Sunday, October 27, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe"

John 2:13-22

13 Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business. 15 When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers’ money and overturned the tables. 16 And He said to those who sold doves, “Take these things away! Do not make My Father’s house a house of merchandise!” 17 Then His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for Your house has eaten[a] Me up.”[b] 18 So the Jews answered and said to Him, “What sign do You show to us, since You do these things?” 19 Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 Then the Jews said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” 21 But He was speaking of the temple of His body. 22 Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this to them;[c] and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said. (CEB)

“The Screwtape Sermons: Exploring Scripture With C.S. Lewis,” Week One

The mother of four—and a lay leader in a Disciples congregation—recounted in the interview how her family, like untold others in this economy, had recently come upon hard financial times:

“My husband recently took a position for a company making half of what he was making before.  I am a full-time college student.  We got married young.  We have four children under the age of eight.  For the last two weeks, the check engine light has been on in my car.  And this morning, my husband went out to get in his pick-up and it didn’t start.”

So, in the midst of this worry, she goes grocery shopping at the local supermarket…and she has her wallet stolen by a pickpocket.  Instead of screaming for the police, she walked up to the man who had picked her pocket and gave him an ultimatum…an extremely charitable one.  She said:

“I think you have something of mine.  I’m going to give you a choice.  You can give me my wallet and I’ll forgive you right now, and I’ll even take you to the front and pay for your groceries.  Or (I will) call the police.”

He gave up the wallet.  But that wasn’t the end of it:

“He started crying when we walked up to the front.  He said he was sorry about twenty times by the time we went from the pickle aisle to the front.  He told me he was desperate…he said, ‘I’ll never forget tonight.  I’m broke, I have kids, I’m embarrassed and I’m sorry.’”

“I never carry cash.  When I got to the checkout counter that day, his (the pickpocket’s) total was a little over $27 (for milk, bread, crackers, soup, and cheese).  And I had $28 in cash in my wallet.  And so I knew in that moment it wasn’t me.  It was Christ that played in that moment.”

And it probably was—for so many reasons.  Yes, this is a story about forgiveness, about loving your enemy, about seeing the soul in another, but ultimately, it was about something even more: two people, having been torn down—both of them broke or in hard straits—and one of them chooses to build the other back up—to raise them up, as Jesus says about Himself here in John 2.

This will be the last sermon series before the holidays are upon us…man, that sounds crazy to say.  But yep, this is it—the last sermon series before we spend four weeks on Advent and two more on Christmas.  This is a series that I have wanted to do for a long time, but never quite found the right spot in the calendar until now.  And it’s a bit different than my usual series, which are often about a book of Scripture or a book by a contemporary author, or some other theme…this series is centered around a person: Clive Staples Lewis, the 20th century Christian writer and apologist who wrote a great many books you may have heard of: the Chronicles of Narnia, the Space Trilogy, and Mere Christianity.  He’s a popular fellow in a great many Christian circles, and so I decided to use him as the proverbial guinea pig in this new experiment of mine in taking a slightly different approach to a sermon series.  And we’ll begin this series by talking about perhaps Lewis’s most famous book, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” which acts as the second installment in the Chronicles of Narnia chronology, and which was a staple of my own childhood bookshelf too, long before I even knew the book was “Christian.”

The main plot point revolves around a lion, Aslan, who is the rightful king of Narnia, a fantastical world accessed via this world through a magical wardrobe, and whose reign has been usurped by the witch Jadis, who wrongfully rules Narnia (hence, the title of the book).  And that plot point is an allusion to Christ’s crucifixion—as the book’s climax nears, Aslan sacrifices himself for four children who had made their way into Narnia through the wardrobe by exchanging his life for theirs when the witch tries to execute one of the children for treason.

