Tag Archives: Passion

Lent Lesson #2: Fiery

A Sermon for 4 March 2018 – 3rd Sunday during Lent

A reading from the gospel of John 2:13-22.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.  15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.  16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”  17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”  18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”  19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”  21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body.  22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!


It’s the third Sunday amid the season of Lent.  And how interesting that the gospel reading assigned in the lectionary for today takes us back to the second chapter of the gospel of John.  Right to a story that doubtfully ever will be depicted on a sanctuary stained-glass window!  Seemingly in contrast to the gentle Jesus who carries the little lambs, the story of Jesus entering the Temple to throw over the money-changers is not often told to youngsters.  It appears in all four gospels, which is one way the early church proclaimed to listeners:  now hear ye!  This one MUST be included in any understanding of the Christ!  In the Synoptics of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; the wild-eyed, resolute Jesus cleanses the Temple as one of his last acts in Jerusalem before his arrest and crucifixion.  But in the gospel of John at the outset of his public ministry, the first time we hear of Jesus going up to Jerusalem for the Passover; he’s pouring out coins, throwing over tables, cracking a whip to rid his Father’s house of that which he finds an utter disgrace.

While some point back to this event as the time Jesus got really really mad, righteous anger fuming like smoke from his ears; zeal is the word that is used.  The gospel of John declares that zeal for the LORD’s house consumes him – which is not about anger at all!  Right about now we well-reasoning Presbyterians should be warned.  The gospel’s taking us into the depths of an energy many tend to shy away from:  passion!  That upwelling of energy that moves us into the amazing.  That intensity of emotion that leaves us feeling absolutely alive!  . . .  Webster’s defines zeal as an enthusiastic, intense interest – as in a cause or ideal.  Also known as ardor.  Another unfamiliar attribute today.  Ardor is warmth of emotion, intense heat, red-hot burning passion.  Which by the way is not just about something sexual as seems today’s only acceptable realm for such intensity.  Though truth be told, most in our post-modern culture are misdirected regarding passion in that realm too!

Here in the gospel of John, the story of Christ decidedly begins with passion.  Jesus’ upsurge of intense energy that will not allow the house of God to continue to be desecrated.  It might be helpful to point out a few things about the context of Jesus’ act.  First, it was Passover.  The annual festival when Jesus and his people celebrated freedom from the Pharaoh.  Release from the bonds of Egypt.  When God saw the people miserably enslaved for the benefit of the Pharaoh’s economy, God found Moses.  Ardently consuming a bush that was not burned up, the LORD declared:  “Go to Pharaoh to let my people go!” (Exodus 3).  Passover was the annual institution for a free people to remember and rejoice!  God delivers in order for a liberated people to give great thanks.  In order for a people to be an alternative light to all the nations.  Imagine the affront to such freedom the buying and selling of animals caused.  The exchange of the emperor’s money inside the Temple gates in order for the annual Temple tax to be paid by every Jew of the nation.  Of Jesus and the money-changers, one author writes:  “had the traders been confined to the streets around the Temple, all would have been well.  The (Jewish) Talmud records that a certain Babha Ben Buta had been the first to introduce 3,000 sheep of the flocks of Kedar into the Court of the Gentiles.  His profane example was eagerly followed, until in Jesus’ day the stench and filth of the flocks of penned sheep and oxen filled the air as they were bargained for by the traders and visiting pilgrims.”  Thus, the author continues, “Jesus made a whip of cords and drove them all, including the cattle and sheep, from the Temple area.  To those who sold doves he said:  ‘Get these out of here!  How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!’” (Robert Backhouse, The Kregel Pictorial Guide to the Temple, 1996; p. 22).  What God has made free, let none re-enslave!

