Pastor Richard Hergesheimer's sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Lent, March 4, 2018 at St. Hilda's:
How would you react if, right here and right now, I suddenly starting smashing furniture: Overturning the altar, throwing the cross and candlesticks on to the floor breaking the candles into a thousand pieces, grabbing the communion vessels and hurling them down the centre aisle? No doubt everybody here would be in shock, frightened at my wanton destruction. . . in fear that I had (finally?) gone off my nut. Now imagine how the disciples must have reacted when they see Jesus losing his cool big-time.
I mean, here they are going to the temple, expecting an act of piety, doing what everybody else does and needs to do, when all of sudden, everything goes sideways. You see, the religious laws of Moses required sacrifices--and it wasn't always possible or even likely that when you came to Jerusalem for Passover that you would bring a lamb or a goat or a dove with you. And so it was convenient, even helpful, if you were a pilgrim from another country that didn't use shekels as the medium of exchange; or if you were from another province like Galilee where most labourers got paid with Roman coins--obviously not acceptable at a Jewish temple--it was convenient, even helpful, to be able to change your money and buy what was needed--which is why merchants and money changers set up their booths in the temple courtyard. That is what the disciples except is going to happen. . . but what transpires instead is stunning, shocking and very, very upsetting, both literally and figuratively. Jesus loses his temper and treats everything that people have taken for granted--the money changers, the sacrifice sellers, the religious laws--he treats the whole shootin' match as an abomination and an obscene desecration of a holy place. And so when the disciples see him kicking over tables, smashing cages, yelling and acting utterly out of character, I'm sure they first tried to calm him down by shouting at him to stop, warning him of what might happen. And when that doesn't work, trying to restrain him by grabbing his arms and pinning them to his sides the way hockey players do when a fight is about to break out and nobody really wants anybody to take a stupid penalty. But when that doesn't solve the problem and the merchants start stampeding for the exits, you can bet that the disciples joined them diving for cover. . . hiding and cowering in the corners, waiting for divine retribution to fall on their new leader in the form of fire and brimstone.
After all, the temple was, quite literally, the House of God and stories from the Hebrew Scriptures about God's wrath being unleashed were well-known to every good Jewish boy. And so when it is all over and the dust has settled, and the furniture, the coins, the baaing lambs and screeching birds are scattered all over the courtyard, no doubt the disciples are horrified and terrified. And so, fearful at what he say or do next, they probably just stared at the ground while walking in dead silence to wherever they are going. I'm pretty sure it was a long, sleepless night for everybody. . . and I also suspect that it was impossible to look him in the eye the next morning while trying to make small talk at breakfast. Kind of like the "crazy uncle" syndrome--where you never known why he did what did or said what he said nor what outrageous thing he might say or do next. With that in mind, we probably need to ask the question: "So, what does this story mean to us and for us?" Well, maybe a part of what it means is this: That this Jesus isn't the domesticated little creature we conceive him to be. . . and nor is following and imitating him quite as easy or harmless as we conceive it to be. . .or would like it to be. For instance, if you think back on your earliest memories of images of Jesus--and I'll bet that if you are a white North American or European Protestant--I'd wager my last dollar that the picture of Jesus you grew up seeing is very likely the 1940 painting by Warner Sallman called "The Head of Christ."
It is picture of Jesus with shiny, long-flowing, light-brown hair, apparently recently shampooed. . .and sweet-looking blue eyes visible above a neatly-trimmed beard and moustache, looking for all the world like just dropped in from rural Alberta or Oslo, Norway. According to one estimate, Sallman's painting of Jesus staring off into space was reproduced 500 million times. And maybe it is because he looks so safe and clean and passive--like a person who wouldn't hurt a fly--maybe that is why countless Sunday School walls in church basements have his face plastered on them. And maybe that is also why it is hard for us to comprehend how such a harmless and respectable-looking citizen could ever be arrested, beaten to a pulp, flogged within an inch of his life and then sentenced to such a gruesome death by political and religious authorities. In the same way, such images and conclusions illustrate just how easy it is for us to think of God like a little puppy--tame, cuddly, and paper-trained; and how easy it is for us to create a Jesus in our own image so we can use him for our own purposes and manipulate him for our own ends. And then comes this story--a story delicately called "The Cleansing of the Temple"--an unnerving, violent and disturbing story which reminds us that there no such thing as "business as usual" with Jesus--and that all who come to him. . .who think about following him. . .must do so on his terms and not theirs. . .not ours. And one more bit of intriguing information to consider: Matthew, Mark and Luke place this story at the end of Jesus' three-year ministry--sandwiching it between his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. . . and the last few days before he is betrayed, arrested, tried and crucified. John, however, places the story at the beginning of Jesus' one year ministry where, other than the miracle he performs at the wedding in Cana in front of his newly-found and newly-called disciples--where this radical demonstration cleansing the temple is his first public appearance and his first public act. And why does John make the literary decision to put this story at the beginning of his Gospel rather than at the end? Well, probably because John cares more about theology than chronology--that he cares more about the "why" and the "where" than the "when". . .and that he has a particular point he wants to make. . .which is what? Well, maybe. . .maybe. . .it is John's way of warning us against any and every false sense of security. . .against putting our trust in something other than God. . .and in putting something other than God in the place of God.
