Exodus 20:1-17 and John 2:13-22
Our Old Testament lesson is the 10 commandments (and as we know, the commandments of God, actually go far beyond these), but each time we read them, I daresay we all sort of tick off which ones we have kept, and also note where we may still be living in a grey area. This kind of report card approach to sin makes me think of a sermon given in 1741 by a Puritan preacher, Jonathan Edwards--“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. It is quite infamous for its Hell and Damnation theme. Here is an example:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire;
If you read the whole thing, you would be pretty certain that you and all you know were probably going straight to hell, maybe as soon as tomorrow, or perhaps even today.
Some of you may have actually heard similar sermons like this in your life, which is why I am thankful for our gospel this morning. I want you to imagine the Court of the Gentiles at the temple in Jerusalem that day. Because that is where Jesus was standing. Herod the Great had renovated the temple and it must have been a sight to behold. Herod used white marble on the walls and the façade so it shined in the sun on top of the hill like a beacon of hope to all those approaching from the countryside. The temple was made up of a series of courtyards and buildings. The largest courtyard that surrounded the actual smaller temple structure within, was the courtyard of the Gentiles.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is standing in this courtyard, and he is surrounded cattle, sheep and birds. Now what you need to realize is that this is not how the temple set-up was meant to be. Up until 30 AD, the market for the animals and the money changers for the temple tax was stationed outside the walls of the temple. But in 30 AD the Chief Priest, Caiaphas decided for debatable reasons, to have the market set up within the temple walls.
Now think about where Jesus is standing. I watched a silly little series on the BBC channel called The Vicar of Dibley. It is a about a woman vicar who takes a position at a village church.
She decides to have an animal blessing like we do here, but for some reason, the service ends up taking place in the church. And this is a country parish, so there are dogs and cats and birds, but also sheep and goats and cows. And you know the big worry of the vestry — that the animals will do what animals do. And so there is a potential for a big mess.
Multiply that by 100’s if not 1000’s of sheep and cattle and doves and you can see that Jesus is really stepping in it, literally and figuratively. Literally, he is probably standing in cow, sheep and dove doo doo. So he grabs a whip and drives them out of the temple, which puts him in deep doo doo with the religious authorities — especially I imagine our friend Caiaphas.
And so here we see an angry God, not cracking the whip at sinners, but at the religious authorities and crooked money changers taking advantage of the poor. He is angry for their hypocrisy and the oppression of their own people. He is angry that they lead the Jewish people astray. And He is angry because the one place in the entire world that should be Holy, a place of prayer, a beacon for God, is defiled by the decisions of the religious leaders.
When you read the gospels, you will find that our Lord Jesus actually had a high regard for sinners and those who fall short. Jesus was actually taunted by the religious elite of his day because he was a friend of sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes. He knew that every one of us in one way or another, or more likely many ways, far more than we ever want to admit, fit into one of the categories of the so-called damned. That was true before Jesus came, and while He was here, and it is true today, that sinners still comprise 100% of the population of humans on earth.
Because of this — His Father, our God of infinite compassion, mercy and grace has made preparations for the building of another temple. The temple of Herod was actually torn down to the ground 40 years after this gospel incident we read today, and the new temple of God, the body of our Lord was raised after 3 days. The true temple that is eternal, holy and undefiled by the world. The true temple that will withstand and conquer all, and this temple is big enough and accessible to all who turn to him in hope and faith. Full enough of grace and mercy to save all sinners throughout time.
Jesus is not a God that holds up by our waist band dangling over the pit of hell. Jesus stands with us in the muck of our lives. He has brought his temple into our hearts, and is with us. He has already cleaned out a space in our souls through those precious water of baptism. We all still number among the sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes, but we have a God who loves them and us. Jesus does not keep a report card. We have a God of infinite mercy and compassion. He knows our daily struggles with sin, and like a good father, he watches over us in hope. Delighting in our wins, picking us up when we fall down. Everyday cleansing us from within with water, fire, pruning shears, a shovel and love. Whatever it takes. Not looking to drop us into hell. Ever helping to draw us up to heaven with Him.
The Rev. Robin Hinkle is the rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Jasper.