A Fired Up Jesus

The text from last week's Ash Wednesday sermon...

Suzanne Collins is the acclaimed author of the hit series "The Hunger Games" - which have recently been made into movies. The second movie came out just a few months ago, and the title is "Catching Fire." The basic premise is that there are twelve districts under the control of one Capital. The main character, Katniss, is commonly referred to as the "Girl on Fire." There's a stroke of genius in the parallels in imagery for the character. Katniss is known as the girl on fire because of several outfits she wears that appear to catch on fire. This image of the "girl on fire" plays a double role because of her ability to inspire rebellion and empower the people of the districts to rise up against the oppression of the Capital. Fire spreads. Catching fire.

Today is Ash Wednesday, and so it only seemed appropriate that before we get to the ashes, we spend a little bit of time on the fire. Fire is one of the most powerful, compelling, terrifying images we can use. Fire is dangerous! And beautiful. You cannot deny that there is something there. Yet you can pass your hand right through it! You can pass your hand through it, but it will hurt! You cannot hold fire in your hand, or predict it's form or shape. You can record its temperature, but you cannot put it on a scale. In truth fire is a reaction. Combustion. Fire is an agent of change. Fire takes something and changes it to something else - usually ash.

In our scripture passage for today, we get to see a little fire in Jesus. Jesus enters the temple, sees the evil present in the walls of his Father's house - and he gets mad! I chose this version of the story, because this is the most intense version. In the gospel of John, Jesus makes a whip out of cord and drives these men out of the building. A whip!

People might not like to talk about it - but this is not a minor story. This little anger incident with Jesus is in all four gospels. There are four versions of Jesus's story told by four different authors - and Jesus drives out the money changers in every single one of them. A little perspective: the birth of Christ isn't even in all four gospels Christmas isn't in all four - but this story is. There is something here worth taking a look at.

So let's take a closer look. In three out of the four gospels, this scene comes immediately after Jesus' triumphant entry to Jerusalem. You may remember the story - he rides in on a donkey and everyone waves palm branches. This "triumphant" entry was not what the Jewish people were hoping for! They wanted a powerful messiah who lead them into battle and defeat the Romans! Where they looked for power - Jesus was quiet, humble.

In three of the four gospels - immediately after Jesus gets angry in the temple - his authority is questioned. First he comes into the city on a donkey with no weapons, quiet when they wanted him to be loud. Then he goes to the temple and drives out the money makers. Being loud when they wanted him to be quiet. Didn't Jesus know that these guys were where the big money came from?

Another reason people don't talk about this passage of scripture much is I think they might be embarassed by it. Jesus gets angry. Jesus drives people out of the temple. But this is the Son of God right? Isn't he supposed to be all smiles and perfect hair and patient understanding? How can it be okay for Jesus Christ to be ticked off? Or, to use their words: "zealous"? How can it be okay for Jesus to do what he did?

To help explain Jesus I'm going to share a quick story about my brother's kitten. I have two brothers, and they both recently got pets. My brother ben got a kitten and my brother Jon got a puppy. The kitten is a kitten, about yay big. My brother's puppy is a German Shepherd mixed with a rottweiler. Both were very cute, both had lots of energy. And they liked to wrestle. In fact, there were moments when the puppy would fit the entire kitten's head inside his mouth

Now, Axle was a sweet puppy - but when we saw that: we would freak out! It's a basic rule of wrestling - it's not so playful when you've got your opponents entire head in your mouth. It's just not allowed. We saw something we loved in danger - and we got all kinds of zealous. Yelling, gesturing, chasing the puppy out of the room - checking the kitty to make sure he was still three dimensional. Zealous.

When Jesus saw something he loved being mistreated - he flipped out! Rightly so! When you see a child about to stick a fork in an electrical socket. You go ahead and flip right out until your child is not in danger! Jesus Christ is the savior of the world and he is our Lord and our guiding example. Jesus laid down an example for us to follow with his life - and he's telling us something very important here.

Jesus is showing us how to protect something precious. Jesus is showing us how to respond to evil in the world. We do not ask politely for evil to leave. We do not wait for the earliest convenience. We make a whip out of cords and we drive evil from our lives. Now, I'm not talking about the gray areas, the vague things that people like to debate about whether they are evil or not. I'm talking about undisputed evil that we know should not be in this world. Poverty, the global hunger crisis, slavery, oppression, genocide. What if we got a little fiery about evil, like Jesus did?

But the passage doesn't end there. First, we've got Jesus driving out evil. Protecting something that is precious to him. But in case you get the wrong idea - Jesus clarifies what it is that he is protecting. The passage continues, and the Jewish leaders ask Jesus,

"What sign can you show us for doing this?" jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The jews then said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?" But he was speaking of the temple of his body.

