Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sermon: Only the Jealous God

"Only the Jealous God"

Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints
Denver, Colorado
Third Sunday in Lent
11 March 2012

Texts: Exodus 20.1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1.18-25
John 2.13-22

"Now when all this steel and these stories, they drift away to rust
and all our youth and beauty, its been given to the dust
And your game has been decided, and you're burning down the clock
And all our little victories and glories, have turned into parking lots..."
-Bruce Springsteen, "Wrecking Ball"


-Incarnation. Celebration. Romance. Revolution. The opening chapters of St. John's Gospel have more thrills a 19th century Vaudevillian Spectacular Spectacular. Sign me up please!

-How can we not be compelled by John's portrait of Jesus? His mystic incarnational origins. His first miracle of amping up the party - also known as turning water into wine. And the indignant protest of corruption in the Temple, ripping through injustice and greed like an arena full of people singing a Springsteen anthem. It just appeals to the “true Bohemian Revolutionary” I am sure is hiding somewhere deep – ok, very deep – inside my soul.

-But then I wonder if such romanticizing is an exercise in missing the point. It’s too easy. Too much like wish fulfillment or projection. Because Jesus is not just a progressive with a compelling social program, or a nice man working miracles, hugging little children, and touching the untouchables. He’s not some Christian bookstore version of radical that we can commodify into another top-10 bestseller during election season. He's not a Republican. Oh, and by the way, he's definitely not a Democrat either.

-He’s also not, as far as I can tell, offering us a paradigm for street theatre or activist action. Believe me, many have thought so. I’m reminded of a story I heard in the Lutheran Peace Fellowship about certain opponents of Aparthied in South Africa, who, committed to non-violence against humans, saw no problem in emulating Jesus’ “Occupy the Temple Campaign.” So, following Jesus, they made their own whips of chords, attaching chains to the front of a prominent racist’s car dealership and pulling it down with their pick-up trucks. Allegedly, no humans were harmed in the making of this production. What’s the destruction of property and a person’s livelihood between sinners when justice is at stake, right? Oh, and if you don't have a pickup truck, I'm sure your Facebook profile will do just nicely.

-But see, I don’t think that’s what Jesus is up to here. He’s not striking a revolutionary pose so he can be made into a black and red Che Guevara t-shirt. And I don’t think he’s looking for imitators – at least, not in the way the South African activists imagined. No, I think he’s up to something else here. Something not so easily captured or commodified.

-And in some ways, that's good news for me. Because I'm less like revolutionary Jesus. More like my namesake, the Apostle Matthew, who started out a tax collector. An accountant. Caesar's certified CPA. If I'm honest with myself, I'm not backing up Jesus' temple raid. I don't have that kind of heart. I'm the one whose table got turned over.

-And see, that’s the rub, isn’t it? Even the most radical, progressive Christians of today are, at heart, no different than money changers in the temple. Becasue if the Savior knocks over the tables of those we deem oppressors, how long until we swoop in under the cover of righteous indignation and rage, and set up our own systems of accounting? It's easy to feel totally justified in being “just like Jesus” – and turning our ire back upon those intolerant backwoods fundamentalists and conservatives, the robber barons who make up the 1%. Or those unloving parents, or those hate-mongering pastors, or any of the unfaithful who have put God in a box. So of course, that box must be shattered and destroyed – so that we can put God in a much bigger box, a wider tent, a more expansive narrative. That is, in the end, still a box. Or, a money changer's table.

-But All our attempts to play God – even the God of peace and justice , prophetically raging against corruption - are, in the end, mostly just calculations in an accountant’s ledger book. Just coins clinking in the collect's coffers. Aimed at preserving and peddling the romanticized versions of ourselves that keep us going, while protecting us from the fact that God is, decidedly, not like us.

-We just don’t have the heart for it, you see. For such a revolution. That’s what the First Commandment, part of our first reading today, is trying to show us. See, long ago on Mt. Sinai, God tells the Israelites, “you shall have no other gods before me…for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” And that word in the Hebrew text, that “jealousy,” is the same word John uses to describe Jesus’ raging against our machines, when he says that “zeal for your house shall consume me.” Zeal and jealousy are the same word. God will accept nothing less than our undivided love. God does not want our revolutions; God wants our hearts.

-And see, the “house” that Jesus comes to cleanse, it is literally the temple. But it’s also “house” in the sense that Gryffindor and Slytherin are houses. It is a gathered people, a kind of family. It’s us. Jesus, as the Incarnation of the God of Israel, is a jealous Savior. And he is jealous for the love of his people, this people here. And God’s uncontrollable, jealous, zealous love will not tolerate idolatry, whether it be a golden calf, or a collection of golden ideals – progressive, conservative, or otherwise – that presume to act as go-beteweens in God’s desire to love us, freely and without limits.

-Now, I understand that this notion of a jealous God can seem just as bad as the Che Guevara Jesus. For me, it can make God seem like the muscle-bound, varsity jacket wearing, hot-rod driving jock who bullies the nerdy kid, “stay away from my girl” before dropping him in a dumpster. Do we really want a God that is so passionate, so given to jealousy and rage?

-But then there is the story of Jeremy, one of the young men I had the privilege to mentor as part of the Duke Youth Academy. The other youth were decidedly uncomfortable with Israel’s jealous God. But then Jeremy, awkward, and reserved, suddenly spoke: “I love that God is jealous. Because he’s jealous for me. Which means he will fight for me. And that makes me feel so loved. Because no one has ever fought for me before.”

-This God, this Jesus, is not like us, in justice or in jealousy - easy as it is to forget. And there is no other God worth following, no other God that is Good News and Gospel, except the jealous, unpredictable God. This God does not come to bring revolution alone, but comes to fight for us, to stop at nothing until He has gathered us into His house. Made us into a living temple for the Spirit. Given us a new heart. Whether we like it or not.

-See, this God comes to bring a consuming fire. This God comes to break to pieces our calculating and idealizing hearts of stone, and this God, in Jesus Christ, goes to the cross, dies at our hands, and rebuilds the temple of His own body in three days, so that we too might be rebuilt. That we might be given new hearts. Hearts capable of returning God’s jealous love with passion, truth and zeal. And so also truly love our neighbors. God speaks a resolute NO! over our corruption, our idols, and our good intentions. But only so that God can speak a more powerful YES to us, God’s beloved children, foolish, though we be.

-Confrontation with the Jealous God is not always pleasant. Christ's revelation in the temple is more like that scene from Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, when Bilbo, under the sway of the ring of power, accuses the wizard Gandalf of trying to rob him. Gandalf rears up in fire and shadow, proclaiming, “do not take me for a conjurer of cheap tricks! I’m not trying to rob you! I’m trying to help you!” Or, as Mr. Beaver says of C.S. Lewis' Aaslan, "he's not safe...but he's good."

-God in Christ kicks over our tables. But the Good News is, we don’t have to be accountants anymore. You are free, not to manage grace, but only to receive it. You are re-created, not to have to earn or fear God’s jealous love, but simply to be loved, and to be God’s beloved. You do not have to become a revolutionary; you are already the object of God's passion, and the deep desire of God's heart.

-That’s the romance. That’s the revolution. Sign me up for that.


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