Sermon: Radical Sabbath

When I was eight years old, my Gramma Della (Renzella Tilma, a staunch Dutch-German Presbyterian), gave me my very first Bible. This was before they had all the different versions for kids, etc., so it was the King James, of course, which made little sense to an eight year old. But it was brightly illustrated throughout in an effort to appeal to young Bible readers: Adam and Eve skulking away in the garden, fig leaves well in place; Noah on the bridge of the Ark, rainbow arching overhead, dove on the wing with olive branch in beak; Moses, bright-faced on the mountaintop with newly etched tablets under arm; little David squaring off with the giant Goliath, swinging his sling.

And the New Testament section was filled with colorful depictions of Jesus: Jesus at the seashore calling to the fishermen; Jesus sitting on a rock, children all around him, with one on his lap; Jesus healing a lame boy on a pallet; Jesus preaching on a hillside with throngs of people listening; Jesus on a little donkey riding into town; Jesus on his knees praying in the garden; Jesus between two others on a cross, dark clouds overhead.

As a child, I probably learned more about Jesus from those pictures than any written text I might have stumbled through at the time.

But there was one picture, in my little Bible – which always sort of baffled me – that seemed out of place, uncharacteristic. It showed Jesus in the temple, a look of anger on his face, a whip of cords lifted high in hand, people around him fearfully scrambling to get out of the way.

Could this be the same Gentle Shepherd we sang about in Sunday school?

Was this the same Jesus who taught, who healed, who held, who loved, who forgave, who sacrificed?

In today’s scripture passage, John paints a portrait for us of a very different Jesus.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.

Let me ask you something: How many of you remember what I preached about last week? How many of you put pictures of the important people in your life on your refrigerator?

Martin Marty tells the story of a British theologian who asked an audience of churchgoers to try to remember five sermons they had heard in their lifetime. Most of them were stumped. A few remembered a sermon for a special occasion, such as the funeral of a loved one. In fact, studies show that most sermons are forgotten in a matter of hours; a few days at the most. But, then, the British theologian asked his audience to try to bring to mind five people through whom the hand of God was laid on them. Every hand shot up.

Even if you forget every word Jesus ever said, you would not forget what he did that day he visited the temple in Jerusalem.

“What sign can you show us for doing this?!” the worshiping congregation wanted to know on that Sabbath day. This Jesus, who had been presented as an infant in that very temple, who grew up in that temple, who had routinely worshipped in that temple, who had even taught with authority from childhood on in that temple. And who now, as an adult, was wreaking havoc in that same temple.

‘What is the meaning of this act, Jesus?!’ they exclaimed. `Why in the world are you doing this?!’

“You might tear this temple down,” said Jesus. “But I will rebuild it in three days!”

Outside my little Bible, I haven’t seen many portrayals of Jesus cleansing the temple. Although Rembrandt did it. It’s the picture we chose for the front of this morning’s bulletin.

It is an incredibly powerful, almost disturbing image—chaotic, turbulent, angry, tables falling, dogs barking, religious leaders looking on in splendid isolation, and at the center, striking out with a whip, a strong, muscular, determined man, Jesus.[i]

An image that makes us “feel queasy in the pit of the stomach,” Paul Shupe says. “. . . because along with the surge of righteous adrenaline that is produced when Jesus shifts into his prophet mode comes the sneaking fear that we might have more in common with the targets of his judgment than with the righteousness of his cause.”[ii]

And the fact was that the moneychangers and merchants were providing a necessary service to the people. The moneychangers were exchanging Roman currency – coins with the image of the Emperor (who thought he was god) – for the temple money that was acceptable for making a temple offering. Merchants were ever present to provide various animals – calves, sheep, turtledoves – that were without blemish for acceptable sacrifice. What’s wrong with that, Jesus?

The thing is, Jesus wasn’t railing against the oppressive Roman government, here, or even the coopted Pharisees and chief priests.

The problem here is not just that Jesus was mad; but that he’s made at the church; and he’s mad at church people. Good church folk who had just settled into their faithful routines of daily/weekly prayer and worship, along with those who were trying to facilitate that routine.

“Thus the queasy feeling,” says Shupe.

Queasy, because this portrait – this picture – “pushes us to imagine Jesus entering our own sanctuaries, overturning our own cherished rationalizations [and time-honored traditions and mindless assumptions and tired old habits and smug complacency and self-serving biases] and [somehow] driving us out in the name of God.”

