The clearing of the temple may be the single most important event in Jesus’ life. Almost all scholars now agree that this one act, Jesus coming into the temple and chasing away the money changers and the merchants, is what led to Jesus’ crucifixion. And that’s how Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell the story. In those gospels, Jesus clears the temple right after his Palm Sunday ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. And his accusation is that the temple has been changed into a “den of robbers.” “Den of robbers” doesn’t mean the temple has become a hideaway for some first-century version of Ocean’s 11; it means the temple has become a tool for people like Barabbas, people who violently oppose the Roman Empire. But what really gets Jesus in trouble is that his actions are like a performance; when Jesus clears the temple, he’s really condemning the whole temple system of his day. Continue reading
You might notice something peculiar as we work our way through Mark’s gospel this year. In the first verse of the first chapter, Mark tells us that his gospel is about “Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And from then on, almost until the end of the book, the only ones to recognize Jesus as being “of God” are demons. We see an example of this in today’s reading. Jesus has just called the disciples together; they have heard his voice and given up everything to follow him. They enter a synagogue together, and Jesus teaches the crowd gathered there with power and authority. In the middle of this gathering a man, possessed by a demon, bursts into the room and begins screaming at Jesus: “What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Jesus exorcises the demon, and the crowd is amazed. Continue reading
When we hear that someone has aged gracefully, we nearly always think first of her or his appearance. We might say that someone who looks ten or twenty years younger than she actually is has aged gracefully, or that someone who has retained a certain nobility throughout his years has aged gracefully. If we’re not thinking about appearance, we might also say that someone who acts in a dignified way has aged gracefully. Continue reading
We must not think even for a moment that the whole world was watching for a Savior the night Christ was born. For most people in most places on that ancient night, there was no deep mystery hanging in the air, no excited anticipation, no anxious wondering about whether this night would be the night God finally acted. Jesus’ birth was never destined to be headline news, even if there had been such things as newspapers or CNN. And no one was camping out in Bethlehem waiting for a royal announcement the way reporters and gossip columnists surrounded St. Mary’s Hospital in London last year awaiting the birth of Prince George. If you had walked into one of the great cities of Jesus’ day, Rome, say, or Athens, and said, “Something amazing is about to happen in Bethlehem, this very night,” you would have gotten the same reaction I had when I told people I was appointed to a congregation in Forest Hill: Where’s that?
Not only was almost no one watching for a Savior, hardly anyone would have believed that something so important as his birth would happen in a place like Bethlehem. Sure, we hear the reading from Micah, “As for you Bethlehem of Ephrathah,” and right away we know what the prophet is talking about. But not back then. Calling Bethlehem a city is a bit like calling Bel Air a metropolis. Nothing happened in Bethlehem; nothing had happened there for over a thousand years. If there was a bright center to the Roman Empire’s universe, Bethlehem was the planet furthest away. Even Jerusalem, the closest “big city,” was a backwater town by Roman standards. Appointing governors to Palestine was one way for the Roman emperor to rid himself of troublesome or incompetent aristocrats. The Jews weren’t the only ones who disliked Pontius Pilate.
The story of Jesus’ birth, especially to those of us who have known it all our lives, can seem so normal. Of course Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Where else would he go? Why wouldn’t there be room to stay in town no one ever visited? Where else would his mother put him except a manger? Whom are the angels supposed to tell if not the shepherds? The more we hear this story, the more it starts to sound like something that does belong on a Hallmark card. Sadly, the more “natural” the Christmas story seems, the more desensitized we become to the shocking story that the Lord of the universe took on human form as a baby born in almost total obscurity in a place virtually no one had heard of and found himself plunked down in a cow’s food dish because even the ridiculously unimportant people of Bethlehem couldn’t find room to shelter his mother in anything like human quarters. In the place of this scandal we drop our sentimental baggage of Charles Dickens, The Nutcracker, Currier and Ives, and Christmas crooners. It’s almost like we’re afraid to believe in something this strange and troubling, so instead we try to fit it in with much more manageable things like Christmas magic and the season of giving. Ironically the only scandals today are the Grinches who want to wish us “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” the Scrooges who proudly wear their bah-humbug disbelief on their sleeves instead of covering it over in Thomas Kinkade pastels, and the preachers who dare to mention the cross in a Christmas Eve service when everyone just wants to hear about the baby. We’d like our Christmas to run on autopilot, please.
Our world today isn’t all that different from the world Jesus entered two thousand years ago. Most of us still live day to day; most of us still don’t know what to expect or hope for this Christmas. Most of us do not want Christmas to be interrupted by anything or anyone. If someone told us something important, something grand, mysterious, and wonderful was about to happen, something that would shake the very foundations of our world, we’d turn our attention toward someplace like Washington D.C., New York City, or Beijing. But Christ was born in Bethlehem, away from the centers of commerce and power, on the outskirts of the margins of society. And Christ’s flesh continues to appear in unknown and unexpected places. Places less like Rome, and more like Forest Hill.
Mere bread, simple bread, and a cup of grape juice are easy enough to write off. They’re the stuff of child’s snacks. Hardly divine. Each time that we celebrate Holy Communion together, Christ’s flesh breaks into our world in the elements of bread and wine. That happens every week, right here at Centre, in Forest Hill, of all places.
Anybody can give a helping hand to someone else. Anybody can receive a small gift from another person. These things happen every day. There’s nothing special about them. Yet Christ’s flesh extends itself as the hand of a worker in our food pantry, offering a bag of groceries to a neighbor, and Christ’s flesh opens up in the hands of the person who receives the food. Christ’s flesh giving; Christ’s flesh receiving. That happens each Wednesday, right here at Centre, in Forest Hill, of all places.
People have been shaking hands for at least the last 2500 years. Millions of people shake hands every day. The cool and the germaphobes among us give fist bumps. Millenials hug everyone. It’s all perfectly ordinary. When we pass the peace as an act of worship, Christ’s flesh becomes palpable, and forgiveness becomes tangible in the embrace of fellow believers. That happens every Sunday at Centre, in Forest Hill, of all places.
Holy Communion. The Food Pantry. The peace of Christ. Centre Church. Forest Hill. Bethlehems, all. No headline news; no royal announcement; no one watching. But Christ appearing, in humble ways and lowly places, just as God promised he would do.
Perhaps you’re satisfied with the seasonal happiness of Christmas magic, with chestnuts and children and cherished moments. But if your desire has been stretched, if you yearn for something deeper, something troubling enough to require belief throughout the year, then don’t make your pilgrimage to Bethlehem a once-a-year event. Return as often as you can. Commit to living on the outskirts, at the margins, in places where strange and mysterious and disturbing things can happen, where God himself appears in the most ordinary—and therefore the most unimaginable—ways. Amen.