It also might be helpful to know the layout of Herod’s massive Temple.  The Second Temple, which was even grander than the First Temple built by King Solomon that ended up destroyed when the people were exiled by the Babylonians.  Nearly six hundred years later, the Second Temple was the expanded spot for God’s people to gather.  Imagine something like a massive medieval cathedral with an exterior wall enclosing 36 acres on “the top of the hill on which the city stood” (Ibid., p. 12).  That’s like four times bigger than the entire building and property of this congregation.  The Temple expansion Herod began in 19 B.C. finally was completed in 64 A.D. – thirty-some years after Jesus’ resurrection and a handful of years before Rome destroyed forever all but a portion of the Western-facing wall.  Around an impressive edifice in the center of the 36 acres, stood a four-and-a-half-foot wall called the Wall of Partition.  At the punishment of death, only Jewish men or women could traverse it.  One author describes what was found inside:  “Passing within the Wall of Partition, a flight of 12 steps led up to an area 9 feet higher, where the Women’s Gate and the Gate of the Pure and Just gave access to a paved court known as the Court of Prayer.  At the end of this court, on a semi-circular raised dais, sacrifices and gifts were brought to be presented to the LORD.  Beyond this was the Court of the Priests, with its great altar of sacrifice and brazen laver for the ceremonial washing of priests.”  The description includes that:  “The porch led into the Sanctuary itself, compromising the Holy Place and the Holiest Place.  Inside the Holy Place stood the seven-branched golden lampstand, the table of showbread, and the altar of incense.  The Holiest Place was about 30 feet square and 60 feet high and was separated from the Holy Place by a great curtain” (Ibid.).  Outside these inner sanctums, sprawled a massive courtyard all the way to the edge of the 36th acre with a thousand-foot in length Temple wall.  People from around the world were allowed to be in that part of the Temple in order to make their own prayers to the LORD.  It was there, in that massive Court of the Gentiles, where anyone from anywhere might have been able to pray – if not for the ruckus that had become the buying and selling of all things needed for a proper Passover sacrifice.

The gospel of John records the scene in the Court of the Gentiles as that which stoked the fervor of Jesus.  The place of prayer for all had become nothing better than a street-fair circus (with lots and lots of animals).  The site alone bursts the gates of Jesus’ guts so that a fiery furnace flares.  It’s easy to understand how this scene gets pegged as anger – as an enraged inferno ablaze among bleating sheep, wrestling cattle, and flapping doves.  Passion may be so unfamiliar to us that we cannot tell the difference between one who is in a rage and one who is utterly inspired.  Zeal puts us among the latter as a force far stronger.  Think of the one so on fire for a cause that nothing can stop them.  The one whose body and soul has come fully alive as passion courses like racing blood through every cell of their system.  Passion is less like out-of-control rage and more like on top of the world vigor.  Like the greening that returns to spring grass.  The zest that gets one moving – despite any obstacles.  I’m pretty sure it’s known in Jewish circles as hutzpah – gusto.  The bold audacity to get up to try again and again and again.

This is the energy recorded in the gospel of John as the surge of life that engulfs Christ’s body at the beginning of his public ministry.  Passion:  the fiery voice of One living fully alive among us that we might too!  . . .  Imagine the body of Christ today being infused with such zeal.  Coming alive to ensure justice for all to have enough.  Space for all to heal.  Welcome of any excluded.  Peace in every heart and home.  Whatever it is that alights our spirits as our deepest concern meets the world’s deepest need.  Then at last we will know the kernel of Christ’s intense energy.  The essence of his fiery fierce passion:  not anger.  But love.  Love.  Love enacted for all the world to see.  May his body today surge with this same zeal!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

“With the Passion of God”

A Sermon for 30 August 2015

Once in the three year cycle of the lectionary, we’re taken into the Song of Solomon. Today happens to be that day. So listen to a reading from Song of Solomon 2:8-17, 8:6-7. Listen for God’s word to us.

“The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely. Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards— for our vineyards are in blossom.” My beloved is mine and I am his; he pastures his flock among the lilies. Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle or a young stag on the cleft mountains.”

