Rev. Sarah Buteux

March 8, 2015

Lent 3, Year B

John 2:13-22 I Corinthians 1:18-25

 

“Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” 1 Corinthians 1:22-25

 

When people act out of character, especially famous people, the rest of us have a tendency to sit up and take notice.

 

When a public official like David Petraeus is caught having an affair, when a celebrity couple who seemed so in love split up, when Madonna falls down, Kanye stays seated, or J Lo where’s a turtle neck at an awards ceremony, we’re shocked.

 

We’re shocked because we never imagined that such a thing could happen, at least not to that person in particular.

 

Their reputations have already preceded them, after all, and so we think we know them. We think we know what to expect, and yet here they’ve gone and proved us wrong…shockingly wrong. So wrong, in fact, that these events, more often then not, make the news.

 

We view them, in spite of ourselves, with a certain level of fascination. Not a justified level of fascination mind you, but with fascination all the same.

 

I think this is why most everyone, whether they know a lot about the Bible or not, is familiar with the story of Jesus “cleansing the temple.” Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, Jesus the poster boy for patience and long-suffering, Jesus our heavenly Lord and savior… totally loses it in our reading for this morning.

 

He goes all 50 shades of cray cray and fashions a whip – a whip! – out of cords, driving out the sheep and the cows meant for sacrifice in the temple.

 

He overturns the tables of the moneychangers like some hooligan in a bar room brawl.

 

He gets right up in the faces of the merchants selling doves and tells them to “Take these things out of here!”

 

His behavior is not only over the top but uncharacteristic. Had E! Entertainment News, Huff Po, or CNN existed back in the day, you can be sure that Jesus would have been juicy fodder for days. Gifs of angry Jesus would have flooded the internet.

 

Bloggers and talking heads would have devoted hours to dissecting his every word and action, in large part because his words and actions would have seemed so completely uncalled for.

 

After all, the money changers and the merchants were only doing their job: providing people with the proper coins for temple commerce (coins without Caesar’s image on them) and unblemished animals for sacrifice so people could go and get their sins forgiven.

 

“Where’s the harm in that?” people would have wondered, and truth be told people are still wondering, even to this day, just what it was that got Jesus so upset.

 

Some commentators believe Jesus was disgusted by the mere fact that people were mixing faith and money, the sacred and the profane, making a business out of religion. (Thank God we don’t do that anymore, right? Kidding).

 

Others believe he was angry at all the price gouging that was going on, as these men were making a hefty profit by overcharging pilgrims, especially the poor ones, for their services. Perhaps Jesus had watched his family go hungry in the past to pay for such sacrifices. Perhaps he was aware of children about to go hungry right now. It is hard to say.

 

But I can tell you what I think. I think what sent him into such a fury was the very idea that God’s forgiveness had somehow, along the way, become something people thought they could to buy in the first place- that God’s grace had somehow gone up for sale.

 

Jesus wanted people to know that God’s grace was free and open to all for all time, no exceptions.

 

In fact, the whole cult of sacrifice had been put in place long ago to function as a tangible symbol of that grace, a symbol of the truth that God longs for us to be in right relationship with God, that God’s most fervent desire is to sit down at table with us- no matter how far away we have strayed- and renew the covenant with us that God first made with our Father Abraham.

 

But somehow the whole temple system, rather than glorying in God’s grace, had become an institution adept at obfuscating it and capitalizing on the sins and fears of the Jewish people.

 

God’s unrelenting and untamed love for his chosen ones had somehow become reduced to a commodity, a commodity the religious hierarchy felt it had both the right and the power to mediate out, manage, and control… and that, at least in my mind, is what made Jesus so angry.

 

But what I find so interesting about John’s account of this story is how calm and calculated the response of those in power was when Jesus engaged in this outburst; at least in this gospel. In the other three gospels this event comes right at the end of Jesus’ life and it is seen as the straw that broke the camel’s back.

 

Jesus cleansing of the temple is what finally leads the Jewish leaders to activate their plot to bring him down and turn him over to the Roman authorities. His anger makes them angry. His righteous fury brings out their own.

 

But here in this gospel, in the gospel of John, Jesus causes this huge scene right at the beginning of his ministry, and the response of the Jewish leaders is markedly different. Rather than storm in and try to arrest him, or send for the men in white coats, they ask Jesus for a sign.

 

They give him a chance to prove himself, prove that he has the authority to wreak this kind of havoc and cast these sorts of judgments upon their religious practice. Honestly, I think they are more intrigued than offended at this stage. Jesus’ actions in the temple were so audacious that I believe they might very well have wondered in that moment if this man might not be the messiah.

 

After all, anyone with that combination of ill contained fury and righteous indignation would have had possibilities. He might very well have been the one they had been waiting for: the one with the strength to foment an uprising and lead a revolution.

 

So they ask him for a sign and he delivers… sort of. He says: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” but they do not understand. They think he’s talking about the physical temple, and that’s just as well, because even if they had understood that Jesus was referring to his body, they never would have accepted this as a sign that he was the messiah.

 

Because, you see, rule number one for the messiah was that he would not be destroyed. It was the one non-negotiable in the job description. The messiah was supposed to triumph over. He was not allowed to go under. A dead messiah was no messiah, which is precisely why Jesus’ words upset Peter so deeply in our reading from last week.

 

Do you remember?