The overlap to Christ is pretty obvious—Christ sacrificed Himself to save us, His children, and the stone upon which Aslan is killed breaks—recalling the temple curtain being torn into two upon Christ’s death in Matthew’s Gospel, signifying the fall of any boundary between God and humanity, and the breaking of Pharisaic law and legalism with the mercy of Jesus Christ.

But rather than use Matthew’s story of the temple curtain being torn into two, I was led to John’s version of the temple cleansing, because it, in fact, acts as the very first allegory to Christ’s crucifixion (notice, I say allegory, not prophecy).  The scene is pretty straightforward: it’s Passover—the first of three in Jesus’ ministry by John’s Gospel—so Jesus travels to Jerusalem.  He arrives at the temple, sees the moneychangers, and forcibly expels them with a whip.

Why is this a big deal?  I mean, we live in a country that loves it a free market.  Capitalism is what defines the American economy.  Well…sort of.  This wasn’t so much capitalism so much as money-gouging.  Firstly, temple law dictated that shekels—the Israelite currency—be used for temple purchases.  But since Israel was under Roman occupation at the time, the primary currency used was Roman denarii—necessitating the use of moneychangers, whose presence was tolerated by the temple authorities such that the moneychangers basically had a monopoly over their services and could charge whatever commissions they wished.

Similarly, the animal wholesalers made a proverbial killing—temple law mandated animal sacrifice because, you know, God is from Kansas City and loves Him some good barbeque.  And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but a big reason why capitalism—why any economic system that relies on monetary currency as its basic unit—thrives is because we seldom work for barter anymore.  After all, it simply will not do for me to take my goats into Safeway to exchange them for some milk and eggs—I’m liable to have Animal Control, the county health inspector, and the doofuses at PETA all called on me.

Well, it was the same for ancient Israelites—minus PETA, probably.  It simply was not practical for pilgrims to travel with their own animals, so they would wait until they got to Jerusalem and then buy an animal to sacrifice at the temple.  But in verse 16, Jesus specifically condemns the sellers of doves.  It wasn’t because Jesus had an affinity for doves…well, maybe He did, and Hollywood missed out on a major opportunity with next summer’s blockbuster hit, “The Dove Whisperer.”  No, doves—and pigeons and other birds—were available for the poorest pilgrims, people who could not afford to buy a proper animal sacrifice like a cow or a sheep.  This also reinforces the divine order of foodstuffs: meat beats poultry every time.  Just ask God.

In any case, Jesus is reserves His fury for the merchants who are purposely exploiting the working class and the truly destitute—the sellers of doves.  Think of them as you would of predatory lenders like payday loan shops and loan sharks today.  Why does any of this matter?

Rewind to the story I told you at the beginning.  If people will try to steal from one another out of desperation today, I am certain that they would have done so back then as well.  And so you have a temple, a place of sacredness and divinity, that has literally become a den of thieves—not only of price-gougers, but of desperate pilgrims ironically turning to thievery in order to worship.

And so Jesus comes in, and He cleans out the temple, but then He says something interesting: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  John is very clear here in his Greek: rather than the Greek term meaning “to construct,” Jesus here is, literally saying, “I will raise it up.”  This is not a physical reconstruction, but a spiritual restoration.  And this is so because, as John conveys to us (though the crowd doesn’t get it), the temple Jesus speaks of is Himself.

But in both senses—the physical, monetary, financial sense, and the spiritual, otherworldly, sacred sense, debts can be forgiven.  A woman can forgive the sin of having her wallet stolen from her, and go so far as to pay that thief’s debt for his food.  And a Savior can forgive us the sin of one day killing Him, and go so far as to come back to life, just to prove the point that far from having our debts paid (because honestly, that makes God sound an awful lot like one of those loan sharks at the temple), we have our debts to Him forgiven as well, just as it is prayed in the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount.  God forgives us our debts.  It is the lesson of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  It is the lesson of John 2.  And it is the lesson by which we are meant to live: forgiving one another, as Christ has already forgiven us.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 27, 2013

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