One of the images of God that was always sitting on the walls of my Sunday School class at First United Methodist Church in Eureka Springs, Arkansas was this calm serene Jesus. He’s looking off to heavens – pondering something super important – and in truth it’s a kind of innoculous – non-threatening picture of a peaceful Jesus.
Another image that I saw in Sunday School was this one – Jesus the good shepherd. Again – Jesus looks so calm and serene. He is holding a baby lamb for crying out loud. The sheep are following him and everything is so peaceful and beautiful.
So – I remember how jarring it was the first time I heard this story in John 2 – because THIS – this was not an image of Jesus that I had heard before. This Jesus is mad. When he walks into the temple and sees the dealers of cattle, sheep, and pigeons… when he sees the money changers – our text tells us that he made a whip out of cords. That means that he actually took some rope and tied it together to create not just a little whip – but a huge whip – large enough to drive out all the people, all the cattle, all the sheep – everything. I mean – whatever he was doing with that whip – it was enough to scare the living daylights out of everyone present.
And then the people with their money – tables turned – money scattering everywhere.
Where or where has our peaceful, docile Jesus gone? The lamb holding gentle innocuous Jesus –
The disciples remembered the words of Scripture – Zeal for your house will consume me.
The language suggests that they were observing a person who was consumed with his anger about what he was seeing.
His act is so incredibly disruptive that it likely would have meant, during one of the most busy feast times of the year at the temple, that the sacrifices and the worship would have had to cease for the day.
What do we do with this Jesus who is consumed by his anger and is wielding a whip and knocking over tables? Blocking people from coming and worshipping God?
This story is told in ALL 4 gospels. Every author thinks this story was an important part of the story, but only John includes such a lengthy account. And only John places this story at the VERY beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
As followers of Jesus – what can we learn?
One of the things that I love to do year round is look at the trees. And not just look at them but whenever possible to look from the base of the trees up to their branches. We have a giant tree in our front yard – and I particularly enjoy standing at the base looking up – and of course as the seasons change – the things that I see looking up change – bare in winter – but soon the slightest buds, then the first leaves, until the whole tree is filled with green leaves, and then again in the fall the slightest change of color in the leaves until they turn – mostly yellow on this tree and the cycle begins again. It’s a healthy robust – alive tree -
But the truth of the matter is – what I see on the surface of this tree has its source – in the roots. What we see on the outside of the tree is made possible because of the depths of the root system – that dig deep into the earth below – securing it into the ground and working every day to bring the water and the nutrients needed to sustain life.
We don’t usually see them but
Without the roots – the tree would falter – the life would go out.
The roots are key.
Everything we see in Jesus’ life – from the kind, calm serene moments, to the gentle holding a lamb moments to the tearing up the temple with a giant whip moments – are all the fruit of a person whose roots were deeply and firmly planted in a particular place and time and most importantly – firmly planted in the heart of God.
Jesus' whole life bore witness to the power of God in the world.
His life with God is what gave him life and breath – it is what directed his ministry and guided his steps along the way.
The roots RAN DEEP.
So his anger and his response in this moment wasn’t just a momentary blow up.
He wasn’t just blowing off steam.
This action in the temple at the start of the ministry of Jesus had everything to do with the very heart of God and to live and act in ways that might reveal that heart to the world.
Now before he came to Jerusalem – in the story just before this – John tells the story of Jesus at a wedding in Cana. And at this wedding – the wine runs out.
The host is notably mortified, but Jesus steps in – and turns the water into wine.
It is the first sign of his ministry and it is an extraordinary story of grace and glory - We get to see a picture of the abundant life that Jesus offers.
But in this next story – our story for today – the scene changes dramatically. Jesus is headed to Jerusalem. As a faithful Jew, he is celebrating the Passover. He is coming to the temple to participate in worship – to join with others for this feast day
that was a remembrance of the day when God – passed over their homes and saved their children from death and led them to be liberated from bondage in Egypt. They told the story of their freedom from oppression. They ate and dined together – and even in the midst of occupation – they reminded each other of their real identity.
So, when Jesus comes into the temple,
what he finds here – are the money-changers and the people selling the animals. This was business as usual.
Money needed to be exchanged because the money itself had a picture of the Roman Emperor – Caesar – and this was forbidden by Jewish law.
And the animals were necessary as well – people were traveling from a long distance – they hadn’t brought the animals with them - they needed to purchase them in order to make their offering.
So – all of this was what would have been in the temple during any Passover feast.
And while there was certainly a high likelihood that people were taking advantage of folks by this system.
This story of Jesus’ anger seems to be not just about the abuse of the system – but about the entire system itself.
The new life he offers – the water to wine – abundant life – is available to all –
Jesus' anger is about the systems that have been put in place - systems that stand in direct opposition to the abundant new life that God is offering.
And it comes out of the deep roots of the heart of God – the heart that longs for this abundant life to be available to all people.
When I see this righteous anger, part of the reason it makes me uncomfortable is that it forces me to come to grips with the reality of how often my own anger is not so righteous.
There was a moment this Christmas – it was Monday before Christmas Eve and I had planned my schedule down to the hour. I had just enough time to do what I needed to do and I had planned to start my Monday with a good night’s sleep and some restful time of prayer.
