the faith. It starts when people fail to recognize and remember that God has already set them free, and instead fall prey to the lie that to be God’s people, they must earn it. And as they more and more discover just how impossible it is to earn God’s favor, they more and more stop abiding, and they instead build themselves an idol customized to their own desires and will.

See, hating God’s commands and His Word so much that you up and leave the church, it’s easy. And it always starts when people forget that God has already delivered them. I’ve been a pastor now for over 10 years. I’ve done church work for twice as long. And what I have discovered over these many years is that when people stop going to church, stop hearing the Word, stop receiving the Sacrament, it’s most often because they have built a cow of gold for themselves, because they begrudged God’s commandments. They are seeking their purpose and deliverance and joy and peace someplace else, in someone else, be it an adulterous relationship, alcoholism or drug abuse, money, they’re letting anger and resentment at a person, at the church, at God rule their hearts, I could go on. They leave the church, ultimately because they have no want for repentance. They’ve been wronged or they’re not being entertained or they’re too busy, too caught up in the worldly golden cow dance, and the church takes a back seat to their idolatry.

Look at our New Testament reading. Here you see sinners being sinful. The temple is being stripped of its true purpose and being turned into a shopping mall. People are literally bringing their sins into the temple and saying, “we want our sins and desires met in this place; we don’t want to change, we want God to change for us.” That’s what’s going on. They’re doing the minimal good, to “keep God happy,” and then spending the rest of their everything doing as they please. The religious leaders and pharisees have convinced the people that, to make God happy and do the minimum good, they must exchange their Roman money for temple money so they can buy one of the special sacrificial lambs, certified to be appeasing to the Lord at a discount.

God comes to His temple and says, “I have set you free and you are my people, and this place is for you to come and pray and worship and learn and abide in me, yet what have you done?” For they have all turned the temple into their own little marketplace, a place where they must pay for and work for entrance into heaven.

Jesus comes in and the disciples remember Isaiah: “This people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” The Jewish faith, 2,000 years ago, and even today, is not about God who made them His people and set them free, but about them earing the right to be His people.

But, you ARE the children of God. You are heirs of His kingdom. God has set you free. He did this FOR you without asking for any favors or commitments or promises or assurances FROM you; He didn’t even ask your permission, because if He would have, you would have said a big, fat NO. So, it was given to you freely, as a gift, in your baptism.

But what has also come about is that the devil, and the world, and your own sinful flesh are working on you to bring alive resentment of God and His Word and His church, so that you ultimately abandon God. And the Lord, He does not hide this fact from you, and in fact, He gives you a very clear image of how the devil, the world, and your sinful flesh will come after you; He says, “Here is how they’re going to try and destroy you.” He gives you His Commandments and says, “So that you remain safe in me, look to these commandments and know that should you break them, it will hurt you and it will hurt your faith.”

This is why as God’s children, as Christians, we still have and study the commandments. We can’t be saved BY keeping them because we are already saved by God’s grace through faith. We are already His children and have been set free from sin, death, and the devil and these commandments are not burdens but blessings for our good, right?

I mean, don’t we all just delight in keeping these commandments?? Eh, probably not. Fact is that we are still sinners, and we still have a very sinful flesh, and the devil is much, much stronger than our zeal for the Lord, and the pull and attraction of this fallen world is still so very tempting for us, isn’t it?

You each still have the defiant nature in you which says, “No one, God included, is going tell me what to do.” You each have the sins you really, really like to do and that you really, really don’t want to give up, and should some grumpy pastor come along, or the church come along, or God come along and say, “You must stop, you must turn away from your sin, God’s temple, your heart, should be a place of prayer, but you are making it into a den of depravities,” you will likely resent it and even forsake God to protect your sin.

Your sinful nature will tell you to do the bare minimum, to grace this place with your presence when you have time and put on airs of godliness, but in your heart, you’d much rather be at home in bed, at work, steeped in your favorite sin, or sitting out on the lake with a six-pack and a fishing pole. And begrudging God, begrudging His commandments, begrudging His church, you surely want to be saved, but you don’t want to throw out the sins that keep you enslaved.

