So I have a question for you. You probably know the answer, but I want you to think about it a little bit harder. Why did Jesus spend 40 days in the wilderness? I know this isn’t the passage for today, but humor me here. We are in Lent after all. Lent is very strange to me. I grew up in a tradition that did not celebrate Lent. I was told that we were supposed to live self-sacrificially all year-round, not just 40 days out of the year. When I became Anglican as an adult then, I have questioned Lent a lot. So I ask myself, why? What was Jesus doing those 40 days in the wilderness?
(pause) I have to admit part of my difficulty with Lent is that my birthday falls in the middle of it! (pause) I do struggle with that. What was he doing? He wasn’t just giving up chocolates, giving up luxuries. He was resisting temptation at its deepest level. He was, in fact, re-coding himself. Or if you are above the age of 50, perhaps the word ‘re-programming’ might be better. He was re-programming his brain. He was training for the front lines. Why?
As humans we are designed to self-preserve. It is our ‘Modus Operandi’. I want to be alive tomorrow. Our first instinct as a baby is for food. We dress appropriate for the weather. We try to balance sleep, work and exercise. We try to eat healthy. We are each programmed to do what is safe, life-giving for ourselves first. Our existence is our first priority. Jesus, though, In making himself very hungry and lonely and uncomfortable, was doing the opposite. He was asking how far can I go without wanting to jump in and save myself? Why was he doing this? Because he was about to make a lot of people very angry with him.
Unfortunately, we in the Christian western nations have sanitized Jesus. Some say ‘domesticated’ him. We have made him polite and acceptable. The problem is, as Holger pointed out last week, that’s not the Jesus we have before us in Scripture. Jesus offended people – especially those who were rich, powerful and educated, but most especially the religious leaders. He called them a variety of names: “Whitewashed tombs”, “hypocrites”, “blind guides” and “fools”. He calls them “snakes” and “broods of vipers”. He did not mince words. He was angry. He knew he was going to put himself in the path of danger. And he did. Spend some time this afternoon or this week and just thumb through the gospels, and count the number of times people got so mad at him they wanted to kill him. It comes up again and again. This is not someone who is being polite. This is not someone who is being quiet and just letting things move on.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I have my self-preservation monitor set on ‘high’. I do everything in my power to keep myself safe and healthy. It is rare that I will speak out on a subject unless I know I can do it from a position of safety. And yet that question keeps nagging in the back of my mind: Is this the right place to be for a follower of Jesus? If I am to be like Him, should I also not push my safety to the side for a greater purpose?
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Sophie Scholl. I work in the very building at LMU where she and her brother and friend were caught distributing anti-Nazi leaflets in 1943. Everytime I step out of that building on a bright sunny day, her last words ring in my ears:
„How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?“
Sophie was beheaded at the tender age of 21, just down the street in Stadelheim Prison. She was more Christ-like than I fear I will ever be. She had the courage to say ‘We’ is more important than ‘me’.
In our scripture reading from the book of John, Jesus does more than just name-calling. He acts out. He makes a whip to drive out the animals being sold in the temple. The reason? Well, first the temple isn’t a marketplace. It is a place of prayer. Second, there is speculation among scholars that the requirement to present animals for sacrifice was being exploited by unscrupulous sellers, moneychangers and the Temple Leaders. Only the animals purchased in the temple were blemish-free; those brought to the temple were not good enough. The people coming to worship and prepare for the passover were being ‘robbed on their way to righteousness’, and that infuriated Jesus. And why not? Jesus turns over the tables of the sellers and pours their coins on the ground. Don’t you know that enraged them? He was confronted with ‘Who gave you authority to do this?’ His answer was rather snarky when you think about it: “Destroy this temple and I will rebuild it in three days!” The scripture tells us that only later did the Disciples understand that Jesus was referring to his own body as the temple. But the answer confused the questioners, and distracted them. He was good at that.
It is important to note what made Jesus angry. It almost always has to do with injustice, with exploiting vulnerable people, and with keeping the Love of God distant from the “common man”, putting barriers in front so that the “common man” couldn’t come and worship and feel the Love of God. That was simply unacceptable to Jesus. He accuses the scribes and pharisees of withholding righteousness from the people, keeping it to themselves. They had made the rules more important the the humans for whom they were made. They rebuke Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath, because they considered that ‘work’. They put barriers in the way of innocent people trying to fulfill the law when coming to the Temple for the Passover feast.
When Martin Luther stood up to the Catholic Church in the 1500’s, he was essentially accusing the church of doing the same thing that Jesus was accusing the Temple leaders of his day: They were exploiting their leadership to keep people away from God – keeping people feeling guilty and doing penance to keep them paying for forgiveness or paying to reach various stages of purgatory or heaven. They were supposed to be bringing people closer to God. The good news that Jesus brought was this: God loves you as His own child. You do not need to wonder if you deserve to be here. Nor must you carry a load of guilt around with you everywhere. Nor should you have to buy your way into the presence of God – whether that is the Temple or Heaven or your local parish church. The worship of God must not be turned into yet another power structure for greedy and selfish men (or women) to abuse. God is for all.
As a Christian today, I ask myself what would I put myself in danger for? What greater good? Where can I be Christ in this world? It is sad and paralyzing to note that there are so many injustices in the world to choose from. Go to any country and pick one. But especially now as an American, I can say with complete conviction it is about making our public gathering places safe again. If Jesus were alive today, (and I pray that those who call themselves Christians will recognize that they are Him in body) I am certain he would be turning over the desks of Congress and yelling, “How dare you turn our schools and churches into slaughterhouses!” Allowing violence to reign is wrong and unacceptable. In this situation, inaction is also unacceptable.
Being a Christian isn’t about being polite and sweet at all times. It is, in fact, putting yourself in harm’s way to protect the vulnerable and to cry out against injustice. There is a time when it is right for Christians to be angry and vocal, to pick up the cross. By the way, picking up your cross doesn’t mean dragging around a burden your whole life. It means walking to calvary, walking to die. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in ‘Cost of Discipleship’ (p. 99) that we accept this duty at the very beginning of accepting Christ: “Thus is begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Are you preparing yourself for such a time as this? Are you ready at any moment to stand up, be heard, and be vulnerable that others might have life?