Friday, March 13, 2009

A Lenten Sermon: What Got Jesus Killed

Sermon Text: John 2:12-27

What got Jesus killed? We’re spending six weeks as a church, alongside all other Protestant and Catholic churches and a week ahead of the Greek Orthodox churches preparing for Jesus’ death and resurrection. Six weeks studying Jesus’ death on a cross. Six weeks preparing for Jesus’ resurrection from the tomb.

And in putting ashes on our head and declaring together as a community that indeed, we are all equally depraved and equally sinful in the eyes of God, we say, "from ashes we have come and to ashes we will return." In doing this we acknowledge that we are not worthy. And yet on Easter Sunday, resurrection Sunday, we will discover that God chooses to resurrect us anyway. For six weeks many of us deprive ourselves of a vice or pleasure and focus on our relationship with God. We pray, we repent, we suffer if only a smidgen, because Christ suffered first.

But Why?

Not why do we spend time doing this – the value of admitting we sin and turning from it and to Christ is undeniable by even the most secular cynics. My question is why did Jesus suffer? Why did Jesus die?

Unfortunately, I may never get the answer to that question. Oh there’s lots of theological reasons like that swell little drawing you do on a piece of paper where God is on one side of the page and You are on the other and you need a road to get to God so in the middle of the paper connecting You to God, a cross gets drawn because Jesus is the link between You and God.

Great. We’ve officially reduced the infinite and holy God to a stick drawing. Lovely.

I don’t understand that reasoning quite frankly. And I certainly don’t like the idea of a God dying in order to save me. I mean, God’s God. Why death? A bloody, grueling death? Why not just snap your fingers and get us all to be with you. That’s possible, right?

But that’s not what happened. So perhaps I may get a glimpse of the Why if we return to our sacred text, to the story that is told there. We’ll begin in John 2.

In John, as in the other three gospels, Jesus visits the Temple and upon seeing the men selling the animals for sacrifice and god only knows what else and making a profit of it right there, right next to the holy of holies, Jesus flips. He freaks out and in John we get the real details. He turns over the tables, his face turns red, his muscles bulge, he turns green…

Okay, I’m embellishing. But I loved the Incredible Hulk as a kid. And did you see The Rock play Ba-ROCK Obama on Saturday Night Live last week? Hilarious. And so I picture Jesus getting mad like that. I mean no where else does he trash a joint. When the prostitute is brought before him, he uses a tricky mind game to teach the perpetrators a lesson, then he draws in the sand. He doesn’t start throwing rocks or sand at them, hollering at them for their hypocrisy.

But in the Temple, he does. And therein lies what scholars consider to be the real reason Jesus got hung on a cross. It wasn’t that he was nice to outcasts, or cast demons out of people or made fun of the Pharisees. It was this… it was what he communicated to the religious leaders in the Temple that day.

According to Charles Talbert, a Johannine Scholar, what Jesus does in the Temple is render sacrifice IMPOSSIBLE. The money-changers changed money into shekels. Shekels buy the birds and the bulls. And without the birds, there’s no daily sacrifice for sin. And if there’s no sacrifice, then how can the people be made right in the eyes of God?

What Jesus does in the Temple is similar to what happens in the book of Matthew when Jesus is on the cross, “Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.”

Jesus essentially says, there is no more need for sacrifice because he has come. There is no need to submit yourself to ritualistic cleansing because one has come who has made you clean. There is no need to go to a high priest for a blessing and affirmation, there is one whom you may go to yourself. The curtain is torn, there is no distinction between priest and peasant, no hierarchy to get to God. Jesus and the Father are one and both are accessible. There is no need for sacrifice to appease God or cleanse yourself. God has made the ultimate sacrifice, God has died because Jesus and the Father, as Nicodemus confesses in the very next story and as Jesus admits 8 chapters later are One. Jesus and the Father are One.

Jesus says there’s no need for the sacrificial system anymore. Why? Because He and God are one. And that’s blasphemy. And in making that statement, Jesus made himself a death wish.

Remember the ten commandments?
Number One: “You shall have no other gods before me” (including yourself).
Number Two: “You shall not make for yourself an idol” (or make yourself one – oops. Sorry American Idol), “whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
Number Three: “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God,” (for use the name of the Lord when referring to yourself) “for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.”
Deuteronomy 5:7-21 and Exodus 20:3-17

I think you get my point.

And consider this. In the Old Testiment and even some Orthodox Jews today wouldn’t even speak the name of God: Yahweh, so sacred and so other and so holy did they consider God to be. They wouldn’t even speak God’s name. So you can imagine how they would respond to someone who not only spoke the name of God but who equated himself as equal with God. “Why do you do this in God’s house? My house is to be a place of prayer.”

Webster’s defines blasphemy as “an indignity offered to God in words, writing, or signs; impiously irreverent words or signs addressed to, or used in reference to, God; speaking evil of God; also, the act of claiming the attributes or prerogatives of deity. When used generally in statutes or at common law, blasphemy is the use of irreverent words or signs in reference to the Supreme Being in such a way as to produce scandal or provoke violence.”

And really, what could be more irreverent than for a human to equate himself with God? God as a human? Indeed that is scandelous.

And yet, that’s what Jesus claims.

So each of the synoptic gospels ends with the story of Jesus in the Temple functioning as the symbolic “final straw” of Jesus’ irritating ministry. Healing lepers and calling prostitutes clean is one thing, but equality with God? Please. And John begins his story of Jesus’ ministry with the Temple cleansing for a similar reason. This event is so provocative that it must be told first. All the rest of the stories just add to its case.

And that’s it. That’s the crux. Yes, Jesus was a good moral teacher who many of us strive to live our life after. Yes, Jesus won the victory over evil forces in the world. Yes, Jesus ransomed his life so that ours may be saved.

But why?

Because He’s God.

Because He’s God, and we’re not.

Praise be to God.


Patrick said...

Good thoughts, Ann.

Kicking over tables in the temple is a very prophet-like thing to do - and earns you a prophet's reward!

Pete & Joy said...

i loved this blog. seeing the symmetry between jesus, rampage in the temple and the holy of holy's being rent at the resurrection is powerful.

hmmmm...further thoughts:

this is obviously not his only challenge upon the corrupt religious rulers of his day, nor necessarily his most significant. maybe it was the tipping point, but methinks it was the display of his pure and holy power that inspired resentment and provoked the spiritually insecure.

basically, in the presence of god, whatever was in your heart was no longer hidden--good, bad or ugly. he exposed a heart hatred of god and showed us why god equates hatred with murder--it's the same urge expressed in different degrees.

he acknowledged "you would not have any power or authority whatsoever against (over) me if it were not given you from above." to me this suggests that he knew the events he was triggering.

i see the human influence leading to his crucifixion but am inclined towards differentiating between primary and exclusive causes here because the eternal and the temporal mysteriously overlap.

what is the divine intentionality of letting/choosing for jesus to die this way?

it appeals to my imagination--the "what if" jesus didn't die and just ascended, like enoch or elijah, but that isn't how it went down and what went down wasn't plan b.

maybe that's not what you meant, but nonetheless, i truly dug it.