You may have heard me say before that I sometimes scratch my head about how the folks who establish the lectionary readings for each Sunday put it all together. Sometimes, the readings seem disjointed… like they don’t really jive with each other. There are at least a couple of reasons I can think of that we use the Revised Common Lectionary. The first is that, if all (or at least most) mainline Protestant denominations are reading and studying the same passages from the Bible each week, then there can be some good cross-talk (cross talk, get it?) after church at the local restaurant between folks who may not worship at the same place on Sunday. And maybe even later on, during the week, who knows? Which is probably pie-in-the-sky, I know. How many people really talk about Scripture and theology and Jesus outside of church and Sunday school? Many preachers would like to think that what they say from the pulpit on Sunday sticks with folks and helps guide their thoughts and actions during the week. And that may occasionally be the case, but not as often as preachers would wish. And the second reason we use the Lectionary is to make sure that we cover as much of the Bible as possible over the three-year cycle… years A, B and C. Given our druthers, I’m pretty sure most of us would be inclined to focus mostly on upbeat, easy-to-understand passages from Scripture, ones that affirm us, give us hope, and don’t challenge our way of thinking or behaving too awfully much. But reading from the Lectionary requires us to confront and wrestle with some of the more opaque and difficult-to-understand bits of the Bible, like it or not.
Certainly, Hebrew Scripture, sometimes referred to as the Old Testament, is full of fire and brimstone and a wrathful God… and violence, greed and sexual misconduct perpetrated by God’s Chosen People against other tribes and, sometimes, upon each other. It’s tough to get our brains wrapped around all of that, isn’t it? We believe in a God of love, at least we say we do. How could that kind of God be party to or allow all of that bad stuff to go on? How can we reconcile that? And we can’t reconcile it, but God can. That’s why he became incarnate in Jesus. “All right kids, don’t make me come down there,” right? But he did, and through Jesus, God gave us a New Covenant. But even in the Gospels, there are some odd, difficult stories, aren’t there? You know the ones I’m talking about. Like the time Jesus was speaking about adultery and said, “If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away! Or your eye? Pluck it out! (Matt 5:29-30). Or when he said, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword… to set man against father and a daughter against her mother… kith against kin” (Matt 10:34-36). Remember the day Jesus “dissed” his own family? “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” he asked his disciples one day, in seeming rejection of Mary and his siblings, who had been standing at the edge of the crowd, just waiting to speak to him (Matt 12:46-49)? And especially that day Jesus seemed to refer to a Canaanite woman as a “dog,” when all she was asking him to do was heal her little girl (Matt 15:21-28). Dang… that was harsh! But there is wisdom to be gained in grappling with these passages, and that’s why it’s important that we take them on.
And although the Lectionary readings often don’t appear to “go together,” that’s not always that case. Sometimes a theme emerges, and it occurs to me that wisdom—God’s sustaining wisdom—is the unifying thread running through all of our Scripture readings today. When God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on top of Mt. Sinai (Exodus 20:1-17), he wasn’t doing it for himself, he was doing it for the Israelites. He was providing them with a “Cliff’s Notes” version of how to be fruitful and multiply as a nation in the Land of Milk and Honey, which was their inheritance. Ten Commandments which could really be distilled into two: Love God. Love your neighbor. If you do these two things, and I mean really do them, you’re going to be OK… and so will your children and your children’s children. Wisdom.
The Psalmist reminds us that the heavens, themselves, always and constantly proclaim the greatness of the LORD. “The law of the LORD is perfect… it revives the soul. The decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple… they are more to be desired than gold… and sweeter than honey from the comb… and in keeping them there is great reward.” (Psalm 19). We must be in the Earth, but not of it. If we will fix our eyes upon the glorious and unchanging Kingdom of Heaven, despite all of the travails of this life, we will be upheld. Wisdom.
And then there’s the bit from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. The Apostle was probably pulling out his hair at the persistent obtuseness of his flock in Corinth… “Jews demand signs…” if you want me to believe this, do something supernatural. No miracle? Bah humbug! And… “Greeks desire wisdom.” But it wasn’t the wisdom of God the Greeks desired, it was “human wisdom.” They wanted someone to lay out a logical case for them about why they should believe. Otherwise it was all just foolishness. And Paul had to keep telling them, “It doesn’t work that way. Some things you just have to take on faith. God came to earth in the form of Jesus Messiah to show us the way… and be crucified, and then raised from the dead so that we would know that death is not the end. If you can give yourself over to that hope… if you can believe, you will be saved” (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). God’s sustaining wisdom.
