Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Politics of Jesus

Mark 11:15-18
15On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there.  He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, 16and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.  17And as he taught them, he said, ‘Is it not written:  “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations”?  But you have made it a “den of robbers.”’
18The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, for the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.

Every single house in Addis Ababa is surrounded by a wall.  The richer the occupant, the more elaborate the security.  The poor make their walls out of strips of tin and scraps of plastic and wood.  Older houses are surrounded by concrete block walls that have broken glass embedded in the cement along the top.  They may even have their walls topped by coils of razorwire.  The really important people have added electric fences to the tops of their walls.  Violent crime is an issue in Addis and Nairobi.  Home invasions happen and often don’t end well.  If people have stuff, they become increasingly obsessed with security, with keeping the wrong sort of people out.

I’ve come to see that our passage this evening is about walls, walls designed to keep the wrong sort of people out, and about Jesus’ absolute commitment to tear down these sorts of walls.  Judaism had increasingly become a religion of walls, walls put up to keep them safe and pure, walls designed to keep the wrong sort of people out.  I believe that their intentions were originally good.  From the very beginning, Israel had a fatal attraction to the gods of her pagan neighbors.  Again and again she broke the covenant that the one true God had made with her.  ‘I will be your God, and you will be my people,’ God said.  But again and again, Israel chose not to be satisfied with God, not to be content with his promises.  Israel was happy to worship God, to offer the right sacrifices, to keep all the festivals.  But Israel wanted to add to her religion the ways of the nations around her.  So for most of her history, Israel’s religion was one of God +.  They supplemented their religion with alternative traditions, alternative practices, alternative gods and goddesses.  

We do much the same today.  The fact that you and I are here this evening means that you and I are nothing if not religious.  We go to church and do our religious duty.  But a lot of us this morning are not that different from Israel.  We, like Israel, are hedging our bets.  Some of us have a whole shelf-full of gods that we are busy bowing down to in addition to what we are doing here this evening.  But however religious we may seem, however spiritual our language may be, our religion of God + Stuff  ≠ Christianity.  A religion of God + the pursuit of pleasure ≠ Christianity.  These are the sort of issues that the Old Testament prophets are so vexed about.  Israel was determined to practice a religion of God + Asherah or Baal or Chemosh or Tanit or Molech.  They wanted to be like their neighbors.  But that’s not why God saved you from slavery in Egypt, the prophets said.  God saved you for himself.  God saved you so that he could bring glory to himself.  God saved you so that you could be the means by which the nations who were still in darkness all around you might see and understand and respond to the light of his love.  God didn’t save you so that you could then compromise yourself into irrelevence.  But Israel chose not to listen.  And after warning her again and again, judgment finally came, just like judgment will eventually catch up with you and me if we choose not to listen.  Israel and then Judah were destroyed.  The temple burned.  And a remnant was taken into captivity in Babylon.

When God kept his promise to restore his people from captivity and bring them back to the land, the remnant of God’s people decided that they would never make that mistake again.  And so they determined that they would never allow themselves to be contaminated or corrupted by the ways of the nations again.  And so they began building walls, walls to keep the contamination out, walls to make sure that nothing would get in that would make them impure, that would corrupt their worship of the true God.  And so the heart of their religion shifted from being God-centered to being holy.  Thus circumcision became very important because it separated those who were on the inside from those who were on the outside.  Keeping Sabbath and eating kosher and keeping the feasts became very important because it separated those who were on the inside from those who were on the outside.  Keeping the standards of personal purity became very important because it separated those who were on the inside from those who were on the outside.  And so intense did the desire to maintain holiness become that those on the outside began to be seen as the problem and the enemy, to be shunned and avoided and driven away.  Judaism became increasingly a religion of walls.  Only the holy could come in.  Only the pure could draw near to God.  And the biggest symbol of all was the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem.  The temple itself was surrounded by four sets of barriers.  The first wall you came to had signs posted on it that said, ‘No Gentiles past this point on pain of death.’  The next wall kept women from coming any closer.  The next barrier into the temple could be crossed only if you were a consecrated priest.  And in the temple itself was the room, the Holy of Holies where God himself was said to dwell.  It was cordoned off from the rest of the temple by a thick curtain, and only the high priest carrying the blood of a goat that was sacrificed for the sin of the people could enter once a year where he would make atonement for the sins of the people.

When God had appeared to the man that all Israel looked to as their founding father, when God appeared to Abraham, he said, ‘I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you…and you will a blessing… and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’ (Genesis 12:2-3)  But rather than be the means by which God blessed the nations, by the first century, Judaism was committed to keeping them out and driving them away.  They thought God’s blessing was meant for them and them alone.

