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No Wrath in God, Lent 3, Eucharist

March 8, 2021

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John 2.13-22, Lent 3, Eucharist

 

Hear the vision of the 14th Century mystic Julian of Norwich:

 

‘For I saw no wrath but on man’s part; and that forgiveth God in us. For wrath is not else but a forwardness and a contrariness to peace and love; and either it cometh of failing of might, or of failing of wisdom, or of failing of goodness: which failing is not in God, but is on our part.’

 

There is no wrath in God.

 

Perhaps consistency in preaching is an ideal to be strived for rather than a practice to be achieved, but maybe the Bible is to blame. It’s not easy to be a preacher when the Bible in different places promises, for example, that the nations shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks, but also commands the nations to beat their ploughshares into swords and their pruning-hooks into spears.

 

It would be nice to put the prophets Isaiah and Joel into a small room together and watch the sparks fly!

 

At the Ash Wednesday Eucharist the Bible reading was of Jesus freeing the woman taken in adultery from condemnation. It reminded us that we’re acquitted from our sins, and that, rather than rage against sinners, Jesus stands with them. But today, seemingly, we have the opposite: Jesus condemning sinners in the Temple and casting them out of God’s presence.

 

That’s the Bible for you, a wonderful compendium of books with different takes on God, and the preacher’s temptation is to throw a pall of homogeneity over the whole lot.

 

I hope to avoid this, while making a few connections between very different passages; but you judge.

 

Let’s think first, though, about getting angry. Now I’m sure that all of you gathered online today are very nice people with super-even tempers. But let me describe a situation:

 

You’re driving on the motorway when another car suddenly pulls across into your lane, causing you to brake sharply, and to break sharply into Saxon. You accelerate to catch the car in question, to offer the driver a lesson in what close fellowship really feels like.

 

When we feel threatened, anger is a reflex – fight or flight. And even if it’s flight, we stay agitated, plotting our revenge.

 

So does Jesus get angry? Not like that, even though he was fully human. Even in his Passion, when stripped, mocked and scorned, he did not react in anger.

 

And yet in our gospel today there is something is going on. You can’t deny the aggression of the whip, the pouring out of coins, the turning over of tables and the strong words. Jesus is on the attack and all the traders at least on the defence.

 

It was an action which was to make him an enemy of the Temple authorities and contribute to his death.

 

However, it was what we would call today non-violent direct action, not red mist. Jesus didn’t aim to cause anyone physical injury. His extemporised ‘whip’ was not the Roman scourge interlaced with small pieces of metal, which took the skin off people. It was a sign of his authority to act.

 

El Greco has it exactly right in a picture painted in 1600 in Toledo, now owned by the National Gallery: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/el-greco-christ-driving-the-traders-from-the-temple

 

It’s an extraordinary picture of judgement, of everything going on to left of the picture as we look at it.

 

El Greco painted several versions of this event, as cleansing the Church was a popular theme for Catholics and Protestants alike, but in this one he’s pared down the action to the essentials.

 

At the very centre of the picture, in the sharpest focus, is Jesus’ upraised hand and clear eye. He absolutely knows what he must do – this surgical strike on those who stand against God and access to God. God’s Temple and God’s people deserve better than this.

 

And El Greco helps us further. Painted on the walls of the Temple in the background are two Old Testament scenes.

 

On our left, at the top, Adam and Eve being driven from the Garden of Eden by God’s angel, ensuring that they should never return. On our right, the angel is staying the sword of Abraham as he prepares to sacrifice his son Isaac. God’s righteousness does not require human violence.

 

The message is clear: divine weapons, and the things – like a handful of ropes – that symbolise them, may be used to clear holy space, but they must not be used against people.

 

The story describes upsetting the order of the Temple and leaves us to ponder why, along with the apostles on the other side of the painting.

 

The verse St John gives us from the Old Testament to interpret Jesus’ action comes from the Psalms: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’.

 

Psalm 69 actually says, Zeal for your house has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen upon me’. It looks back on the reasons why its author is ‘sinking in the mire’, forsaken by God.

 

For Jesus, this abandonment lies in the future. John, by his choice of tense, hints that this is where Jesus’ zeal for his Father’s Temple will lead.

 

He also hints that Jesus sees beyond death to his vindication as God’s true Temple. What sign can you give that you have the right to judge us, say the Temple authorities. ‘Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up’, Jesus replies.

 

Naturally, at the time no-one can make either head or tail of that.

 

So is there wrath in God? No, there is not. But there is a zeal on Jesus’ part to open the way to the Father. It’s an awesome zeal delivered with a clear eye, a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, of which Jesus already foresees the consequences.

 

Soon Jesus’ arms will be stretched in another way to make access to the Father fully and finally possible.

 

I guess that when Jesus stretched his protective arm around the woman caught in the act of adultery, her persecutors felt the force of his zeal to clear a space where mercy was possible, as he wrote on the ground, made the space for judgement, and straightened up to face and disperse them.

 

It’s the same Jesus, prepared to use all his heart, mind, soul and strength to save sinners, standing firmly and forcefully against those who stand in the way of our salvation.

 

‘For I saw no wrath but on man’s part; and that forgiveth God in us. For wrath is not else but a forwardness and a contrariness to peace and love; and either it cometh of failing of might, or of failing of wisdom, or of failing of goodness: which failing is not in God, but is on our part.’