Monday, March 26, 2018

What Are You Doing?

Palm Sunday

On the one hand, the church calendar can get a bit repetitive.  I mean, weren’t we just waving palms?  I know it was about a year ago, but it seems like we just heard this story, doesn’t it?  Sure, I think it was from a different gospel, but how many times can you learn about Jesus riding into Jerusalem?  How much can you learn from him being greeted with “hosannas”?  We already know that the people were expecting the wrong thing from him: that he was supposed to be some conquering king.  We also already know why Jesus was really there: we know the kind of king he would be and where this journey would lead.  As important as this day might be in the story of our salvation, can we say it’s new to us?  Don’t we know this story already? 

But on the other hand: the Holy Spirit is always up for a challenge.  I’ve been reading this story, at least once a year, for as far back as I can remember.  Heck, I’ve been preaching some version of this story for something like twenty years.  I’ve studied each gospel’s version.  I’ve read them in the original Greek.  I’ve read commentaries, talked to friends about it, and listened to other people’s sermons on the Palm Sunday stories.  But I’ve got to tell you: this story has never spoken to me before in the way it does today.  Maybe it’s the season of my life; maybe it’s the season our church is in; certainly it has something to do with the unexpected voice of the Spirit, but today I find this story to be surprisingly important for us. 

This is more than a parade.  This is more than, for once, Jesus getting treated as more than just a carpenter’s son.  I think—as Jesus rides into Holy Week—this is Jesus showing his followers how to follow him past it.  “Go over there and get me a colt,” Jesus says; but it’s more than just about a colt.  “Tell them the Lord needs it,” he says, and somehow that works.  This is a story about the followers of Jesus doing something weird because Jesus said to, and it winds up proclaiming the coming Kingdom of God.  This is a story about us following Jesus into this world in such a way that makes those around us say, “Hey, what are you doing?”  And that’s just the start. 

Sometimes I talk about this story as a “parade.”  I’m being figurative: it is not a parade, of course.  What happens on the Fourth of July out here in front of our church, now that is a parade.  Parades are entertainment; they are fun; ideally, they don’t have much deeper meaning other than just for our enjoyment.  What Jesus does in this story is something other than a parade.  There is symbolism here; there is a deeper meaning than just a guy entering Jerusalem.  One might call it a “march.” 

We’ve been hearing a lot about marches lately, and for a lot of reasons.  You don’t do a march like you go to a parade; you don’t go because it’s fun to march.  As far as I know, people who go to a march are not looking to buy a pie afterwards.  You will see similar things, of course, in both parades and marches: there is the shouting, there is the waving of things like signs, there are people moving from point A to point B, and of course there are the folks lining up to either cheer or to criticize.  But marches don’t fool around: there is a statement to be made to those who are meant to hear it. 

I’m not saying that a march is any better or worse than a parade or vice versa; but I would point out that a march can be more easily misunderstood.  Take, for example, the march of Jesus into Jerusalem that we read about today.  We have a better understanding of what Jesus was doing because we have the benefit of a historical perspective.  We celebrate it today, as we enter into Holy Week, because we can now see how the march and the Cross come together.  We see, centuries later, the point Jesus was making: he is showing the world that his lordship, as our one true King, comes not through power and superiority, but through humility and suffering.  But that is certainly not the message the people heard at the time. 

This week, by the way, we enter into the last week of Women’s History Month.  There is a pun in there somewhere; in that it is the month of “March.”  This month we remember those women who worked so hard to gain basic rights for all women (simple rights like voting); rights often championed through marches.  I don’t want to “mansplain” it too much, but I would simply point out that, during the women’s suffrage movement, for example, there was tremendous opposition and misunderstanding.  We look back on it now and the opposition seemed so absurd, but I would point out that there have been a lot of years and marching between then and now. 

