The scene of Jesus turning over the tables of the money changers in the Temple and grabbing a whip and chasing away those who were profiting from the worship of God is dramatic and powerful, and so different from the way that we usually imagine Jesus that it sticks out in the gospels, almost as a mistake. Jesus meek and mild. Jesus washing his disciples feet. Jesus healing the sick. Jesus teaching the crowds. Jesus letting the little children come unto him. Baby Jesus – and no crying he makes – lying in a manger. These pictures feel comfortable. An angry Jesus feels out of control. What do we do with an out-of-control Jesus?
One of the most famous sermons ever preached on American shores was titled, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Jonathan Edwards preached the sermon on July 8, 1741 at Enfield, Connecticut. It became the most famous sermon of what is called the First Great Awakening – a movement during the colonial period of America which saw a great revival of church attendance and Christian devotion. The revival was driven by a fear that God was angry at people, angry at their sins, angry at their evil and that God would torment sinners after death unless they confessed their sins and turned to Jesus.
Edwards was not the first, nor the last to preach or teach more or less the same. There are many folks who’ve given up on church, given up on God because the God that was talked about in the churches they attended as children was this angry God who was going to send you to Hell if you told lies, or if you didn’t believe in Jesus. They got tired of feeling guilty, like they were never good for God. They didn’t understand a theology that said God killed Jesus on the cross because God was angry at humanity’s sin. They had enough of God’s wrath, so they left.
Who needs an angry God, when there’s already enough anger in the world?
One of the reasons that Christians for the past few centuries have insisted that Jesus never sinned was because of how theologians explained his death on the cross. The sacrificial or substitutionary theory of atonement basically stated that Jesus took the place of all human beings on the cross. This theory was based on the idea that God is angry about sin and has to punish it – somebody has to take the punishment. But that if a perfect, innocent, sin-less sacrifice was made on behalf of all humanity, then God’s wrath could be unleashed on the one sacrificed and the rest of humanity would be free of God’s wrath. According to this theory, Jesus was that perfect, sinless sacrifice – the only one who did not deserve God’s wrath. But if Jesus sinned, then he wouldn’t have been the perfect sacrifice. Hence, over the past thousand years we have been eroding Jesus’ humanity – that he was a real human being with errors, mistakes, regrets, and yes, what could be called sins (you don’t think he ever bragged to his friends, or told a white lie to his mom?) – in order to make him the perfect sacrifice to save humanity.
But what if God wasn’t angry to begin with? What if God was just sad about humanity’s destructive habits? What if the substitutionary explanation of Jesus’ death was wrong? This theory is not written into scripture; it was created by Anselm, a monk and theologian, born in France during the 11th century. Christianity did pretty well its first thousand years without that idea, maybe its third thousand years could do as well without it? If Jesus didn’t have to be a perfect sacrifice, maybe he could go back to being human again – fully human and fully divine?
Roughly 100 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection (and 900 years before Anselm was born), early Christians began using a phrase that I have shared with you before – God became like us that we might become like God. This is a love-based way of understanding why God became human in Jesus and why Jesus died on a cross, rather than an angry-based understanding. I believe that God came to earth in Jesus so that in becoming like us, we might become like Jesus. I believe that God so loved the world, so loved each of us in the world, that God became human, in the flesh, in order to become a victim, a scapegoat, which we do to each other over and over and over again. God became human not to save us from God’s angry wrath, but to endure our own human anger.
God became human to stand in the place of the slave who was beaten to death by his angry, South Carolinian slavemaster.
God became human to stand in the place of the Jewish mother carrying her newborn baby to the gas showers at Auschwitz.
God became human to stand in the place of a gay young man taunted and killed because of his sexuality.
God became human to stand in the classroom of Sandy Hook Elementary School and to die with those children.
God became human in order to take upon God-self the worst that we do to each other in order to break open the doors of death and bring life, abundant life and eternal life, into humanity. And the best way God could do that in Jesus was to be a real human being, not just God with a human costume on.
You see the enemy we are in battle with is not an angry God, but angry humans. “Innocents in the Hands of an Angry Human” is the sermon experienced in Connecticut this past week. But this anger is in many more places. And why are we angry? Because we do not get what we want. Because we are human. And by definition mortal beings, limited beings don’t get everything they want.
Our passage today shows us that Jesus is very human. In Jesus’ day, everyone was supposed to go to the Temple in Jerusalem at least once a year and offer a sacrifice to God. They sacrificed an animal to ritualize their repentance and devotion. The Temple was the only holy place to do this. The priests of the Temple had a monopoly. They sold the animals to be sacrificed – so you didn’t have to bring it 100 miles by foot – and charged a high price. But your Roman money wasn’t holy enough, so you had to exchange the money at a high commission rate. When Jesus saw the money-changers in the Temple and how they were using poor people’s devotion to God in order to rip them off and make lots of money, it made him angry. So, angry that he turned over their tables, grabbed a whip and chased them off.
Maybe he was thinking about all this that morning as he and his disciples were walking to Jerusalem, heading towards the Temple, maybe he was already mad about what he knew was going on there, because when he stopped at a fig tree along the road and couldn’t find a single fig to satisfy his time-for-breakfast hunger pains he got mad and cursed the fig tree.
The next morning when they returned along the same path, the disciples saw that the tree was dead. It was not Jesus’ best moment.
To be human is to not get what you want – whether that is a fresh fig for breakfast, or friends who never break your heart, or a cure for every cancer, or justice for all people or peace on earth or bullets that can’t hurt children – and it’ll make you angry, like Jesus got angry.
But Jesus chased away the money-changers. He didn’t shoot them. And when they got mad at him for chasing them away, when all the religious people of the day got mad at him for pointing out their hypocrisy he absorbed their anger, rather than to strike back. He would not escalate the cycle of violence and anger. He absorbed all of our anger and took it to a cross.
So that then, God weeping at the death of a Son would break open the doors of death on Easter morn. Jesus didn’t die on a cross to save us from God’s anger. Jesus died on a cross to absorb our anger and its destructive power and to take it into death, so that God’s love moved by God’s sadness could resurrect Jesus and resurrect all of us from it. Jesus would not continue the cycle of violence that plagues our world, but he absorbed it.
When God became human to die on a cross, God joined every African-American lynched on a tree, every Jewish person repeating the Shema in the gas chambers, every poor girl snatched from her family for sex-trafficking, every victim of a terrorist’s bomb, every scared child facing an angry man’s gun. For this reason God became human in Jesus, so that death would not be our anger’s final word. But that God’s love would be the final word. That God’s love in Jesus would transform even death to life.
This Christmas I want to ask you to believe in an angry Jesus, a very-human Jesus, so that you can give up on the idea of an angry God. This Christmas I want to ask you to trust that God can resurrect death into life. This Christmas I want to ask you to consider that sacrificial love is the only way to heal the hurt of not getting what you want. AMEN
This sermon on Mark 11:12-24 was preached at Sardis Baptist Church, Charlotte, December 16, 2012.