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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Lent 03/11/2012

If you’re like me, your first image of Jesus was probably one of these, or something like it.  Sallman’s Head of Christ, the blond haired, blue eyed Scandinavian Jesus has been reproduced 500 million times by one estimate.  Pictures of Jesus as the Good Shepherd looking after his helpless sheep are almost as common.  In both of them Jesus is safe and gentle and comforting, utterly harmless, wouldn’t hurt anyone, which is why you might have had one of these in your bedroom or your Sunday School classroom when you were a kid, why you might still have a picture like this somewhere in the house. 

There’s nothing wrong with either one of them; they are safe and gentle and comforting; beloved images of Jesus.  But this Jesus would never have done what he did in today’s gospel lesson, dumping money out of the cash registers, tipping over tables, making a whip and driving people and their animals out of the temple, yelling at them to get out of here.  It’s not Jesus, meek and mild, that’s for sure.  You picture the disciples steering clear of Jesus for awhile after this, not sure what exactly was going on, but not wanting to be next in the line of fire; let Jesus cool off for awhile.

Part of their confusion would have been the fact that those people Jesus drove out of the temple weren’t thought to be doing anything wrong.  They were just part of the system, the sacrificial system that was part of temple worship.  The problem was that it was hard for people coming from a distance to bring their own animals to sacrifice so provision was made for them to buy the necessary sheep and goats and doves and so forth once they got there.  That’s what the merchants were doing.  The money changers were there to facilitate the payment of the temple tax which was another requirement.   So just what was Jesus so upset about?

A question that sometimes gets asked is, “Why was Jesus crucified?”  We know that he was and after the fact there is lots of interpretation about what his death signified, most significantly that somehow his death was for us; that it was for the forgiveness of our sins.  That’s a foundational part of Christian belief.  But this Jesus, the meek and mild good shepherd would not have been crucified.  Nobody would have bothered him.  Probably nobody would remember him.

For Jesus to be crucified, he had to be perceived as a threat to someone.  There are books written about this and I’m not going to try and go too far into it, but the general consensus is that it was some combination of the political authorities and the religious authorities that wound up conspiring against Jesus.  The event that was thought to trigger the process was the cleansing of the temple.  At first it would seem that the political authorities wouldn’t have cared too much about that, a little maybe as a disturbance of the peace and because religion and politics do tend to get mixed up; but still, you would think that it would have been the religious establishment that would be most bothered by Jesus’ action.  They were, but there’s more to the story.

The temple was supposed to represent all that was right and good, the place where the very glory of God was present.  What Jesus saw though, was a distortion of all that.  Greed had entered into the system.  Someone figured out that there was money to be made in the sale of those offerings along with the administration of the temple tax and the whole thing had become corrupt.  The faithful kept coming to make the yearly sacrifices though, and that ensured that the money kept flowing.   

In other words, the temple and its pilgrims were part of the economy of Jerusalem just like snowmobilers are part of the economy here; we need snowmobilers, Jerusalem needed pilgrims.  The temple transactions were crucial to the economic well being of the city.  Because of that, it didn’t take much for the religious folks to get the political leaders involved citing Jesus as a threat to their economic well being.  We’re not the first society to be concerned about such things.  With his cleansing of the temple, Jesus was perceived an economic threat.  The religious leaders called him a blasphemer and they convinced the political leaders that he was a rebel, a would be king, but it was probably more about the economy than anything.  Isn’t it always?

Most scholars cite this episode as the rallying point for the forces hostile to Jesus.  With this event he moved beyond words, words that were powerful but also often rather subtle.  By failing to answer most questions directly, it was hard to pin Jesus down, but with this it wasn’t just words, he’d taken action, disruptive, rather violent action from which they could build a case, and they did. 

So that’s a little history for the middle of Lent, but it’s the distortion of what Jesus saw going on in the temple that we should pay attention to.  Clearly what he observed was contrary to what he thought should be going on there.  The ways of the world had crept in and had taken priority so that the sense of holiness was gone, the sense of the sacred was gone, the sense of God’s glory being present was gone and Jesus reacted to that. 

It’s tempting for me to take this text and use it to take pot shots at the trendy churches that I think have sold their soul, selling coffee in the narthex and having a gift shop down the hall, things like that, or at pastors who get rich from their books and radio and TV deals.  Certainly there is a degree of distortion in all that.  I came across a quote by Richard Halverson who used to be the chaplain of the US Senate.  He said, “Christianity began in Palestine as a movement of people who had relationships with Jesus Christ.  Then it moved to Greece where it became a philosophy.  Then it moved to Rome where it became an institution.  Then it moved to Europe where it became a culture.  Finally it moved to the United States where it became a business.”

One can be self-righteously critical about these things and this text is a good one to use if you want to do that.  But I do think there is more going on here.  This particular act of Jesus was very dramatic and it was very public; but Jesus always reacted to what he saw as distortions in the world; he responded to illness; he responded to injustice; he responded to barriers that separated people and he responded to what he saw as the corruption of the temple, all of them distortions of one kind or another.   

The business in the temple did seem to hit particularly close to home for Jesus, but in some ways it was just another healing, another exorcism, another cleansing in response to things not being what they should be.  This one was different in that it was, at least symbolically, an institutional healing of a broken system, but still an extension of other acts of healing that he had done.  Jesus was always about mending that which he found broken in the world.

The pairing of this gospel lesson with the 10 Commandments of the first reading at first seems unusual.  The “thou shalt nots” that most of us learned and associate with the commandments tend to reduce them to being a bunch of bad things we’re not supposed to do.  Understood correctly though, the commandments represent God’s safe boundaries for his people.  They aren’t just a bunch of prohibitions but are rules for living that provide protection from the various distortions of life, at least the distortions having to with how we live with God and with each other, distortions that bothered Jesus. 

Of course the first commandment about having no other gods is at the heart of all the commandments.  It’s number one for a reason.  When we talk about he commandments in confirmation I tell the kids I’m not all that concerned that they know the proper sequence except for the first one.  I want them to know that number one is number one because when God is removed from the center of life, that distortion puts the rest of life at risk of being distorted.  That’s what had happened in the temple; making money had become the priority, worshiping God was second.  The sense of holiness was lost as the temple became a money making machine and Jesus reacted. 

Placed in the middle of Lent, this story does serve to move us toward Holy Week.  Jesus is revealed as more than the meek, mild Good Shepherd.  He’s ready to take on even the established and sanctioned systems that distort the world.  For those who perpetuated and profited from those systems though, he must be stopped and so the plot thickens.

But of course, Jesus can’t be stopped.  They think they stopped him on Good Friday, but Sunday proved them wrong.  Some look at the decline in the church in our time and think that Jesus has been stopped, but the Sunday proclamation of Easter hope will always prove them wrong.  Jesus can’t be stopped because he lives and his power is at work in us and in the world fighting against the distortions even when the distortions seem to be winning. For us, Lenten repentance is about confronting the distortions present in our own life and in the world and doing more than shrugging our shoulders in resignation.  With Jesus we’ve envisioned the future with the distortions gone.  In Jesus we’ve seen the future and so we never lose hope. 

Don’t be fooled by the gentle face of the Good Shepherd.  There’s power behind the gentleness, power that can’t be stopped.  As St. Paul said, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing; but to us who are being saved, it’s the power of God.”

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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