Sermon 3rd March 2024

I was at Holmbury and shared one of my dark secrets, can share more with you. I was demoted from Head Boy at my Public School as I was caught drinking and smoking at the local pub and you probably think I’m going to say I was really contrite and ashamed, but do you know what, I was absolutely furious (not as furious as my mother, she was white hot). Do you know the reason I was so angry, its because everyone used to go to the pub and drink and smoke…. We knew it was against the school rules (and the drinking was actually against the law), but it was fine because everyone was doing it. Funnily enough, I heard the same tone from a friend of mine recently who told me the world had gone mad…. He had been fined and received 3 points on his driving licence for doing 35 in a 30 … unbelievable.

So, I just wonder what the merchants must have felt like when this Jesus turned up and started wielding his home-made whip, driving their animals out of the temple and pushing over the tables…. probably furious. This passage often focusses on the anger of Jesus, the righteous anger of Jesus, but I bet there were some other equally angry people in the temple that day, believing they had been wronged!

Humankind, I’ve found, is particularly adept at convincing ourselves that we’re in the right even if deep deep down we know we are in the wrong.

Consider these sound arguments that the merchants may have offered to Jesus;

  • Such commerce is necessary, because people coming from afar cannot bring their own animals and only first-rate, unblemished animals are acceptable for sacrifice at Passover. It would be impossible to maintain an animal in perfect condition even on a journey from nearby Galilee let alone from Rome or Egypt or other faraway places.
  • And money exchanging is absolutely necessary, because travellers bring coins from many nations and the Mishnah specifies that only Tyrian coins (coins from the Phoenician city Tyre) be used for the temple tax as the Romans don’t allow us Jews to mint our own coins.
  • And the commerce in the temple also generates much needed funds which is used to fund temple activities and repairs throughout the year. “It is for God,” so it must be all right.
  • And finally, we have been permitted to be here by none other than the high Priest Caiaphas.

So why did Jesus get so angry and what can we learn from it.

The point is, the temple has become totally aligned with King Herod, with the collecting of taxes and money, and the selling of forgiveness.

Whenever religion gets into the business of the “buying and selling” of God, or of requiring sacrifices to earn God’s love, we have a problem. When Jesus said, “Get these birds out of here,” it’s a clue to the source of Jesus’ anger. The ordinary people had to sacrifice to be right with the priesthood and the temple. They sacrificed oxen and sheep, but the very poor were allowed to offer doves. Mary and Joseph had to give doves when they brought the infant Jesus to the temple (Luke 2:22–24). Jesus knew that his religion is not taking care of the poor; in fact, it was stealing from the poor, and making them give even the little they had to feel they are right with God.

Many use this passage to justify violence because Jesus appears pretty violent here. But note that he’s violent toward things, not toward people. He’s liberating animals and trying to liberate the poor from their oppression. Of course, the religious leaders want to protect the building, the temple, but Jesus is redefining the temple. He identifies his body as the temple (John 2:21). The new temple is the human person; we are the body of Christ.

We see Jesus making this great revolution, transforming religion from a concern for sacrifice to earn God’s love to trust through which we know God’s love.

We’ve all heard the expression “my body is a temple”, it is normally said with great irony and follows with things like “but mine’s more like a bouncy castle” or “mine’s ancient, crumbling and probably haunted” or (my favourite) “mine’s full of bread, wine and guilt”.

But the Bible has a much more profound offering, in 1 Corinthians ch6 v19&20 it says “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, honour God with your body”. By body, we can also use the word “self”, it doesn’t need to be a defined as a physical body.

So if we are to honour God with our bodies, with ourselves, our lives, how does this story show us what this might look like. And I would suggest one way is about how we might look afresh on what we have normalised as acceptable, when deep down we know it isn’t.

Let’s consider this in two parts –

The first is “Internal Transformation” (where can we recognise and restore those parts of ourselves that have become tainted by the world’s influences, where we have built up layers of self-deception to convince ourselves that our views and behaviours are OK)

The second is External Influence (where can we make a difference to the lives of others).

So what might these two look like in action, in reality.

The first part, internal transformation, which is perhaps the starting point for the second – requires an honesty and openness with ourselves and God. Thankfully, it is a work that we do with God, not on our own. We are, as ever, “work in progress”.

We might start by asking that question: have we normalised the unacceptable because it has become so common. Have we grown accustomed and adopted views that perhaps we should be keeping a more open mind about. Do we decide on right and wrong and start to believe in our own righteousness.

Let me give you an example – my second dark secret – for a long time, I had a rather two dimensional and poor view of Islam. It was based on things I’d heard and read in western media and adopted as my own. Well, back in 2020, I had reason to visit a Muslim family who had recently lost a son. As I entered the house, I was greeted with great affection and as a guest of honour, I was introduced to each member of the family and shook their hands rather awkwardly. When this was done, I was invited to sit in a large chair and I wondered what on earth I was going to say.

A couple of moments of silence passed and thankfully a young man entered the room who was greeted with equal affection and attention. He went round the room hugging each of the family and crying with them. He was then sat next to me. I turned to him and quietly asked how he knew the deceased, he said he did not. I then asked which of the family members he was connected to. He said none of them. I then sort of asked what he was doing there. He then responded with something that opened my eyes and my heart. He said “it is customary to share in the grief and sadness of our brothers and sisters, to show love and support in the darkness, it does not matter that I don’t know them”.

He had heard about the tragedy, had travelled to their home, walked through their open door, simply to be with them at that most difficult time. My small-minded views were shattered.

The second part of honouring God with our selves is perhaps how we can actively be a force for good in the lives of others – how we can intercede in defence of the weak, poor, helpless and marginalised. I believe we all do this in varying degrees and the challenge is to do more. But sometimes this will be at odds with the culture of our day and perhaps even the views of our own friends. There is a story that I came across that gives a wonderful example of someone who made that difference in a very impressive way. It makes me feel unworthy on the one hand but also encourages to do better on the other. Let me finish with this story.

During the Second World War, German paratroopers invaded the island of Crete. When they landed at Maleme, the islanders met them, bearing nothing other than kitchen knives and hay scythes. The consequences of resistance were devastating. The residents of entire villages were lined up and shot. Overlooking the airstrip today is an institute for peace and understanding founded by a Greek man named Alexander Papaderous. Papaderous was just six years old when the war started. His home village was destroyed and he was imprisoned in a concentration camp.

One day, while taking questions at the end of a lecture, Papaderous was asked, “What’s the meaning of life?” He said “I will answer your question.” He took a leather pouch out from his pocket and produced a very small round mirror, about the size of a 10p. He said “One day, on the road, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had been wrecked in that place. “I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine — in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find. “I kept the little mirror, and as I went about my growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game but a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of light. But light — truth, understanding, forgiveness, love — is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it. “I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world — into the black places in the hearts of men — and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.”

Inspiring tale, I think you’d agree!

You’ll be glad to know that I’m not going to go round the congregation asking “what is the meaning of your life”, but perhaps, like Papaderous, we can on shine a light on some of the less pleasant views and behaviours we have normalised in ourselves then reflect on how we might then be God’s light in this often dark world.

Let us pray. Father God, like the merchants in the temple, we often allow ourselves to be drawn into worldly values, like greed and selfishness, justifying them because they are the norm – Lord, show us your ways and give us the wisdom to recognise these failings in ourselves and the strength to go out and reflect your light in the world.

Guy Pakenham / 3rd March 2024

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