March 4, 2018 Sermon

Third Sunday in Lent, March 4, 2018 Lectionary B

ELIZABETH OF HUNGARY IN RICHMOND HILL, GA

The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr. Rector                                    Scripture: John 2:13-22

 

“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  Acts 4:30

 

Cleaning house

 

Let us pray.  Holy, loving Father, send now the Holy Spirit to encourage and empower us to increasingly embrace Jesus and thereby increasingly come to be like Him who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever.  Amen.

 

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” so declares the longtime news anchor Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, in the 1975 film classic Network. In the film, people everywhere throw open their windows and repeat Beale’s catchphrase with a barbaric roar. They rush to the streets in a maddening throng to air their grievances.

 

At first glance it looks as if Jesus in this morning’s gospel is having a raging, temper tantrum.  He is as mad as hell. Things are not going His way. He starts throwing things, muttering under His breath. He was human, you know.  We can empathize. We’ve been there. It has been a frustrating day and some turkey, spouse, child, or friend makes it all the worse.  We suddenly pop, maybe even throwing things, breaking a few things, slamming the wall with our fists. Sometimes we just can’t take anymore—all the stress, all the demands, all the frustration and boom, we explode.

 

Personally, I have always wondered whether the stress of it all was getting to Jesus. He was on His way to be crucified.  What could be more stressful, right?  If you have ever a major medical procedure hanging over you, never mind death, then you know the feeling—unbearably stressful. Give me something to calm my nerves for heaven’s sake. While stress might have contributed to Jesus’ outburst and rage, certainly there is more to it than mere fury.  Some have called it righteous anger.  Do not be misled by that term righteous anger.  Rarely, can we claim such a posture.  Our egos are so often involved when we get angry.  So, why was it that Jesus was so darn mad?

 

Several biblical commentators have offered their opinions.  Here’s one.  Jesus found the temple turned into a market. Is that what the church is supposed to be? Jesus said the church is his Father’s house where He is to be worshiped.

 

Here’s another. The area of the temple where this commerce was taking place was in the court of the Gentiles.  In other words, where could they worship if their area had been turned into a market place, including livestock?

And, another, Jesus cleared the temple of the moneychangers and the sacrifice sellers, but that was not to condemn us for selling tamales or cookies on parish grounds after Mass. It was to protect the rights of the poor, who are the Savior’s children.

 

And, still another, when Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the temple, he was not simply letting his human side show and blowing his top. He was actually being Christ-like in insisting that the Father be treated as holy. Likewise, we are being Christ-like as we seriously work to model our lives on Christ Jesus.

 

The default setting for many commentators these days is that of the social gospel, meaning improving the circumstances in people’s lives—their rights, their economic standing, and their inclusion. This in part is what we heard from some of these commentators. The Gentiles had been dispossessed of their worship area and the poor were preempted from worship because they could not afford it.  According to those commentators, that was why Jesus was so mad.

 

We also heard how some commentators believed that the cause of Jesus’ anger was because the buying and selling were affront to God.  “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” so we heard Jesus exclaim. The Father’s house is a place where He is to be worshiped, not where profits are made.  His house is a holy place.  All of these suggestions as to Jesus’ anger may have some credibility, but is there more?  Why had the temple been turned into a stockyard and bank in the first place?  Was this just a bunch of Jews being opportunistic or was there some Biblical basis for what they were doing?

 

Animal sacrifice was prescribed by the Law of Moses for various reasons, including atonement for sin (e.g. Exodus 29:36).  The Law said a person had to present a perfect animal, without mark or blemish. Unless that person purchased a pre-approved animal within the temple precincts, a person had to bring an offering before an inspector, who would tell whether or not it met the grade (USDA). The inspectors were in cahoots with the animal-sellers, who knew how to grease their palms with silver. Rarely did they grant approval for a sacrificial animal brought in from the outside.

