Have you ever wondered what would happen if Jesus showed up one Sunday morning in church? Would he politely take an order of service from a deacon and quietly find a place in the pews? Would he stand for the call to worship, sing from the hymnal and say the Lord’s Prayer? Would he eat the bread and drink from the cup? Would he put money in the plate when it was passed? Would he earnestly and respectively listen to the sermon, without any reply or retort?
Or would he have something to say? Would anything here anger him or incite him to take some sort of action? Would he take a look at how we were doing church and want to do a little spring cleaning? Would he take a whip and drive any of us out? Would he turn over table or two? Would he come up here to the pulpit and take my sermon notes and tear them to shreds?
Because that is kinda what he did when he visited the Temple in Jerusalem before the Passover. You might say that he did a little spring cleaning. Most scholars point out that it wasn’t so much that the people were exchanging money or selling in the Temple that burned Jesus up, but it was the manner in which they were doing it. The common practice was to charge oppressive amounts of interest, taxes and fees to exchange currency. And when selling cattle, sheep and doves for Passover, it was a common practice to take advantage of and rip off the poor. Just like today, those who can afford the least, often have to pay the most.
So what angered Jesus is how the religious establishment was preying on and hurting others. And this this text is asking: “Is there anything that the church does today that hurts other people?” “What is it about church today that needs a good spring cleaning?”
I try to talk to people every week who never attended church, or who no longer attend church. And when I ask them why they are not a part of church, they often tell me that they have been deeply hurt by the church. “How?” I ask. “By words,” they say.
The truth is: words have tremendous power. The Epistle of James says it well:
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so (James 3).
Nathan Parrish, a pastor friend of mine in Winston-Salem said that a mother in his church shared with him her outrage one Sunday after church. She said that during the week, her ten year-old boy came home from football practice and told her that the coach had the audacity to say that “he hit like a girl.” My friend Nathan responded: “The message starts early doesn’t it?”
She asked: “What do you mean?”
Nathan said: “Our children learn it while they are young, don’t they? That females are the weaker sex and need to be kept in their place.”
Laura Johnson, the pastor of Broad Street Christian Church in New Bern, has said that as a female pastor people give her qualified compliments all the time: “Laura, that was a great sermon…for a woman.” “Laura, you are a good pastor, for a girl.”
The message starts early, and it is pervasive. And it is prevalent in many churches. Through patriarchal language, the exclusive use of male pronouns to refer to God, men are touted as being somehow closer to God than women. Thus, in many churches, only men can be the leaders, and women are pushed to a more subservient place. The men belong in the church boardroom; whereas the women belong in the church kitchen.
Words indeed have great power and can cause tremendous harm. So, if Jesus was coming to our church do a little spring cleaning, he would perhaps start with our mouths. So what words in our church vocabulary do you think Jesus would want to drive out with a whip? What words or church expressions would be among the first to be cleaned out? What about:
We’ve never done it that way before, or worse, You are in my seat?
When these words are spoken at church, they almost always mean “new ideas, new ways of thinking, new approaches to ministry, and new people are not welcome here.” These words espouse a “This-is-my-church-my-house philosophy. It is what the gospel writer meant when he said: “then the disciples remembered what was written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” And any words espousing that this is our house and not God’s house have the power to kill a church. There was a great book written nearly thirty years ago that many churches who are closing their doors for good today failed to read. It was called The Seven Last Words of the Church: We’ve Never Done It that Way Before.”
The Bible clearly says…
As I said this past Wednesday night, whenever I hear this expression, I get a little nervous. You may have heard that there are many elected officials and TV evangelists in our country who would like to transform the United States into a Theocracy. That means that they would like to take the laws of God found in the Bible and make them the laws of the land. That is how they want to bring God’s kingdom to earth. While a theocracy may sound good to many Christians at first, it really all depends on who Theo is, doesn’t it? Who gets to pick and interpret the laws that they want others to obey? Whenever people talk about enforcing or legislating biblical morality, they are almost always thinking: “There is only one interpretation of the Bible, and it is mine!” However their interpretation may be the polar opposite of your interpretation that you try to discern through the words and works of Jesus.
ve the sinner and hate the sin.
A couple of weeks ago I said that these words infer that we can somehow separate the sin from the sinner; however, sin is so much a part of our DNA, so much a part of who we are in this fragmented world, that it simply cannot be avoided. And when we think that we have reached some sort of spiritual pinnacle that we can somehow avoid sin, we contradict who Jesus calls us to be by becoming arrogant, proud, snooty and judgmental. And we drive people away from the church in droves. We say: “But I don’t do the things that so-in-so does!” That might be good; however, we just need to understand that just because we don’t, we are not any less of a sinner than so-in-so.”
If you died today, do you know where you would spend eternity?
I believe in heaven and hell, but the truth is that when we infer that following Jesus should only be done for purely selfish reasons, to receive some award instead of punishment, then we miss the whole point of who Jesus is and who he calls us to be. Jesus calls us not to save our lives, but to lose our lives. Jesus calls us to live a self-giving, self-expending life rooted in radical selflessness. Jesus never said, “Follow me and go to heaven.” He said, “follow me and carry a cross.”
And then there are the classics:
God has God’s reasons.
God does not make mistakes.
God will not put any more on us than we can bear.
It’s God’s will and we will just have to accept it.
These words have probably caused more people to leave the church, and leave God, than any others. There is no telling how many people have reached the conclusion: “If God is the one who caused my baby to die, if God is the reason behind my divorce, if God created my loved one to suffer, if God put all of these financial hardships on me, then I would be better off living in Hell for all of eternity than with a God like that.”
I believe many Protestant churches, in an attempt to distance themselves from Catholicism, have tried to teach the faith while avoiding the pain and suffering of Jesus. We look at the crucifix and say, “My Lord is not on the cross! He is living today in heaven! However, when we move too casually through the season of Lent, too quickly through Holy Week, and even skip Good Friday to get to Easter, we miss what may be the most important tenet of the Christian faith: that our God is a God who suffers. God is not seated on a throne far removed from the creation, pressing buttons, pulling levers, causing human misery, but our God is here in the midst of human pain, suffering with us, alongside us. So, in a way, our God is still on the cross today. As long as there is human life, our God is still emptying God’s self, pouring God’s self out. Our God is a God who grieves, agonizes, and bleeds. Our God is never working against us, but always for us, creating and recreating, resurrecting, doing all that God can do to wring whatever good can be wrung out of life’s most difficult moments.
It is almost Passover. And once again, Jesus is visiting the Temple. Jesus is coming, and he’s cleaning house. He is taking a whip and driving out all that we do, and maybe more importantly, all that we say in the name of God that harms others.
Come, Lord Jesus. Come quickly.