Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Temple

Texts: Micah 5:7-15; John 2:13-22

The courtyard is hardly a calm scene when he enters. Oxen, sheep, and birds of all kinds of feathers are making their barnyard noises – and their barnyard smells. The noise of construction echoes off the walls of the courtyard. Of the hundreds of thousands of people that may travel to the Temple during this holy time, perhaps several thousands are there now. Roman soldiers trying to keep the peace, pilgrims from across the lands—Jews and even God-fearing Gentiles speaking in all kinds of different tongues, merchants and moneychangers crying out “come see my goods, I’ve got the lowest prices, get it now while stocks still last.”

Into this already chaotic space, Jesus enters and manages to stir up even greater pandemonium. He’s flinging over tables, chucking money around, MacGyvering a whip to chase the animals out. Even those who do not understand his language understand the gesture of his actions. He is does not approve of what Jewish historian Josephus calls the “bazaar of the high-priest.”

“Stop,” he cries out. “Stop making my father’s house a market-place.”

The Jesus that enters the courtyard surrounding the Temple is not-too-pleased with what he sees; he’s down right angry. What exactly has set him off, we can’t be sure. Perhaps he’s angry that pilgrims will have to pay good chunks of their hard-earned wages for an animal to sacrifice. Perhaps the merchants and money-lenders are exploiting the needs of the people—an unblemished animal—and the limited availability of places to purchase those needs (kind of like the exorbitant cost of a coke at an amusement park).

Or perhaps Jesus is angry with the system itself. Angry that faithful people have been told they need to pay money just to be near God – after all, the Temple is understood to be the house of God and no one can get to the Temple without paying the temple tax.

Whatever is making Jesus’ angry, we know that this angry display is Jesus’ first public act in the Gospel according to John. He has visited with John the Baptist, quietly turned water into wine, and now this. By placing this story at the beginning of his gospel, the writer of John lets us know from the get-go that this Jesus isn’t just about healing, teaching, and changing water into wine. This Jesus is here to make waves, cause a stir, re-order how things work around here.

This Jesus is one we don’t talk about all that much. We’re much more comfortable with the “let the little children come to me” Jesus, the “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing” Jesus. This dramatic outburst is seemingly uncharacteristic of the Jesus who heals and teaches and has continuing patience with his followers – the “get behind me Satan” exchange we heard about last Sunday notwithstanding.

But if Jesus is indeed the full self-revelation of God, the fullness of God come among us—as we confess—then of course he gets angry. There’s a formula we here over and over in the Old Testament (and in fact we heard as part of our declaration of pardon last Sunday) – “the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

This statement of faith repeated throughout our sacred texts is beautiful in its simple truth. God is all of those things – including slow to anger. But though it may take awhile, God does still get angry. Our scripture from Micah reminds us of that.

What makes God angry? The prophet Micah saw nothing but violence, deceit, worshiping of false Gods – from both the people of Judah and the other nations and spoke of God’s anger. While each indecent of God’s anger has a specific cause - it basically boils down to this: God becomes angry when people do not love God as we should – whether with our worship, our words, our actions.

Practice injustices against the poor and the oppressed – God’s gonna get angry; Worship idols (Ba’al, a golden calf, success, money) over God – God’s gonna get angry; Sit idly by when people need to be fed, sheltered, loved – God’s gonna get angry.

I would certainly understand if right now you’re shifting uncomfortably in your seats. Many of us contemporary Christians are uneasy with thinking about an angry God. Perhaps it’s because we’ve heard too many people speak about that angry God in such a way that it cannot be reconciled with the loving God we are comfortable with. A God who is forever angry at the people, a God who is so close to bringing down wrath, fire, and brimstone.

Perhaps we’re so uncomfortable with anger and God because we’ve seen so many unhealthy and distorted examples of anger. This past week alone in the news we’ve had too many stories of people taking out their anger in the worst ways - they pick up guns and end innocent lives with no thought beyond their own pain, their own desire to inflict wrath or punishment on the world.

