Jesus Loving and Wild
Over the next four (4) Sundays, we’ll make out way through the collects and selected readings for Advent as we prepare to celebrate the incarnation of God in the birth of the Christ child.
As one author noted, Advent “is the season of arrival: The arrival of Christ in our hearts, in the world, and into God’s extraordinary plan of salvation for our lives” (Catholic News Agency).
In today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel account, we encounter Jesus in both a familiar and an unexpected way.
The setting of the story is the Triumphal Entry, or Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem during the final week of his earthly ministry. For the people of Jerusalem, this was an occasion of expectancy and joy as they lined the streets with palm branches and their own cloaks, making way for the long-expected Messiah. These were acts of royal homage to a King.
In the minds of the people, the messiah would restore Israel to her former glory by overthrowing the Roman occupiers and expelling them from their land. This messiah would be more of a military or political leader than one leading a peaceful protest.
And yet, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was marked by notable symbols of servanthood and submission. Rather than a military hero striding into an occupied land on a grand stallion to annihilate his enemies, Jesus slowly rode into town on a lowly donkey.
And Jesus message was not one of militant extremism against the Romans, rather it was the announcement of a different kind of kingdom – an upside-down kingdom – in which the “meek inherit the earth” and “the peacemakers are those blessed or made happy by God.” In Jesus’ kingdom, the “first will be last” and “the least of these will end up being the greatest.”
At the center of Jesus’ kingdom message was - and is - love. We hear it put succinctly in St. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome:
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his
fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your
neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.
Imagine us following along in the crowd as we watch Jesus slowly making his way into the city. His disciples are with him. We are with him. The crowds are pushing in around us. We hear people murmuring and wondering aloud who this man might be. The whole city is stirred up and is asking, “Who is this?” In response, those in the know say, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee” (vs. 11).
Along with the crowd, we’ve heard rumors of this man. He heals the sick, the lame and the blind. He sets people free from demons. He shows love to everyone he meets and challenges stereotypes, especially as they pertain to women and children. He openly challenges the authority of the religious leaders and calls them out for their hypocrisy, their greed and their desire to exercise power and control over the people they are supposed to be shepherding. This Jesus defines religion as taking care of widows and orphans and keeping oneself from being polluted by the world.
And then as we watch, this Jesus – the Prince of Peace – enters into the outer courts of the Temple and begins overturning tables and aggressively driving people out of the area. Just as he had done when confronting the devil in the wilderness, Jesus uses the sword of the Spirit - the Word of God – to set right a grievous wrong. “It is written,” Jesus said, “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a ‘den of robbers’” (vs. 13).
Jesus was quoting the ancient prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, who wrote of the glory of God’s temple and the coming of the true Messiah who would replace the Temple with his own broken body and shed blood. To the average person in the crowd, the actions of Jesus might have seemed like those of the anticipated victorious military leader, rather than the meek and mild author of the upside-down kingdom.
In reality, what the crowd was witnessing and what we are hearing about is a perfect example of God’s righteous anger directed towards ungodly behavior. It is a portrait of the full nature of Jesus Christ.
The scene in the outer courts of the Temple would be the equivalent of someone setting up a table right out front of the chapel and offering to exchange your dollars for a special sanctuary currency that would make your offering even more attractive to God. Of course, your dollars would not be exchanged for the sanctuary currency at a rate favorable to you. You’d end up getting far less than you deserved through a shady transaction.
We would rightly name this service as a form of fraud, and I would shut it down immediately. Would this initiative be a sin for me as some might suggest this modern money changer is merely trying to make a living? It's easy to hear modern voices screeching with alarm at the sight of a priest demanding a simple businessman leave the premises of a church. “Love is love,” they might say, “and you’re being hateful by your aggressive actions towards a vulnerable member of our community.”
Would they be correct in their assessment? Would I be sinning in my anger toward a person intent on cheating the people I am called to shepherd and protect? It depends on who you ask.
In his book entitled Live Not by Lies, author Rod Dreher defines modern liberalism’s goal as “to free the individual from any unchosen obligations.” This definition could easily include the obligation to follow the rule of law as it relates to honest dealings and trespassing.
From a Kingdom of God perspective, we look to Jesus and how he dealt with people during his days walking this earth. From this Kingdom perspective, we would rightly see the scenario of a Rector driving a criminal from the front steps of a church building as a case of righteous indignation. Jesus didn’t wink at sin in the name of love. Neither do we.
In his book entitled Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God, author Mark Galli challenges the common image of Jesus held by scores of Christians in contemporary churches as one who is only “gentle, meek and nice.”
This image of Jesus as a helpless, weak and impotent victim does a disservice to the power of the gospel message, a message of hope, love and, yes, strength and courage and wildness.
I think Galli hits the nail on the head when he defines God as untamable. This image of God is one many of us find intimidating and even unsettling, which is why we tend to remake God into a being we can better understand and even control.
But, as C.S. Lewis suggested in his Chronicles of Narnia, “(God) isn’t safe, but he is good.” I believe this image of God as good AND untamable is one the contemporary Church desperately needs to recover.
Author and theologian John Stott decries the problem especially with men in the modern church who fail to get mad about the things God gets mad about. Stott believes one of the principal reasons behind the decline of mainline churches is the failure by Christians to “be angry, and not sin.”
Modern Christians have clearly been shamed into silence or lulled to sleep by contemporary culture regarding matters God has deemed as unholy, ungodly and even abhorrent. Rather than showing righteous indignation in the face of behavior God defines as sin, we are pressured to kowtow to modern sensibilities regardless of how detached they may be even from basic reality.
These are the modern matters we are presented with as we think about, reflect upon and pray into during the season of Advent, this season of arrival and expectancy. As we approach the serene and joyful expression of the incarnation of the living God as an infant in the Christmas Season, I encourage you to think deeply about the full nature of Jesus’ life and witness.
One resource I would suggest for you is a book by Michael Green entitled Who is This Jesus?, which evangelist Billy Graham promoted as “clear, intelligent, and a highly readable volume.”
A colleague of mine once served as a chaplain in a home for troubled children, most of whom had been physically and emotionally abused and who suffered from PTSD and a host of other ailments related to their abuse. My colleague was visiting with a teenage boy one day and asked the troubled teen if he had ever heard of Jesus. The boy looked at him quizzically and asked, “You mean that baby?”
What a tragic misconception of the Living Son of the Living God by one who so badly needed an accurate view of Jesus Christ. A perpetual baby Jesus, innocent and vulnerable, will be of no real help to a broken person all too familiar with the ravages of what a dark and broken world can do the soul of a person.
What real people need is a working knowledge of the real Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace who cares deeply for the souls of His people AND the Lion of Judah who is wild, powerful and untamable. The Jesus who gets angry enough at sin and ungodly behavior that he turns over tables and drives swindlers out of the marketplace. The Jesus who names abuse as sinfully grievous behavior and one who has the power to restore broken things – and people – to wholeness through his healing touch.
This is the Jesus Christ – loving, patient, wild, untamable and restorative - we long to receive afresh as we make our way through the season of Advent and await the arrival of the incarnation of God at Christmas time.