Saturday, March 7, 2015

Third Sunday of Lent: Christ Crucified vs. Christ the Salesman

Jesus was all too familiar with the pleas of skeptics in regard to His ministry, power, and purpose. He was asked for miracles, healings, and on a few occasions was directly asked "What sign can you give us?"

One instance of this is this Sunday's Gospel reading, which opens with a mildly terrifying telling of the cleansing of the Temple. Jesus went up to Jerusalem and found that the Temple had become the scene of a sort of marketplace, with some selling things for profit and others purchasing things for personal gain according to their desires. Jesus responds to this in a way which shocks many readers: by making a whip out of cords and driving the animals out while commanding the people to get rid of everything else. The Gospel reports that he dumped their money out onto the ground and flipped over their tables. Basically, Jesus was not happy, and had no problem making a total mess of the way they wanted to misuse the Temple.

In the next part of our story, Jesus is asked, "What sign can you show us for doing this?" The witnesses of this display are concerned by Jesus' unabashed and (they presume) arrogant show of authority over the Temple. They want to know who He thinks He is, and they want a sign, some sort of proof that He has the power to do what He's just done.

His response is simple: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."

The Jews are confused. They protest that the Temple has been under construction for years, and no man could possibly rebuild it in three days' time. But the passage goes on to explain that Jesus' disciples later realized He had been talking about the temple of His body, which would be crucified and raised again in three days.

The sign we're given as proof that Jesus has authority to profess that the Temple is not a place for bargaining is His crucifixion. In our current world, it's easy, I think, for Christians to get this image of Jesus in their heads that makes Him into a sort of "take what you like and leave the rest" sort of God; a marketplace, so to speak, where we can give Him what we think He can afford, and take from Him what we think is a good deal. This idea that we don't have to accept the whole of Who Jesus really is, that we can accept His love and mercy and kindness, and leave out His desire to be loved in return, His hope that we will find life and peace in His commandments which are the words of everlasting life (as our Psalm this weekend expresses), and accept His kindness and ignore His plea to see His face in the poor and downtrodden.

We forget that Jesus didn't come to be Santa Claus. He didn't come to give good things to all the good boys and girls and coal to all the bad boys and girls. He didn't come with a table display of items up for sale in exchange for small fragments of our lives. He came to show us our failure, offer us hope, and die as the ransom for us, all of us, our whole selves, to win us back from sin and death. He does all three of these from the cross. Our failure is shamefully displayed on the cross, in the wounds of Christ which distort Him, the Scriptures say, into something that doesn't even look human anymore (much like our sin does to us). Our hope is proudly exclaimed from the cross: "It is finished." Jesus tears the veil between God and man by drawing man to Himself in the embrace of man's suffering as His own. And obviously, His death on the cross is the death He died for our sins. He didn't die on the cross so we could take what we want from Him and leave the rest.

The Soldiers Casting Lots for Christ's Garments by William Blake

We don't worship in a temple that allows us to use it for whatever we feel like using it for. We don't belong to a religion that we can turn into something selfish, something purely for our own gain with no regard to the purpose of the faith or the way our choices affect other people. We don't worship a God who doesn't care if we do whatever we please without considering the ramifications.

But we do worship a God who had to die in order to save us from the mindset that brought us to those things in the first place. We proclaim a God who is unafraid to shake things up in our lives if it means we might have a Temple to rest in, worship in, and find hope and peace in, rather than the chaos of our inner give-and-take mentality. We proclaim a God who confronts our selfishness with the ultimate act of selflessness.

In our second reading today, Paul puts it quite succinctly: "We proclaim Christ crucified."

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