That selfish, uncontrolled anger is not God’s anger. No matter how dire God’s anger may seem, it is not constant anger nor is it the anger of uncontrolled rage. God’s anger is just one aspect of the divine – an aspect that is infused with grace, mercy, and love. This anger is an anger that comes from love—that steadfast love we so easily speak about—not hate or pain. God’s anger is always righteous anger: anger that is not reactionary but stems from people being repetitively unfaithful. Anger that may bring about punishment—yes—but always leaves a remnant; always leaves hope; always leaves a chance to grow, change, repent. Anger that in this season of Lent we may particularly appreciate calls us to turn back to God and God’s ways.

God’s anger as we see in Jesus Christ is not about pain or getting even: it’s about righteous change. In Jesus we see that God’s anger is about clearing out the unjust ways to make a path for justice.

It’s important to appreciate and understand this aspect of God not just so we understand God more fully, but so we understand ourselves and our own call. We are made in the image of God. Anger is a part of us even as it is a part of God. Of course, in our sinful states, we often misuse that anger for selfish purposes; let pain guide our anger instead of love. But just as we strive to love as God would love, speak as God would speak, serve as God would serve, we can strive to be angry as God would be angry. We can strive be informed by that anger and answer the call to turn over a few tables ourselves.

There is certainly danger here – danger in become self-righteous instead of righteous; danger in appropriating the things that upset us and make them the things that upset God. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells us to go ahead and be angry, but not to sin . That balance can be hard to achieve.

This is why we have one another, why we have the scriptures, why we have the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If we as the body of Christ strive to known only God’s anger, then this anger will: take time to build, stem from love and not hate, be one that acknowledges our own faults, seek to cleanse not condemn, and ultimately strive to bring about justice for all God’s people. Anger can be a dangerous thing but it can also be a very useful thing. Anger keeps us from being complacent. It is a spark that helps us know something isn’t right and we have to act.

There are some things I dare say we at Covenant are already feeling angry about. It’s not just out of charity that we work at food banks, service in soup kitchens, plant and harvest potatoes for those in need. We do these things because something stirs us to action; because we see the injustice of a world where some people have more than their fill while others starve, we see this and we want to turn over some tables.

This spark of anger towards injustice can drive us to do even more. When Jesus enters the Temple, he clears out individual money-lenders and merchants, but he isn’t here for just these particular individuals. Jesus is concerned with the whole Temple system. When he speaks about the Temple, those around him believe he is speaking about the building they see. Instead, Jesus is speaking about his body, a new Temple and with it a new way of thinking about God, a new way of worshiping: a new, more just way. Jesus’ righteous anger leads him to speak and act out against both the symptoms—the merchants and moneychangers—and the cause of injustice—a religious institution that demands money and costly sacrifices for access to God’s presence. At the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus is letting all know—even if they don’t yet understand—that his kingdom is coming.

This spark of anger towards injustice drives us to serve; it also drives us to speak out and stand out. Speak out against the policies and politics that keep some fed and others hungry; speak out against the consumption of the few to the detriment of the many; stand out as those trouble makers who just can’t leave well enough alone because we know a world in which each day, over 26,000 children under the age of 5 die from preventable diseases, with malnutrition contributing to at least half of those deaths, that this world is not “well” at all.

As the body of Christ we strive to look at the world through the God’s eyes. See beauty in what the world calls ugly. See hope where the world proclaims only despair. See someone worthy of love in one the world says to hate. We also see injustice where the world proclaims fairness. See chains where the world assures us all are free. We see tables that need to be overturned where the world sees a chance to profit.

As the body of Christ, we speak out when others won’t, stand up when others can’t, stop denying the things that make God angry and answer when we are called by God to act. We write letters, we call our congresspersons, we reorient our own choices toward God’s justice. Stirred by God’s righteous anger, we reach out to this broken world, offering new ways of living and being, offering new hope and possibility, offering the love of the God we know in Christ, the God who is gracious and merciful, is slow to anger and is abounding in steadfast love. Amen.

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