And like the Israelites, we have all sorts of excuses for our golden calf worship. As we traverse this wilderness headed to the promised land, we will be tempted to complain about the journey, the food, the weather and we’ll be tempted to want to go back to a time when our slavery seemed so much better. We’ll complain about the music, the ambiance, the worship style, this, that, and the other and wish church and worship was more like the world – the enslaved and hell bound world. We’re no different than those old Israelites at times, are we? Modernization and technology has not made us people who sin less or complain less, has it? Different time, same people, same begrudging of God’s Law.

Now, ask yourself, is it a good thing to prop up all these golden calves in your life and make them so important that you dance around them all the live long day at the expense of zeal for God’s Commandments? Do you resent having to come to church, to set a day or even a couple hours aside each week for worship with God’s people and prayer and the Sacrament, is it a burden for you or a joy? Be honest! God says, “I want you resting in church every week,” and as a Christian you’re supposed to say, “YAY,” but what do you say instead? “ehhh, only if I have time, only if nothing else gets in the way, only if the pastor preaches like I want and the music is how I want and the people are nice and I don’t have to sit alone and, and, and, and…” God says, “I want you to love your brother in your heart, forgive him and treat Him as I have treated you,” and as a Christian you’re supposed to say, “YAY, absolutely,” but what do you say instead? “ehhh, only if he’s nice to me, only if he doesn’t upset me, only if he does things the way I want, and changes his attitude, only if, only if, only if…”

People are people are people. See, every one of us is a law breaker, and every one of us must repent. We ALL must be a people of repentance who acknowledge that we are all a people who are not doing what we’re supposed to be doing, a people who begrudge God’s Commandments, who begrudge His Word and His Law, and would much rather be doing anything else than submitting and abiding. This is why Paul writes in Romans 3, “we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” The Law of God makes us to be silent, because every one of us breaks it. God’s law makes us stop with the “if there’s time,” and the “only if” excuses, so that our true nature is exposed for what it is.

So, what do we do? Well, that’s part of the problem…stop trying to “do” something. If you think the solution to your law breaking is to just try harder, good luck with that. I promise you that begrudgingly committing to trying harder to keep the Commandments will not change anything because the problem isn’t with some level of commitment to less sinning. The problem is with your heart.

Imagine a parent telling his child, “You are going to clean your room, and you’re going to like it!” Come on, that’s not how it works. You can’t make a person who begrudges God’s commandments love His commandments by burdening him with more rules and laws or trying to fix his old, sinful nature. The sinful nature must die; it cannot be fixed.

The answer to developing more zeal for God’s Law is to kill the sin that makes God’s Law a burden. The answer is the same answer our Lord preached from the moment He beat the devil in His 40-day desert walk: repentance and forgiveness.

Repentance doesn’t offer excuses for why we sin; repentance just says it’s true. You examine yourself, you crack open that dark, jaded heart of yours and you say, “Holy cow, I’ve been worshipping a holy cow made with my own hands, my own sin, why do I do this, why am I such a miserable and sinful person…I need help.”

And with that, turn to your Lord, confess your sins, and rest easy, rest easy, because in Christ God has forgiven you of everything. He doesn’t want your excuses; He doesn’t want your rationalizations; He doesn’t want your blame games and your facades of piety…He wants you, sins and all, the scars, the brokenness, the betrayals, the slanders, the gossip, the adultery, the drunkenness, the lies, church-skipping, the offering plate skimping, all of it – He wants you, because He has already redeemed you and called you His child and set you free. It the midst of it all, Christ died for you.

He wants you to repent of your sins; He wants you to look deeply into that chasm, that heart of yours, and recognize just how very sinful you really are, because you cannot know your need for His endless mercy until you know just how costly His endless mercy is.

Jesus exhibited more zeal and love for God’s Commandments than we ever could, and we see this, not only at the temple where He drives out the impenitent, but also at the cross where He died for the sin of the world, where His zeal saved you from sin, death, and the devil.

Rest easy in Jesus. As you approach this altar today and kneel at this rail for heaven’s medicine with your hearts ripped open and all your sins exposed, know that this salve of our Lord’s true body and blood is for you. It’s not for those who refuse to repent, who hate God’s commandments, and spurn His call to holy living, but it is for you who come with nothing, nothing but silent tongues and open hearts knowing that there is nothing more precious and needful in this world than this moment where God’s forgiveness is given to you in bread and wine.

THIS is love – THIS is God. Amen.