Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
The last movie I saw made a bold statement before I even took the disc out of the box. The label said, in all capitals, “Perfect picture and purest digital sound.” Wow! I know I can expect a lot from a big budget, major studio motion picture, but perfection and purity? Hollywood, take my money now! Really, that’s why we love movies. They’re better than real life in so many ways. Everyone and everything looks fantastic. Unlikely plans succeed. People who are meant to be together fall in love with each other. It’s clear who the heroes and villains are. Stories have thrilling climaxes and satisfying endings. Anything dull is edited out. If we could, most of us would at least be tempted to trade our real lives for the glamorous, sanitized movie versions of them.
But in a way we already do that. Most of us put some effort into our appearance every day, and more for special occasions. And more importantly, when it comes to our stories and our inner lives, most of us are skilled editors. We leave out the bits we’re not proud of, our flaws, wounds, mistakes, and sins. We put on a brave face when our internal world is far from a perfect picture. The drive to present ourselves in the best possible light is a deep-rooted urge, impervious to the knowledge that everybody else has problems too, and hides them, too. As the author he hired says to Frank Underwood in “House of Cards,” “You don’t have a monopoly on secrets.”
There was nothing secret about the Temple in Jerusalem, though the ongoing rituals of worship and sacrifice, and the limitations on how close certain people could get, must have created a powerful sense of mysticism, and perhaps mystery. The Temple, for Jews, the holiest place in the world. It was, however, shrouded in stone and, remarkably to us, surrounded by a cacophonous marketplace.
Most of the faithful visitors came to make a sacrifice as set out in the Torah, and most of those visitors did not bring an animal with them. Those of you who have pets know how challenging it can be to travel with animals, and this in our modern age of convenience. Not only that, but there were strict rules about the sort of animals that could be sacrificed: long story short, only the best, most flawless specimens would do. If you did bring your own animal, it could be rejected for any imperfection. So a marketplace was essential to make the whole system function. And just like movie theaters that charge obscene prices at the concession stand, the merchants around the Temple knew they had a captive audience. They set their prices accordingly, and just like at the movies, the customers knew exactly what to expect from the merchants. While there must have been some grumbling at the gouging, business was business, and nobody made a scene.
Until Jesus decided that this scene could use some editing. We might imagine seeing the crass and cynical exploitation of the faithful by the merchants, being appalled and outraged, losing control and lashing out. But like I said, everybody knew what was going on. Jesus was angry, but not surprised. John shows us that Jesus planned his action, taking time to make a whip in advance. Jesus was, at once actor, director, and props department.
While the money-changers took advantage of the scrupulous observance of the law against depositing coins with graven images into the Temple’s treasury, they and the animal-sellers were more blatant in their desecration of the sacred Temple, surrounding it with the active sin of taking unfair advantage of the innocent. Unlike us, they didn’t even try to hide their sin; they were only too ready to reveal their hard-heartedness, covetousness, and inhospitality.
Jesus showed that faithfulness need not compromise with sin. He also gave us a preview of coming attractions: he hinted that this action merely foreshadowed what God was about to do. Soon God would provide a new means of reconciliation between creator and creation. He was that means. In his incarnation, God and humanity became one; in his crucifixion, he satisfied the shortcomings of the world with a perfect sacrifice; in his resurrection, he overcame the world, triumphing over death and sin forever. Therefore, Jesus is, at once, temple, priest, and offering.
Jesus was unique, as were his saving acts. We cannot take his place, yet we can be like him. We can offer ourselves to God’s purposes, keeping God’s law and devoting ourselves to God’s causes. And we can be temples, living dwelling places for the living Spirit of God. Jesus sent the Spirit to dwell within us, even though he knew, better than anyone, that our temples are not perfect. He knows the shame and brokenness that we try to hide from the world, and edit out of ourselves. He loves us and calls us to his purpose anyway, and he offers to cleanse us, to put away the things we try to conceal, put them away truly and permanently.
Just like in today’s Gospel, Jesus stands ready to drive far from us everything that tries to stand between us and God, but unlike that incident, Jesus will only arrive to do his cleansing work if we invite him in. And we might hesitate, for while Jesus won’t literally whip us, we should expect that the change may include moments of discomfort as we let go of habits with whose familiarity we have grown too comfortable. Just as the pangs of hunger subside after the first days of a Lenten fast, our consciences will adjust to the new intimacy with God that Jesus brings to us, and any discomfort we might have felt will be swept away in the vast joy and peace of God.
Unlike the brazen promotion of a movie, God delivers more and better things than words can describe. Unlike our attempts to present ourselves in the best light, God’s light will actually change us, and prepare us to live in the fullness of God’s love in eternal union with God. Our earthly lives will be like a preview of the coming attractions of heaven, the everlasting spectacle of purified souls praising God, so we might as well make our lives reflect God’s glory as faithfully as we can, in a world where Jesus has already assured us of a perfect Hollywood ending.