 

There was something else. If a person had journeyed from one of the lands of the Jewish diaspora — Greece, Egypt, Asia Minor, even distant Rome — the coins jingling in that purse would have been imperial coins, engraved with the Emperor’s likeness. Such graven images violated the Second Commandment: “Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down to them, nor worship them” (BCP p.318). Coins with the Emperor’s likeness or any other were forbidden within the temple precincts. In order to buy yourself a sacrificial animal, you had to first exchange your Roman money for image-free Judean coins. The money changers, who had a monopoly, charged exorbitant commissions, but the poor pilgrims had no recourse. They got them coming and going, those temple merchants.

 

So, the cattle, sheep, and dove were being sold so that the worshiper might worship, including making sacrifices for sin, for peace, and thanksgiving?   Sounds a little like our own worship with the exception of animal sacrifice.  The temple sacrifice system was their way of having access to God—His love and His mercy—in other words, church.  It had become a complicated and expensive process when suddenly stage right, Jesus storms in and starts throwing a fit.  Listen again to what He did.

 

Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!’”  That whip would soon show up again, would it not?  Jesus Himself would subsequently be whipped (scourged is the word used) prior to His crucifixion, prior to be sacrificed for the sins of the world.  In other words, Jesus was the perfect sacrifice, which no cattle, sheep, or dove could approach.  He truly was without imperfection, the perfect offering.

 

Jesus may have been angry for the reasons mentioned earlier, but more than that He was clearing away the old sacrificial system, where sheep, cattle, and dove were offered, making room for the final sacrifice—Himself.  The setting, which John describes in this morning’s gospel, foreshadows this. The cattle, sheep, and dove would have been sacrificed for the coming Passover.  Verse 13 this morning said that the Passover of the Jews was near.  What was the Passover?  The answer is found in the Old Testament Book of Exodus.

 

Then Moses called for all the elders of Israel, and said to them,Go and take for yourselves lambs according to your families, and slay the Passover lamb (Exodus 12:21).  Several verses later we hear that: ‘It is a Passover sacrifice to the LORD who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes.’”  The first born of Jews were spared from death when the Passover lamb was slain and its blood applied to the door jambs of their houses.  The angel of death passed over them. The first born of the Egyptians were not spared from death.

 

A new Passover was about to be inaugurated through Jesus’ crucifixion, a onetime efficacious sacrifice.  No other sacrifice would ever be necessary to take away the sins of the world. “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” as John the Baptist proclaimed (John 1:29).

 

It is ironic, but highlights the transition to the new Passover.  Seemingly Jesus was angry because the temple, His Father’s house, has been abused and misused.  This very temple, however, would be destroyed by the Romans around 70 AD.  Why fuss over something that will no longer be there in forty years?  To further confuse the matter, at least at its telling, Jesus tells the Jews, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  Was Jesus’ anger in vain since that building would soon, relatively speaking, be destroyed?

It is, perhaps, a difficult question to answer.  Jesus’ sacrifice, His crucifixion, does away with the old sacrificial system from the Law of Moses.  No system, however, readily or willing goes down.  (We’ve never done it that way before, as the saying goes.)  Knowing this, I would suggest that Jesus’ anger had less to do with the abuse and misuse of the old system than it had to do with that old system opposing the new system (reality is more like it) that He was about to usher in—salvation through faith in Him and not through the blood and practices of the Old Testament.  We know that the old establishment of the Jews was indeed opposed to Jesus—the crucifixion being the foremost testimony to that.  Later, we read in the Book of Acts that the early church of Pentecost would be persecuted, not by the Romans, but by the Jews.

 

What then are we to make of what we have heard in today’s gospel? Does it have any relevance to us today?  Well, certainly we don’t have to bring cattle, sheep, or dove to church.  What a mess that would be!  Jesus has cleaned out that necessity.  We don’t have to sacrifice on an annual basis (that was the requirement) a cow or sheep in order to be acceptable to God.  Jesus’ sacrifice has taken care of that.  Rather, Jesus is telling us that the temple sacrifice way of relating to God is finished. There’s a new and a better way to connect with and experience God and that way is Jesus.  Because of Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross God isn’t just available in the temple or some building. God is available to us at any moment and in any place because God is spirit.

