March 11th, 2012

If you looked at the insert today, you will have noticed that there is a photocopy of a picture. I hope I haven’t infringed copyright by using it in this way, but since it was free to grab on the internet, I figured it would be all right. The original of this picture was painted by Warner Sallman, and it shows a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus – probably the image that most of us have grown up with. According to Sallman’s home page, this particular image has been reproduced more than 500 million times, which is pretty amazing. There are other images of Jesus with which we are also familiar. Think of him holding a lamb in his arms, with other lambs and sheep standing around him. See him blessing the children. See him in the garden at Gethsemane, praying alone while waiting to be betrayed. In all of these images, the best word to describe Jesus is: serene. One of the first prayers I learned as a child started: Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, and that gave me a specific image of the man Jesus. But if these are the only images we have as Jesus, then it is no wonder that the story told today in John’s Gospel would cause us to sit up and take notice.
Picture it for a minute. This is the courtyard of the temple in Jerusalem. This is the past of the temple which is open to everyone, Jew or Gentile, male or female, and at this time of the year – close to the feast of the Passover, it would be very crowded, indeed. A few years ago, I went to an outdoor presentation near Montreal called “A Walk To Bethlehem”. Members of the church’s congregation played characters who were somehow involved in Jesus’ life – from the angels announcing his birth to the soldiers crucifying him. One of the scenes was supposed to be the courtyard, and there were all kinds of people there, selling all kinds of things. With every step, we – the spectators – were besieged by people who wanted us to buy their wares, which ranged from breads to produce to live animals, which could be used for sacrifice. There were also money changers there, and we had to give them the coins we had been given upon entering the place so that we could get what they called “temple money”. It was loud, and confusing, but very effective, as it gave us a vivid picture of what it must have been like over 2000 years ago, when Jesus acted so out of character.
Now you are in the courtyard of the temple. You hear the people yelling, bargaining. You see, every devout Jew was required to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem – at least once, and if possible, at the time of Passover. In those days, of course, animal sacrifice was an accepted part of religious life, as it had been in the days of the ancient Israelites. However, in those very early days, just about everyone was some kind of farmer, so it was no problem having live animals available for sacrifice. But by the time Jesus came along, more and more Jews were city dwellers, and I would imagine that most landlords would have frowned on them keeping cattle or goats or lambs or even doves in their apartments. So there were entrepreneurs who saw this tradition of sacrifice as a way to make a relatively easy living.
Also, the sacrificial animals had to be purchased with a specific kind of money, known as a sanctuary shekel, money which was only used in the temple. And the only way to get that money was to buy it from the money changers. Then, as now, there was a charge for changing money, and you can be sure that many of the money changers cheated the people on a regular basis.
This story about Jesus in the temple appears in all of the gospels, which is unusual in itself. As you know, John’s Gospel is different from the others, in that it is not a chronological account of Jesus’ life, but rather snippets and short stories about various events. According to the other three Gospels – known collectively as the synoptic Gospels – this happened near the end of Jesus’ ministry, just before he was betrayed. John, however, places it right at the beginning, right after the first miracle, when Jesus changed water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana. But the fact that all four Gospels contain the story is enough to convince me that this cleansing of the temple did really happen.
What was happening in the courtyard that day was the same thing which happened on a regular basis there – whenever visitors came to town, and wanted to visit the temple, it was convenient for them to be able to do everything in one place. It’s like my brother, who arranges mortgages for people. In his building, he has a law firm and a real estate agency, and describes his business as: one-stop house shopping. And you know, on the face of it, there was nothing wrong with what was happening. The vendors and money changers were providing a service, but the service had gone wrong. Think for a minute about a teenager’s bedroom. Scary thought, for many of us. I remember shutting the doors on my children’s bedrooms – and not always quietly – so that I wouldn’t have to see the mess. But a messy room doesn’t just appear. It doesn’t happen overnight. In actual fact, messes build up slowly over time. We don’t notice a bit of dust here, a pile of papers there, a pair of socks that didn’t make it to the hamper, until gradually we are oblivious to the mess that is quite evident to others. The longer we live with a mess, the easier it becomes to live with it. The longer we live with a mess, the more difficult it is to do the housecleaning. And the Jews had been living with their “mess” for so long that they didn’t even see it any more. If you have ever watched the TV show Hoarders, you will know that a MESS can eventually overwhelm you, and possibly destroy you. In the same way, Jesus was that the temple system ended up destroying worship and reverence towards God. In the same way, Calvin and Knox and Luther and the other great reformers saw that the church system under which they worked was destroying reverence towards God.
So Jesus walks into the courtyard, and then all hell breaks loose. He makes a whip, we are told, out of some cords, and dashed into the middle of the animals which were for sale, setting them free. Not only that, he attacked the sellers of the animals, and turned over the tables of the money changers, all the while screaming at them. Not a gentle Jesus today; not a serene Jesus; not the tamed, domesticated Saviour we usually see, but a wrathful one, one filled with righteous anger. And that is the difference between his anger and most of ours.
