Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

There is a depiction of Jesus, painted by a Canadian artist about forty years ago, which was originally called Jesus Christ, Liberator, but which most people these days refer to as “Laughing Jesus.” I suspect most of you will have seen this painting at one time or another, and it captures an image of a sort of Christ we’d like to think of: jovial and friendly. Now, I don’t think the bible ever tells us about Jesus laughing; the Gnostic Gospel of Judas does, but this should not inform our view of the Christ. Even so, while our Lord is shown in scripture to be a rather serious fellow, he was a human being, so I’m sure at some point he laughed. That’s not really the point I’m trying to make here. The point is, and the “Laughing Jesus” painting’s popularity serves as evidence of this, that we tend these days to think of and depict Jesus in ways which highlight his meekness and kindliness. We rarely get as off-base as “Buddy Christ” from the movie Dogma, but sometimes we get a bit close.

When we compare this serene, kindly Jesus of our imagination with today’s Gospel reading, then, we might experience some cognitive dissonance. Perhaps some of us might compare our own vision and experience of our Lord with today’s Gospel and find ourselves either confused or troubled. This is not the nice Jesus who goes round doing good deeds and having a good laugh with his “bros.”. The Jesus we see in today’s Gospel reading, the Jesus who fashions a whip of cords, who overturns the tables of the money-changers, seems angry and scary. This is not the Jesus we’re comfortable with.

This story has made some people uncomfortable enough to try to explain it away. Stanley Hauerwas, a noted pacifist scholar and professor at Duke Divinity School, has suggested that Jesus did not have a violent, visceral reaction at all in the temple that day. Rather, Hauerwas claims, that He was merely performing a careful, well-planned show in which he actually caused no harm to any person or property. This show was to make a point but there were no real consequences as such. Like many modern scholars who engage in trying to get a clearer picture of the historical Jesus, Hauerwas’ Jesus ends up looking eerily like Hauerwas.

But this is not fair to the story as we know it from scripture and it presents a very flat view of Jesus indeed. We have a desire, it seems to me, to fashion a God who affirms everything about us. We want a Jesus who only calls to us “softly and tenderly” when we’ve gone astray, not a Jesus who overturns tables; not a Jesus who uses both his staff and his rod, as the psalmist puts it, to comfort and correct us. We want to construct a God who is eminently palatable and comfortable and who doesn’t really want to change anything about us. But to envision God in this way is to build an idol. It is to ignore the words from today’s Old Testament lesson: “You shall not make for yourself an idol,” it says, “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.” Yet we do fashion idols “in the form of [something] that is on the earth beneath.” We fashion idols out of ourselves, thus putting ourselves in the place of God.

The problem of the money changers, and of many of us, myself included, is not a lack of religion. Rather, the problem is the propagation of irreligion, bad religion. The money changers knew enough about their Jewish religion to pervert it. They knew that sacrifices were to be made in the temple, and they chose to capitalize on it. Just so, when we cast Jesus in our own image, we know enough about Christianity to pervert it, to turn it to our own ends. Whatever I do or say becomes God’s will and I can point to a distorted image of Jesus to justify it. We don’t even recognize that the Jesus we see looks strangely like ourselves.

So, this sermon has become a bit depressing, even for a Lenten sermon, for which I apologize. There is hope here, though. It is appropriate that we are hearing this hard Gospel reading during this Holy Season. Lent provides us a special opportunity to invite Jesus into the temples of our own hearts and lives so that he can turn over a few tables in each of us. Lent calls us to be open to a sort of spiritual renovation—a transformation in fact—which is not of our doing but is something Jesus works in us. That’s part of what all the prayer and fasting and penitence of these glorious forty days is about. They are not ends in themselves, much less are they schemes for self-improvement. Rather, they are meant as a preparation, so that Christ may fashion each of us into temples worthy of his abiding presence, and when He comes to dwell in us we may not perceive him as a little version of ourselves—with all the assumptions and bigotries and narcissistic tendencies that we have—but as the image of the true God.

Naturally, the process can be painful, as I said in last week’s sermon. There was upset and confusion and turmoil that morning in the temple, and so will there be upset and confusion and turmoil in our own hearts when Christ comes in to do his transforming work. Christ said, “take up your cross and follow me.” Being conformed to Our Lord instead of conforming our vision of the Lord to ourselves means sacrifice, which is hard. Even so, we know that the end of such suffering is a renewed relationship with the Father, and ultimately unending life in His presence.

All of this should give us hope that in the often painful exigencies of life God is at work making Himself known. This is Good News for all of us. Despite our confusion and pain, God is working His purpose out in ways which we cannot now imagine. Our response to this blessed truth should be openness and endurance. We must be open to God’s will even when we find it uncomfortable or perplexing. We must be open to Christ working in us, when He turns over the tables in our own lives, strong in the assurance that in conforming us (and the whole world) to Himself, He will put all things to rights for His faithful people.

And, in the midst of such pain and confusion, we must heed the Apostle Paul’s mandate to “run the race with endurance”. We must endure in prayer and fasting and devotion, for these practices give us sustenance in our times of pain and confusion. And just as the angels ministered to Our Lord in the wilderness, so will God’s Word give us strength in the desert seasons of our lives. Just as God gave His people manna in the desert, so will the Body and Blood of Our Lord give us sustenance when we are wandering. And at the last, when surrounded by the light of Resurrection, we may look back on our own lives, and indeed on the whole sweep of history, and see that God was not absent even once, but was hard at work transforming this old, fallen world into His Kingdom.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.