Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent

Sermon preached by Revd Karen Charman for the Third Sunday of Lent, 7th March 2021, via Zoom.

You can listen to an audio recording here:

The angry Christ – an image from the Philippines, painted by an artist, Lino Pontebon, who painted this when he was a young man, living during the Ferdinand Marcos regime of the 1970s and 80s.  Pontebon’s painting represents both the anger of Jesus, in the temple, and the anger of the Filipino people, whose lives were manipulated by Marcos, poverty, third world debt, the international sex-trade, and other forces outside their control.  Pontebon’s Christ is angry with an unfair, unequal world – a world where injustice, greed and exploitation flourish.

In today’s Gospel reading, Christ is angry – raging at the money-changers, and the men selling sacrificial animals, defiling the temple – or, more likely, the Court of the Gentiles – transforming it from a place of prayer and pilgrimage into a market-place.  Christ is angry.

Is this the righteous indignation of a man surprised to find the Temple – his Father’s house – polluted and contaminated by the stink of animals, the competing sounds of cattle lowing, sheep bleating doves cooing, sellers shouting, coins clinking and clanking, as the money-changers and merchants count their profits?

Is this the righteous anger of a man protesting that this one part of the Temple precinct that a Gentile – a non-Jew – might enter has been turned from a place of prayer and pilgrimage for people of all nations into a place of commerce and trade?  Is Jesus angry that the Gentiles have been excluded, their opportunity to pray denied them by this pop-up market-place?

Is this the righteous anger of a holy man, who sees this most sacred place dishonoured?  I wonder, are the money-changers charging exorbitant rates of exchange?  Are those selling sacrificial animals demanding exorbitant sums, and ripping-off the devout pilgrims who have come to worship God?  (There is nothing in John’s Gospel to support that explanation!)

Is this righteous anger – justifiable anger?

Is anger ever justifiable, I wonder … particularly in the temple precincts?  Or are Jesus’ words and actions as much of a disruption to the peace and holiness of this sacred site as were the changing of money and selling of animals which – according to the Jewish laws – must be sacrificed at the festival?

Is this the justifiable anger of a righteous man? …

Or is this, perhaps, the prophetic action of a Messiah … Christ … who is prophet, priest and king?

Is the point of this story that Jesus was angry, and that – perhaps – sometimes we should be angry, too?

Or, is this incident included at this point – right near the beginning of John’s Gospel and of Jesus’ ministry – is this incident included, at this point, to reveal Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, and to point us (even in the beginning) towards the cross and resurrection?

“His disciples remembered,” – we are told – “that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.””  A quotation from Psalm 69, verse 9.  But perhaps Jesus’ disciples would have done better to remember Malachi, chapter 3:

“the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple … he is like a refiner’s fire … he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.”

Perhaps the disciples – and those who questioned Jesus’ authority to drive out the sacrificial animals – should have realised that the Lord had come to his temple; the Son had come to purify his Father’s house, and to refine the priests who presided there.

“What sign can you show us for doing this?” the Jews ask – probably the Temple priests, and others in authority, and perhaps some of the rabbis who may have been teaching in the porticos of the temple precincts, and heard the commotion.

“Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

We have the wonderful benefit of hindsight – of knowing the end of the story.  We know that Jesus died, and was buried, and on the third day, rose again.  We often forget just how much of an enigma, a mystery, a puzzle, Jesus must have been – to the temple authorities, to those who flocked to hear him preach, and wished to make him king, to the disciples who followed faithfully, but so often failed to understand his words or actions.

We perhaps don’t realise just how much Jesus subverted the expectations people had of the Messiah … how often he must have confused his disciples, frustrated them even, by his failure to recruit an army and overthrow the Roman oppressors.  How often he must have scandalized them by his failure to adhere to the social norms of the time … befriending women, breaking the Sabbath, healing the Roman Centurion’s servant …  And then, the greatest scandal, or stumbling-block of all, the crucifixion. 

