3rd Sunday in Lent
There’s a cartoon that you may have seen before. Moses’s his wife stops the caravan procession as the Israelites continue to circle their way around the desert for 40 years. She sticks her head into a convenient store and asks directions to the promised land, and we have the anticipation that directions are given. Mythology has it that men aren’t so good at asking for directions which was certainly true for my poor father. Yeah, taking directions from God even, about the way that we should go, is not easy for any of us.
Has anyone ever been inside a big factory or plant? Or even a machine shop where there is a lot going on? Well, we often are very concerned during this season of Lent about being “productive.“ We want to make an impression on God so we might do that by saying particular kinds of prayers or maybe by giving something up. I know that I sometimes make a very big production at my house about how much I am missing red meat, sweets, or some other thing. We can make a lot of noise because we feel within our busy-ness is the machinery of production. And in worship we can sometimes become so caught up in what we are doing and how we are doing it that we lose sight of what worship and our life journey with God is pointing us toward: transformation. Transformed life is really what God has in store for us and, during this season of Lent, transformation is what we want to be after, too.
What can it mean, then, to be part of the machinery of religion or of the secular world for that matter? Jesus very famously – in all four Gospels – comes into the Temple, sees all of the machinery that Temple worship has become. He views the animals, the money changers, and people buying and selling animals and he has “a moment.” Jesus fashions a whip out of cords, whatever he can find. As John tells it, He very clearly takes his whip and he drives the sheep and the cattle out of the Temple and, in the stampede, the money changers and the people selling animals for sacrifice go along with them. Now all the artwork that I was able to find on what is called “the purification of the temple” has Jesus standing over some fearful, cowering money changer and He is about to really lay it on them with that whip. Jesus quotes the prophet Jeremiah saying, “You have made my Father’s house a den of robbers, thieves” and he makes a mighty big stink, even bigger than the sheep and cattle would have very likely have already made inside the courtyard of the temple.
Now, the money changers who were taking the Roman currency and changing it into Jewish currency, purified so that it could then be placed in the temple treasury was perfectly legal. The selling of animals – sheep, goats, cattle, doves and pigeons – for ritual sacrifice was part and parcel of how the temple ran in Jesus’ day. And during a high holy festival time – like Passover – there would’ve been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Levitical priests cutting up the sacrificed animals in the prescribed way that would be “pleasing to God.” And when Rowan Williams speaks of the machinery of religion, the Temple highlights what he means; many of us are working really hard at pleasing God but perhaps not spending nearly enough time and energy opening ourselves up to being transformed by God.
Jesus, by “purifying” the Temple, was attempting to recast Temple worship as an act and place of transformation; that the life of Israel, so caught up in hardship and struggle, would be transformed, and the national religious life and yearnings of Israel would come into contact with the divine presence. The mystery of God’s love and the people’s lives would collide in transformed existence. It is no less true for us.
Let’s think about in terms of our own worship. We often wonder what Christ has actually done for us through His suffering, His sacrificial death and Resurrection. In a very real way, when we engage in Holy Communion, for instance, we might come to an understanding that Jesus has cleared the way for us, has purified us and in Communion itself that we might be transformed as we receive Jesus. Jesus has opened up, through his body and his blood, the revealed presence of God. Jesus has moved away the machinery of religion, where we might do things by rote, by the numbers, because we believe that that is what God wants; that is what is pleasing to God. What Christ has done in his sacrificial life and death of promise is to reveal, little by little, something more of himself to us. And the more fully we allow ourselves to be transformed by the reality of what Christ has done for us, in us, and with us, the more that we can open ourselves up to the great mystery of God’s unending love for us in In Christ.
You see, what we sometimes try to do is to make God more comprehensible to us, more understandable, and we would exchange the power and mystery of God‘s great love for us – in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – by giving ourselves things to do. Unfortunately, we really don’t get to know God any better at all when we put God into a box and make God tame and small. We struggle to understand how an infinite, creative, and all–knowing God would come amongst us in the form of a physically ordinary and prone–to–all–our–human–frailties, real human. How God would work that way? And so we may discard God all together because it’s inconceivable to us that and omniscient God would make himself human for our sake. But the Lenten journey, and in fact our spiritual life journey, calls us into the mystery and the unknowing of God‘s creative and transformative work in Jesus Christ. God, in Christ, purifies and cleanses us, clearing the way for us to more fully know God and more deeply enter into a relationship with God. That is transformation. That is the Lenten aim and promise and that is – or should be – the focus of our worship and our continuing spiritual life journey with and to God.
Our transformation is really about ending up in a different place than we started. If our Lenten disciplines only call us to take a pause as a way of us trying to honor Christ’s sacrifice for us, then we have missed a real opportunity to be transformed. And we can’t do it all at once. Being transformed by a growing awareness of God’s loving and sacrificial presence among us is a life’s journey and work. Lent is first and foremost about us resetting ourselves on a surer and more certain path toward our God and our Savior. We are being implored, during this holy season of Lent, to shake off the old, rusty, noisy, and yet comfortingly familiar ways of being and move toward a more open stance in our mysterious, sometimes terrifying, and yeah transformative walk with our Lord and Savior. Christ would purify us with his transforming and utterly self–giving sacrifice of himself. We are on the road to a transformed life with God when we intentionally and, perhaps slowly and gently, begin to open ourselves more fully to the mystery and true presence of Almighty God.