Undoubtedly, most if not all of us know that the Rev. Billy Graham recently died.  His passing has caused a number of individuals, touched by his ministry, to share their experience.  Here is some of what President George W. Bush wrote in The Wall Street Journal on February 23, of this year.

 

“Then I mentioned (to Graham),” writes Bush, “something I’d been thinking about for a while—that reading the Bible might help make me a better person. He told me about one of the Bible’s most fundamental lessons: One should strive to be better, but we’re all sinners who earn God’s love not through our good deeds, but through His grace. It was a profound concept, one I did not fully grasp that day. But Billy had planted a seed. His thoughtful explanation made the soil less hard, the brambles less thick.

 

Shortly after we got back to Texas, a package from Billy arrived. It was a copy of the Living Bible. He had inscribed it and included a reference to Philippians 1:6: “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.”

God’s work within me began in earnest with Billy’s outreach. His care and his teachings were the real beginning of my faith walk—and the start of the end of my drinking. I couldn’t have given up alcohol on my own. But in 1986, at 40, I finally found the strength to quit. That strength came from love I had felt from my earliest days and from faith I didn’t fully discover until my later years.”

 

When we invite Jesus into the temple of our hearts, He comes and cleans it out, just as President Bush testified in respect to alcohol. Think about that. How is it that Jesus does that—clean out the temples of our hearts?   Does He make a whip of cords, driving out the livestock within our lives, turning over tables, spilling coins? We could, of course, see this as metaphor.  What is it that blocks us, prevents us from worshiping or exercising our faith as we might?  Is there anything blocking us from knowing and coming into the presence of the Lord?  Maybe, we are still living under the old system of the Old Testament, thinking we have to earn our way into God’s good graces.  How does Jesus overthrow that?  The same way He did in the first place.  The motivating factor behind His fury was not anger, but love—love for you and me.  What does that look like, what does that mean?

 

You see, there is an intimacy which Jesus brings, a closeness, perhaps an uncomfortable closeness. Jesus, being present within us through the Spirit brings about closeness to God, to Him, to ourselves, and to others.  Though we might like the idea of being close to God or ourselves, maybe the prospect of being close to others puts us off.  Do I really want to be close to so and so—love them, forgive them?  It can be a tough question.  We would rather exclude certain individuals, certain people groups. Maybe we fear them, dislike them, or see them as different from us.  Most of all, it make take work on our part to allow ourselves to be close, to be intimate with them.

 

We look around our world today in horror and dismay at the violence, the abuse, the mindless killing and say to ourselves, “What can we do about this?”  The answers are always the same—legislation, background checks, psychiatric care, greater security measures, yet none of these address the fundamental problem—the human heart, our heart.  The human heart has to be fixed.  No legislation or psychiatry can fix that, but Jesus can if we allow Him.

 

This means that if we really want to change the world, then we first start with ourselves and our relationship with Jesus.  We allow Him to become intimate with us, love us, and we in turn can become intimate with others, love them.  No, it is not that simple, but it is where we start.  How are you and I treating others?  Are we being Christ-like toward them, or do we allow that selfish side of ourselves to rule the day?

 

God the Father sent Jesus to overturn that which stands between us and God, making for a holy, healing moment between us and God, leaving us no longer strangers to one another.  That is our calling as well.  We through our person and ministry are likewise to overturn that which separates people from God, others, and, yes, themselves.  We have seen how this works.  We know that a kind word or loving gesture can make a person’s day, as it has ours.

 

Our efforts might seem small in a world that is so dark and so godless until we remember the mustard seed. (Jesus) presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; 32 and this is smaller than all other seeds; but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.”  No matter how small our effort of love if it is done in the name of Jesus, there is no limit to what it can accomplish.  The love of Jesus within us can stop the heart that would bully, seek to destroy, or pull that trigger.  This is why we need to continually strive to be near Jesus. Indeed, it is this very same love, shown in the cross that overcame and defeated sin and death.

 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.