[Go over to the stained glass windows]

I really like these windows. I think they are just gorgeous. The pictures, The clarity of the glass. I love the way the light comes in, it really brightens this space - opens it up. Some of you may have noticed, but they are taking along time to put in! Because of the age of the old windows, the molding difficulties, and the new weather-proofing stuff we are putting in this time around - it's a slow process! Pane by pane these windows are going in - because if you're going to do something, do it right.

Now, if I was to say to you - "Go ahead, smash down those windows, I'll fix them up in three days." You'd call me crazy. The Jewish leaders laughed at Jesus - because their project had been in process for 46 years! 46 years! But they missed it. He wasn't talking about a building. He was talking about a church. He was talking about his body. Now, yes - there's a sense where he's talking about his literal body - because he died and was raised three days later on Easter. Yes.

But another way we talk about the body of Christ is the church! We are the hands and feet of Christ - the body of Christ is us! Jesus drove the money lenders out of the temple because he was protecting something he loved. But his Father's house isn't about the brick walls or the fantastic windows! It's about the people inside those walls. Jesus is zealous about protecting YOU! Jesus is ready and waiting to whip the evil right out of our lives.

In the Hunger Games books, the main character Katniss actually spends most of the movie trying to convince people she’s not the girl on fire. She spends all this energy trying to calm people down, keep the rebellion under control – but she can’t. Fire spreads. In the past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about how fire spreads from one thing to another, it’s contagious. And then I think about the name of our Youth Program – Ignite. The spark. The start of the fire.

Onward Bound is our confirmation class – and we’re getting ready for confirmation next month, right after Easter. Some people look at confirmation as sort of a graduation from church. All those years of Sunday School and Church camp and now it’s time for graduation. But we’ve got it all backwards! Confirmation is just the beginning – not the end! When you join the church, when you get confirmed – you suddenly gain a voice. You are given the status to start telling the church what’s important to you!

When Jesus went into the temple he found something he didn’t like – and he did something about it. He flipped over the tables, poured out the coins and drove them right out the door. I don’t recommend you try this at the next AD Council meeting.

Jesus shows us that the church is a precious thing – it’s worth protecting. It’s worth standing up for. When Jesus walked into that temple, he didn’t look around, see stuff he didn’t like and think, “Huh, I’ll just go to the Baptist Temple up the road.” He didn’t just give up and switch to the more contemporary Temple on the other side of town. He did something about it. God loves each and every one of you here tonight. He protects us. The least we can do is return the favor.

Now we all know that after fire comes ash. Lent, starting with Ash Wednesday, is a time of preparation for Easter.. We’re supposed to be mindful of our sins, and think on them in terms of repenting. The fires of change bring ashes, and up from the ashes new growth is possible.

There is an ecological adaptation exhibited by some seed plants called serotiny. Serotiny is where a seed needs a trigger to open up. This trigger can be a bunch of different things - sometimes even fire. It's common in Australia and South Africa, but it also happens right here in the U.S. - in some of the southeastern forests. These seeds stay shut for years, sometimes decades until a fire comes. Fire ravages the forests, burns up everything. And when there is nothing but devastation and ash left - that is the moment when those seeds open. New life is born up from the ashes. The fire burns away what was and leaves room for what is yet to come. There is an entire branch of study out there called "Fire ecology" - the study of the life that comes after a fire.

Every Lent, there’s a popular question that goes around: So, what are you giving up? Most people treat this like a mini New Years Resolution, or an opportunity to start that diet they’ve been putting off. Give up our favorite things, which is cute for like a day, and then we end up resenting God for making us give up our favorite things – and we end up looking forward to Easter only because then I can finally have soda again. 

What if we did something different this year? What if we looked at our life like Jesus looks at our life – as something precious to be protected. What if we took a serious look at the way we are living, or the way we are worshipping and did something to bring us closer to God? What if we looked at our lives and thought, “What can I burn away – so new life can be born?”

There are two ways to tell what is important to someone – what they spend their time on, and what they spend their money on. Look at your life, really think about it. What are you wasting your time on – that you could be spending with God? What are you wasting your money on, that you could be using for good?

I’ve used fire in two ways tonight. The one is the fire that is on the inside. The fire of inspiration. The Katniss Everdeen fire. The contagious flame that sparks something inside of us that more precious than any silver or gold. It’s the fire we put on our hymnals. Take a look: The Holy Spirit next to the cross. The second way I’ve described fire is the fire that destroys, the fire that burns up all the extra useless stuff in our lives that really just ends up distracting us from what is truly important. And out of the ashes of that fire comes growth. In a moment I’m going invite those of you who would like to participate to come forward and be marked by the ashes. If you’re going to give something up for Lent, something that distracts you from God – think of these ashes as that something, burned away from your life – to make room for new life, new growth. If you’re not going to give something up, and that’s okay, think of these ashes as the sin of your life – all your mistakes and failures, burned away to make room for new life.

Copyright © 2018 First United Methodist Church, Downers Grove. Please report any problems to webmaster@dgfumc.org.