The display that Jesus orchestrates as he enters Jerusalem was easily misunderstood, and for good reason: it was a march.  But even more than that, it was confusing because Jesus himself is sometimes confusing.  We see throughout the gospels, time and time and time again, that people are shocked, puzzled, and even angry at the things that Jesus says or does.  We chuckle sometimes at how dense the disciples seemed to be, but let’s be fair: Jesus was hard to follow sometimes, in more ways than one. 

Can you imagine being one of those two disciples that Jesus sends in our reading today?  Imagine someone you loved and respected, someone you trusted enough to obey (someone like me, for example), said to you: “Okay, here’s what I want you do: see that town up ahead?  I want you to go to that town, but before you really get into it, you’re going to find a colt tied up there that has never been ridden.  I need you to bring me that colt.”

“So, Jesus, let me get this straight: you want us to steal a horse?” 

“Not exactly.  If anyone should ask (and let’s face it, they will), just tell them, ‘The Lord needs it.’”  And off you go, with your fellow disciple, to commit what once was, in our country at least, a capital offence.  And it works!  It goes down almost exactly as Jesus said it would: they find the colt; they start to untie it; someone says, “What are you doing”; they say what Jesus said to say; and then they walk away with someone else’s horse.  It works! 

What we have here in this part of this story—the part I hadn’t really noticed before—is a perfect example of how the Kingdom of God is meant to grow.  What Jesus sends these disciples to do is exactly how church growth gets done!  Not the horse-stealing part; don’t steal horses.  It goes like this: Jesus sends his followers out to do something out of the ordinary, someone notices and says, “Hey what are you doing,” and the next thing you know, the Kingdom is growing.  Is it as simple as that?  Well, it is not simple, but yes it is.  We do it already; we may not have noticed and it probably wasn’t on purpose, but we do it all the time.  The Spirit of our Savior nudges us to do something unusual like call a friend, just because God has put them on our heart.  Or maybe the Spirit shows us that we’ve hurt someone and gives us the courage to do something strange like, say we’re sorry.  Or maybe our Savior’s Spirit gives us something remarkable, like a presence of peace and confidence, even in stressful and difficult times; and someone notices.  There are little ways every day that Jesus, in a way, says, “Hey, go get that horse.”  And when we go, we proclaim the Kingdom. 

Things like that are wonderful.  They ought to be celebrated and we ought to continue to listen to the Spirit for opportunities to “get that horse,” so to speak.  But I think we could do it even more deliberately than we do.  Through some reading I’ve been doing, I’ve been challenged to look for a specific type of person in my life.  These people take some explaining, so hear me out.  These people we are looking for are, first of all, not already members of a worshiping community.  Like I said, we’re not trying to actually steal anything.  Next, comes that little nudge from the Spirit: next the Spirit shows us something about this person that is already serving our Savior’s Kingdom. 

The best way to describe what I’m talking about is by examples: people like Pam, who runs the Pine Valley Shares program.  She has a heart for creating a deeper sense of community in the Pine Valley that sounds like Kingdom work to me.  Like my friend Lech, who runs the orchestra program in our schools.  He has a vision to care for even the least of our community’s children that sounds like the kind of thing that Jesus would approve of.  Like a woman named Misty that I haven’t even met yet; but what I’ve heard of her, she sounds like she’s working within the bounds of Christ’s Kingdom already.  Can think of other people like that in your own life.  These are people who may not be a part of a worshiping community—these people may not even realize they are serving Christ’s Kingdom—but we see it; we see what God is doing through them.  In other words, they have got a horse that Jesus needs. 

Jesus then says, “Hey disciple, go get that horse”; go be a part of what is already happening in and through that person; go and serve our Savior along side someone who may not even realize they are serving our Savior.  Go and join in what God is already doing in them and then just wait; wait for the question, because you know it’s coming.  At some point they are going to ask you, “What are you doing?”  The rest is relatively easy.  There’s no sermon; there is no alter call.  You just tell them what you see in them; what God has shown you; why you have come up along side them.  And if you’re bold enough, invite them to join the Kingdom that they’ve been working in all along. 

