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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Lent 3/8/2015

I’m not a big fan of most of the Jesus movies that show up periodically. They have their place, don’t get me wrong; they can be helpful in telling some of the stories about Jesus, in fact when I was 12 or 13 I remember being quite moved when Aunt Ruth took me and my brother to one of the big old movie theatres in downtown Boston to see “The Greatest Story Ever Told” starring Max von Sydow as Jesus along with an all star cast. At the time it definitely had an impact on me.

What bothers me about such movies though, is that, for the most part, Jesus comes across as being pretty boring and I can’t imagine that he was boring; if he was he wouldn’t have attracted any kind of a following. In the movies though, he tends to be pretty emotionless, moving through the events of his life with kind of a glazed but knowing look about him. Even in the trial and crucifixion scenes Jesus remains pretty cool and calm and in control and to be fair to those who make the movies, that is how John’s gospel portrays Jesus in the Passion story; the others don’t but John does. In all the gospels though, the one major exception to Jesus’ lack of emotion is the scene we get today of Jesus going to the temple, tipping over tables with coins spilling everywhere as he takes a whip and drives the money changers out of there. Finally we get a Jesus who can get upset, a Jesus who has emotions, a Jesus more like us.

This is a scene that shows up in all the gospels, in John it’s close to the beginning instead of close to the end as it is in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but being included in all the gospels indicates that this was deemed to be a significant event. You have to think that it was more than just an opportunity to show that Jesus had real emotions.

So what was going on in the cleansing of the temple story? Why was Jesus so upset? After all, the money changers and others in the temple courtyard were providing a service. There was a temple tax and it had to be paid in temple money, so money changers were necessary. If you came to Jerusalem from a distance, bringing animals for the appointed sacrifices would be difficult so to make things easier, they were for sale once you got there. All of this was just part of the normal operation of the temple.

One suspects though, that it had gotten out of control so that those involved had made it more about business and making money than about proper worship. Maybe people were just going through the motions having lost sight of why they were doing what they were doing so it was all just empty ritual. Remember too that the temple in Jerusalem was the temple, the only one, and it was the symbolic center and expression of all that was true and good and beautiful in that society; it was the dwelling place of the Lord. There were other synagogues around, other places where people could gather for prayer and scripture reading and study, but there was only one temple and at some point faithful Jews were expected to get there for the major festivals.

What Jesus found as he looked around the temple was a distortion of what the temple was supposed to be, a distortion of what was true and good and beautiful. Things had been cheapened and trivialized. It was a distortion of proper worship of the Lord, and that’s what Jesus reacted against. For us, that could represent an opportunity to think about how things can get distorted in our church life because it does happen. It happens when activities other than worship become the main focus of what we do. Those other activities can be good things, important things like service and fellowship but worship in the name of Jesus is the one thing the church does that separates it from civic clubs and service organizations. Distortion occurs when the church just becomes another service organization and Jesus gets left behind.

There’s a much longer discussion we could have about that, and it’s a discussion worth having, but the lectionary tends to lead us in a different direction. Today, this cleansing of the temple story is paired with the Ten Commandments in the first lesson. At first glance the two lessons don’t exactly seem like they have a theme that connects them, but maybe that’s because of our tendency to view the commandments primarily as moral rules, do’s and don’ts, mostly don’ts and it’s hard to avoid that with the “Thou shalt nots” that begin several of them. The commandments do represent moral instruction, the trouble is, if that’s all they are, the context and background of why they were given gets lost and losing that they can just become fuel for holier than thou culture wars.

I came across kind of a humorous thing about how in some places, in order to show how “religious” they are communities fight to have the Ten Commandments displayed in public buildings like courthouses and city halls. Apparently some people go so far as to have their own front yard display of the two stone tablets but then they can be seen cutting the grass around the display on Sunday afternoon in clear violation of #3, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” I guess for Ten Commandments militants some commandments are more important than others.

Connected as they are to today’s gospel lesson and the distortion Jesus found in the temple, the commandments, rather than simply being moral rules are better understood as markers against living distorted lives, cautions about what happens when something other than God becomes the center of life.

The commandments were given to Moses and the people of Israel as an alternative to the distortion of life in Egypt under Pharaoh, a life of oppression and production, bricks and more bricks. The commandments set up an alternative vision, which was God’s vision of a community who would live according to the will and purposes of God which means a community whose life would be centered on God.

As they prepared to move into the Promised Land, the Lord reminded people of their calling to be different but it wasn’t difference intended to make them feel like they were better than everyone else. It was so they could have life and have it abundantly, without the kinds of distortion they had experienced in Egypt. A means and a path to abundant life was, is and always will be the best way to approach the commandments. It’s also the best way to approach the calling and life of the church. Imagine the church as a community called to live according to the Ten Commandments as an alternative to the many ways that life gets distorted.

It is a different vision and also a difficult one because try as we might, our vision can’t help but be shaped and influenced and clouded by the prevailing wisdom and power of the world around us, much of which is very appealing to us. It’s another thing about which Paul had insights, insights he gets at in today’s reading from Corinthians as he contrasts the wisdom of this world with the foolishness of the cross.

It’s another of Paul’s arguments that requires more than a casual reading but what he gets at is his understanding that the cross of Christ represents the beginning of a new age. According to the wisdom of this world that makes no sense as from outward appearances the cross represents a crushing defeat and judging it as anything else is utter foolishness.

But Paul, similar to the prophets and other visionaries of the Old Testament, was able to imagine a different reality in which the cross and resurrection of Jesus began the process of making all things new contrary to what anyone would have expected. It was a difficult vision for many to believe and accept and it still is, dependent as it is on faith and imagination. The evidence of the world still says that this is foolishness but, as Paul says, “To us it is the power of God.” It was God doing a new thing but obviously we’re not there yet in completing the process of making all things new; all we have is Paul’s vision of a new reality in which Jesus has transformed earthly death so that each of us will join him in resurrection life.

Meanwhile, we live in between the vision and the fulfillment, in between the already of Jesus and the not yet of resurrection life in the kingdom of God fully revealed. But in and through Jesus, we know how the story ends and so we live in hope and expectation. In hope and expectation we are that alternative community trying to live according to those ancient commandments in opposition to the distortions of life.

We don’t always do it well. There have to be times when Jesus wants to come into our distorted lives and upset the furniture in order to get our attention. But that’s another reason for Lent when as individuals and as a community we’re honest about the distortions and we join with Jesus in challenging them.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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