Only Two Options
In reading this morning’s Gospel lesson, we're left with an uncomfortable fact - Jesus got angry; angry enough to cause a public uproar in the temple. It’s often taught that Jesus’s anger was different than ours, that when He grabbed that whip and chased everyone out of the temple, He wasn’t sinning. Jesus was rightly showing a righteous anger at sinful people doing sinful things.
And while that’s true, it’s also where our thinking usually goes off the tracks. And that because it’s here that our sinful ears filter this information through our sinful hearts and minds, which, in turn, opens the door to excusing our anger as righteous and God-pleasing while the anger of others is usually sinful. They give into temptation and get angry over … whatever, and fuss until they get their way or leave the church. But we’re different … or are we? To be sure, we’ll confess that there have been times when we have sinned in our anger. But, as often as not we consider our anger, over whatever, as righteous and even necessary. Why? … because it’s ours.
That’s been my struggle this past week. No matter what I say about sinful anger versus righteous anger, we are sinners and will always in our heart of hearts believe that our anger is righteous, when the truth is it’s not. Our anger is a result of focusing on our desire to be in control, and not on God and His means of grace. Now you may be thinking that’s not always true, and you’re right. There are times when our anger starts out justified, but that’s a very slippery slope. You and I both know that even when our anger is justified, our sinful nature still has a way of turning it into sinful slander, gossip, and hatred. That’s how our sinful nature works. It’s always about us.
The thing is, this text isn’t about our anger … righteous or not. This text is about God’s righteous anger over sin, all sin. That’s why we consider this text during Lent. Yes, Jesus got angry…but it was over the right things: the desecrating and profaning of God and of His House and the forgiveness offered there. And you know what? … our Lord and God still gets angry over the profaning and taking for granted His means of grace and mercy and forgiveness offered from His House.
And that’s what makes us uncomfortable with these words. We often ignore the fact that God gets angry with sin because God is love and anger doesn’t fit into our picture of what love is. It never ceases to amaze me how often Jesus is portrayed as always smiling and playing with children under a rainbow. This is the Jesus we want to talk about and share with others. No offense. No pain. No cross. Just happiness.
Now … the God of the Old Testament … well, He was an angry God. He used smoke and fire, floods, and mountain-shaking earthquakes. The Old Testament God punished sin with things like famine, plagues, slavery, war, death, and destruction. But that’s the God of the Old Testament. That’s all in the past. That God has been replaced with Jesus and Jesus, we tell ourselves, is only about love and forgiveness.
But have you looked around the world we live in? We’re still surrounded by pain and suffering, heartache and fighting; we still see the death and disease. We can’t hide from it. We can’t separate ourselves from it. We can’t deny it. It’s not only all around us; it’s in us, in every fiber of our being. The fact that we struggle, and hurt, and grieve, and get angry all bear witness to the sin within us. It all bears witness to the truth that we still need the mercy, grace, and forgiveness God so patiently and lovingly offers to sinners every single day. I mean, how often do we take His gifts for granted? How often do we arrogantly take God’s patience as His approval?
And that’s the key to understanding God and anger. God allows what we call bad things to happen to us in this life, and these bad things are proof that God is angry with sin. He does not approve of or condone sin, no matter how much we justify or ignore it. But that does not mean God is punishing us for a specific sin when bad things happen to us. Remember God doesn’t punish sin on this side of eternity. That’s not to say that there aren’t consequences for our sin, but suffering consequences is different than suffering punishment.
Just look at Moses. Moses deliberately disobeyed God when God told him to command the rock to produce water for the cranky Israelites. Moses was so fed up at that point with the Israelites that he disobeyed God and instead, in his anger, struck the rock with his staff. This sinful, angry display by Moses angered God. Moses confessed his sinful disobedience, and God lovingly forgave Moses, restoring him to full sonship and salvation. Moses, however, still suffered the consequences of his action and was not allowed to enter the Promised Land.
So God does indeed punish sin, but He saved it for and poured it out on His Son who lived and died in the place of each and every one of us. What angers God is that even though all sin has been paid for with the blood of His Son, still there are many who turn from, or worse, mock His gifts. Those who are full of self-confidence choose a different path; really an easy path; the no crosses involved path. And while it’s not until a final unrepentant breath is exhaled, God, to be fair and just, will punish the sin of unbelief in all who have rejected His mercy. God desires the death of no man, but we can only know Him as Merciful Savior or Judge; there are only two options.
But remember, we’re also guilty of forsaking God’s gifts of mercy. We who know and rejoice that every single sin in our life has been paid for in full because of His love for us: Don’t we also continue to feed our sinful natures? Don’t we still hide the things we’re ashamed of? Do you really think you’re somehow in and of yourself different than the unrepentant? The only difference between us is that the seed of God’s word has taken root in our heats, so that by God’s working, we, by grace through faith, now trust His Word of forgiveness. But be honest and recognize that daily we take God’s gift of grace and misuse it just like we do all His gifts.
And yet the sun still rises and with it His mercy is still freely offered to all. That, dear children of God, is pure grace. That is the unconditional love that is God. That’s what we see in the temple today. Jesus laid down the law because He loved those merchants and money changers and He wanted them to change. Notice how Jesus makes their sin known and how He felt, but there is no punishment for them … why? Well that’s because Jesus came to bear their sin and take their punishment as well.
You see, the motivation for Jesus’s angry outburst was His love for them. He disciplined them because He cared for them, and He gave them their sign when He pointed them to His death and resurrection, which is the only thing that can bring repentance from sin-filled hearts. My friends, Christ our Merciful Savior’s anger still has purpose, a life giving and life-saving purpose, a purpose born of love for all who are born of sin.
In His Name, Amen.