May we have ears to hear our Savior’s call, eyes to see what he’s been doing around us already, and hands and feet that will go wherever Jesus sends us to go.  And may we see his Kingdom growing all around us.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

You Asked for It

Fifth Sunday of Lent

      There is an elephant in this room.  It may or may not be as obvious to you, but it’s staring me in the face.  For me, it has lumbered itself right into this Scripture reading. 
      To be fair, if you had asked me a couple of weeks ago what this reading was mainly about, I would have told you the same thing: I was drawn to this reading because it had to do with welcoming the outsider.  It contains the words of Jesus proclaiming the meaning of the Cross; but they are spoken to and because of outsiders.  We know precious little about these “Greeks,” as their called.  In a moment, we’ll mention what we know, but it isn’t much.  All we really know is that they are not supposed to be there.  They are outsiders; they are foreign to these disciples, to their faith history, and even to the Gospel story so far.  Outsiders. 
      And therein lies the elephant: I cannot think about welcoming outsiders without thinking about our friend Lou Ray.  As we are discovering and will discover, Lou Ray did a lot of things around here.  And as we will also discover, we will adapt to most of those things.  The Body of Christ is vastly more resilient than we give it credit.  People already have stepped forward to do things like help me proof and fold the bulletin and clean up around the sanctuary.  I will figure out new ways to remember to do things Lou Ray used to remind me to do.  We will elect a new treasurer.  Someone else will line up liturgists and greeters.  Although we feel today that we have lost a limb, we will be okay. 
      Except that, who now will have a heart for the outsider?  We will figure out ways to adjust to all the things she did around here, but who will have her heart? Which of us will learn to even recognize the religiously disenfranchised and invite them to come and meet the living Jesus?  Who among us will take up her heart to share God’s love to those who are not us? 
      I don’t specifically know the answer to that question, other than to say, “I will.”  I will and you will too.  We will together, by our love for her, listen to the Savior she loved.  We will together hear him call us “children of light” as we seek to lead other outsiders into the light of Jesus.  We will—by the power of our Risen Savior—grow more and more into the people we have been raised by him to be.  That elephant is not going anywhere; nor should it.
      So on to these “Greeks.”  As I said: although I see them as central to this story, we don’t know much about them.  In fact, we can speak more about what we don’t know than what we do.  We don’t know how many of them there were: two, five, one hundred; who knows?  We don’t know their make-up: men, women, children, elderly.  We’re told none of that; only that “some Greeks” came to see Jesus. 
      What we do know is based on who they weren’t: as Greeks, we know they weren’t Israelites.  That may seem redundant, but John also tells us they’ve come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.  Were they gentile converts to Judaism?  John doesn’t really say, but that does seem to be the implication.  So these Greeks seem, at least, to have abandoned their own people’s pantheon of gods in favor of the One True God, revealed to Israel.  If that’s true (and again, I’m just spit-balling here), they have adopted the rigors of Jewish practices; they have come to Jerusalem (it seems) to sacrifice and celebrate Israel’s high, holy celebration of the Passover.  A celebration, I might add, that remembers someone else’s family history: the time when God delivered the children of Abraham from captivity and slavery in Egypt and brought them into the Promised Land. 
      Have you ever celebrated a major holiday in the home of someone outside of your family?  Easter is one of those celebrations, so maybe you are planning to do just that.  As a pastor, I can tell you that I have certainly done that.  As a pastor’s family, we are nearly always far from our extended family at major holidays.  At times, folks have taken notice and invited us into their family celebrations.  In turn, my family has started to take in friends in similar situations.  As one who has been on both sides of that table of hospitality, I can offer some advice: just go with it.  Just embrace whatever comes at you.  Whatever bizarre and foreign practices and traditions your host-family has, just go with it.  You will be tempted with the thought, “That’s not how my family used to do it;” but it won’t be your family.  Trust me, you will have much more fun if you just go with it; and the weirder the better.  If a wrestling match breaks out, fight your natural flight instincts, find the smallest person in the room, pin her, and make a name for yourself.  Just go with it. 
      These Greeks, at the very least, were outsiders.  Welcomed by the Jewish community, perhaps.  Tolerated, almost certainly; but they would always be from somewhere else.  They would always be from someone else’s family.  They would always be outsiders. 
