The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:
s017e05 Lockleys Palm Sunday 20/3/2005
"he emptied himself" Philippians 2.7
It is distinctly odd that each and every Palm Sunday we celebrate the triumphal entry into Jerusalem before the service and then read the story of Jesus' passion for the gospel. Each year we miss out the ending of the triumphal entry; the so-called "cleansing of the Temple". This is the consistent witness of the first three gospel writers. Matthew has these following on one after the other. Mark has a day intervening during which the fig tree is cursed. Luke has them one after the other, though with the lament over Jerusalem interpolated. Characteristically John is different, with the cleansing way back in chapter two, with the triumphal entry in chapter 12.
But even more curiously, while we regularly celebrate the triumphal entry, yet only once every three years do we tell the story of the cleansing. We use John's version on Lent 3 year B and so is somewhat divorced from the Cross and resurrection.
While there is a debate about this amongst scholars, it is quite clear to me that the "cleansing of the Temple" that so regularly gets missed out is actually "the straw that broke the camel's back". Any hesitation that the opposition might have had was swept away as surely as the tables of the moneychangers and the animals Jesus herded out. By this omission we could come to the conclusion that instead of the cleansing of the Temple being the impetus for Jesus' murder, it becomes jealously that people were praising Jesus.
So the outcome for us is that our Christianity becomes our praising of Jesus rather than our wanting God to be available to everyone. The moral of Christianity becomes how we can emulate Jesus' emptying of himself and praising God, rather than the opening up of God to all sorts and conditions of people.
And we are ever so subtly led away from the perception that Jesus had a religious message; confronting those who kept others from God. Instead we make it into a personal message: are we sufficiently repentant, faithful, assured, orthodox, empty or whatever? Instead of being a message of sweeping away impediments to God, we have simply replaced the money-changers and pigeon sellers with a whole lot of other moral, religious or more often than not, personal impediments. Or simply; we have not realised what the cleansing of the Temple means to us and to everyone; free and unimpeded access to the Father.
I was interested to read a review of the book "Jesus and the Fundamentalism of His Day" by William Loader, reviewed by Graham Scott in "The Gippsland Anglican" (Feb 2005 page 8.) In this review, Scott comments: "Jesus had the problem of dealing with critics who took Scripture as absolute authority with no room for changing circumstances or possible error." And he goes on to deal with the various ways the various writers of the New Testament dealt with this issue. (Of course it is a kind way of describing those who opposed Jesus, calling them his critics. They were in fact his murderers; these who took Scripture so seriously.)
I was grateful for this for it sparked my meditations for today. In my own words, it is clear that Mark sees Jesus as an itinerant miracle worker and the immanent kingdom of God meant that much of the law became unimportant. For Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses coming to fulfil the law. For Luke, compassion replaces law. For John, the Word replaces law. Paul also wrestles with the gospel replacing the law, as does the author to the letter to the Hebrews.
Each of these sees what Jesus has accomplished as something better, bigger, stronger, or more authoritative than the law. Each of these seeks to replace one powerful impetus with another.
Such is the power of the law, that we can only perceive it as being relaced by something more powerful, more authoritative.
I thoroughly rejoice in the words of Scott: "Through all the gospels runs the theme; people matter most" and further that: "we too have to try to find out what we think are the best way to practice Jesus' priorities, which were that people mattered most, that compassion was uppermost and that this was the nature of God's being."
St Paul here glimpses something of a different perception. He sees Jesus emptying himself of power and authority, rather than invoking something stronger.
Unfortunately in our recounting of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem today we actually omit that which happened when he got there. When he got to the temple, he drove out those who sold the animals for sacrifice and those who changed the money. Hardly emptying himself.
In some ways the debate about law and grace is an intellectual side issue. Jesus actually did something, and that something was done in the cleansing of the Temple that lead to the Cross. The Cross is the example of self emptying at the extreme, but it is not a goal to attain, but the fact that we are all empty.
So that which really precipitated the Cross were the events of today, the so-called "cleansing of the Temple". Here all the forces of the law and the tradition lined up to keep people away from God. The whole theological edifice of the god who was remote and essentially inapproachable by anyone who was not ritually pure, personified in those who sold the animals for sacrifice and who changed the money, was defeated by someone who was stronger. The reaction and the retribution was swift.
As we have sidelined the cleansing of the Temple, we have failed to see the Cross achieving the opening of the kingdom of heaven to all.
Jesus needed to use force to clear away the impediments to God, and this resulted in the authorities using force against him.
So the force of the law and the ritual demands keeping ordinary people from God needed to be opposed by an equal force in the cleansing of the Temple. However this force produced an equally predictable reaction, the Cross of Jesus, by those who wanted to retain their positions as gatekeepers to the kingdom.
And my reference to the cursing of the fig tree earlier sparked a thought. At the moment every morning I am reading the account of the Exodus from Egypt, when God sent turned the rivers to blood so all the fish died, plagues of frogs, gnats, flies, killing livestock, boils on humans, hail to kill animals and crops, locusts to eat what was left and finally all the first born of the people of Egypt. Jesus cursed one single fig tree.
Again I was interested to read the words of St Paul: "For you put up with it when someone makes slaves of you, or preys upon you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or gives you a slap in the face." (2 Corinthians 11.20) I thought, isn't that interesting! How does this square with those words of Jesus about "turning the other cheek"? And then I thought, as I was typing the last sentence, how we have been trained to accept religious put-downs, even our inability to turn the other personal cheek, if you know what I mean.
God wants each and every one of us to be strong. God wants each and every one of us to be able to come into the presence of the almighty, however we conceive the divine to be. The only time when we have to pull back is if we suspect that we are subtly discouraging others to similarly enjoy this strength, this immediacy with God that lies behind the reason for our praise of God.
If people do not come to worship, I suspect that it is far more likely that they have found lots of ever-present gatekeepers in their way to God, rather than people quietly emptying themselves of their power over others.
I cannot but finish this sermon with those invariable words of closure and blessing by that wonderful comedian, the late Dave Allen, who said that he was an atheist, "thank God!" He always closed his shows with the words "Thank you and may your God go with you." May he rest in peace.
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