And from chapter 8: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

What is your favorite love song? Every generation has them, right? Back in the day was it: “You must remember this: a kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh. The fundamental things apply. As time goes by” (As Time Goes By, by Frank Sinatra). And what about: “I see trees of green, red roses, too. I see them bloom for me and you and I think to myself what a wonderful world” (Wonderful World, by Louis Armstrong). In my generation, lots of us loved that one about star-crossed lovers from two different worlds. Even if they couldn’t be together, she crooned: “And I will always love you!” (I will Always Love You, Whitney Houston). Maybe you have another favorite – one reserved for you and your sweetie– which we’d sure love to hear if you want to hum a few bars of it after the service.

What about love songs for God. Isn’t it one of the reasons so many of us love Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound? It’s a rousing song of our love, our deep appreciation, our absolute devotion to God – the One of grace who doesn’t have to be so dedicated to us, but is. What about What Wondrous Love is This, O my soul, O my soul? The haunting, Lenten tune can strike a chord that resonates all the way to the deepest place in our hearts. More Love to Thee, O Christ is another one and we’re going to sing it at the close of this service. “Hear Thou the prayer I make on bended knee. This is my earnest plea: more love, O Christ, to Thee. More love to Thee, more love to Thee!” It can’t get any closer to a swooning love song than that. I think it’s safe to say that as long as one shred of love remains in a human heart, we’re going to find a song to sing about it – or if you think you can’t sing, then at least listen to the music and maybe even sway along.

It’s part of the beauty of the Song of Solomon, or the Song of Songs as the book of the bible often is called. This little eight-chapter book squeezed in between Ecclesiastes and Isaiah gets minimal respect. You may have never before heard a sermon on it. If you weren’t in Comprehensive Bible Study these past two years, then chances are pretty high that most of you haven’t read it for yourself. The Song of Songs has been proclaimed the most secular book of the bible. After all, God is nowhere referenced in it. There’s not even mention of the standard holy-stuff like praying, or fasting, or observing religious celebrations. There’s not one lick of typical God-infused scripture here. Yet it shows up in our cherished, leather-bond, good books nonetheless. Whether we like it or not. Whether we can make much sense of it or not. Right there it is wedged between wisdom and the prophets.

It’s ancient Israel’s kind of love song. Actually, it’s a collection of beautiful love songs – passionate descriptions of love and two lovers’ visions of one another. And it just so happens to be the songs of two whose love was considered unlikely – if not unacceptable in their time. One mate is believed to be Solomon, the great wise king of the Israelites, famed son of King David. Though some scholars believe it’s just attributed to him as a way to make it an acceptable inclusion in Holy Scripture. The other lover seems to be an unexpected choice – which she herself declares in chapter 1:5-6: “I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem … do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has gazed on me. My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!” She’s not like all the others her beloved could have chosen. She is dark from being forced to do manual labor beneath the hot sun. She’s someone no one would consider fit for a king! The oldest love story out there, right? Whether it’s a class or an ethnicity issue, we can’t be sure. Nor do we know what great wrong caused the anger of her mother’s sons to burn against her – perhaps she was born by one other than their father. Perhaps they caught their sister once before sneaking off. History has not left us the code to unlock the mystery. But we do learn throughout this love song that the two lovers had to fight for their right to love. Because two people from such differing backgrounds being together? Well, it was unheard of! The sneers of Jerusalem’s daughters lurk around every corner. The lovers have to sneak off to the fields in order to be together, hastily seeing one another between this duty and that. Never being able openly to display their love without being despised. Perhaps it all made their love grow even stronger. Maybe their poetry became the place to passionately declare their right to love whomever, no matter what prevailing cultural norms exist. Maybe their writing is their insistence on loving whomever their heart desires.