      We can make an educated guess why they came to Jerusalem; but what we know even less about is why they’ve come to see Jesus.  Perhaps, as they’ve come to Jerusalem and talked with the locals, they’ve heard the stories about Jesus and they wanted to find out for themselves.  I imagine they heard the story about Jesus clearing out the cattle and money-changers from the Court of the Gentiles—their designated place of worship—and they wanted to say, “Thank you.”  Maybe, as we will remember next Sunday, they have just witnessed the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem with shouts of “hosanna,” and they want to see what this guy is about.  Again, John doesn’t say.  In fact, John doesn’t even say specifically that these Greeks even got to see Jesus. 
      All we know is what John describes: that these outsiders came to see Jesus; but knowing their outsider-place, they didn’t just go straight to Jesus.  They cannot just walk up to Jesus like a Pharisee, or a leper, or the possessed; they have to wait their turn.  So they first go to one of his disciples.  They first come to Philip, an insider to Jesus, but oddly an outsider in his own way.  John describes Philip as being from Bethsaida in Galilee.  Bethsaida, literally means “House of fishing.”  It was a small, fishing town in the backwoods part of Israel.  He was a “redneck,” there I said it.  I don’t know if these Greeks knew any of this, but as outsiders go, they went to the right disciple.  “Sir,” they say, “we wish to see Jesus.” 
      This is brilliant political maneuvering, by the way: in the Greek, the word we’re translating as “sir” is the same word we would translate as “lord.”  If you are an outsider, looking to get a comparative insider to do you a favor, you might want to at least be respectful.  But does it work?  Does Philip help them to see Jesus?  Certainly not at first.  Rather than taking them to see Jesus, Philip forms a committee.  Now, I’m a Presbyterian; no one loves a committee more than I do.  I’ll be going to Montrose tomorrow to be in one.  Committees are great, but there are some things that do not belong in committee.  Helping someone see Jesus, especially someone who asks you to show them Jesus, is a big one of those things.  Philip takes their request to his friend Andrew (a fellow redneck from Bethsaida), and together they go to Jesus; and we never hear from these Greeks again.  Or do we? 
      Once again, we’re back to all that we don’t know when it comes to this story.  There is a reading of it where what Jesus says next is meant mostly for Philip: that his new-found sense of importance as the Jesus gate-keeper has gone to his head (one person calls him “lord” and he puts himself in charge of Jesus’ appointments).  That reading, in itself, is certainly a useful lesson; the followers of Jesus do well to remember our calling is not to be “gatekeeper.”  Our calling is to show people Jesus: if nothing else, our call is to keep that gate opened wide; but more importantly, to show him throughout our lives; to give these lives over to his service, that his fruit might be born through us. 
      But there is also the distinct possibility that these Greeks actually do get to see Jesus.  There is the possibility that, when Philip and Andrew go to tell Jesus, those Greeks followed right along.  There is the distinct possibility that what Jesus says next is the very answer to their request: they wish to see Jesus, and the real Jesus is exactly what they get. 
      I like this interpretation.  I like the idea that outsiders, who come to see Jesus, get what they came for.  I especially like the implications this interpretation has for the church.  They come to see Jesus and he presents himself in all of his “glory,” as Jesus puts it: the glory of a seed that falls to the earth, seemingly dies, and then rises again to new life to bear fruit and countless other seeds.  They come to see Jesus and Jesus doesn’t play around: they asked for it and they got it.  He tells them that those who truly see him—those who would follow him—are those who carry on his same spirit.  They come to see Jesus, and whereas Philip and Andrew are reluctant, Jesus seems to open wide the gate so that they might see it all.  And then, to add an exclamation point to it all, the voice of heaven proclaims, “I have glorified [My Name], and I will glorify it again.”  They come to see Jesus and he shows them that who he is, is the one who draws all people (even Greeks) to God through himself.  They asked for it, they asked to see Jesus, and they got it. 
            As we draw nearer and nearer to that wondrous day of Easter, we are drawn to consider the Jesus we seek.  We too, once, were outsiders from the Kingdom of God, but we have seen Jesus.  We who have seen our Savior’s faithfulness through his Cross, are called to help others see him too.  As we continue to seek Jesus, may we help those around us every day to see him still, through our words and throughout our lives.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Under the Sun

