The recent tornadoes and the people who are suffering from them have been on my heart lately.
I have read that these tornadoes have brought about discussions of another year when many, many tornadoes tore across the Midwest and southeast parts of our country, bringing destruction and despair to so many families. That year was 1974, and I remember it too. During that spring, tornado watches and warnings happened almost daily in the part of North Carolina where I lived. I remember being at school and being sent to a location between the gym and the main building because it was thought to be a safe place during tornadoes or high winds.
While those moments were anxious and scary, we were fortunate because we had mostly just high winds. The winds would leave debris all over our driveway, sometimes making quite a mess. Since our house was surrounded with lots of trees, large and small branches littered the driveway after a storm. It was my job to take a broom and clear a path so that we could be free to go on about what we needed to do. We had a long driveway and often it would take some time to clear it, but it was an important job to do and well worth it.
Maybe clearing the path is what this past Sunday's Gospel lesson is all about: clearing the path to the temple. And maybe it is a lesson for us as well: a clearing of the path for our worship. Unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke, the Gospel of John puts this story at the beginning of Jesus' ministry instead of during Passion Week. It really does not matter exactly when it occurred in his ministry because it is a story for us to notice.
In my mind I see Jesus and the disciples in the temple. While the disciples are looking this way and that, Jesus' attention is clearly focused on something. He is watching the people as they come to the temple to worship God. Maybe he wonders where their joy is. Maybe he wonders if these people are really glad to be in the temple or if they are just following the law. Maybe he wonders if these people really know how much they are loved by God.
I can imagine Jesus looking around and seeing all of the distractions that are in the path to the temple and even in the outer area of the temple. The path to the temple is crowded, tempting, frustrating. It is noisy and smelly. And Jesus sees worshipers coming out of guilt and not joy or thanksgiving. He sees them tired and exhausted rather than refreshed and excited as they walk the dusty streets of Jerusalem to the temple.
In my mind's eye I see that near the temple, the people are not met with joyful music to invite them into worship or joyful voices raised in greeting, but rather with specially blessed animals for temple sacrifices which, of course, were sold as much better than whatever they might have had as their humble offerings.
Jesus could see that the appearance of worship had taken root in the people's hearts and they had forgotten that honoring God came from joy and thanksgiving, that the temple was a holy place for worship and fellowship, and that offerings came from the first fruits of their lives, not someone else's - because living with God at the center of their lives gave them the opportunity of living all of life out of gratitude to God.
So Jesus got angry.
This is the only place in the gospels where we find Jesus so dramatically angry. He made a whip of cords and drove away all of the folks who tempted the people from true worship - the greedy money changers, the people selling sacrifices. He turned over tables and poured out their coins. He shouted and demanded that all of those things that distracted from worship be taken away.
The disciples were amazed, but they remembered a passage of scripture that indicated that he would have zeal for the temple. Can't you just imagine the authorities running over to him and saying, "Why are you doing this? What sign can you show us for doing this?"
Then Jesus said something that few understood: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The authorities were confused and reminded Jesus that the temple had been under construction for 46 years.
Jesus was talking about something else - his death and resurrection. His death and resurrection would make it possible for the path of the temple to be clear, so that everyone could come to worship without feeling guilt that what they had to offer God was not worthy. His death and resurrection would make it possible for the path of the temple to be clear so that believers might know the joy of life in Christ, the excitement of following God, the abundance of hearts full of love and the purity of hearts that give freely and graciously because of gratitude for God's love and forgiveness in their lives.
His death and resurrection mean that all people may receive the message that God is waiting to shower love and freedom upon us all.
Thinking about Jesus in the temple that day long ago leads me to ask of myself: What is blocking my worship, my gratitude, my faith? So, my friends, I ask you as well: What is it that is crowding our paths to God? What is tempting us or frustrating us or keeping us from worshipping in joy and thanksgiving? What is crowding our paths and keeping us from giving God our very best out of our trust that God will take care of us? Have we crowded the path to the Holy One with disbelief and discouragement, with pain and anguish, with resentment in our hearts, or anger and hatred and bitterness in our lives?
Maybe we need to clear our paths that lead us to God. Maybe we need to drive out the distractions from our hearts that keep us from feeling God's grace. Maybe we need to clean away the debris that prevents us from receiving new life and joy and hope from our Resurrected Lord? Lent is a good time to reflect on these things and spring is a good time for cleaning out and clearing away!
To God be the glory!
On the parish calendar:
Early Response Training, March 20 and 27, Chapel Hill United Methodist Church. Soup and Sandwich, 5:30 p.m.; Training 6 to 9 p.m. Registration is open. More information is available at 304-265-4419 or 304-642-0897.
Bishop's Confirmation Rally, 6 p.m. March 23, through 2 p.m. March 24 at West Virginia Wesleyan.
Lay Ministry Academy, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 24, Chapel Hill UMC. (Attendees may register at 7:30 if not pre-registered. Lay speakers must renew their certification every three years.