Rev. Dr. Scott Herr


God’s Foolishness and Weakness                                                                   Please read:

A Sermon by the Rev. Scott Herr                                                                   I Corinthians 1:18-25

The American Church in Paris – March 11, 2012                                           John 2:13-22

What is the first image is that comes to mind when you think of Jesus? If we hadn’t just read today’s gospel text, I’d bet the image you have is quite domesticated. Most of us picture Jesus as only placid and serene. Love your neighbor. Love your enemies. Forgive and forgive again. Turn the other cheek. We think of his hands as strong to heal and restore, but not violent. The main windows in our sanctuary - the crucifixion or the ascension window with Jesus beaming up to heaven – these windows portray Jesus as inert and inactive. He is usually depicted docile and demure, peaceful and passive in restful repose… Even the window depicting this scene which is on your bulletin cover, does it not show Jesus with a subtle smile? 

But today’s gospel text shows a very different side of Jesus: Here is portrayed the zeal of the Lord! This word zeal in the Greek (Zelos) literally means boiling… We have a quote from Psalm 69: “Zeal for our house will consume me…” Zeal is the same root word for the term Zealot, which means one who is passionate about something, who has a fire in them around an issue or a cause.  The disciples remembered that Jesus had a passion for the Temple, the place that was to be the gathering point for God’s people for prayer and worship…

It’s important to remember when this scene happened. John writes that “The Passover of the Jews was near…” That meant that this violent scene of Jesus making a whip and driving all of the animals and moneychangers out of the temple took place just before the equivalent of Easter Sunday for the church. The Passover continues to be the main Jewish holiday when Jews around the world remember and celebrate the Exodus, the liberation, the freeing of the Hebrew slaves from their bondage in Egypt.   

A powerful religious institution had evolved over the years and there was a complex system of money exchange because only pure silver temple coins could be used to purchase animals and grains for sacrifice. It was not so much the quality of the metal but that there were no images of kings or emperors or other rulers on the money used in the temple. To use coins of other gods would have been blasphemy for the Jews whose primary confession is “The Lord our God is one” (Deut. 6:4). Given Passover was coming, and people from around the known world were preparing for Passover worship, the temple would have been full of both a diversity of people as well as the various animals waiting to be sold and then used as burnt offerings.

It’s also important though to remember where this scene took place. Our reading just says “the temple” but in fact we know there were different courts of the Temple, and this scene would have taken place in what was known as the Gentile court, the outer courtyard just after the entrance.[1] This was a place for all people to come and worship. I think this is very significant.

Jesus was making a powerful and prophetic statement by clearing out the gentile court of the temple. He was making at least two points, one negative and one positive. The first was that the religious machinery of the day had completely distorted and disfigured the worship of God. The sacrifice system was obsolete. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” is a thinly veiled reference to himself and his crucifixion and resurrection. His Jewish audience wondered how he would rebuild Herod’s Temple in three days (when it had been under construction for “46 years”), but Jesus was referring to himself as the temple of the living God… True worship was through him, in him, for his glory. This is a primary message of Jesus’ violent act in the temple area. But secondly, he was recovering the truth that worship of God is for all people. That’s the significance of this act in the Court of the Gentiles. In Isaiah 56:7 it is written, “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Jesus is passionate about this as an issue of justice, an issue of exclusion of the outsiders. Paradoxically, the religious rituals of his day had managed both to enslave the Jewish people to a system of sacrifice that made the temple a “marketplace,” and at the same time had turned the special place in the temple reserved for the Gentiles into a noisy mall for merchants… anything but a house of prayer for all people…

Our second lesson is one of my favorites, because it reminds us that sometimes God’s wisdom looks like foolishness to our way of thinking, and sometimes God’s strength looks like weakness to us. The pairing of these texts in the lectionary is fascinating to me. The gospel lesson is the most “muscular” portrayal of Jesus anywhere in the gospel accountants. He is physical and he is strong, single-handedly turning over tables and driving out large animals and what we can imagine would be an angry crowd of merchants… He is making enemies of the religious leaders, upsetting the temple worship status quo. It’s not a coincidence that in the other three gospels this scene is set just after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and before his arrest. It was the final act that led Jesus to the cross. Perhaps John is making the bold assertion from the very beginning of his gospel account that this Lord and Savior will confront the powers and principalities of human institutions. He will overturn the operational tables and traditions of our religion.

