“Temple Tantrum Lessons”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis
4 March, 2018
Lent 3B
Exodus 20:1-20
John 2:13-22

I can remember an incident when, as a high school girl in a fight with my brother, I seriously feared for my safety because he was so angry.  Who knows what stupid thing we were fighting over, but punches had been thrown by each of us, and he had gone into the kitchen and taken up arms with a LeCreuset casserole lid and a butcher knife.  He was no longer in control of his sense of scope or reason—the energy of his rage had completely consumed everything else.  In that moment, I came to understand how crimes of passion take place. Just how many men and women have had their entire life changed, how many are doing years of incarcerated time, for an incident that probably took only moments to accomplish in a fit of rage.

I remember another time when that same brother (who’s generally pretty quiet and reserved) came into my dormitory lobby one night when we were both in college, and he picked me up and swung me around in a big bear hug as he laughed out loud with delight.  I was mystified; he wasn’t drunk, so I wondered what was going on.  Turned out, he had just returned from a date with his new girlfriend, and he was completely in love!

Some people would argue that love and anger are the most powerful human emotions because, of all the feelings we experience, these two seem to make otherwise sane, balanced people do things that are completely unreasonable or out of all proportion. (Remember the time when Tom Cruise, newly in love with Katie Holmes, jumped up and down on Oprah’s couch like a toddler?  Or the time when that guy with road rage nearly took out the rear end of your car?)

I’m guessing that most of us here have, at least once in our lives, found ourselves saying or doing something we regret—something out of all proportion, appropriateness, or reason—when we were angry.

I’d like to think that most of us have also found ourselves doing something completely unexpected—something that surprised even our self—something we were ultimately glad we did but might not otherwise have done, when we felt under the influence of love.  I’m not just referring to romantic love, either—there are many varieties and manifestations of love, and people do all sorts of things that seem crazy to others for the sake of that love.

There are Christians who think it’s bad to get angry. Or maybe, they just think it’s bad to express their anger.  That could be because, so often, we express our anger poorly.  We’ve felt the horror and the regret that comes from allowing our anger to get the best of us; we felt shame and remorse for the way we’ve hurt others with our angry actions.

We’ve also felt the judgment of others who’ve perhaps called us hypocrites, or questioned the integrity of our faith, or suggested that, “Good Christians are nice people; they don’t get angry.”  It’s even implied in some of the teachings we receive from our tradition—just think of that offensive verse in the Christmas carol ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ that suggests that “Christian children all must be/mild, obedient, good as he.”

Well, today’s Gospel text is a corrective for that misunderstanding, isn’t it?  Even for those of us who’ve heard it a few times, it’s still a shocking scene: Jesus wielding a whip of cords, driving out the sheep and cattle; dumping out the coin boxes of the money changers; and turning over tables!  This is no mild, obedient, nervous Jesus!  He was absolutely making trouble, creating a scene, and risking the wagging tongues of a lot of people!

Do you think it was appropriate?  What would justify that kind of display? What would motivate, or provide the energy, the passion, the zeal for that kind of behavior?

As John mentioned in his gospel account, the Jewish Passover celebration was nearing; traffic in the Temple would have been stepped up considerably, as people came to offer sacrifices of atonement in preparation for the occasion.  The place would have been mobbed with pilgrims from all over Israel and beyond—some scholars reckon as many as 300,000–400,000.

Naturally, those who were travelling from some distance would not have wanted or even been able to bring the sheep, or goat, or other animal with them that would have been appropriate for their sacrifice.  So, the Temple officers recognized both a need and an opportunity, and they set up their gift shop in the lobby.  And, because it was not allowed in the Temple to spend Roman coins for Jewish offerings, the money changers had their stalls set up, too; a sort of first-century Forex currency exchange conveniently right at the entrance to the Temple.

In principle, there was arguably nothing wrong with these things; they were providing a service that enabled the faithful pilgrims to worship in ways they’d been taught were appropriate and right.  You’d think that all those people there, coming to prepare for the services of worship and grateful remembrance of God’s faithfulness to them, would have pleased Jesus.  So, what was it that incensed the Son of God?

Our first reading was one that we’re all vaguely familiar with—we may not be able to recite all of them off the top of our head, but we’d recognize the Ten Commandments if we heard them.  The Israelites had hundreds of laws to govern their life in faith, but the ten that God gave to Moses were fundamental—these were the ones set in stone.

When a lawyer once asked Jesus what the most important Jewish law was, Jesus boiled it down to this: Love God with all you’ve got, and love your neighbor as you do yourself.  And, if you look at the Ten Commandments, you’ll see that they basically elaborate on those two core rules.