 

When Jesus began to talk about how he must go to Jerusalem and be captured, imprisoned, tortured, and killed, Peter totally freaked out, because, you see, if there was one thing the messiah could not do and still be considered the messiah it was get himself captured, imprisoned, tortured and killed

[1]. A dead messiah was no messiah.

 

And yet that seems to have been Jesus’ plan from the very beginning. His every move seems to have been calculated to provoke those in power in such a way that they would finally hand him over to be tried and crucified.

 

He may have been the messiah, but he was not going to play the role according to anyone’s expectations but his own. It’s almost as if he came among us determined to fail, determined to get himself torn down, determined to bring out our very worst.

 

But why? What could he possibly have been trying to accomplish? Why was he so hell bent on his own destruction? What was he trying to prove up on that cross, and are we any more open to his signs and his wisdom than those who rejected him outright all those many years ago?

 

I don’t know. That’s right, I don’t actually know the answer to any of those questions, at least not entirely. I have spent my life trying to understand why Jesus died on the cross, and I’ve only ever gotten so far. Let me tell you, the more you think about it… and I mean really think about it… the more confounding it all becomes.

 

Paul is absolutely right when he says that the message of the cross is foolishness in the eyes of the world. Preaching Christ crucified made no more sense back then, then it does right now; no sense at all.

 

But I can tell you this: people who claim to understand what Jesus was up to; people who claim they understand what the cross is all about… I think they are fooling themselves. They must be. I hear people all the time try to explain the cross in ways that make sense… but they don’t… because it doesn’t.

 

Take the most popular understanding, for example, the one known as penal substitutionary atonement. According to this theory the cross is a symbol of God’s justice, a retributive justice bent on righting all that has been wronged.

 

People who subscribe to this line of thinking believe that Jesus bore the punishment that you and I and the rest of this sinful world deserved in order to satisfy the wrath and righteousness of God.

 

According to this logic – and there is a logic to it – God needed someone to suffer the consequences of our evil, God needed someone to pay for the damage our sins have caused, and so God sent his only son into the world as a man and Jesus took the fall.

 

Jesus suffered the punishment God ought to have leveled upon us. God had to hit somebody – it was only fair – so God hit Jesus. God’s righteousness required recompense and Jesus, thanks be to God, was both willing and able to pay the debt we owed.

 

I’ve always found that line of thinking to be suspect, precisely because it does make sense; a perverse, awful, repugnant sort of sense, but still … sense.

 

And I know there are shades of truth in it and plenty of scriptures that can be teased out to support it, but at the end of the day I just can’t accept it as the full story because ultimately, when you break it down, it seems to me that it commits the very same offense that got Jesus so mad to begin with in our story today. That is, it makes a commodity out of the grace of God.

 

It gives us the sense that God’s love and acceptance are not only something that can be bought but something that ultimately must be bought.

 

According to that line of thinking, Jesus paid the debt we couldn’t pay. Jesus took the hit so we wouldn’t have to. And I say no. That simply can’t be right, not just because of what it says about God, but because of what it says about grace.

 

I think the cross stands as God’s ultimate sign that that simply isn’t true, the ultimate proof that you can hit God as hard as you want, you can hit God with your very worst, you can hit God with everything you have, and God will never hit back.

 

If Jesus’ death on the cross demonstrates anything, it is that we can betray him, deny him, abandon him, crucify him, leave him for dead in a stone cold tomb and yet…even so….he will still come back for us with love, grace, peace, and forgiveness aflame in his heart.

 

The cross is the ultimate symbol, the ultimate sign, of new kind of justice, a different kind of justice -not retributive justice where everyone gets what they deserve, but a restorative justice where God, in all God’s power and righteousness, gets the world God deserves.

 

It is a justice that acknowledges the wrongs that have been committed, the relationships that have been broken, the harm that has been done, but refuses to let sin and brokenness have the last word.

 

It is a justice that reaches across the divide in spite of all our sin with forgiveness; a forgiveness that is not earned or deserved but freely given in the eternal hope that something good and true might still be born.

 

In plain English, it’s not that God doesn’t care about what you’ve done, it’s simply that God will always care about you more. God will never give up on you. God will always be ready to start again.

 

Does that make sense? No. Not by any earthly standards.

Do we deserve such grace? Hardly.

Can we earn it? Absolutely not.

 

But is it true?

YES!

 

Yes. Given my experience every time I close my eyes and open my hard little heart to God, I do believe it is! For when I do, I know that I am known, utterly and completely known, every thought, every whim, every desire – and it’s not always pretty in here – but God loves me still… just as I am, without one plea… God loves me and would die for me all over again if that is what it would take to convince me.

 

No, it doesn’t make sense. It makes no sense at all that this messiah, this Christ who was called Jesus, this being that could have had anything, done anything, forced any outcome he desired, would leave behind all the power that comes with being God, all the privilege he could have claimed as the messiah “take on human form, humble himself and become obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2).

 

But he did.

 

He did it for you and he did it for me.

 

But above all else, he did it for love.

 

Dear ones, all our best attempts at understanding may shatter in the presence of the cross, but what remains when all is said and done, after all our theories and fears have crumbled to the floor is a love that will not let us go; a foolish love…

no doubt about it…

a love foolish in the extreme…

foolish as can be…

thanks be to God.

 

Amen

[1] thanks To Brian McLaren for pointing this out on page 112 of Everything Must Change