Jesus becomes outraged with the religious community because they have allowed the temple – this place of worship for all people – to be crowded out by other, personal concerns. They have turned the mystery of God into the routine of the mundane. They’ve trivialized what it means to worship in the house of God.

Feeling queasy yet?

Jesus comes storming into the temple to `radicalize’ their Sabbath routine.

Do you know what `radical’ means?

Certainly, `radical’ can mean `revolutionary,’ `extremist,’ `counter-cultural.’ All of which Jesus was vehemently – and ultimately violently – accused of being. But – interestingly enough – linguistically, radical means `relating to or proceeding from the root of something:’  `essential,’ `basic,’ `foundational,’ `fundamental,’ `profound,’ `pervasive.’

A good working definition for us today might well be: To profoundly change something back to its essential nature.

What Jesus did that day in the temple was take radical action in order to change the church’s worship back to its essential nature.

In my business that’s called church transformation.

In the comic strip Doonesbury, two yuppie-looking parents tell their child: “Alex, honey, Mom and I have been talking and we’ve decided it’s time for us to start attending church as a family.”

The child says, “Church? Church is boring.”

“We thought you might say that. All kids think that,” reassures the parents.

“Well, didn’t you think church was boring when you were a kid?” Alex says.

“Sure, I hated going,” says the father. “But church was good for me, so my parents made me stick it out. You (will) end up hating church, too, but you have to put in the pew time, like Mom and I did.”

“And what if I like it?” asks the child.

“Like it?” the parents look quizzically at each other. “We’ll, we’ll just cross that bridge when we get there honey.”

When worship becomes routine, even a chore, we become worship critics, judging everything according to our own tastes. We come to expect a routine order of worship, certain kinds of prayer, familiar hymns we like, preaching we can `get something out of.’

In other words, we start focusing on the acts of worship themselves, rather than on the One whom we are supposed to be worshiping.

Worst of all, we stop expecting – or even watching for – the Holy of holies.

“Something is wrong,” says a colleague, “when we attend worship to receive something rather than to offer ourselves. Worship isn’t about us. It’s about God. We gather before Holiness and not before a mirror. Worship is God’s people kneeling, listening, praying, hoping, celebrating, giving, and adoring God. We are here to center ourselves in the mystery beyond our comprehension.”

A parishioner from another church told me some time ago, “There’s no joy in our worship service.” But, folks, if we don’t bring any joy, if we do not have and bring that sense of joy in our salvation in Jesus Christ, to the worship service – any worship service – then we surely will not get any joy `out of it.’

“Zeal for your house will consume me,” was the prophet’s prediction about the Messiah.

Zeal – enthusiasm, passion, ardor. Somewhere along the line it got lost in the ecclesial shuffle.

In her book The Greatest Drama Ever Staged, the great 20th century British author, Dorothy Leigh Sayers, observed, “The people who hanged Christ never accused him of being a bore—on the contrary they thought him too dynamic to be safe.

“It has been left to succeeding generations to muffle up that shattering personality with an atmosphere of tedium . . . a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. He was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest inquirers, humble; but he insulted clergymen, . . . referred to the King as “that fox,” went to parties in disreputable company, . . . assaulted indignant tradesmen and threw them and their belongings out of the temple . . .

“Officialdom felt that the established order of things would be more secure without him. So they did away with God in the name of peace and quietness.”[iii]

It is part of my own routine, on Sunday morning, during the time of Welcome, to encourage folks to settle into their pews as they look over the announcements, sign the Fellowship Book, etc. It’s part of a well-rehearsed script I’ve done for years; I can virtually recite the words without even thinking about it. It’s habitual, comfortable, even somewhat palliative. After spending the past week reflecting upon this scripture passage, however, I checked myself as I started, once again, to fall into that well-worn Sunday morning greeting.

There’s something insidiously reassuring about the routine and the mundane. But, it’s important, I think, particularly during this season of Lent, to attend to, endure and explore the queasy feeling we get when Jesus storms into our midst in unexpected – perhaps even unwanted – ways. It’s also important, I think, to remember in this season of Lent, who it was that ultimately demanded his crucifixion and why.

And, perhaps, not get too comfortable in our pews.


(Grateful acknowledgement to John Buchanan & William Willimon for some content and much inspiration.)

[i] Buchanan, John, “Jesus in the Temple,” March 15, 2009.

[ii] Shupe, Paul, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2.

[iii] Ibid. (Buchanan), from Dorothy L. Sayers “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged,” May, 1938, London, Hodder & Stoughton, (see Project Gutenberg Canada ebook #99, posted March 2008).