Sunday, March 4, 2018
Third Sunday in Lent

Prayer of the Day
Holy God, through your Son you have called us to live faithfully and act courageously. Keep us steadfast in your covenant of grace, and teach us the wisdom that comes only through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Readings and Psalm
Exodus 20:1-17 The commandments are given at Sinai
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25 Christ crucified, the wisdom of God
John 2:13-22 The cleansing of the temple

Sermon
Title:  Keeping God in Our Confrontations

If there is one story about Jesus, recorded in the gospels that makes many people most uncomfortable, it is this scene of Jesus in the temple.  Sometimes referred to as Jesus Cleansing the Temple.  In it we see Jesus more angry and more violent than in any other story.  The man who is always speaking of peace, and forgiveness, the man who shows mercy without hesitation and has compassion on whole crowds of people is presented to us here as a man who gets angry, like us.  Who lashes out, like us.  Who, perhaps, is susceptible to losing it, like us.  We want our savior to be above our flaws and shortcomings, don’t we?  We want him to show us the high road, to show us a way of being that will lift us out of our wretched humanness, so that we might find peace and contentment.  Has he sunk to our level here?  If so, why follow him?

Now just a bit of context setting.  While in the other the three gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – the ones we call the synoptic Gospels because all three follow a similar story line the puts the events of Jesus’ life into a fairly clear and chronologically-based narrative; while in those three tellings, this troubling story of Jesus’ angry outburst in the temple follows on or soon after the day we call Palm Sunday – when Jesus makes his triumphant entry into Jerusalem and all the crowds sing songs of praise.  (We will mark this event three weeks from today at the beginning of Holy Week.)  But John is different with his gospel’s witness.  He is not as concerned with a chain of events that tell the story of this man’s life and ministry.  He is all about signs.  How do the events and the words spoken explain who  Jesus is as the messiah, the anointed one, the Word of God made flesh?  (As John puts it himself in those beautiful first verses of his writing.)

And so, the context of this sign on the landscape of the whole picture that John paints is really fascinating.  In fact, I had never really paid too much attention to this before.  John records this uncomfortable confrontation of Jesus immediately after the wedding in Cana.  Yes, that wedding.  When he changed the water into wine.  So, at the beginning of John, chapter 2, we hear of Jesus’ first miracle, performed in the midst of the exuberant joy of a wedding feast, performed so that the merriment and festivities might continue, performed as a sign of God’s eternal wedding banquet at which the Son brings into God’s family all creation that is redeemed and renewed.  And then the very next story, the next sign that John sets before us is Jesus the angry one, the disrupter, and the destroyer.  What a contrast.  What a contradiction.  And then again, maybe not.

Jesus’ actions at the wedding were a sign that God wants our joy to be complete, that God desires the best for us, that God desires to be in committed, trusting, intimate relationship with us just as a couple share all this that brings them to a wedding.  To put it in very un-Lenten terms – Jesus’ sign of turning water into wine at the wedding feast communicates to us that God wants the party to keep going strong.

Could there be any connection to these actions of party providing and merriment maintaining with the cleansing of the temple that appears to be breaking up the party being enjoyed by the money changers and sacrifice sellers.  (Quick historical note:  Roman money was not allowed to be used on temple grounds for buying sacrificial animals or paying the temple tax.  Money changers would exchange the coin of the empire for the coin of the temple.  And, of course, as money changers like Thomas Cook and others always do, they took a commission.)  So, while Jesus may be breaking up the party enjoyed by the marketplace merchants who are profiting on people’s faithfulness to sacred law and their tradition, his confrontation is seeking to break down barriers between faithful people and their access to God.  Once again, like at the wedding in Cana he provides a sign that he has come to restore the relationship between God and God’s creation – no barriers, no practices, no deficiencies will stand in the way.  As God says at the beginning of what we call the 10 commandments, heard as our first reading, God wants to be our God.  The commandments that follow this are for the living into the fullness of this gift of life that God desires for us – the cherished children.  Jesus came to break down all barriers – even death.

Okay, so that might explain the joining of these two contrasting stories from the 2nd Chapter of John.  But what does it do to satisfy this facing our fear series that you were promised?  How does deal with facing our fear of confrontation?  Well, it should be noted and clearly observed that it has taken me this long to approach this promised topic.  This itself is a sign – I have my own fear of confrontation that I am constantly dealing with.  As demonstrated in the last seven minutes of speak, I avoid it.

However, as we gather this morning, Divine Wisdom is not letting me off the hook, for in this past week I have been facing one of the most challenging confrontations of my first nine years of ordained ministry.  I don’t want to get bogged down in the details; for our purposes this morning it would not be helpful.  Suffice to say – the new Lutheran seminary created out of the merger of the seminaries that have been in Gettysburg and Philadelphia, the new institution being called United Lutheran Seminary is facing a crisis.  The new president’s past has come forward and her former involvement with and leadership of a conservative Presbyterian group that encouraged conversation therapy for LGBTQ+ people has proved very troubling for some of us.  And, as is always the case, the questions of who knew what and when are being asked.

But as I have walked and continue to walk through this, challenging myself in preparation for today to confront my own fears of confrontation, I am learning and, I hope, I am growing.

First and foremost, thinking on Jesus’ signs of wine and fury noted in John 2 that point to his passion that we be connected to God with no obstacles or shortages, I am taking every step through this confrontation with prayer. Just like the suffering we explored last week, reminding ourselves that we do not go it alone, so it is with our confrontations, we are not alone, nor should we try to go it alone. Constant awareness of God’s presence, embracing God’s mercy that we are called to reflect just as it is shown to us, and striving to engage God’s wisdom as we make decisions enables us to face these challenges as disciples of Christ and not warriors of this world.

Character assassination, gossip mongering, dividing up into sides, vilifying the other – these are the ways we see the world facing conflict and engaging in confrontation.  And boy are we seeing a lot of it these days.  These are our actions when we let our fear rule the day.  We are called to “fear not” and to walk in faith.  When we do this, everything changes, even the way we face our confrontations and our conflicts.

We do not attack the other, we pray for them.  We do not seek revenge, we strive for justice. We do not engage in gossip, we seek truth and understanding.  We do not divide into us and them, we sit and listen to those we might learn from.  As St. Paul writes, the world calls this foolishness, but this is the wisdom of God, and we know it as truth. For in the end (which wasn’t the end) Jesus allowed this temple-centered power structure to try their best to win the day, so that God’s strength might be revealed and prevail for the world’s sake.

As Jesus displays in his temple tirade, we cannot be afraid of speaking truth to power, especially when power becomes an obstacle to people living in the peace and joy of God’s gift of life.  Whether they be refugees, asylum seekers, or immigrants.  Whether they be of a different race, different gender, or different religious group.

While Jesus’ visit to the temple may not offer us an example of how to act in the face of conflict and confrontation, he does offer us the motivation to share in – acting from the centering truth that God is our God of grace, mercy, justice and peace, and nothing is to come between God and the creation God loves.

The Rev. Mark Erson,
Pastor

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