A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs on John 2:13-22
Lent came quickly this year, didn’t it? Hard on the heels of Christmas. But for some people that I spoke with before Ash Wednesday, it couldn’t come quickly enough. They may not have been mentally or logistically ready, but they were spiritually ready; for a season of reflection, prayer, and repentance. When the world comes to be too much with us it can be a genuine relief to step back, breathe, and relieve our hearts’ burdens by laying them down, opening them up, and naming them. That’s the beginning of repentance. It can be hard work to look deeply and critically at where we have missed the mark, but having done so we have a chance for a new start. And it’s easier to make a new start when we’re not carrying so much baggage.
So to that end, three weeks ago we began the annual journey of relearning who we are as Christians and whose we are as children of God. On Ash Wednesday, after receiving the ashes as a mark of our creatureliness and our mortality, we said the Litany of Penitence (which I commend to you for reading and prayer—p. 267 of the Book of Common Prayer.)
The Litany of Penitence is a confession, yes, but it’s more detailed than our General Confession. It gets specific about our sins, and I do mean Our. It is really important to read the Litany in the dual context of our selves as individuals and ourselves institutionally and culturally. This is when we turn our gaze not only to what have we done—or not done– but also to those sins in which we are complicit. It can be a searing examination:
We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us… Have mercy on us, Lord.
We confess— Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people, Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work. Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty,
Have mercy. We confess. Accept our repentance. We are called to own up to our failings and to accept God’s invitation to do better. The Litany of Penitence makes viscerally real the harm that we have done to God’s people and to God’s creation. But the purpose is not to make us wallow in guilt. It is to make us pay attention. And change. That is what true repentance is—it is a returning, a realigning, a reconnecting.
Okay so far. But here’s where we can be drawn up short:
Restore us, good Lord, and let your anger depart from us;
Favorably hear us, for your mercy is great.
“Let your anger depart from us.”
I confess that I have struggled here. I have stood in this pulpit, and in that chapel, in KidZone upstairs and sat at the coffee shop in Wayland Square proclaiming a loving, merciful, creative and compassionate God, yet, here it is; a God whose anger seems to need to be appeased in order for me to obtain mercy. How do we absorb this? How do we reconcile these competing images?
“In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
How do you un-see an angry Jesus? You can’t. Or perhaps it’s better to say, you shouldn’t.
Many of us—most of us, probably– prefer an image of Jesus’ face filled with love, wisdom, and compassion. The vision of Jesus’ visage instead suffused with anger, even outrage, wielding a whip of cords—this is hard to face, particularly for those who might have experienced anger directed negatively; in a way that is abusive, controlling, and manipulative. For these people, an angry Jesus is especially difficult to un-see, or to see in anything but negative, un-hopeful, light.
It is important, though, to remember that, just as love has many definitions—romantic love, agape love, parental love– so does anger. And if we are to engage this morning’s Gospel constructively we need trust that the anger of Jesus here is not controlling or abusive, born of his insecurity or fear. This is the protective anger of a parent who sees a child darting into traffic, yelling, “Stop!!!” This is righteous anger; an anger born of a need and desire to bring into alignment something that has gone off track—the kind of anger that can catalyze change. The kind of anger that can make people stop and listen.
So no, you can’t un-see an angry Jesus. But you can stop. And listen to him. You can try to see what he sees. According to New Testament scholar Raymond Brown, one of the motifs John uses in this passage is a framework of replacement:
“’Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ … he was speaking of the temple of his body.”
In positing Jesus as a replacement for the Temple, the author of John’s Gospel was alluding to the alienation of his community from the synagogue, and their need to reinterpret Jewish institutions from a Christian perspective. Here Jesus was redefining what was holy for God’s people. He was saying that the Temple authorities had forgotten who they were by effectively allowing commercial interests to be the driving force behind the worship of God. People could not have access to worship if they did not have the right currency with which to purchase animals to sacrifice—doves for the poorest and livestock for the wealthiest. No money, no sacrifice. No sacrifice, no worship. And this was a crucial issue. The Temple authorities had become gatekeepers, focused more on what could keep people out rather than what should invite them in. They had forgotten the essence of their identity—People of God who, before all else, were called into exclusive relationship with their Creator and Liberator: “I am the Lord your God…you shall not make for yourselves any idol…” The idol had become money. The idol had become access and control. And Jesus was calling them out.
Jesus was calling them to remember who they were. And in remembering their identity they were invited to see where holiness truly lay. Not in the stones of the Temple but in Jesus himself. The temple of his Body.
Think for a minute about Incarnation. The Incarnation—the embodiment– of the Christ in the human form of Jesus is an expression of God’s creative love for us; showing us how precious we are, and not just us, but all of Creation, which has been called the first Incarnation. Creation is holy. Creation is sacred—loved into being at the very beginning. And when Jesus stood in the Temple and declared that he was the Temple—tear this temple down and I will raise it up in three days—he was saying a couple of things. First, he was saying that God resides in the Temple of his body—a prime example of the High Christology that marks this Gospel. And he was also saying that not just his Body was holy, but all that God has created and called beloved is holy as well. Jesus may be the ‘big I’ Incarnation, but ‘little i’ incarnation is all of us, and it is no less holy, sacred and beloved.
So Jesus was grieved—righteously angry that the people had forgotten what was holy, and he challenged them to remember who they were and whose they were.
To repent is to turn. As we look into the face of an angry Jesus we are called, not to face him and fear him but to turn and to stand with him. With him and in him. To see what he sees. To see where we have gone off track, or where, like a cherished child, we’ve run into traffic, headed for disaster. He calls us to stop! To turn and see through his eyes the many, many beloved creatures of God that we do not see—that we do not truly see– for how precious they are.
The Litany again invites us:
Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done:…for our blindness to human need and suffering… For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us, For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us…
Accept our repentance, O Lord. Help us to see what you see, through your eyes—the eyes of love. Accomplish in us the work of healing, wholeness, and reconciliation, that we may show forth your hope, your compassion, and your glory in the world. Amen.