Monday, March 26, 2018

Giving Up A Safe Jesus

“Giving Up A Safe Jesus”
Matthew 21:12-13

Here are some pictures of Jesus. 

There's a lot I don't like about this picture.  He's a total white guy, with blue eyes with a face as long as a horse's.  Plus there are those weird hand gestures, one of which is in the two finger salute, and the other is pointing to the picture of the heart with one valve.  It looks more like a hot water bottle than a heart.  Just too weird.

Here's the next one.

As with a lot of pictures of Jesus I looked up, this guy looks like he just came out of the beauty salon with perfectly coifed hair and the immaculately trimmed beard.  And what's up with the two pronged chin beard?  This one is also wearing some kind of feminine blouse, and has just too much of a girly-man look about him to relate to too many people.

The third one also has the secret sign language going on.  Also the split chin beard.  But the expression on his face has too much of the deer-in-the-headlights look to it.  Or maybe like he just smoked some peyote and isn't sure which plane of existence he's on.

The fourth picture is kind of endearing. 

Jesus with a child.  Awwwww.  How can you get anymore cute than that?  And Jesus is catching butterflies on his finger while teaching the child all the names of the flowers.  Isn’t that sweet?  His hair is also perfectly blow-dried and feathered back.  Certainly Jesus can't be seen looking unkempt.  There isn't anything wrong with the baby-holding Jesus, but Jesus is much more than that.

What's wrong with most of these pictures that can be found in an interweb search is that they show a white-guy Jesus, who wouldn't swat a fly.  Most of the pictures also show a Jesus who is a bit androgynous and it's hard to tell what gender he actually is.

I did find a picture that showed Jesus as a total he-man. 

Here's Jesus with his bristling biceps, ripping the cross apart.  You can just picture him, jumping down from the busted up cross, banging the heads of the Roman soldiers, and then with a Hungarian accent saying, "I'll be back!"  But this, too, is, for me, an unsatisfying depiction of Jesus.
I found one picture of Jesus I kind of liked.

No beauty salon hair here.  No androgynous Jesus.  No sneaky hand signals.  No flower sniffing Jesus.  In fact, he looks kind of dangerous.  He has that look in his eyes that shows he's a person of determination, who's willing to take a risk with God.  There's even a bit of a look in his face along the lines of a semi-deranged schemer who is not quite safe to be around.  His expression seems to be saying, "I am totally committed, and if you aren't, get out of my way."

Maybe you liked some of those pictures of a pasty white Jesus with perfect hair.  With a lot of the stories about Jesus in the gospels, it's hard to get a picture of what Jesus really looked like.  And what I'm getting at here is not exactly his Jewish, middle eastern look, but his visage, his expression, his body language, his demeanor.  What was it like to encounter Jesus' personna?

One of the stories that gives us a glimpse of that is this story that is in all four gospels—of Jesus clearing out the temple.

Let's get a picture of what's going on in this story.

It was the time of the Passover Festival in Jerusalem.  It was at this festival the Jewish people celebrated the Exodus from Egypt.  You will remember that at that time of the Exodus, the people were instructed by Moses to kill a lamb and smear its blood over the outer doorways of their homes.  This would protect them when the angel of the Lord moved across Egypt and killed the firstborn in every house where there was no blood on the door.

Part of the Passover Festival was the reenactment of that time, and lambs were sacrificed on the altar in the temple.  It was a symbolic way the people remembered how God spared, and continues to spare them from death and the powers of darkness.

But they had to be perfect lambs without blemish.  People would bring a lamb of their own.  The temple inspectors would look the lamb over.  And they would, more often than not, find what they called a blemish.

What was really going on was the family of Annas, the high priest, began renting out space in the outer court of the temple to specific merchants who sold supposedly unblemished lambs for the sacrifice.  At inflated prices, of course.  For which, the high priest would get a kick-back for each lamb sold.  The inspectors, the merchants, and of course the high priest, were all in on the scam, perpetrating one big swindle.

But wait.  There is more!  If you wanted to buy a lamb (or had to buy a lamb because of the inspectors), you had to use the coinage of the temple.  Which meant a person had to exchange their Roman money for the temple coins.

This monetary exchange business was a booming one, also under the protective and ambitious eye of the high priest's mafia.  There was a fee that was charged for simply exchanging your coinage to the temple equivalent, so you could then buy your unblemished lamb at more than twice the cost.  The money exchangers were making literally thousands of dollars a year at these festivals from the fee they charged.  And of course, the high priest would get a percentage of that.

But wait.  That is not all!  There was one additional side of this institutionalized criminal activity.  The outer court was the only place in the temple in which Gentiles were allowed to worship.  If you were a Gentile convert, you were not allowed to go into the second court of the temple to worship.  If you wanted to come and say your prayers, to sing your praises to God, to discuss your spiritual life, and you were a Gentile, you had to do that in the outer court—with all the sheep and religious hucksters.  This outer court is where Jesus wanted to pray.

