When King Solomon first built the temple and dedicated it to the Lord, it was very obvious what the temple was for. Solomon says in his dedication, “When they pray toward this place, hear o Lord in heaven Your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.” Forgive. That’s the reason for the Temple, forgiveness. Solomon’s prayer is full of it, constant, again and again. “When your people are defeated by the enemy because they’ve sinned against you, and when they turn back and confess and pray and plead in this temple, then hear in heaven and forgive.” “And when there’s a famine in the land, or sickness, and when your people see it and realize the plague that is in their own heart also, and they stretch out their hands to this place and pray, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and forgive and act and take the plague away.” “When they sin against you (for there is no one who does not sin) and You become angry with them and let them be taken captive, and when they come to themselves and repent and beg you and say, ‘We have sinned and done wrong, we have committed wickedness,’ and when they return to you with all their heart and with all their soul, and pray toward this temple, then hear in heaven Your dwelling place and maintain their cause and forgive your people who have sinned against You, and all their transgressions which they have transgressed against You, and grant them compassion.” That was the point of the temple. God forgave sins from that temple. He is called by many names. The God who sees, because He sees all our distresses and carries us through them. The God who hears, because He hears the prayers of His faithful. The God of vengeance, because vengeance is His, not ours, and He will repay with great terror those who persecute His Christians. But He is above all these, and the Temple makes this clear, He is the God who forgives.
And so it’s comical, when the Pharisee goes into the Temple and thanks God for how awesome he is. It is comical, because it’s too absurd. The Temple is the place to ask for forgiveness. Going into the Temple and not asking for forgiveness from God is like going to the dentist to brag about how clean and healthy your teeth are. If you know your teeth are healthy and clean, don’t go to the dentist. The healthy, Jesus says, have no need of a physician. But it’s tragic too, this scene. The Pharisee is doing what his fathers did. The Jews put idols in the Temple of God. Did you know that? They set up their Baals there and their Asheroth and their male cult prostitutes. They defiled God’s, made it into the very opposite of what God made it, a den of sin instead of a place of forgiveness. And the Pharisee does it too. His idols aren’t of silver or gold. And they’re not outwardly disgusting like Asherah’s filth. They look good actually and holy and right. They look very religious. Because they are. He’s kept himself from adultery and stealing. He tithes, gives a tenth of his possessions to God every year. He fasts. That means he practices self-control, O how we need that in our time. These are wonderful things. But when you put your trust in them, as if because you do these things you are good not only before men but before God Himself, then you make them idols, just as filthy as the Baals and their prostitutes. Jesus said in the previous chapter, when talking about all the good things Christians should be doing, He says, “When you have done all these good things, say, “We are unprofitable servants. We have only done what we ought.” And the prophet Isaiah says, ‘All our good deeds are like a dirty rag.’ When you come before God you come every single time as the one who needs forgiveness, for we daily sin much and indeed deserve nothing but punishment.
The Temple is for forgiveness. So is the church. There is a mindset dominant in our Christian American scene that acts and even teaches that you go to church not for forgiveness but for praise and thanks to God or for practical instruction in life. And obviously church is also for this. It is to thank and praise God. What else will forgiveness produce in the Christian heart but thanksgiving and praise. St. Peter says we are called to proclaim the praises of Him who called us out of darkness and into His glorious light. And Church is for getting practical advice for life, how to have a good marriage, how to use your money, how to spend your time, because life flows from God’s love and forgiveness. These aren’t separated, they are married and joined beautifully. And so the reason for church is the same as it was for the Temple, forgiveness. Yes, yes, but I’ve already been forgiven. Yes, you have, and now you need it again. No, but I’ve already been saved. Yes, and you need saving again. What, have you not sinned? Do you not long for Jesus’ voice to again tell you He has paid for it all?
The idea that forgiveness is in the past or salvation a personal one-time event in the past, is the idea of the Pharisee. The Pharisee knew very well that God had had to forgive him once upon a time. Of course he did. He’d read the Bible. He’d read it a lot. He couldn’t get around it. We just heard what Solomon said, “there is no one who does not sin.” And the psalmist cries out, “Who can count his errors?” and “Do not enter into judgment with your servant. For no man living is righteous before you.” The Pharisee was also once upon a time a youth. And he knew the psalm, “Lord forgive me the sins of my youth.” He experienced it. He knows it. But he’s been saved, he thinks. He's the chosen of God. God already forgave him and now he’s on to a new stage of religious life, the stage of thanking God for everything good in His life, not worrying about his need for forgiveness still.
This is the thinking dominant in our Christian scene today. This is why you have churches out there – a lot, even conservative churches, Bible-believing churches – where you can go and you won’t hear once that Jesus died to take away your sins. You might have a speaker tell you how he used to be an alcoholic or a druggy, but God got him out of that life and now he’s living straight. You might have a preacher tell you in outrageous detail from symbols and numbers in the book of Daniel how he thinks the end of the world is going to come. You might have a preacher talk nothing but politics, liberal or conservative, with one side saying Jesus wants you to let everyone across the Mexican border and the other saying Jesus actually gave us laws and a constitution that forbid illegal immigration. But what is missing is what simply cannot be missing – the blood and righteousness of Jesus, His death for sinners, the forgiveness of sins, the body and blood that paid the price and is given to our mouths and to our souls, the very thing that captivates the heart of every Christian, that is our great treasure, that our God gave His life for us. God forbid we ever graduate from this to some new stage in the Christian life.