And now we come to today’s Gospel story about Jesus cleansing the Temple. That must have been quite a sight. Lots of human wisdom going on there. Lots of buying and selling of sacrificial animals… and produce… and the like, lots of money changing hands. The Temple economy was pretty important, after all. Lots of high, head muckety-mucks in the Jewish religious establishment probably made a pretty penny off the Temple trade. Cha ching! And then Jesus came and turned everything upside down… literally and figuratively. “What in the world are y’all doing?” Jesus asked. “This isn’t what the Temple is for. The Temple should be a place to worship, and glorify the Father… you know, like it says in the Law: We are to love God above all else—all else! For crying out loud… you guys are messing it up! By treating the Temple as a worldly place, you are depriving yourselves and the people of something special… the one, true sanctuary from the distractions and perversions of this world… stumbling blocks that come between you and my Father. Your Father.” And, you know, some people probably listened… nodded their heads quietly and felt a little bit ashamed. While others said, “Um… show us a sign?” There they go again…
It would be easy for us to think of this Gospel story as nothing more than a literal retelling of an event that happened in a particular place, and on a particular day, during Jesus’ earthly ministry, wouldn’t it? It would be easy for us to point fingers and say, “Shame, shame!” on all of the buyers and sellers and religious leaders who got their comeuppance from Jesus in the Temple that day… all the while congratulating ourselves for knowing better. Or, to use a phrase, coined by Jesus, himself, it would easy for us to take note of “the speck of sawdust in our neighbor’s eye, while ignoring the plank in our own” (cf. Matt 7:5). But if we are seeking God’s sustaining wisdom, in today’s Gospel passage, then I believe we need to look deeper. The Jews in Jesus’ time believed that God was present in the Temple in a way that he was not any place else on Earth. The Temple was where God “lived.” It really was his house. So, the Temple wasn’t just a building, it was the place that Jews come to stand (literally) just outside the presence of God. And that was why Jesus was so hard on the merchants and religious elders: they were polluting that sacred space with the ordinary and the mundane.
But that’s not how most Christians (or even many Jews today) think of God being present in the world. God is everywhere… above us… beside us… even inside us. God is present throughout Creation, in the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses… and in the first cry of a newborn baby. God is in all things, great and small. And that puts an even greater onus on us than was on the Jews in Biblical times to preserve and interact with that sacred space. The whole world is our Temple, because God lives here. How, then, shall we “exercise dominion” over it? (cf. Genesis 1:28) How shall we preserve it so that all who live here can experience the nearness of God? But wait, there’s more: Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life (John 14:6),” and called us to be his disciples. If we answer that call, and give our lives over to becoming Christ followers, then our souls and bodies become, in essence, the Temple of the LORD. How, then, shall we live?
Friends, the Gospel story of Jesus upsetting the tables (and the elites) in the Temple is as timely and full of God’s sustaining wisdom for us today as it was back in Biblical times. Except for us, the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple becomes an imperative for us to rid our lives of anything that comes between us and God. That’s a pretty good definition of sin, I think: anything that comes between us and God. And that should be our particular focus during this season of Lent: to redouble our efforts to identify and root out the sin in our lives. And lest you think this Lenten pilgrimage ends with Easter, you’d best think again. It’s an ongoing journey, a life-long marathon. We’ve been provided with a holy space between birth and death on this Earth… to strive to know the Father and discern his will for us. And if you’re still here, it means you still have work to do. The striving will sometimes be hard… but we needn’t make it any harder on ourselves than it already is. Remember, God is perfect, but God is not a perfectionist. It pleases God when we try to walk a straight path. So be kind to yourself as you reflect upon how God’s sustaining wisdom might guide your journey through this life today and every day: Love God… love your neighbor… and don’t judge. You’re going to be OK. Keep your eyes on the prize… on the Kingdom of Heaven… and you will be upheld. Give yourself over to the hope of Christ crucified. Believe… and be saved. And try not to forget that, as a Christ-follower, you have a special responsibility to keep your life and your living a fit dwelling place for the Most-High. There’s no better way to spread the Gospel. Maybe if you do, people will look at you and say, “I’ll have what she’s having!” Not every day will be a good day. You won’t always “get it right,” but that’s why God sent Jesus to make everything right in the end.
Continued blessings on your pilgrimage.