Rev. Dave Kovalow-St. John ✞ Isaiah 56, selected verses; Luke 11:15-18
This thing has been in the news a whole bunch lately. Any of you know what it is? It’s what we think the Coronavirus (or “Covid-19”) may look like – it’s an itty, itty, itty bitty germ, WAY too small to be seen without a ridiculously powerful microscope. It’s been making people sick, and a lot of people are worried about it. (Happily, we’re VERY unlikely to get it here in Indiana, and – good news for you – children who get the virus don’t get very sick at all. I’d be even happier about that, except people my age DO get really sick. So: it’s a bad virus.)
As Christians, we know that God WANTS us to be healthy. For one thing, God’s son, Jesus, spent a huge part of his time healing people. For another, God has inspired medical researchers and doctors and nurses to come up with all kinds of ways to treat disease and to avoid getting sick.
For instance, medical professionals have told us that the best way to stay healthy is to eat right, exercise daily and get lots of sleep. Doctors have recommended that for thousands of years. But more recently, God has helped medical geniuses around the world come with two amazing inventions that are a huge help in stopping things like the coronavirus. Both are highly technical and very complicated, but let me try to demonstrate it. This is my friend, Pastor Kathy Light; she’s going to do something she knows is wrong. Watch. (Kathy sneezes without covering her mouth.) What was wrong with that?
Right! She should have covered her mouth. And the amazing, complicated invention I was talking about is the “Vampire sneeze.” Observe: (Kathy sneezes into elbow). We also call that “sneezing or coughing into your elbow.” How many of you knew: that – or maybe sneezing into a handkerchief – is the way doctors want us to sneeze or cough? Let’s practice it on three. Ready? Pretend to sneeze into your elbow. One, two, three (they do).
Good! The second amazing invention for stopping the spread of disease is… washing your hands! I know it doesn’t sound like much, but – guided by God – doctors have learned: cleaning your hands periodically is the best way to help stop the spread of infectious diseases. That doesn’t mean don’t get dirty. Getting dirty can be fun and it’s part of exercise, but when you’re done, clean your hands. My friend, Pastor Light has a tissue for each of us to practice (Kathy gives each kid and Dave a wipe). And, of course, when we’re done, we throw the wipes into a trash can. (Kathy collects wipes in a trash can)
So, although we don’t have to worry much about the coronavirus in Northwest Indiana, we do have diseases like the flu or colds. God doesn’t really want us to worry about those, either, but God DOES want us to do what we can, and that includes the two amazing, not very technical but very important, God-given inventions: vampire sneezes or coughs; and hand washing.
Stand up, and let’s pray: Dear God, help us do what we can for the bodies you’ve given us. Help us eat well, sleep enough, and exercise often. And help us sneeze or cough right and keep our hands clean. In the name of your Son, the Great Physician, Amen!
Picture this: it’s time for the Passover festival in Jerusalem, the most important holiday in Judaism; it’s a time to celebrate God’s rescuing the people from Egypt, turning them from slaves into a nation around 1500 BC. It was named after the way God’s angel of death “passed over” any house marked with the blood of a lamb. By the first century, every Jew who could would go to the Holy City to participate – primarily by offering sacrifices.
Now, up until 70 AD when Rome destroyed the temple, sacrifices had always played a major role in Judaism.
In the mythic stories of Genesis, Cain and Able offer God grain and a lamb respectively. Able is more sincere and – to the disgust of his murderous brother – only Able’s sacrifice is accepted.
When Noah finally found dry land on a mountaintop near Ararat, he (quote) “built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.” (Genesis 8:20) Ancient rabbis said animals must have reproduced quickly on the ark or Noah’s Thanksgiving would have wiped out several species.
Abraham was famously convinced he should sacrifice his only son as an act of faithfulness. God let him know the gesture was appreciated, but a ram would do nicely.
As Israel’s faith matured, they came to feel only a priest could perform the sacrifice, and eventually only in the Jerusalem temple; so Jews who wanted to express their faith, or apologize for their sin, or thank God for their blessings could only do it in the Holy City and Passover was the best time for it.
Now, you might bring your own animal, but it had to be perfect, without blemish. Plus, travel was difficult and expensive, traveling with an animal even more so. So why not buy the right animal once you arrive in Jerusalem?
Got the plot? Pious pilgrims are coming from out of town, and they need to make sacrifices. But they either don’t bring animals with them; or, if they do, their critters probably are not certifiably perfect enough to offer to God, s-o-o….
If you’ve ever been to Disneyworld and thought about buying a limited edition print – NOT an original, mind you, just one of 10,000 copies – you know where this is going. The temple courts are PACKED with eager customers, and there’s a fortune to be made! Right there in the temple, you had folks selling oxen, sheep, and pigeons to pilgrims who need them as a sacrifice.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, it gets worse! The temple didn’t accept regular money, it was all stamped with sacrilegious “graven images.” Offerings had to be made and paid for only with coins minted BY the temple. Even the locals don’t have the right kind of currency. But don’t worry: right here in the temple are, you guessed it, money changers, who will be more than happy to convert your currency into temple currency, …for a fee, of course. Oh, there was a lot of money to be made at the temple especially during Passover when the city was overflowing with out-of-town yokels (I mean “pious pilgrims”).
Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus is so upset by this. …It DOES, though. I mean, this is a man who orders his disciples to lay down their swords when people want to crucify him! …But this petty larceny sets him off? It’s a surprise.
And it’s a safe bet it surprised the people who were actually there that day. In fact, let’s hear from one of them, this woman. As I’ve imagined her, her name is …Helena.
Helena (Susan Fraley): As a girl growing up in Athens, I had a strong religious impulse, but the Greek and Roman gods we were taught about seemed wrong, somehow. For starters, there were so many of them, and they were always fighting with each other. They treated human beings almost as playthings, and were often cruel for no reason.
These so-called gods might grant you a favor, even if you were a horrible person, but only if you bribed them with worship and sacrifices. They were suspiciously fond of the rich and powerful, and when the emperor started claiming HE was a god, …well, the whole thing just struck me as absurd.
That was when a Jewish friend told me about her belief that there was only one God, the Creator. This God – “Yahweh” (YAH-way) she called Him – cared about the poor at least as much as the rich, and insisted on ethical behavior before accepting a person’s worship. Killing, stealing, lusting and lying were all prohibited.
I was 19 and newly married at the time, and my husband and I were equally intrigued. However, both of us – ESPECIALLY my husband – thought the insistence on circumcision was strange, so much so that we became what Jews called “God-fearers.” That meant we accepted the theological and ethical teachings of Judaism, but could not accept the validity of their ritual requirements.
My passion for this new faith was such that I made the trip to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival called Passover with my new-found religious family. Rabbi Simeon had taught us about this and so much more in our classes back in Athens. He was the one who told me to take a white dove to offer as a sacrifice at the temple. I did so, but when I arrived at the temple, I was informed my dove had a blemish that made it unacceptable. They said I could buy an acceptable dove, but I almost balked at the price. For a pure white dove, they wanted as much as most people made in a week-and-a-half!
I paid – we’re fairly rich, after all – but I felt sorry for the peasants in line with me. NONE of their doves were deemed acceptable, either. And the price was truly shocking. They paid out of their deep love for God, but it was obviously a huge burden. I even saw one poor man who’d brought a large ox, but when it was found to have a blemish, he was told an acceptable animal would cost him two year’s wages!!
As I walked away from their tables, I was having quite a few doubts about my new religion. That’s when I turned and saw a man who a fellow pilgrim told me was named Jesus. I later learned – wonder of wonders! – his movement had a special regard for women, teaching them and even accepting them as leaders! But when I saw him in the temple that day, it was obvious he ALSO had a special regard for the sanctity of that sacred place. He turned over the tables of the men selling doves, and drove out all who were taking advantage of the thousands of pious pilgrims who’d come to honor God.
My doubts evaporated when I realized I was seeing Judaism at its finest! And I resolved to learn more about this fiery prophet.
Dave: So Helena, as I’ve imagined her, wasn’t just surprised, but PLESANTLY surprised at what Jesus did. Still, as his followers, looking back with hindsight, it’s fair to ask, why did he do it?
Yes, they were fleecing pilgrims, but they were providing a service, and was it really all that horrible?
Maybe part of the answer isn’t so much what they’re doing, but where. The temple, they believed, was the place where God was well and truly present with the people of God, God’s earthly dwelling if you will. If you want to draw near to the presence of God, you went to the temple. The focus of temple – and of Passover – was supposed to be on God, on what God has done and is doing. And the temple’s outer courts were supposed to be where even Gentiles could pray. Only Jews could go to the inner courts, Jewish men even closer, the high priest could (once a year) go right into the Holy of Holies. But everyone was supposed to be welcome to at least a corner of this Sacred Space. Jesus’ main mission is to embody the love of God; to help people know and feel and accept that love.
When he sees crass commercialism getting in the way of God’s people coming into God’s presence, he makes a whip of cords and drives out those who are selling the animals; he takes the coins of the moneychangers, pours them all over the place, turns their tables upside down.
As Christians in the 21st century, it’s easy for us to look back and say, “Go get ‘em, Jesus! Throw them money grubbers out!” We look at our churches today, and don’t see any money changers or people trying to sell animals for sacrifice. B-u-t, before we let ourselves off the hook, I should tell you: I remember a minister once, preaching on the third commandment. He told us, “A drunken atheist sailor can say ‘G-D it!’ till he’s blue in the face without taking God’s name in vain. He can’t take God’s name in vain because he’s never taken God’s name. Ohh, but those of us who call ourselves ‘Christian’…?”
Are there things we Christians do – in church or out – that make the faith LESS attractive to outsiders like Helena?
Do we love God and neighbor so well that people say, “I’ve gotta find out what motivates them”?
Friends, if we don’t want to see ourselves in this, I pray that everything we do – as individuals and as a congregation – reflects the fact that when we took his name, we meant it.
And when we fail, because at times we will, let’s rejoice that – as the incarnation of God’s love – when Jesus laid down the whip, he picked up the cross.