One of the reasons I love Lent is because Lent is an opportunity to “get back to the basics.” Our scriptures this morning touch on several Christian “basics.” The first lesson is the Ten Commandments – a Christian “basic” if there ever was one. The second lesson speaks about the cross – another important “basic.” But the “basic” I want to focus on this morning is one for which this morning’s Gospel story provides a good metaphor.
The “basic” I want to talk about is… the images we have of God. Not the stated images of God that we say we have, like “God is love.” But the operative images of God, the images that actually operate in our relationship with God – like, “God is a god of impossibly demanding expectations from which I always fall short.” We all carry images of God with us – some from an early age – and these images shape the way we relate to God in our lives. Not all of these images are helpful; some impinge on our freedom or diminish our sense of personhood or in some way are marked by coercion or passivity or cynicism, and undermine the possibility of a healthy relationship with God. From time to time in our spiritual life it helps to “Take these things out of here,” to drive out from our inner “Temple” old images of God (the “livestock” and “money changers” that have accrued there), and to make space for a God who is more “God,” more true, healthy and whole.
A quick glance into scripture reveals some of the “livestock” and “money changers” that tend to accrue in our inner lives. In the gospels some who followed Jesus expected Jesus to be a Messiah who would restore Israel, driving the Romans out. But that’s not what Jesus is about. In John’s gospel, just after the feeding of the 5,000, those who were looking for Jesus merely to eat their fill of the loaves could not see Jesus other than as a miraculous provider of bread; they could not see him as the “bread of life” in whom to believe is eternal life. And until Jesus appeared to him on the Damascus road, Saul could not see past his image of Jesus as one who needed to be wiped out. In these instances people could not see the real Jesus. Their inner Temple was cluttered with too much livestock and too many money changers. Their distorted or insufficient images of God kept them from seeing the true Jesus who wished to enter their lives.
It is not uncommon to have a default image of God that instinctively makes us cringe, cower, or get serious when we think of God. I have such an image. I bet we all do. One of the ongoing challenges of being a Christian is from time to time to cleanse our inner Temple, to say “Take these things out of here!” “Get out of my way so that I can see more of and make way for who Jesus really is.”
Here are some common examples of inner “livestock” and “money changers:”
- God is distant, cold, unsympathetic. God is not at all near; and God is certainly not eager to know the things of our heart.
- God is concerned only with our “performance”; we need to perform or behave, or else God will not love us.
- God is way too busy with important things to be concerned about me.
- God is a God of “shoulds” and “oughts” who looks over our shoulder. “I really should do this,” or, “I really ought to do that, because it’s good or God wants me to…”
- God is an enforcer who is just waiting to punish us.
- God is a god of impossibly demanding expectations. If life were a ladder, no matter how high we climb, God is always three rungs beyond. With this God we are never good enough; we are always insufficient.
I suspect that many, if not most, of us have at least one of these images operating within.
And I am going to be so bold as to say that we might have some “good” images of God, images that are even part of who God is an what God does. But our focus on them renders us myopic and keeps us from seeing an even bigger, more complete image of God. For example, we often think of God…
- as a comforter, which God is!
- as a source of help, which God is!
- as a source of healing, which God totally is!
- as a rock and place of stability, which God is!
But even with these “good” and appropriate images can clutter our inner Temple and keep us from seeing something even more significant. And here is the point that I am getting to: God is a god who wants to be to be in relationship with us, an adult relationship that matches our maturity. If our images of God are distorted, or even if our images of God are “good” but somehow keep God in a box or make God utilitarian to our purposes, then it is time to “Take these things out of here!” for with such images it is hard to let God be God, to let God be the god God wants to be with us. Yes, we will likely find comfort, support and healing in our relationship with God… as we would find to a degree in any strong relationship that we have worked on. But that’s not why God desires relationship with us. God wants to be in relationship simply because God loves us and wants to be with us. God wants nothing more than to be with us in the same way as God was with Adam and Eve in the Garden – just being with them, just walking with them at the time of the evening breeze.
This Lent I invite us to take a look at what is occupying our “Temple.” The Real Presence is there – God is there! But what about the livestock and the money changers? And are they keeping God at a distance? Are they keeping God above rather than next-to? Are they keeping God as an authority figure filled with “should” and “oughts,” who coerces rather than entices, a “tin pot dictator” versus a God who desires to be with us and who delights in our presence?
Cleansing our inner temple of this “livestock” can be done. “Taking these things out of here” requires time, and also a community whom we can trust. Over time, and with prayer, and with the sacraments, and in conversation with a community whom we trust, these tables can overturned and this livestock can be driven out. Our inner “Temple” can be restored to a place where the Real Presence is accessible, where we can touch Him – receive Him – who has given everything for us and wants nothing more than to be in relationship with us.