And it’s pretty steamy! The language is surprisingly sensual – more like one of those Harlequin Romance novels than ancient Holy text. Listen. Here’s how the book begins: “Kiss me with the kisses of your mouth! For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out; . . . draw me after you, let us make haste” (1:2-4a). And chapter 4:9-10: “You have ravished my heart, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace. How sweet is your love . . . how much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than any spice.” And then there’s 5:1 and following: “’Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one; for my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.’” She responds: “I had put off my garment; how could I put it on again? I had bathed my feet; how could I soil them? My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him.” And then, of course, these Songs contain my favorite parts – the lovers’ descriptions of one another. Here’s what Romeo declares to Juliet: “Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine. Your belly is a heap of wheat . . . your two breasts are like two fawns, your neck is like an ivory tower, your eyes are pools in Heshbon, . . . your nose is like a tower of Lebanon” (7:2-4) WHATEVER??!!! It sounds like he’s calling her some sort of big-nosed, giraffe-necked, pot-bellied freak with dear for a chest! CLEARLY this poetic beauty is lost on our modern imaginations. Regardless, we might be boggled to find such erotic language in the Scriptures. After all, we’re good, God-fearing Presbyterians – Christians like most others who may push the lines a bit but can’t quite tolerate such passion in our Scripture – let alone in our worship!

So what’s the deal? What’s the Song of Solomon doing in Scripture and how in the world did it EVER make it into the lectionary – even if only for one week in the three year cycle? Well, a lot – a lot of good that is. And not just as an allegory of the love between God and the soul or Christ and the Church as some have considered the Song of Solomon over the years. But as a celebration of human love – a helpful corrective for us because think about it: what messages have made their way down through history about passion? It’s something to stay away from, right? Something to be feared! Passion lies in the realm of uncontrollable emotion. Passion can cause us to do crazy things – spontaneous things – out of control actions. . . . I once heard of a rather stoic man who weekly attended worship. It always was the same. He sang a few hymns, tried to stay awake during the pastor’s sermon, and sat through the agonizingly long prayers. Until one Sunday. One Sunday something unexplainable happened. A guest group of teenagers joined them for worship. It was a team of young African-American women who were being trained in their church to dance joyously during the offering while the young men of the church played African drums. When the teens began, the man found himself powerfully moved from the inside out. Something got into him and before he knew it, he too was up dancing among the troop around the communion table. This kind of thing never before had happened in that church or to that man; but that day, something within moved. The next thing everyone knew was that man was like old King David dancing joyously before the Lord. Passion struck. His love for God burst forth in physical form. And he danced! He danced in joy before the LORD! . . . It probably would make most of us a bit squeamish if one of us jumped up during the offertory in a minute. But, who would stop the Spirit of God from moving in us as it will?

Passion. We might think it has no place in proper Christian churches. Then up comes a reading from the sacred writing of Song of Solomon and suddenly all bearings are lost. Long ago some thought the best thing to do was get rid of it. Keep passion safely locked outside the sacred, sanctuary doors. This little book nearly got booted out of the bible in the past. Now it’s there and we simply ignore it. And what a tumble we’ve taken since! Because, as one commentator reminds, “to be in love is to live beyond the boundaries of the self.” Love moves us into the realm where human and divine can merge – where we can get a good education in loving and being loved (Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 4; Julia M. O’Brien, p. 5). Indeed it is one of God’s greatest gifts to us – to open ourselves to the mystery of that which moves in us. . . . And if for another human being in this world, then how much more for the Holy One, who has gone to great depths for us? Isn’t it time we fervently sing our love songs to the One who got more than a bit passionate in loving an entire creation? Getting physical, as God took on human flesh to walk among us, fiercely loving – even to the end – for our welfare. . . . Haven’t we definitively been shown in Christ that love indeed is stronger than death? That passion is fiercer than the grave?

Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us love with the passion of God, the One who passionately loves us every day and at last, beyond the grave.

In the name of that Life-giving Father, that Life-redeeming Son, and that Life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)