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Bible readings:

Lent III Year B (March 8, 2015)                                      St James', Peace River

What do you think about the Jesus we just heard about in the gospel? He armed himself with a whip; overturned the tables where people were sitting; sent their money flying in every direction; all out of righteous anger about what their misuse of God's temple. Does that inspire you to go out and do likewise? Or does it make you nervous? Or, does it puzzle you? - perhaps like seeing a completely different side of a person you thought you knew very well.

There is no doubt that this is a very different side of Jesus from the one we usually focus on. So much of the language of our faith – especially during Lent – is about a much friendlier Jesus. One who welcomes everyone, and breaks bread with sinners. He's all about forgiveness, and holds back from enforcing his will on people, even to the point of being unjustly condemned himself. And most of the time he doesn't even seem particularly interested in the temple or any other part of the official religious system, teaching people that God is much more interested in their hearts than in their formal worship.

This is not, however, the only time we see Jesus angry. That's probably important to clear up, because there are some distortions of Christian moral teaching that leave people feeling it's wrong to feel anger. Obviously Jesus gets angry with the money-changers in the temple, and rightly so. But he has some choice words for other people at other times, too, like “You faithless generation... how much longer must I put up with you!” [Mark 9:19] Or the time that “he looked around... with anger” [Mark 3:5] at the ones who tried to stop him healing on the sabbath. Or the number of times that you can hear the frustration in his voice, when he chides his own disciples for failing to believe or even understand what he was trying to teach them. Or even that one strange time when he apparently got mad at a fig tree for not bearing fruit out of season!

This time is different, though. It's the only time we see Jesus taking out his anger in forceful action against other people. So there really is something going on here. The way I understand it, Jesus had a hope for the temple, that it would be a place where anyone could come and know the closeness of God. The businesses that had grown up in the temple precinct interfered with that in a couple of ways. First of all, they made it hard to see – the distraction and noise of buying and selling made it seem as though the temple might be about something else altogether.

But even more important, they got in the way, in particular for those who could least afford to participate in the temple activities of sacrifice and offering. You can imagine that the prices of livestock went up the closer you got to the Holy of Holies, just as surely as the price of gas goes up the closer you get to a long weekend. And then there were the money-changers, who took advantage of the Roman occupation to rip off the worshippers, who had to exchange their everyday Roman coinage for a special “non-defiling” temple currency. The whole business enterprise was built on the backs of the poor, who most needed a place to encounter God. No wonder Jesus was mad.

I guess the real wonder was that he did something about it. While his cleansing of the temple certainly symbolizes a much bigger action that Jesus took later on, giving up his life in order to open up the temple of heaven itself – it also had a literal significance, in solidarity with the people who were being kept away from God, and treated unjustly, in the temple at Jerusalem that very day. And that action set him on a collision course with the authorities that would eventually lead to his death. We can imagine that it might even have had some immediate personal cost, being – as we suppose – quite out of character, and yet so necessary in order to communicate his message at that time and place.

It's that image of Jesus which has been in the hearts of many Christians since that time, who have taken action – even actions they would rather have avoided, even actions that cost them dearly – in order to confront wrong-doing and not allow the name of God to be compromised. From the first-century disciples who took in runaway slaves at great risk to themselves, to the World War II Christians who sheltered Jews, or for that matter, offered themselves as substitutes for execution in the gas chambers – and the countless others who have stood up to bullies everywhere from the schoolyard to the battlefield. Sometimes, and more often than we would like to think, our faith demands that we do something about it.

You may want to reflect on when that's already happened to you. Perhaps you remember a time when you had to act, even against your own interest, simply because you knew it was right. Because you knew you were getting drawn into participating in an injustice yourself, or because you knew that someone else was suffering an injustice and you couldn't stand idly by. Sometimes it's not anger that moves us, but compassion: have you ever just been so moved by someone else's situation that you couldn't hold back – you had to stand by them, or walk with them? That too is following in Jesus' footsteps, as there were plenty of times that he was deeply touched by the plight of the person in front of him, and had to help – even though each time it moved him one step closer to conflict and confrontation with the crowds and their leaders, and eventually to the cross.

But we may also want to reflect on how effective we are at insulating ourselves from both those responses, of anger and compassion. Even when we hear about what is happening to other people, we have so many mechanisms to keep our detachment from it. It's too complicated. I couldn't know what to do. Even if I tried, I would probably do more harm than good. What difference could I make, anyway. All of those half-conscious excuses are steps away from the cross, and away from the path of Jesus, because one of the things disciples do is act. Taking action is a risk; that's what makes it an act of faith. You don't have to be stupid or impulsive about it; prudence and thoughtfulness are also gifts of the Spirit. But your faith does have to make a difference, if it's to be worth anything.

Precisely because acting on your faith is risky and dangerous – it's something we have to bring to our consciousness and work at. Putting faith into action isn't something that comes naturally or automatically. It takes practice and deliberation. Perhaps that's one of the things that Lent is for. We tend to associate Lent with the “thou shalt nots” of the commandments, monitoring our own behaviour to see where we're doing things we would have to admit are wrong. But that was never all there was to faith, in the Old Testament or the New. You can stay within all the boundaries and still have missed the point – the point being that you don't find the real meaning of your life until you give it away, until you do something with it, let go of what you have and what you are in the hope that God will make more of it than you ever can. You have to act.

So, in Lent, we can practise taking action as easily as we can practise refraining from bad habits. Maybe it's obvious to you what you need to do – letting yourself get so angry or so upset about some situation, that you get drawn into it. Or, taking the risk of opening a wound between you and someone whose relationship with you has been damaged – knowing that only once you take that first step can there be the possibility of forgiveness or restoration. But maybe it's not obvious. Maybe you've let that insulation and detachment surround you with a buffer, to stop you from taking those risks. If that's the case, then start taking down the walls. Read your Bible and pray, with one ear to what God is trying to tell you. Look around you, in your daily life, and expect that God will show you the things you have been missing: the people whose lives are calling out to you for your anger and compassion and action.

One important part of that process is counting the cost. To take a risk, in faith, means to be willing to fail: to know that God will be there with you whether your action makes a difference or just ends up being an apparently futile effort. We don't fight only because we know we will win; we don't give only because we know it will help; we take action because faithfulness to God demands it. So, if you are going to practise acting on your faith, keep that in mind. Think of what you are risking, even if it is something relatively minor – a little time, a little money, a little bit of your self-image, a chance that it may all come back and bite you. And let that go. Put it in God's hands; trust God with it. There is no other way.

The one last thing I would say, though, is that there is good news here for us, and good news to share. The practices of Lent, demanding as they are, open up that good news in ways we typically miss or neglect. The path to the good news is the journey through Lent – it leads to the cross, as Jesus' confrontation with the money-changers did. But even in that moment he could know that the “temple of his body” would be destroyed and then raised up again. The demanding practices of faith open up to us a kind of life that we cannot even imagine without them. The life which Jesus embodies – a life which finds meaning and reality in giving itself away, and in so doing, make the world itself a place where life and goodness can be felt and experienced. As you follow him and embody his life in your own – that's the kind of difference you, with God, can make.