Sermon Text: Gentle, Meek, and Mild?
Some church hymns really miss the mark. Charles Wesley wrote some of the greatest hymns of all time back in the 18th century. I really love some of them. But there is one that makes my flesh crawl. The opening words are "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild."
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild? Really? Mr. Wesley, have you actually READ the gospels? Whatever else Jesus was, he was certainly a prophet, according to the New Testament. Prophets had a passion for God and for God's ways. They were not known for being polite.
Prophets used both words and actions to get their message out. Sometimes they did what we would call street theater or performance art. Isaiah walked around naked for three years to act out a prediction of the future captivity of the Jews in Babylon. Jeremiah smashed a big clay jar in front of the elders to picture the coming destruction of Israel. Ezekiel lay on his side for 390 days and ate a sparse diet to illustrate the coming siege of Jerusalem.
And so when Jesus cleanses the Temple, he's right in line with the previous prophets.
God was not enthusiastic about a temple, according to the Hebrew Bible. God praised the tabernacle, a kind of portable tent for worship used in the wilderness wanderings.
Apparently, the idea of pilgrimage, journey, traveling light, and being on the move was more appropriate for God's people.
But the kings -- especially David and Solomon -- came up with the idea of a temple. All the other nations had them! Those kings liked how permanent it was. They liked how it would show their God off to other nations. And probably they liked how good the temple would make them look.
This was the layout of the Temple in the time of Jesus: It covered the top of Mount Zion, about 30 acres. You could fit 20 football fields in the entire Temple area. It was a big place. There was a series of walled courts. The widest outer space was called "The Court of the Gentiles." Anyone could be there, Jewish or not.
But then you came to a low wall, and it had signs on it. The signs warned Gentiles -- non-Jews -- to come no farther. "Whoever passes will have only himself to blame for his ensuing death." The next area inside was called "The Court of the Women." Jewish women could enter for prayer and sacrifice. But they had to stop at the next wall, which led to "The Court of the Israelites." Only Jewish men could go there.
Then came "The Court of the Priests," where only the priests could go. And the innermost sanctuary of all was called "The Holy of Holies." Only the High Priest could go in there, and then only once a year. So you can see what is being demonstrated here: rank, status, and exclusion, exclusion, exclusion.
So one day in about the year 30, a prophet from Galilee named Jesus arrives at the Temple. How does he feel about all this? Well, Mr. Wesley, I know your hymn calls him "Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild." But here at the Temple, he explodes in anger. He shouts, "Is it not written: 'My house will be a house of prayer for all nations'? But you have made it a den of thieves!" That last phrase, by the way, comes from Jeremiah, another prophet who was rough on the Temple.
Jesus has been teaching that God's kingdom is for everybody. Earlier in Mark's Gospel, he got angry when his disciples tried to keep some children away from Jesus. He got mad and he said, "the kingdom of God belongs to such as these!" The kingdom of God, or the family of Jesus, is for everybody. Jesus knocked down walls.
That's what he was doing in the Temple with his enacted parable. This was street theater...this was angry performance art. But it was also dangerous. The chief priests heard about it. Remember how big the Temple area was. The disturbance caused by Jesus did not shut down the whole thing. It was far too big. The authorities would have heard about the scuffle later. They would not have been right on the spot.
But they decided to do what they so often did to prophets who threaten the order of the powerful and rich. This was part of what got Jesus killed. Jesus was by no means "meek and mild," Mr. Wesley. Jesus was a tiger. Jesus was a lion.
Now, this is Lent, and I want to remind you of a prayer we are using. At the beginning of the Great Thanksgiving, the prayer we use to bless the bread and wine, there is something called a "proper preface." Each season has a different preface, a few lines just before "Holy, Holy, Holy," which reminds us of the theme of the season.
These are the words we are using right now: "You bid your faithful people cleanse their hearts and prepare with joy for the Paschal feast," Easter. I hope you'll notice those words in a few minutes when we pray them.
Whatever else Jesus is to us, he is our prophet. In Lent, he challenges us to have clean hearts. He cleansed the Temple long ago, and in our time wants to cleanse our hearts.
He is a tiger. He is a lion. He is relentless. He is anything but "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild." He wanted room in that ancient Temple for everybody.
Now, my heart is my temple. And your heart is your temple. Jesus wants to cleanse our hearts as he cleansed the Great Temple.
He wants room in our hearts for everybody.
He is all about everybody being included.
And Jesus is all about the transformed heart.