Fourth Sunday of Lent

[Having sung “Without His Cross” – here's a version on YouTube to get an idea of what it’s about, if you weren’t there]
            It wasn’t until I had that song running through my head for a while this week that I realized what a serendipitous choice it was for our Scripture lessons today; not an accidental choice, but not one we made on purpose either.  This song hits at least one really important theme from our texts.  I’ll put it this way: we just sang a beautiful song about a cross.  Singing songs about crosses is one of the most surreal aspects of our faith, if you think about it.  Had Jesus come later in history, we might just as well be singing songs about “his noose” or “guillotine.”  Pretty grizzly if you think about it that way, right?  This strange and horrifying symbol, is somehow transformed by the power of God’s love; even to the point that we can fashion its image into beautiful physical artwork; even to the point that we can write and perform uplifting songs about crosses.  By the power of God’s love, we can say with confidence that, “Without His cross, there is no crown.” 
            On the one hand, the coming together of this song and our Scripture lessons, tells me that God is obviously saying something to us.  Perhaps it is the reminder that this symbol of pain and death is transformed by the power of God, because pain and death themselves are transformed by the power of God.  But at least, and perhaps more to our point today: we are drawn to consider what it means to look to the Cross.  As this song and our Scripture lessons today remind us, the Cross is where our eyes belong, but the Cross is not the source of our salvation, any more that a bronze snake on a pole was what saved the Israelites.  No, it is only the power of God at work in Jesus.  We keep our eyes on the Cross, not because it’s magical, but because that is where our Savior went.  We keep our eyes on the Cross because that is how he brought us salvation.  But mostly, we keep our eyes on the Cross because that is the kind of love he still calls us to show. 
            I’m trying to keep this sermon simple, but it’s not a simple sermon.  I will do my best, but I may have bit off more than I can chew.  Some of you like to look for a connection between the Scriptures and the sermon title.  This may be one of those Sundays where what I thought the message would be about when I titled it and where it wound up are not the same thing.  Which is kind of funny because our Gospel lesson contains John 3:16.  It seems I should be able to just recite that verse a few times and call it a sermon, right?  “For God so loved the world…  Does everyone have that memorized?  Great!  Let’s go to brunch.”  But there is so much more going on here; some of which we might want to learn about too. 
            For example, there is this man named Nicodemus who shows up in our Gospel lesson.  We should probably keep in mind that Jesus speaks the words of John 3:16 in a specific context to a specific person.  Nicodemus is mentioned three times in the Gospel of John.  Not a central character, but important.  The first mention comes here—and we’ll talk a bit more about this visit in a moment—but first just a mention of the other two: the second comes about midway in the Gospel, when the religious leaders are starting to seriously think about executing Jesus.  It’s Nicodemus who reminds them that the “law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing.”  Finally, after the Crucifixion, it’s Nicodemus, along with Joseph of Arimathea, who prepares Jesus’ body for burial. 
            One would not call Nicodemus a proper disciple of Jesus, but neither would one call him an enemy either.  This is especially surprising when we also learn that Nicodemus was a Pharisee and considered a leader among the religious leaders.  In other words, he is not someone we would expect to help give Jesus a respectful burial; he’s not someone we’d expect to try to hit the brakes on his persecution; he’s not someone we’d expect to come to Jesus with earnest questions about the things that Jesus has been saying and doing.  But here in our Gospel lesson today, that is exactly what Nicodemus is doing. 
            To be fair, he does it under the cover of night.  He may be eager to hear the Truth of God, but he does have appearances to keep up; he doesn’t want to be seen doing it.  When Jesus, at the end of our Gospel reading, talks about light and darkness, he might be making fun of Nicodemus a little bit.  Maybe challenging him to live his faith out in the open; maybe come visit Jesus during business hours; when the sun is up.  But at least we can say that Nicodemus seems like a genuine person of faith.  He’s exactly the kind of person we ought to be looking for in our lives as we seek to grow the Church: people who are clearly being led by God and who are trying to live faithful lives; people who clearly want to know the Truth; but people who may not yet really know Jesus. 