Daniel Clendenin phrases it this way:
Misplaced allegiances, religious presumptions, pathetic excuses, smug self-satisfaction, spiritual complacency, nationalistic zeal, political idolatry and economic greed--all endorsed and done in the name of God: These are only some of the tables that Jesus overturns in his day and in ours.
You see, "church" is meant to be more than a place where we get to enjoy a snack with friends after worship; it is more than a country club or a gathering of like-minded people who reinforce one another's prejudices and illusions and thereby allow themselves. . .and others. . .and us to play at being disciples and followers. Instead, "church" is a place and a time, a community and a gathering where we learn that God is God and we are not. . .and that God will not be relegated to second place. . .that God is not satisfied with what is second-best. . .that God is not bought off or appeased or mollified by nice words or smiling faces or even very generous donations to current expenses or the building fund. Instead, as the First Commandment says so clearly: "You shall have no other gods". NO other gods; no OTHER gods; no other GODS. None. Not now. Not ever. And that truth, that reality, that hard word brings us once more to that nagging question: "So what does this mean to us and for us?"
Well, maybe. . .maybe one of the things it means is that if Jesus wasn't interested in defending the status quo--in giving his blessing to those want to keep things the way they are--then maybe we aren't given permission to do so either. Maybe it isn't good enough for our pastors, priests and preachers to do as we so often want them to do--namely, to speak gentle words in order to comfort the afflicted but rather be courageous and bold enough to speak prophetic words that afflict the comfortable. Maybe we need pastors and priest and preachers willing to run the risk of kicking, not tables, but butts; of freeing, not doves, but prisoners--prisoners to outdated ways of thinking and speaking and acting that make Jesus safe and friendly and make God toothless and careless--that is, one who could care less about what we believe and how we behave.
Maybe we need pastors and priests and preachers ready and willing to say, not what people want to hear but what they need to hear--even if it makes those within earshot cower in the corners, or cover their ears in distress. . .or walk out the doors swearing never to return until that radical so-and-so is gone.
Maybe it means that the God who calls us out of our addictions to busyness or to wanting everything. . .and still more; who calls us out of our obsessions with fulfilling our every craving and desire, no matter what it costs us in terms of personal integrity or fractured relationships--maybe this God, our God, the one God. ..wants more for us. . .and wants more from us. And maybe this Jesus who got angry at he saw being done in the name of God that kept certain people--mostly the poor and disabled and female people--those who were required to carry out their acts of worship in the temple courtyard because they were forbidden to enter the temple proper. . .to come into the House of God and into the Presence of God--maybe he calls us to be angry as well. To get angry over injustice and inequity that damages, demeans and diminishes others; that takes from their value and worth and shoves them into slum dwellings or doorways so they are out of sight and out of mind. Maybe Jesus would approve of us losing our tempers at learning that countries will spend hundreds of billions of dollars on arms and weapons when less than 1/10 of that would provide sufficient and adequate housing, clean water, health care and sewage treatment for those living in alleys, under bridges, in substandard shelters, in the rubble of bombed-out buildings or next to ditches filled with human waste. Maybe Jesus would be okay with us getting angry--as long as we are angry with the right people, to the right degree, at the right time and for the purpose--the purpose being to bring justice to this land. . .to bring justice to this world. And note here that the Biblical notion of "justice" is not the usual legal or popular understanding of throwing bad guys in jail and getting drug dealers off the streets. Instead, as Walter Brueggemann says, "Justice is sorting out what belongs to whom and giving it back to them." In other words, justice is figuring out what people have a right to simply because they are human beings created in the image of God; it is figuring out what people have had stolen from them and then making sure that they get it back. . . and doing so not grudgingly either--out of tolerance or to assuage guilt or even out of a desire to show mercy or generosity--but rather as an act of justice. . .of restoring what is rightfully theirs.
Maybe John is calling us to the same thing that Jesus has called us to over the last few weeks: To repent. . .to be changed in heart and mind. . .in character. . .and changing our character leads to a change in behaviour. And changing the way we live leads to taking up the cross and following him--which involves leaving behind or letting go of or dying to our old, familiar and dearly-loved ways of believing and behaving; and to take up the cross, regardless of how inconvenient or difficult it is or wherever it takes us--because the cross is the sign and source and instrument whereby we find forgiveness and freedom and courage; where we find and receive forgiveness for our sin of trusting ourselves instead of trusting the love of God. . .and for our sin at failing to get angry at witnessing injustice and doing something about it instead of closing our eyes, plugging our ears and changing the channel; where we find and receive freedom to live trusting in the care of God instead of obscene bank profits and rising stock prices that enrich our pension plans or our personal trainers--and are thereby set free to get angry at rampant greed and selfishness which shows itself in acts of injustice by which some are robbed and left destitute while the perpetrators are rewarded with golden parachutes or multi-million dollar settlements; where we find and receive the courage needed to turn away from or tear down every false and phony god that seeks to claim our allegiance and loyalty in order to follow and trust this Jesus who calls us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.
Now, if that is what you want for yourself and from yourself and of yourself, then come to this table and this meal where the crucified and risen one gives himself to us yet again in bread and wine. . .in order to strengthen and empower us to give ourselves back to him by giving ourselves to others--and by seeking justice for others. . .and justice for all.