When God is Angry
Readings: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19:7-14; 1 Corinthians 1:22-25; John 2:13-22
I must admit to being uneasy about the anger of Jesus in today’s Gospel. It is something with which I have struggled throughout this week. Generally what I struggle with is what I need to preach about. Why do I struggle with it? I guess it starts with my own issues around anger. Now I do not get angry very often, but when I do I really blow my top. And the silly thing about it is that I don’t usually get angry about important things. I usually get angry at some perceived slight. I fuss and fume about it. I toss and turn all night thinking about it, wondering what I should have said differently, how I should have handled it. And the person who slighted me often doesn’t even know I am angry.
But surely that is not what bothers me about Jesus’ anger. Imagine the scene for a moment! With the approach of Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem to the temple. The outer court of the temple was a huge area, big enough to house a few football stadiums. In this outer court – and understand this, we are not talking about the sanctuary – were crowds of people, all vying to change their money into the currency acceptable in the temple. Once changed, they went off to purchase birds or animals for sacrifice. The area was more than likely closely guarded by soldiers.
It was business as usual as Jesus entered the temple. What a commotion ensued when he took action! He made a whip of cords and used it to drive out the animals. He poured out the coins of the moneychangers, overturning tables in the process. The scene was one of total chaos.
Doesn’t it make you wonder, “What was he thinking!” The very anger of Jesus in doing what he did! What was his objection?
But once again, that is not really what troubles me. Perhaps it is about the image I have of Jesus. When it comes down to it, what bothers me is that he is acting on a very human emotion, and I think that somehow Jesus should be above all of that. Do we ever really get away from our Sunday School “Gentle Jesus meek and mild” image? We are all inclined to create Jesus in our own image, or at least in the image of what we would like Jesus to be. We may see Jesus as a mild-mannered moralizer guaranteed not to offend. We may see him as a gentle soul with long blond hair and soul searching blue eyes. And yet, if we believe that he is fully human as well as fully divine, why are we surprised at this expression of anger? Perhaps it is because it all seems so foolish.
But then as Paul points out to the people of Corinth, “The message of the cross is foolishness.” The very thought of the cross as a symbol of Christian faith confronted the values of Paul’s worldview. The claim of the Christian church was unthinkable to the Jews. They were waiting for the Messiah. They certainly did not recognize it embodied in the life of Christ. They expected a figure of power, one who would free them from the tyranny of Rome. They were looking for a king riding on a horse, not a Saviour hanging on a cross.
The Greeks too had expectations about God. They loved oratory and rhetoric. For them, God was a concept, not someone with whom you had a personal relationship. They approached God through the rational, through the philosophical. So Christ, and particularly the cross made no sense to them.
Even for us, as far removed as we are from the horror of crucifixion, the cross is foolishness. Power and authority are the way of our world. No matter how you dress it up, coat it in gold, make it a work of art, turn it into jewellery, it is foolishness… but it is God’s foolishness.
And Jesus’ action in the temple is a fine example of God’s foolishness. So we need to ask ourselves about this challenge of the status quo. What exactly is Jesus protesting?
It seems likely that his action expressed disapproval of what the temple had become. Jesus knew the law. He lived the commandments. As a Jew he understood that the commandments were about not doing violence to loyalties. He knew they were about building good relationships with other people and with God. They were about ending injustice in society. Where we accept the commandments as the basis of Western moral conduct, for the Hebrew people and for Jesus it was about creating relationships that did not exploit. God had freed them from slavery in Egypt. God gave them the freedom to figure out how the rules applied to their daily lives. God provided the promise of how they could turn around their previous life and live as God’s chosen people. Seeing exploitation taking place within the religious institution must have offended Jesus at his roots. Is he hoping to bring about a single-handed reformation of the temple? Whatever the reason, his was a deliberate and passionate act of protest that was bound to lead to trouble.
It was not a wise thing to do. Why did he not write a letter to the authorities, or talk quietly to a few of the people in private. The fact is, Jesus was thinking from God’s point of view. He was making God’s point as clearly as he could. Making that point, foolish though it may seem, was worth getting into trouble.
What foolishness it is to buy into the nonsense that Jesus, the son of a carpenter turned preacher could do any good. Yet that is what we believe as Christians.
What foolishness it is to believe that a God of love reigns over this fractured, violence-ridden world of ours. Yet it is at the heart of what we believe.
What foolishness it is to think that God cares about starving millions, the deprived, the poor, the downtrodden, the victims of society. Yet that is what we proclaim as Christians.
What foolishness it is to insist that we have a personal relationship with God, that God is in our midst caring for us, that God is personally concerned about each of us. Yet that is what keeps us going through all the difficult patches of life.
And if we really do believe in the saving act of Christ, then the real foolishness is that we are not acting on it, that we are not working to transform ourselves and our world. The suffering Jesus dying on the cross turns the tables on power. The cross becomes a symbol of love broken and poured out for all. We become bread for a hungry world.
And yet there is something else that keeps niggling at me this week. It is what happened after Jesus’ violent act. Things got even stranger. When asked to justify himself he refused. Instead he gave an explanation. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” We look back on it from our Christian perspective and interpret it as a prediction of his death and resurrection. But it must have caused some scratching of heads and wondering if Jesus was in his right mind.
The cleansing of the temple is a warning against a false sense of security, against seeing Jesus as we would see him, against that ‘comfortable pew’ sense that can lull us into a sense of complacency. Jesus did not come to make our lives comfortable. Jesus did not come to give us warm fuzzy feelings about the faith, to offer us a safe and cozy religion. Jesus came to challenge our prejudices and illusions. He came to offer us radical transformation.
So yes! There is much we could learn from Jesus and his table turning tactics, for there are many injustices at work in our society. There is much we could learn about living passionately. Are we passionate enough to challenge the systems of the Church and the world? Are we passionate enough to become advocates for the poor and for those in need? Are we passionate enough to speak out wherever there is injustice? Are we passionate enough to challenge a world where war is condoned because it is economically practical? Are we passionate enough to stand up to those who would continue to destroy God’s beautiful creation by denying the harm that we are inflicting on our ecology. Lent is surely an appropriate time to take a good look at ourselves, at our motives.
It should happen for each of us on a personal level. Lent is a time, first of all to test our own lives. What barriers and stumbling blocks to a close relationship with God have we allowed to enter our lives? How are we living out our covenant with God?
It should happen on a corporate level. What marketplaces do we make of the church of God? What abuses are made in God’s name?
And when we have examined our motives, then we need to do something to change them, to turn the tables on them. I believe passionately that armed with our Christian faith we can change the world. That may be foolishness, but if it is then I will be foolish for God. Our prayers make a difference. They can bring about healing to this fractured world. They can change our hardened hearts and help us to live as brothers and sisters.
The cross is foolishness. But it is God’s foolishness. During this Lenten season let us embrace its foolishness. Let us take up the cross and follow Jesus. Let our faith make a real difference in our lives. Amen.
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