The first three (1. Do not put your faith in any other gods before me; 2. Do not worship material objects, idols, or anything that is of the world; 3. Do not use my name lightly)—all these flesh out how best to demonstrate love for God.  The fourth (keep the Sabbath day holy; take a day of rest) shows love for God, neighbor, and self.  And the last five (5. Honor your parents; 6. Don’t kill; 7. Don’t adulterate your marriage; 8. Don’t steal; 9. Don’t lie; and 10. Don’t covet what others possess)—these all refer to the ways we should be loving others, our neighbors.

Jesus, who was going to God’s house to worship and nurture his relationships with God and neighbor, became infuriated when he saw those relationships being thoroughly corrupted—and not just by people who didn’t know better, but by the leaders of the Temple!  The currency exchange was charging exorbitant fees for changing the money, and the peddlers of the various animal sacrifices were cheating the people—especially the poorest.  All four gospel accounts refer to Jesus’ rant against the bad behavior by the Temple leaders; Mark and Luke say that Jesus mentioned in particular that their practices were abusive to the widows and the poor. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” John says Jesus cried as he tore through the courtyard upending things.

At the very least, his behavior should have made the people think about what was happening in their “business as usual.”

The ones who had their tables toppled, or livestock driven out of the Temple, probably didn’t set out to deceive and abuse.  If you’d asked the money changers and livestock sellers, they probably would have said they were just trying to provide a service and be the best stewards they could be: after all, the more money they made, the more they might be able to give to the Temple.

The problem was, they were ignoring the fact that God didn’t want or need more money—that was a human rationale.  God wanted meaningful relationships: God wanted the vulnerable to be cared for; the oppressed to be represented and empowered; the enslaved to be liberated.  God wanted all of them to know love and abundant life!

Instead, what was happening in the courtyard of God’s holy Temple was the very thing that could have been found in any worldly marketplace.  The poor were made to feel insignificant and unworthy even in God’s house; how could this possibly be acceptable?!  Furthermore, the prophets had been proclaiming for generations that God did not want another animal’s life sacrificed in order to serve as some sort of compensation or restitution for the people’s unfaithfulness.

Here’s how Isaiah articulated God’s displeasure: “Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, … children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, … who are utterly estranged!  … What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats …  Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; … cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”[1]

And through Jeremiah, God asked: “Of what use to me is frankincense that comes from Sheba, or sweet cane from a distant land?  Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor are your sacrifices pleasing to me.”[2]

Even the Psalmist recognized what God was asking for, when he wrote in Psalm 51:17: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a humble spirit; a broken and contrite heart O God, you will not despise.”

In other words, the only sort of sacrifice God has ever wanted is the kind that sees us giving up our self-focused ways and behaviors, and turning our hearts and intentions toward God as our primary focus.

As we persevere on our Lenten journey, going deeper into the wilderness places within, it’s worth asking how we’re doing—individually, and collectively—at putting God’s interests first, before our own.  How are we doing at sacrificing self-interest in order to pursue God’s interests for our world, particularly in a world that doesn’t pay much heed to “Love God, love your neighbor”?

Anger is an energy and emotion—a powerful response to sensing that something is not right with the world.  It can be misplaced and misdirected, which is what happens when we indulge feelings of anger about things that merely don’t go our way, or serve our personal interests or agenda.

Divinely-fuelled anger is an emotion or energy motivated by love for God and neighbor.  It does not seek to dominate; it does not delight in making others cower; it will not oppress or victimize or falsely imprison.  Rather, holy anger seeks to liberate and restore and reform a relationship that’s gone out of whack.  When the aim of our life is to love God and neighbor, to ensure that all of God’s creation experiences love and life and healthy liberty, then anger is a God-given gift of energy to be used for restoring what’s gone off course.

What makes you feel angry?  Most of us could name several hot-button issues that get us heated.  Where do God’s commandments factor in stoking that heat?  It’s only right, as we consider our displeasure, to also weigh up how we think Jesus would respond.  What’s clear is that his response would be rooted in expressing love for God and love for neighbor, above self-interest or self-preservation.  His response is represented in the gift of the communion meal we’re preparing to share, in which we remember the ultimate sacrifice he made with his life, so that we might know the fullness, power, and relentlessness of God’s love.

As we receive the gifts of this sacred table, may our communion with God and one another defuse any unworthy anger within us, and fill us instead with a holy passion for demonstrating our love for God and all God’s children, especially those who are despised and rejected by the powerful of this world.  May we help to restore the right relationships God envisions and longs for, with zeal of our own.  Amen.

[1] Isaiah 1:4, 11, 16-17

[2] Jeremiah 5:20

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