Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent

John 2:13-22

The year was 340 B.C. Alexander the Great, king of Macedon and ruler of a massive empire stretching from Greece to Egypt to India, threw a banquet for one of his commanders, Cleitus. Cleitus had faithfully served since Alexander’s father’s days, a cavalry commander who had actually saved Alex’s life 6 years prior in a battle with the Persians. However, at this banquet, Cleitus was informed that he would be given second-rate troops and sent off to fight nomads in lands beyond the empire. He knew this meant he would be forgotten, and so he told Alexander what he thought, spoke his mind as he was surely used to doing as a faithful military servant. At the banquet, the wine had flowed freely, and all were drunk, and Alexander, stirred into a rage by what he viewed as Cleitus’s impudence, picked up a javelin and threw it into his heart, killing his friend. It was anger, uncontrolled and motivated by pride, that led to the killing of Cleitus. 

This is how we often see anger, as a thing to suppress, to avoid feeling if at all possible. Anger leads to tragedy so often, and we know its power. We know that James tells us in his letter that “you must understand this, my beloved brothers and sisters: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, 20 for human anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” The wreckage of wars and broken relationships attest. And yet…We see Jesus here exhibiting anger, and that anger fueling his assault on the money-changers, driving them from his Father’s house. What are we to make of this? How ought we to understand these actions of Jesus? 

First, I think we must properly understand the reason that “zeal for [his Father’s] house consumed him.” The Temple was the center of the Jewish faith. It was the sacred place in which the presence of God dwelt. As such, it was sanctified, meaning cut off or set apart, separate for the purpose of the worship and sacrifice offered to God. Now, during major feasts of the year, the Passover being the most significant, Jews from all over would travel to Jerusalem to offer their yearly sacrifice there. They obviously wouldn’t be likely to bring livestock from wherever far-flung place they lived to sacrifice, so they would have to purchase them in Jerusalem. On the Mount of Olives, right next to but outside the Temple grounds, were four markets to sell such sacrificial animals to travelers. So far, so good.

This market, however, was on the Temple grounds, inside the Courtyards. It had been set up by Caiaphas the High Priest some 40 years past, and done so because the other markets were controlled by the Sanhedrin ruling council, and not him. So he set up the competing market for his own benefit and profit. The sacred space of the Temple, set apart for the nations to be able to come and honor God, had been commodified.

Now, we might be tempted to say, “isn’t all the earth good and sacred? Why consider this one place to be so important?” In a sense, that’s true. All the world is sacred, all people and places blessed by God. We ourselves who believe, like Heather soon will be, are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, together the Temple of God! But we also know that certain things bear a certain significance, that for us, some things are more sacred. Setting things apart, calling them holy is to some extent arbitrary, but it is important. We honor God by setting aside our best for him. It also helps us to categorize things, to pay the proper respect and honor due to God by showing honor and respect to things set aside for His worship.

And so, Jesus was angry, but it was zeal for God, the thing set aside for God’s honor and worship being used by people as a marketplace, a source of crass commercial income. This is not the anger of Alexander, self-motivated and prideful, or gratuitous. It is righteous anger precisely because it did not concern even Jesus and his own stature or honor. It was anger at treating things, places of God as common or indifferent, and thus treating God indifferently.

Consider also, that this is not the off-the-handle anger, but intentional, controlled, measured. Jesus took time to fashion a scourge, he did not just grab whatever was at hand. This is the controlled anger of one who sees that which is unrighteous, and determines that it must be ended, and carefully considers how to oppose it. James is right: anger that is selfish, about my human wants or needs, is not righteous, so be slow to anger. (I will hasten to add that in most cases, violence is not necessary; just assume that when it comes to violence, you don’t get to use it, and when the exception comes, you’ll know it). 

It is not anger that is a sin. In fact, we should be angry, and teach our children to be angry, but at the right things. We ought to be angry, as our Lord was, at injustice, unrighteousness, oppression, and the commodification of God. We are only allowed to truly be angry at that which God condemns, and not angry in a way that leads us to do evil, but to seek by proper means to rectify it. When we see someone abused by a family member, we ought to be angry. When we see God’s image bearers being exploited by sex trafficking, or crushed under the bureaucratic indifference of society, we ought to feel anger about it. When we see or hear racism, sexism, ageism, or any other behavior that disregards and dehumanizes, we ought to get angry about it. When we see our faith used to exploit people for another’s gain, let zeal for the Lord’s house, which is now His people, consume you. And we only are able to achieve this because we are one with Christ and when we let the Holy Spirit guide us. We can only have the righteous self-control and faithful courage because we believe God, that Christ has truly defeated sin and death on the Cross and by his resurrection, and that resurrection life is ours.

In our baptisms and faith we join the kingdom of God, and his enemy is our enemy, and the truest enemy of God is not Republicans or Democrats, it is not Americans or foreigners, those who want the 10 commandments in schools and those who don’t, it is not capitalists or socialists, it is not the homeless or the rich. The true enemy of God is sin and death, which are by us known as injustice, exploitation, and oppression. These sully the Holy, which is God’s Image-bearing people. I can think of no better object for our anger than these, and no greater enemy. We must be slow to anger, and it must not be human anger, but Godly anger.

It has to start with us, first, purifying ourselves. We cannot hope to be angry at the right things if we allow sin to infect us. We have to, metaphorically, scourge out the sin that dwells here in our own hearts (MLK’s preparation period). When we do so through confession, repentance, and faith, then, second, we can participate in God’s work of purifying the world, by opposing evil wherever we see it, striving to condemn it and by our humble obedience to God courageously refusing to let it go unseen, unheard of, unopposed. This is the way of life, which ends not with death, but in our sharing in the Resurrection of Christ spoken of here. Let us turn to Christ in faith, and go forth trusting that one day all that is evil in this world will be driven out, and sin and death will be no more. Amen.

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