Which of course leaves us with the question: How wise are we about doing what the Lord really requires of us? How wise are we in giving God true worship? Are we living in the New Covenant, or the Old? Are we liberated in our worship of God and offering God worship through holy and just living, caring for the widows, the orphans, the oppressed, the outsiders, the “gentiles” in our midst? How are we clearing out the temple of our lives and life together for the newcomers, the young and the old who are looking for an encounter with the living God, and not just more religious to-do lists in their life?

Did you see the article this week about the St. Hertogenbosch Cathedral statue of an angel with a cell phone? With a lot of other normal looking angels around it, this angel is wearing jeans and carries a laptop bag slung over its shoulder. Smiling faintly, it is talking on a cell phone. Last year, a couple set up a number for people to call the angel and according to the wife, “The telephone is ringing all day!”[2] People are desperate, apparently, to talk to God, to talk to somebody who cares… It made me ask the question, Are we open to the outsider, those who are wanting to talk with God? Are we making space for them? What does Jesus need to drive out of our lives or from our way of being and doing church so that we are truly a house of prayer for all people? Yes, God said, “for all people”? That means men and women, young and old, rich and poor, straight and gay, traditional and contemporary, black and white, powerful and weak, educated and uneducated, the social and the unsocial, the righteous and the unrighteous…

It seems to me also that God’s vision for our worship is much more than what we are doing in this sanctuary or even in the way we live our personal lives during the week. Gary Haugen, in his book, Just Courage: God’s Great Expedition for the Restless Christian, talks about how so many Christians seem to be without any zeal in life. Too many of us are just going through the motions. He tells the story of when he and his father and brothers were going hiking up Mount Rainer, and how when they got to Paradise Visitor’s Center, he opted to stay back while his father and older brothers went up Camp Muir, a base camp used by climbers. While they were hiking in the ice and snow, exhausting themselves with the adventure of getting to the base camp, he memorized wild flower names and learned the boring visitor’s center music by heart. It all seemed so interesting and exciting when he started, but hours later he was bored out of his mind. Haugen compares this experience to the way many Christians live their lives. Too many of us, are trapped in a spiritual Visitor’s Center and have never been out on the mountain!

He talks about William Sheppard, missionary to the men and women of the Congo who were being oppressed by the forces of King Leopold of Belgium in the late 1880’s. Millions were dying, but Sheppard went in and literally liberated the slaves. Our Missionary Window back there remembers some of the men and women who boldly risked their lives, believing the gospel meant pursuing the kingdom of God on earth for all people… Haugen talks about how he started the  International Justice Mission, a Christian ministry committed to setting the captives free, wherever they are today. We talked last week about there being 25,000 people who die every day because of hunger. There are literally millions of slaves in the world today, many of them captured and in bondage because of the multi-billion dollar sex industry… Young women and children who are sold into slavery and repeatedly raped in brothels around the world. Haugen and his associates believe Christians are called to do something about it. Others give witness to the gospel to millions of people suffering from HIV and AIDS. There are plenty of needs in the world, even here in this great city. The question is, do you have any zeal about bringing good news to so many who suffer?

Now I know we’re not all called to go to war zones, to fight slavery or care for AIDS patients. But it seems to me each one of us is called to change the world for Christ. Maybe the hardest thing for all of us do is to make space in our hearts to love our neighbor, to love our enemies, to forgive and turn the other cheek. Some of us, I’m convinced, are called to address the powers and principalities, the systems of injustice and oppression that still cause suffering in so many.

Perhaps we need to rethink what is wise and what is foolish… about what is weak and what is strong? Perhaps we need to consider again what needs to get cleaned out and cleaned up in the temple of our lives and life together? Let us be clear: There are a lot of believers in Jesus. But Jesus is looking for disciples… People who will actually follow him all the way to the summit of the cross and Easter New Life… not just for ourselves, but for the world. May the Holy Spirit give us a zeal for God’s house and God’s heart…

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[2] John Tagliabue, “For Truly heavenly reception, please press…” (International Herald Tribune, March 7, 2012), 7.