In John’s Gospel, the cleansing of the temple and the subsequent request for a sign, and Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection, occurs very early in Jesus’ ministry.  However, it’s only after Jesus’ resurrection that his disciples can begin to interpret this strange prediction, and believe “the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”

Paul, too, writing to the Christian community in Corinth, is only able to proclaim the crucified Christ, and to believe in him, after his encounter with the risen Christ, on the road to Damascus.

Lino Ponteban appropriated the story of Jesus cleansing the temple to depict a Christ angry with the injustices he and other young Filipino’s face.  And perhaps he’s right – perhaps Christ is angered by injustice, and by “man’s inhumanity to man.”  He certainly has a deep love and concern for  those who are poor, hungry or ill.

We often use this story of Jesus’ anger, and his defiant act, to justify our own moments of anger, our acts of rebellion or protest, to defend ‘just wars’ and violence against property or people.

And I think, as Christians, we are called to strive for justice … but we are also called to strive for peace.  Although Jesus does demonstrate anger or, at least, zeal, in John’s version of this incident in the temple, Jesus is angry that his Father’s house has been turned into a market-place, rather than angry that money-changers and merchants are, perhaps, overcharging and exploiting the poor.

We would do well to remember that Jesus demonstrates compassion in the Gospels, far more frequently than anger.  The battles he fights are battles against disease, death and demons, rather than against human powers – and he’s more concerned about freeing his people from the false piety of the priests and pharisees, than from the Romans who occupy the land.

As Christians, we should strive for justice – and perhaps, sometimes, it might be right to campaign vociferously and forcefully to end oppression and oppressive regimes – but the way of the cross which Jesus calls us to tread this Lent, and beyond, is, I believe, primarily a way of compassion, of courage, of contemplation, and of humility. 

It’s a call to place our trust, not in worldly wisdom or the seeking of signs, but in the wisdom of God.  It’s a call to walk – with those first disciples, the way of the cross – often uncomprehending, often confused, but constantly remembering and reflecting upon Jesus’ words and the scriptures.

We – like Paul and the first disciples – can only begin to understand the crucifixion, and believe in a crucified Christ – a Messiah who subverts all the traditional expectations – through the lens of the resurrection.  We believe because, somehow, we too have encountered the risen Christ – perhaps in the scriptures, perhaps in the breaking of the bread, perhaps in the Godly example of a parent, teacher, godparent or friend.

We are called, like Paul and the Corinthians, to proclaim this crucified Christ, this stumbling-block or scandal.  Just as someone revealed or proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ to us, so we are called to share the good news with others.

As John makes clear, we can’t understand Jesus until we have the whole story.  We can’t understand the cross, until we have seen, the empty tomb and encountered the risen Christ.

Perhaps, like me, you’ve struggled with this lockdown.  I’m sure we’ve all had our ups and downs over the past year.  Perhaps this Lent, you feel like the first disciples, following Jesus through the temple precincts, understanding little, and unable to see what lies ahead.  Perhaps you’ve never encountered the risen Christ for yourself … or perhaps that encounter seems a long way off, a dull, half-forgotten, memory.  Perhaps you can’t yet see beyond the cross to the empty tomb.  Or perhaps you can see the empty tomb but – like Mary – you cannot yet comprehend its meaning.

Perhaps – like me – you’re struggling with the angry Christ and your response?  Should we be angered by injustice?  Should we get involved?  Should we campaign?  Should we demonstrate?  Are we called to actively fight injustice, or are we called to a contemplative life of prayer?  Are we called sometimes to anger and activism, and at other times to peace-making and prayer?

As we continue our journey this Lent, and continue to grapple with the thorny issues of injustice and anger, the foolishness of the cross, and our impatience to see clearly the road (or roadmap) which lies ahead, let’s ask the Holy Spirit to guide us, as we read and remember the words of Jesus Christ our Lord, and as we participate once more in his passion, death and resurrection.