Usually, when we get angry, it is different from the anger Jesus felt that day. His was a righteous anger, good anger, healthy anger. Abraham Lincoln angry at slavery. Martin Luther King, Jr. angry at racial discrimination. as righteous anger. Nelson Mandela was angry at apartheid in South Africa. Mother Theresa as the treatment of the untouchables in India. Calvin and Knox and Luther at the corruption they saw in the church. That was righteous anger. And we can feel it, too. When we see a bully beating up on a young kid, when we see a thief stealing an old woman’s purse, when we see a group of girls being catty and mean to another girl at recess, when a husband beats up his wife. The list goes on and on. The Lord God has wired us in such a way that most healthy human beings are angry inside when we see evil and injustice being done to someone. And Jesus saw evil in the temple, in the place people went to worship God. And he was filled with righteous anger.
We refer to what he did as “cleansing the temple”, which in itself is an interesting expression. And, interestingly, if the vendors had paid closer attention to the law which Moses brought to their ancestors, this need not have happened. At this time, let us take a closer look at the law, as brought down from the mountain, carved on the stone tablets, and let’s see if we are true keepers of the law. Because, you know, the ten commandments were not JUST given to the ancient Israelites. They were not meant to be ignored, just because Jesus came. Remember, he said: I have come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. True, he condensed the ten into two when he was asked what a person must do to win eternal life. He explained it thus: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and Love your neighbour as yourself. And the ten commandments are actually contained in just these two, if you look at them carefully. There are commandments referring to God, and there are commandments referring to people. In both cases, they talk about our relationship – our relationship with God, and our relationship with each other. And, rather than being meant to catch us doing wrong, they are meant as a guide to living the kind of life God wants us to live. As such, they really work, on several levels. First of all, they direct us towards the way we should live together, as followers of Jesus Christ, as believers in God. And secondly, they help us see ourselves honestly, as Luther said, as “sinners in need of God’s grace.”
And most of us figure that we follow the ten commandments, for the most part. Let’s run down the commandments, and see how well we stack up.
First, the one about having no other gods. Well, I think that I am OK there. I don’t pray to Baal or Jupiter or any of the host of other gods worshiped by other civilizations.
Second, not making graven images. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a golden calf, let alone made one, so that’s another one crossed off my list.
Not taking the Lord’s name in vain. Well, I have been known to use expletives on occasion, but never intentionally, so I am hedging my bets on that one.
Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Here we are, doing just that. Aren’t we good?
So these are the laws that pertain to God. How have you done so far? Let’s take a look at the others.
Honour your father and your mother. Sadly, mine are both dead, but when they were living, I honoured them, and now I honour their memories.
You shall not kill. As long as mosquitoes don’t count, I should be fine on that score.
You shall not steal. To the best of my recollection, the only time I stole was a quarter out of my mother’s purse when I was about 6 years old. I was too afraid to spend it, because I knew that the shopkeeper would realize that I had taken it. So I threw it into a field of grass where I suppose it still is.
You shall not bear false witness. Granted, sometimes, lying might be the easiest way out of a situation, but my memory isn’t good enough to allow me to lie. I think that I would forget which story I told which person, so it is just easier to tell the truth.
You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour. I think I’m in the clear on that one, too.
But. . . . You KNEW that there was a BUT, didn’t you? This whole other god thing – If I am honest, there are often other things which get more of my attention than God does. I wonder if that qualifies as having OTHER gods?
Graven images? I wonder if that could mean those things in my house which we really value – like paintings or Lego creations? If so, we could be in trouble.
Maybe taking the Lord’s name doesn’t refer only to what some people call “cussing”. Maybe it refers to using the whole idea of religion for reasons other than it was meant. Maybe it means using religion to control or punish people. I still haven’t done that, as far as I know, but some people do.
Honouring the Sabbath could mean a whole lot more than coming to worship on Sunday morning. It could –and should – mean taking the time, no matter how busy we say we are, to let God into every aspect of our lives. And wouldn’t that be amazing?
Honouring our parents could be extrapolated to honouring those in authority, to co-operating with those placed in leadership roles in my life. And I wonder if that is something we always do?
At least I am sure that I haven’t killed anyone – yet. But how often have I sat silently when unjust killings have happened? It is so easy just to sign a petition, and yet, there are many times when I just don’t bother.
Adultery? Who remembers Jimmy Carter’s famous comment about lusting in his heart? And who among us has not looked at an attractive person with appreciation?
I felt really good about the not stealing commandment, until I read what St. Augustine wrote: Anything you have more than you need is stolen from the poor. Whoops!.
I don’t lie, I can assure you of that. However, like most of you, I can remember events in such a way that I am put in a more attractive light. I believe that is called being a spin doctor and I think that we are all guilty of this.
Well, I guess that I am not as good a follower of the commandments as I thought. But I definitely NEVER coveted my neighbour’s donkey. That much I can promise you. The law IS a good guide, but most of us are not able to follow it. No matter how hard we try, no matter how many promises we make, we are not perfect, and will never be perfect – not in THIS life.
But, this season of Lent is a perfect time for us to examine our lives, and our hearts, and then to repent and return to God. In our Gospel, Jesus chased the money lenders and vendors out of the temple to cleanse it, and we can now chase the things out of our lives which don’t belong there, so that we will be cleansed.
Paul said that, as Christians, we preach Christ crucified, and if we remember that, then we will know that we have been given God’s grace freely. For it is at the cross that our need and God’s love come together. During Lent, we are reminded of that, and we know that the one resulted in the other. Thanks be to God.

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