Until of course – one of my children woke up early from a bad night’s dream. And completely wrecked my plans.
Now – in truth – 6am is often not the time that all of us – except Lynne Reid – are at our best – and this was particularly true for me.
But – something about this early morning wakeup set me into a place of rage.
I got up. I stomped into the kitchen. I’m sure I had a scowl on my face through most of it – and started unloading the dishwasher. Which probably wasn’t a good idea because as I unloaded each dish – I was getting madder and madder that I was awake – and I was banging the dishes louder and louder and louder.
Until of course – my husband woke up from the noise and ver politely came in to see what was going on – and then innocently suggested to my son that he go back to sleep. Being so caught up in my anger – I thought he was talking to me – and I gave him – let’s just say – an EARFUL.
About how I couldn’t possibly go to sleep – because now I was mad and my day was ruined and I was exhausted and on and on it went.
Not my most beautiful moment. But I was consumed with anger – I could feel it pulsing through my body and I felt a bit out of control.
My anger in that moment revealed a very troubling reality in my life at the moment. In a season where I had told myself that I was trusting in God – where I had sought to be growing in faithfulness, my anger revealed that my roots were still VERY shallow in a particular area of my life. I was still relying most heavily on my own plans – my own agenda – my own power - to bring me peace and assurance.
And so the only response that morning – after I finally stopped banging around the dishes – was to sit before God – AGAIN – and ask where I needed to experience conversion – where the change in me – in my heart and spirit – needed to result in some deeper roots – in God’s grace and God’s love and in the life that God had called me to. One of justice and mercy and lived without fear.
This Lent – we are talking about what it means to experience conversion.
I’ve met a lot of people in my life whose roots are rather shallow – many of these people have good intentions – they want to be people in the world that are helpful – making a difference – sometimes – they even get involved in the church – or in a movement for change – sometimes like a flash in the pan - but inevitably – they fizzle out. The fervor and passion just doesn’t run deep enough – it grew out of a temporary emotion or a reaction of feeling guilty or obligated or a personal desire to feel useful or important.
And in rare moments – I’ve met people or learned about people whose roots go WAY deeper. Who have walked through life – learning and listening – paying attention to the ways that God is teaching them – and each step of the way planting themselves more firmly in this abundant life that God seems to be offering through Jesus Christ. These people are the kind of people who pay attention to their own emotions, especially their anger and learn from them. They are self-aware enough to know that they don’t have it all together and that they don’t always know what the perfect right answer is. But they seek to listen and learn – to hear where the spirit of God is moving and then with boldness – to RESPOND.
When I meet a person like this – I’m always amazed at the ways that their life has made an IMPACT on the world – changing things for the better – often turning over a few tables, ruffling some feathers, and speaking truth when they are called to do so. The depth of their roots has meant that they have been opened – truly opened to what God is calling them to do.
The road has usually not been easy -
But it isn’t about them. Or about the show.
Because the roots are planted in who God is and what God is doing in the world.
So, I don’t know about you – but that’s the kind of person that I want to be. Every day – sinking my roots just a bit deeper into the soil of who Jesus is. Putting myself in places that force me to look at my shallow roots and grow in depth – so that I am open and ready to be about the work that God is doing in the world. And unafraid to go where I myself might come face to face with the powers that be.
So, I wonder today where you know you need to take a step forward –
Where you know you need to take a look at yourself – starting perhaps with your anger – to have some honest conversation about the state of your own root system. And the ways that God is inviting you to grow.
I wonder where you know you need to do some things that will stretch you. That will force you to step out of what is comfortable and encourage you to really grow – to look beyond your own life and struggle and take a step forward.
And I wonder where those of you who have already been stretched and grown – who have found places of tremendous stretching – need to claim the work that God has done in you – and to – with courage – step into the temples – and speak – without fear of what will happen – for the God of abundant life – will go with you.
Where friends – do your roots need to GROW deeper?
What is the one step you MUST take today –
It’s clear that Jesus’ action in the temple – wasn’t just a flash in the pan. He wasn’t just an outraged man who lost his temper that day. This moment in the temple marked the beginning of a ministry and a movement that time and time again represented a direct threat to the systems that were in place. Everywhere he went – Jesus – proclaimed the kingdom of God – and spoke and acted out against anything and anyone that would stand in the way of the abundant life that God really wanted for all people. He organized people – he built a group of followers – he gave them instructions to continue the work even when he was gone!
And as a result – he was killed on a cross. Executed – as a political threat to the empire.
Nice guys holding lambs – usually don’t end up being tortured to death for fear.
But – the movement that Jesus was building – as he said in his words in today’s Scripture could not so easily be destroyed. Proof? You want proof that my authority is from God?
Destroy this temple and it will rise – yet again.
And Jesus makes this crazy, audacious claim – that when you and I are grounded in the same spirit – rooted in who God is and in the life God wants for the world – that we will be able to do EVEN greater things.
That our lives as well can challenge and stand up to and dismantle the systems that keep God’s kingdom from being fully revealed.
But friends – we are ALL going to need some deep roots to do that work.
May it be so. That we would plant and ground ourselves more fully – in that deep and abiding presence. Trusting in the movement of the Spirit to guide us in this work.