But this mindset is not just in others. You’ll see it in Lutherans too, even conservative, Bible believing Lutherans. I once had a conversation with a Lutheran lady, who’d been a Lutheran far longer than I’d been alive. I was playing on the piano a hymn we had just sung in chapel and she commented on it and said something like, “Isn’t it so wonderful to go to church so you can give back to God for everything He gave you.” And I gently corrected her and said, “No, I go to church because I still need things from God, a lot, I need the forgiveness of my sins.” She said that was interesting, she’d never heard that before, but she’d think about it. But of course she had heard it before. It’s just that the opinion of the flesh is so strong with us. We want to outgrow needing the forgiveness of sins. Well you will. When you die. When you’re in heaven. And the last stain of sin is removed forever. But until then, you won’t outgrow the need. The sins might change – I had that conversation with that Lutheran lady almost 20 years ago, and the particular sins that bother me now aren’t the sins that bothered me then. But that you daily sin much is a constant. This is why you pray every single day, “Forgive us our trespasses.” Because you need it every day and your Lord taught that prayer to you because He wanted you to know it.
The tax collector is our model. Not that we live like he did in open sin, stealing and committing adultery, God forbid it, but that we come into God’s presence for forgiveness first and all things else will follow. When he comes into that temple, the tax collector doesn’t even look up into heaven. He doesn’t want anyone else to see him because his sin is so real that it seems everyone can see into him, and so he hides himself and stands in a corner. He beats his breast, a sign of helplessness, what am I to do, because he knows he can’t do a thing to take his sins away. He confesses because he’s sorry and he’s wretched and he knows he can’t hide a thing from God. And he pleads from God exactly what God tells him to plead, exactly what Solomon said the Temple was all about, forgiveness. Lord, be propitious to me, have mercy on me, a sinner, he says. And Jesus says he went home justified, declared righteous, innocent, good before God. Not that he had done a single good thing. Not that he shone with the outward good works of that Pharisee. He didn’t. But He was righteous before God, innocent, all sins gone forever, because God forgave Him.
And the Temple showed it, it preached this forgiveness to the tax collector. We have this vision of temples as clean places. Every picture we see of an ancient temple is of white marble, beautiful pillars, pristine, the pretty picture of the Parthenon in Athens or the Pantheon in Rome. But no temple looked like that in ancient times and certainly not the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. It was a very bloody place. It was a slaughterhouse and a butcher shop and a church and a restaurant all at the same time. The blood of beasts was spilt daily in that Temple to remind the people of exactly what Solomon prayed for and the tax collector pleaded for. Because forgiveness is not cheap. The wages of sin is death. Forgiveness of that sin means life. And the price of this life is beyond worth. Jesus says it, “What will a man give in exchange for his life?” And the psalmist says it, “Those who trust in their wealth and boast in the multitude of their riches, None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him – for the redemption of their souls is costly.” And so we have God say in the book of Hebrews, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” The blood of all those beasts in that temple reminded the people that a price had to be paid for their forgiveness, for their life. They pointed to the blood that now has been shed, the blood of the Son of God, the price that no money could possibly pay, no animal, no man could render, but God gave it, God gave it when He became a man for us. And so Jesus calls Himself the Temple. Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again. He is the Temple because He is the place where God’s forgiveness is. His is the body where the slaughter happens and the blood is shed that actually takes away sin. His is the sacrifice that takes God’s anger away forever and gives us peace with Him. And those who eat and drink of His sacrifice never die. When we look to this Temple, to the Lord, there is no doubt of God’s mercy. He must give it. It is His glory and honor to give it. The blood of Jesus cries out for it and the Spirit intercedes for us with groanings that cannot be uttered, and God the Father who dwells in heaven hears and He forgives.
And He speaks it and He shows it far more forcefully now in this church than in that Temple. There people ate of beasts that were sacrificed. Here we eat of the body and blood of the Son of God Himself. There people heard of a forgiveness that would be bought. Here we speak and we hear the forgiveness won by the sufferings and death of our Creator who now and forever shares our flesh and blood. There the Temple was only for a time and it was destroyed. But our Temple, when it was destroyed raised itself up in three days and endures forever. And we dwell in Him and He in us. And where He is there is pure pleasure, righteousness, peace, heavenly joy, the hope, the sure expectation of seeing God face to face without shame forever.
Sixty years ago faithful Christians came together to found this congregation and named it Mount Hope Lutheran Church. They founded this church so that they would receive what the tax collector received. And for sixty years we’ve received it. If this world remains in another sixty years, God grant we, our children, our grandchildren, and our greatgrandchildren, and all whom the Lord calls to Himself, God grant we still receive seek Jesus’ mercy here and receive it and so grow in love for God and for one another, until we all meet together in the heavenly Temple where praise will rise unending for God’s great love for us. Amen.