            Which is not to say that Nicodemus doesn’t know anything; he doesn’t yet truly know Jesus, but he knows plenty.  In fact, Nicodemus had knowledge of Scripture and of Israel’s history that would have surpassed most people.  Which is probably why Jesus pulls out an illustration that most people wouldn’t have understood.  We know John 3:16; we know about the story of Exodus out of Egypt; but we may not be as familiar with the story that seems to link the two; and this is a story we should know.  Which is why I included it as a Scripture lesson today. 
            This story about the snakes from Numbers, comes at the end of a series of what are called “murmuring stories”.  These stories set up an overall theme for their journey.  From essentially the very beginning, the people complained about almost everything.  I’m not much of a camper, so I get it: I know how I’d feel about being out under the wilderness sun, not really knowing if the guide knew where he was going, and at the mercy of the bugs, critters, and wild animals who lived out there.  I would hope I wouldn’t complain about it as much, but I know how I’d feel.  Hopefully, I wouldn’t complain as much because hopefully I would also notice the ways God provided along the way: in the deliverance from slavery in Egypt; in the food called manna that just fell to the ground every morning; by the occasional quail supper that came about the same way; by water from rocks; and from the pillars of smoke or fire that lead them along the way.  I would hope, given the obvious ways that God provided, I would at least be able to keep my gripes to myself; but who knows.  For most of us, that is easier said than done. 
            But like I said, this story comes at the end of a series of murmuring stories: like this was the last straw for God.  God keeps providing, but the people keep on grumbling.  Everyone wants to feel appreciated, even God, it seems.  It is as if God finally says, “Okay, you don’t appreciate all the good things I provide.  Fine, I’ll provide you with some poisonous snakes.  How do you feel about that?” 
            Here we find, what I think, is a perfect metaphor for the human condition: God has made for us this wondrous creation, set in this vast and unimaginable universe, full of delights and beauty; and we are not satisfied, we want more.  We are never satisfied!  It is the very nature of sin, that we take the good we find from creation and in one another and we neglect and abuse it.  We take from God’s good gifts and we distort and misuse them.   
            And to a point, God leaves us to our own devices.  Notice what happens in our reading from Numbers: the people realize the pain they’ve brought upon themselves and pray that God will take that pain away.  They pray that God will take back the serpents, but God does not.  We pray weekly that God will heal our world: to bring an end to violence, hatred, warfare, disease, and greed; but God rarely ever does.  We see the occasional exception—the power of God still shows up—but the evil persists.  Jesus did not come into the world to bring an immediate end to our pain; anyone telling otherwise is selling something.  No, Jesus came into the world because God so loved it; so that we would have a way to survive it.  Rather than taking back the snakes, God gives the people a focal point above the snakes to get them past it. 
            It’s a little like the time a local priest and a Presbyterian minister were standing by the side of the road holding up a sign that read, "The end is near! Turn yourself around now before it's too late!"
            As a car drove by, the driver yelled, "Leave us alone, you religious weirdos!"
            Moments later, from around the curve, they heard a tremendous splash.
            The pastor looked at the priest and said, "Maybe our sign should have read, ‘bridge out.’"
            Yes, God leaves us to the consequences of our sin, but God doesn’t just leave us to our own devices.  God also leaves us with signs to the way past them.  Jesus tells Nicodemus that, just like that bronze snake that Moses lifted up in the wilderness—just like that object that the Israelites had to put their trust in—those who put believe in the one who is to be lifted up will also be saved.  Now we see a lot in that statement that Nicodemus didn’t.  We see the way that Jesus, the Son of Man, was lifted up on the cross and we see the way that he was lifted up again from the grave.  Nicodemus would just have to wait a little while to see this for himself. 
            But the more important point is this: Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Son of Man is being lifted up so that God’s light can shine.  Although we might want the consequences of our bad choices to be taken away, God give us something better—and through us, God gives the world something better: a reason not to be afraid.  God even takes that thing we fear the most, even death, and shapes it in Jesus so that we might see instead God’s love, eternal life, and even the end of fear.  When we fix our eyes upon that lifted Christ—when we put our trust in his saving power—we see just how God so loved the world.  May we be refreshed in that love today and may we also lift it up for the world to see in all we do and say.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Busy Bodies