But how could you worship with all the bleating going on?  Imagine, it would be like we Christians were only allowed to worship in Allen Fieldhouse on the KU campus; or in the Octagon of Doom at KState.  But every time we were allowed to worship in one of those two venues, a basketball game was going on at the same time.  There we are, trying to sing, and pray, and listen to God's Word, trying to keep our attention on what we are there for, but with all the crowd noise and shoving going on from the basketball game.

So, Jesus is standing there, in the entry leading into the outer court of the temple, watching this big business in action, which is taking advantage of the large crowds of pilgrims swelling the population of Jerusalem during the celebration of Passover.  Jesus, from his vantage point is also keeping an eye on the priests and high priest, who are all on a second level, looking down with greedy eyes upon the din.

Which Jesus, in the pictures I showed you at the start of this message, would you want looking over this scene in the outer courtyard?  Which Jesus do you think could handle this institutionalized menagerie?

What would each of those pictures of Jesus be thinking as he looked on?  What would be going through his mind?  Most of those Jesus' from the pictures I showed would probably be thinking, "What can I do?  It's just the way it is.  Guess I should just get used to it, like everyone else has."

The outer courtyard of the temple, where all this was going on, was a very large area.  It would have had the capacity to hold several hundred sheep.  And money changers.  And T-shirt selling booths with t-shirts that might read:  "I survived Passover!"; or, "Baaaaa!  Humbug!"  And souvenir salesman.  And fast food trucks.  And entertainers—jugglers and fire eaters.  All of these apparently competing with one another, but all actually working for the same godfather, the high priest.

Which Jesus could take that all on?  And once he did, did he clear out the whole courtyard?  Or did he only go for a corner of it, trying to make a big statement with only a small example?

Which of these Jesus' would go into attack mode?  Maybe the last two—the cross busting Jesus, or the Jesus with a bit of a wild look in his eyes.  But not the first four.  They wouldn't take the chance to get their hair mussed up.  It would be a Jesus who would take the chance, even though that chance may not have any kind of lasting effect.  But at least he would be doing something.

Because what do you think the outer courtyard was like the next day?  Or even the next hour?  Business as usual.  Though it was dramatic and stirred things up a bit for an hour or so, wasn't Jesus' action too little, too late?

But part of what Jesus was trying to accomplish was hit the high priest where it hurt—in his wallet.  In effect, what Jesus was courageously doing was shouting out-loud to the pilgrims, the everyday people, "Hey!  Guess what!?  All those sheep in there, all that sacrifice stuff—it doesn't matter anymore.  You don't have to buy any more sheep.  You don't have to be preyed upon by a religious establishment that has lost its spiritual center.  In a few days there will be one Sacrifice that will take care of all sacrifices forever.  So forget about them in there!  Their notion of the practice of personal piety has become distorted and perverted."

After hearing that, the people were ecstatic.  They can't believe their ears.  As the Bible story says, "…all the people kept listening to Jesus, not wanting to miss a single word."

Slowly, but surely, the sheep and shekel business' in the temple begin to dry up.  Jesus is able to to reach into the hearts of the people with the message of what God really desires from people:  no more with the smoke screens of religious sacrificial hoo-doo, and meaningless traditions.  No more being a good company man to a religion that is bad company.  No more being a part of an institution that doesn't know, nor does it teach what the essence of God is all about.  No more going through the motions of "proper" religiosity, yet never knowing how to pray.  No more swimming atop the surface of creedalism, yet never diving deep into the mysterious presence of God.  No more with the stroking and building up of layer upon layer of institutionalized religion, with all the proper committees, but no trace of worship.  No more marketplace religion where salvation is bought and sold.  No more prostitution of church economics.  No more manipulation of the gospel.  No more corruption at the very core of the church's fellowship.

Which of those Jesus pictures do you see leading such a transformation?

What that Jesus is telling the people is that the true purpose of the temple, of any place of worship, is to gain a glimpse of the mysterious presence of God.  What that Jesus is doing is taking those who have been hurt and bilked by the religious system, who go away saying, "If that's religion, I want nothing to do with it," and telling and demonstrating to them what true worship is all about.  What that Jesus is effectively doing is courageously leaving the religious marketeers with lots of supply and no demand.

Which of those Jesus pictures do you see freeing people to actually becoming the people of God?

If we're going to answer the question of this Lenten series ("Who do I want to be in the future?  What kind of person do I want to become?  And, what am I willing to give up to become that person?) we need to pay attention to this story.  Because the kind of person who makes things happen has to have a certain wildness in their eyes and heart.  They have to courageously take risks.  They have to be people who aren't good for religious business, but are exceptional at devotion, motivating worship, and a prayerful life that turns over tables and starts a revolution.

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