a sermon on Mark 11:15-19 for the Third Sunday in Lent
preached on March 11, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Over the last few years, we have seen the rise of a cultural phenomenon called Angry Birds. You may have seen some marks of it around – those strange-looking red and yellow birds now available as stuffed toys and all sorts of other products – but it all began as a game for the iPhone. The story behind the game is that a flock of birds is trying to retake their homeland from a mean and possessive group of pigs who have taken it over and built these very strange fortresses to protect it. To play the game, you fling these birds at the pigs in hopes of destroying the pigs and reclaiming the birds’ homeland. It’s a strange yet addictive game – if you haven’t seen it, we’ll have a brief demonstration after worship today! – but the anger of the title seems highly unexpected for any such flock of birds!
There’s a similar disconnect between Jesus and the anger we see in him in today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark. I suspect most of us have a pretty serene image of Jesus in our heads – the two images of him we have on our stained glass here at the front of the sanctuary are very pastoral, and the illustrations I remember from my Sunday school classes growing up always showed him in a very calm and loving pose, usually surrounded by children. But Mark here gives us a very different picture of Jesus, one “inspired by love and anger,” to borrow the words of our last hymn, but also one that challenges so many of our common assumptions about Jesus and demands that we think differently about his ministry and its implications for our lives today.
The story is pretty simple, really. On the Monday of what we now know as Holy Week, Jesus made his way into Jerusalem to visit the temple. What he saw there made him furiously angry. Merchants had set up shop in the courtyard of the temple, changing money and selling doves for sacrifices. Their presence was a matter of convenience as much as anything – the pilgrims who made their way from the countryside or from all across the empire could pick up the things they needed for their visit right there within the temple – but the temple authorities of the day also profited from this commerce in the courtyard. Jesus wasn’t so happy about it, and so he drove the merchants and moneychangers out of the temple. With a strange sense of authority for someone who had just come into the city from the countryside, he turned over their tables and ran them out of the courtyard. After all this, Jesus hung around and started teaching the temple, but if anyone tried to carry anything through the temple court, he would stop them with his one-man police force. His teachings that day quoted the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations – but you have made it a den of robbers.” Jesus had imagined this place as a place for prayer, open to everyone – but instead, on his first recorded visit here, he saw a secular marketplace dominated by merchants making a profit at the expense of those who simply sought to pray and follow the religious practice of the day.
As you might expect, Jesus’ anger didn’t go over so well with the temple authorities. They were furious with Jesus for claiming such authority – they were the ones in charge of the temple, not him. They had seen the procession fit for a king that had greeted him as he entered the city the day before, and they were worried that the the real ruling Roman authorities would get angry if it got any worse. And if all this wasn’t enough, Jesus was captivating the crowds with his teaching, too – but little did any of them know that the cheers of “Hosanna!” would soon turn to cries of “Crucify him!”
This vision of an “angry Jesus” is not quite like that strange game Angry Birds. He didn’t fling himself at the constructions of the people like those strange birds, and his anger doesn’t seem to be nearly as addictive, either! But there is something important going on here with this angry Jesus, and this brief glimpse of God’s frustration getting lived out is an important part of what is going on along the journey of Lent. Sure, plenty of people like to talk about God’s anger toward the world. They go on and on about how corrupt and evil something or other is in this day and age, blaming natural disasters and other such things on God’s frustration with human sin. But I think most of us prefer to think of God as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” as we hear multiple times in the Bible.
Yet the angry Jesus we see in our reading this morning reminds us that God’s mercy and grace bring a new way of life that require us to get rid of some things that aren’t so merciful and gracious. God’s love demands an end to the actions and systems that take advantage of others and declare anyone more or less human than anyone else. God’s grace welcomes us to name the places where we go wrong so that we can amend our lives and walk in a new and different way. And God’s mercy frees us from concern over the eternal consequences of our actions, while also insisting that the things we do that harm others are displeasing to God and must be changed. So the anger we see from Jesus here is rooted not in possessiveness, jealousy, or fear but rather in the very gifts of love, grace, and mercy that stand at the center of God’s amazing love for us.
The season of Lent is a good time to be challenged by our images of God and Jesus and to start thinking about life in a new and different way. These are good days to imagine an angry Jesus – a Jesus who was not satisfied with things being the way they were and so demanded that God’s loving and just kingdom become real. How can we be a part of insisting that the world be different? What practices do we need to cleanse from our temples so that we can be more faithful in our worship and work? What in our world gets in the way of our practice of faith and keeps us from responding to God’s call for a new and different way of life for all humanity?
We may rarely be able to speak out so clearly as Jesus did, with such directness and such boldness, but God nonetheless challenges us to speak up against oppression and injustice and give voice to peoples long silenced. God insists that we join in making God’s reign real in this world by proclaiming a new and different way amidst all the need and pain that we see so clearly. And God promises to work in and through normal people like us – not through the halls of power but rather among the “fishermen and fools” of our age – to transform the world into the new way of life that God intends.
Will we accept this challenge? Will we follow in the difficult way of Jesus during this Lent? Will we extend the reach of God’s mercy and grace to those who most need it – to the poor, the lonely, the “victims of heartless human greed,” the wronged – by insisting that God’s word and way will transform everything? Will we be open to the new road made possible by the journey to the cross? Are we willing to number ourselves among the fishermen and fools so that God might use us too as part of the transformation of the world?
May God give us the wisdom and strength to respond to this call, to challenge the things of this world so that all might know the fullness of God’s glory, to set aside all the advantage we have so that we might join in the coming of God’s kingdom, and to journey the self-giving way of the cross with Jesus himself so that we might know the fullness of resurrection life first glimpsed on that Easter morning and that lies ahead for us and all creation through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Thanks be to God. Amen.