Jesus came to destroy every barrier and knock down every wall.  It’s what got him crucified.  He breaks down the walls that kept out the lepers by healing them.  He breaks down the walls that kept out the demonized by setting them free.  He breaks down the walls that kept out women by including them in his circle.  And here in our passage, even the temple itself, the symbol of everything this religion stood for, the bastion of nationalistic holiness itself, comes under Jesus’ direct attack.  Jesus goes into the court reserved for the gentiles and drives out the money changers and overturns the tables of those selling animals for sacrifice.  It’s another parable, this time not spoken with words but spoken with actions.  But what does it mean?  I used to think that Jesus was launching a direct attack on corruption that had taken root in the worship that was going on at the temple, and that the application is that we shouldn’t sell raffle tickets or have a bookstore at church.  But I don’t think that Jesus actually cares about raffle tickets and bookstores.  I think Jesus himself actually explains what he means.  ‘And as he taught them he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’?  But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”’ (Mark 11:17)   

But you need to know that Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Den of robbers’ here in Mark’s gospel.  Literally, Jesus says, You have made my house a cave of bandits.’  Jesus knows exactly what he’s doing; he has chosen his words intentionally.  Nationalistic Jews hated the Gentiles, because they perceived that the Gentiles were a direct threat to their purity and therefore their existence as God’s people.  But they especially hated the Romans, because the Romans had conquered them, and the Romans were in charge of the holy land, the land that God had given to his people.  And so for the sake of God’s holy land, for the sake of God’s holy people, for the sake of their religion, the Gentile Romans had to be driven out at regardless of the cost. Just like the time of the Maccabees.  And so bands of nationalistic Jews had formed for just that purpose, to harry and harass the Romans, to foment rebellion and create the conditions whereby the showdown battle between God’s holy people and their enemies might finally take place.  These nationalistic Jews the Romans called bandits (today we might call them terrorists or insurgents), their hiding places were usually caves.  

Jesus is making the direct charge that the temple itself has become the focus of a movement to drive out the nations once and for all.  That’s not what this house is for, says Jesus.  God is not the God of one nation, He’s the God of all the nations.  Every barrier that you put up to protect your interests, your religion, your people, your culture, your holiness is a barrier set up against the will and purpose of God.  Can you begin to see why Jesus aroused such hostility.  Can you begin to see why they conspired to get rid of him?  Jesus was too much of a threat.  And so they work together with the Romans to silence the challenge to their agenda.  And by using the Romans to crucify this blasphemer, the Jews can score the additional propaganda points by claiming that this man is actually under God’s curse, because doesn’t the Law say, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’?  But they didn’t understand.  They didn’t realize that Jesus had all along intended to lay down his life in such a way, he intended to offer himself as a sacrifice, he intended to take upon himself the curse of God covenant that God’s people deserved because they had broken the covenant.  Jesus had systematically broken through almost every wall.  But one more wall remained, the biggest wall of all.  ‘At the sixth hour, darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour.  And at the ninth hour, Jesus cried out in a loud voice… “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”…  With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.  The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.’ (Mark 15:33-28)

The wall  created by our own sin separating us from God has been torn down.  Jesus himself offered his own blood as a sacrifice before his Father so that your sins might be covered, and forgiven, so that you might be forgiven and given a new life.  

But for those of us who are Christians, I think there is an even deeper challenge for us.  First century Judaism had lost its way.  God intended Israel to be the bridge of his love to all the nations.  They were concerned only for themselves, to protect their status and privileges and identity.  They had built walls.  They had forgotten that God had an agenda.  

We are a church in transition.  We have come from a homeland and now find ourselves here in this land.  We have done a very good job of surviving, even thriving.  But have we ever asked, why has God brought us here?  What might God’s agenda for us be?  Just to survive?  Just to be our own little Orthodox enclave? Have we forgotten that God has an agenda?  Are we busy building walls, creating our own private island of privilege and prosperity?  Have we become satisfied and complacent with a religion and with religious institutions designed to serve and meet our needs?  Have we become a cave of bandits?  Are we guilty of hijacking God’s agenda for the nations and spending his blessing on ourselves?  What walls need to come down in my life and your life and in this church today?  Who are the lepers today?  Who are the sinners and tax collectors today?  Who are the outsiders and foreigners today?  Our reason for existing as a church is so that God’s blessing may flow through us to them.  

Our walls may not be as obvious as the walls of Addis Ababa and Nairobi, but most of us have been just as industrious.  The question that faces me and you and us together is: Will we be a community of men and women passionately committed to God’s agenda for blessing the nations, God’s agenda for reaching his broken world with Christ and his gospel? Or will we simply be another club passionate about preserving our perks and comfort and privilege, our ethnic identity and our traditions?  But as you leave this place, be careful.  Taking seriously and wrestling with God’s agenda is a dangerous thing.  It is how people today hear God’s call.  It is why people, even today, might be willing to leave everything behind and become a missionary, even to places like Kenya.

A sermon preached at Vespers on Tuesday evening, November 28, 2017 at Holy Cross Seminary and Hellenic College in Brookline, MA.

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