3rd Sunday of Lent

      My older kids and I went to see Black Panther after church last Sunday.  I have to confess: it was one of those movies that I enjoyed so much, I want to make every sermon illustration a Black Panther reference.  I won’t; I know you’re not always into the same things I am.  So I won’t but I will say this: there is a part of the film where the hero is down, and even though you’re not sure how he’s going to do it, the hero stands up.  I don’t think that’s a spoiler.  Every movie with a hero in it since at least the old westerns has had that moment where the hero finally stands up.  Whether it’s Clark Kent loosening his tie so Superman can show up or it’s Rocky Balboa literally getting up so he can heroically get punched in the face some more.  These movies all have that moment where the hero stands up. 
      I wonder if we read this Bible story as a moment like that.  Mild-mannered Jesus—our hero, but usually just keeps his fighting to words—is finally standing up to take care of business.  Finally he is standing up to the hypocrisy of the religious leaders; finally he’s standing up to those who would make a profit off of the needs of the faithful; finally he’s standing up for those on the outside who have no voice of their own. 
      In a way, I think that is exactly what Jesus is doing, especially as the other Gospel writers tell it.  Maybe not so much in Gospel of John.  I mean, first of all: in John, Jesus isn’t “finally” doing anything; this is just chapter two.  But also, in the Gospel of John, this is the thing that sets his crucifixion in motion.  More than standing up to the religious establishment, Jesus seems to be setting himself up to be knocked down; all the way down; down to the Cross; down to the grave.  And here’s a spoiler alert for you: he stands back up. 
      So as I’ve already implied, this story about Jesus causing a ruckus in the Temple is one of those unique stories that is told in all four of our Gospels.  Clearly, this story is important both historically, in the telling of Jesus’ story, but also theologically as we seek to understand what this story tells us about Jesus.  The problem is, as I’ve also implied, that point varies from Gospel to Gospel.  For example, in the Gospel of Mark (where this story is told much later on), Jesus seems to be reacting to price gouging and the exploitation of the gentiles.  But in John, Jesus seems to be protecting the sanctity of the Temple; as though conducting commerce is beneath the dignity of the Temple courts.  Jesus says, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
      The great thing about this story is that we can cheer Jesus on in it, right?  I mean, he’s not yelling at us this time, right?  We’re not selling sacrificial livestock in here; we’re not making change in here; we don’t even put up boundaries where some people can go and others can’t, everybody is welcome everywhere.  This story is about someone else, right?  You tell ‘em, Jesus!  Which is not to say that I don’t feel for them; for the religious leaders.  In fact, if I think about it a bit, I have to admit that in a similar situation I might have done the same thing. 
      Notice, John tells us at the start that this happens right before Passover; that’s an important thing to note because that would have made the Temple a very busy place.  This was their big day; as big as Easter is for us, their big day was Passover.  The Temple would be jumping.  The faithful from all over the known world would cram into Jerusalem and make their way to the Temple.  People would be there that you might only see once, maybe twice a year.  I don’t know about you, but I get a little excited on days like that; when this place is packed; I get excited about the prospect of this place being packed.  I say things like, “Park a little farther away so visitors can find a spot.  Maybe sit over here in the annex so visitors can better see what’s going on.” 
      When I take a step back, I understand what they were doing; and I have to say, I can’t say I blame them.  People are coming from all over, they can’t be expected to bring their sacrificial animals all the way from Asia Minor, and Europe, and Africa.  “We can make it as convenient for you as possible: we have sheep, just buy one when you get here.  By the way, your Roman currency with the Emperor’s face on it; that’s idolatrous so you can’t use it in the Temple.  But we’ve got you covered there too!  The money changers over here will take good care of you.  And we won’t talk about sin.  And of course child care is provided.  And, oh look, there’s a Starbucks right here in the Temple.” 
