The Church – God’s Hideout
St. Luke 19:41-48 (7/31/16)
In the name of the Father and of the + and of the Holy Spirit.
St. Luke 19:46 [Jesus said] “It is written, ‘My house is a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.”
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… In today’s Gospel reading Jesus tells the moneychangers in the Temple that they have turned God’s house into a den of thieves! When I think of a den of thieves, I think of a cave, like the kind in some old Western where the outlaws would go after they had robbed and killed. Caves make great hideouts. Robbers can go and rob and steal and then go and hide in a cave, a hideout for outlaws, a den for thieves.
But caves can also be shelters and places of refuge. If a terrible storm came upon people out walking in the woods, a cave would be a place of refuge, a place to be safe and warm and dry to escape from the storm.
With the words that Jesus speaks today, He teaches us repentance for thinking His church is a place to hide out from our sins. Instead, He calls us to believe and trust in Him, that His church is a place of refuge and shelter against sin and death.
It’s easy for God’s people to turn His house into a den of thieves, a place for robbers, a hideout for bad guys. Jeremiah preached this very thing at the front door of the Temple in today’s Old Testament reading: “You spend your days turning after other gods, sleeping around, robbing and cheating and even killing each other! Then you stroll into the Temple as if it’s all just magically gone because you went to the Temple, as if the Temple just makes it all better by your showing up.” The people of Israel were not sorry for their sins. Instead, they thought that having a temple and a place to go to church meant they could just do whatever they wanted out in the world because, after all, they could just cry, “The temple! I’m at the Temple!”
And it’s no different for us. We think we can live however we want out there in the world and then just come to church and it all doesn’t count. You know the attitude: “I can do whatever I want because it’s all forgiven anyway. I can live how I want, because it’s all just forgiven in church anyway.” We go out into the world and forget all about the Lord for the week and do whatever we feel like, despising our neighbor and doing whatever pleases us, and then stroll through the doors as if it’s all magically gone; it never happened.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we have the same problem God’s people have always had: we’re always in danger of turning His grace into a joke, His church into a hideout for bandits.
Listen: The Gospel, the Good News is NOT, “You can do whatever you want and live however you want to live and just figure it all doesn’t really matter because you go to church!” That sort of thinking despises the forgiveness that is ours in Jesus; it yanks our sins back from Jesus and back onto ourselves! That’s making our own religion and piety—our showing up for church—into the thing that saves us, rather than Jesus.
Jesus warns Jerusalem that because that is the way they have received God’s Word, the city would be wiped off the map. Tremble at the judgment of God that is in store for those who make His house into a den of thieves, a hideout for criminals!
But then see what our Lord Jesus does. He comes to us robbers and thieves, to those who would make a hideout of His church. He comes and is born in a stable, a “cave” of sorts. He comes, hidden in the flesh, that He might hide us from God’s wrath and punishment for our sins. He is counted as a criminal when they capture Him with clubs and swords and hang Him on a cross between two thieves! “String ’em up!” the people cry when the cattle rustlers are caught by the sheriff! “String Him up!” is what we do when we get a hold of God in the flesh – string Him up and nail Him to the tree of the cross.
But it is there on the cross that the Lord dies with the thieves for the thieves. Jesus forgives both thieves, and one of them hangs there and holds onto his sins. He denies that Jesus is accomplishing His salvation and being His refuge. But the other thief beholds Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He does nothing. Jesus speaks to Him, declaring that He Himself is this thief’s refuge and shelter against God’s judgment. Jesus’ wounds are this man’s cave of refuge.
And in the Divine Service our Lord’s flesh and blood are your cave too – your shelter and refuge. Here is the Good News of the Gospel: that Christ’s wounds are your hiding place, your refuge against all sin and evil. Christ dies on the cross and hides you in Himself so that sin, death, devil, hell and even God’s own wrath cannot touch you. And then, dead for your sins, Jesus is laid in a cave, a tomb. And on the Third Day Christ rose from the tomb – He left your sins behind in the grave. His triumph over death and the Devil means that now, His church, His Temple, the place where He is, has turned from a hideout into a shelter. It is no longer a place to “get away” with something; it is a place where your sins are paid for and covered up and taken away by Jesus’ blood.
Learn, dear Christians, to see the church as THAT sort of cave – not the kind where you hide out from your wickedness until you’re ready to go and do more evil in the world. No, learn that Christ’s church is your shelter, your refuge, your place to flee from your sins. And what is given there? The water of Holy Baptism to quench your thirst; the food of Jesus’ body and blood to nourish you.
I said before that the Gospel is NOT that you can just live however you want and get away with it because it’s all forgiven in the end. To think that way is to confess that you are not repentant. Yet the Gospel, the Good News of Christ in His church is that whatever you have done against God and your neighbor has been blotted out by the blood of the Lord Jesus. Your sins against God and your neighbor have been washed away at the font, declared null and void by the Absolution, and bodied and blooded away in the Holy Supper.
Because these gifts are given by Christ, our sins truly are taken away, not as if by magic, but because of what was gained for us by the innocent suffering and death of Jesus and by His holy, precious blood given to us in His church. We can flee here, to Christ’s church, as a refuge and a shelter.
When your sins overwhelm you, when the devil comes down on you like a bolt of lightning, when the troubles of this world are raining down on you, then, dear fellow redeemed, rest easy in your Lord’s church. This is the place of safety and shelter.
You, dear Christians, having learned repentance and faith, having learned that in this church you have a safe refuge from your sins, you are now free to live out that forgiveness and grace by going and living not for yourselves but for the benefit and blessing of those around you in your daily callings.
Come to His church, not as a place to escape your wickedness, but to confess it and rejoice that is has truly been taken away in Christ.
Come to His church, not as a hideout but as refuge.
Come to Christ’s house not as bandits trying to escape but as sinners who are truly safe nowhere else. For here at the font, altar and pulpit, Christ has all that you need for your peace: forgiveness, life and salvation in Jesus. Here, in Jesus and in His gifts – here is your truest and safest shelter.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.