      You can almost hear the Temple leaders admit that they knew they’d gone too far.  After Jesus makes a ruckus, they don’t ask him, “Why did you do that?”  They know.  They ask him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”  They understand why; they just want to know where he gets the nerve to call them on it. 
      I get it: I get excited too.  The prospect of a growing, vibrant, busy, active church excites me; and I know I’m not the only one.  There were a whole bunch of us here last Saturday.  These are exciting times for us and rightfully so.  The Spirit has filled us with dreams, and energy, and plans and it’s wonderful.  We are going places and we are primed to be a busy church.  This is exciting; this is us striving to be faithful to God’s call.  But I’m a Presbyterian; I’m one of the few Presbyterians in this church, as it turns out.  Our job is to tap the brakes sometimes; that’s what committees are for.  We want to move forward, but we don’t want to spin out of control either.  As a church, we are listening to God’s call, we are moving in exciting directions, and my only caution is: in our excitement, let’s not start anything that would make Jesus chase us around with a whip.  And to help us with this, Jesus gives us an image of what it means to be his church: that we are his Body. 
      They ask Jesus for a sign and, un-surprisingly, he says something surprising: he says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” As a church that is celebrating its 120th birthday this year, this might rightfully make us nervous; but he’s not talking about the building, is he?  He’s talking about his body, but he’s talking about it in the same way one would speak about the Temple. 
      When I hear Jesus talk like this, the first thing I’m struck by is how
often we do the opposite.  When we speak of the church, our temple, we usually mean the building.  I tell my family that I’m heading off to church and they know what I mean; I mean I’m heading to my office.  They stand at the window and wave, knowing that I can be found somewhere in this building if they need me.  But Jesus means a person: Jesus is our Temple, and his church are the people that make up this Body of Christ. 
      With that in mind, let’s look again at what it is that makes Jesus so fighting mad: what so angers Jesus—angry enough to chase animals and people with a whip—is that they are abusing that Body; their own Body; the Temple of the Lord.  In their excitement, they compromised their spiritual health.  They substituted what was good for them with what was easy.  Rather than seeking what God wanted for them, they settled with what served their needs. 
      Here at this Table, we are shown a better way.  here we are called to be the very Temple of our Lord, the very Body of Christ.  Here we are reminded that this church does not belong to us because this church is made up of the bodies that Christ has redeemed.  Here we are shaped by his example of self-giving love; an example that seeks the good of all, and not just what is easy; an example that seeks not to be served, but to serve; an example of a love that lays down its life for the sake of the world in the hope that the power of God will indeed raise it up again. 
      I was telling my friend Stan the other day that, what excites me the most about the things going on around here, is that it hasn’t been about us.  There may have been a time when our conversations were about membership declines and financial concerns, but somewhere along the line something changed in us.  Lately, as we talk about our church, we talk in terms of being the Body Christ intends for us to be.  We talk about meeting more just our immediate needs, but our community’s desperate need for a Savior.  We look at who we are as a church, and without discouragement or fear, we envision what God might do through us to bring salvation to this world. 
            Let us continue to strive to be the very Body of Christ in this world; and may we keep our Savior’s example of love and sacrifice always before us.