Matthew 21: 12-17
12 Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a den of robbers.”14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did and heard the children crying out in the temple and saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?” 17 He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.
This is a curious passage to use for the theme ‘Worship Inspired by the Spirit”. I would have thought Jesus’ being led/driven by the Spirit into the wilderness would have been more paradigmatic. But I did not write the curriculum and this is the passage we have.
This week, contrary to my usual preference, I started with our topic (Led by the Spirit) instead of beginning with the scripture. I asked our FIRL group how they had felt led by the spirit. Initially the answers fell roughly into two categories. One was the feeling that the music and/ or the Word felt like it was designed especially for us. Phrases like ‘That’s just what I needed to hear’ and ‘That went straight to my heart’ were commonplace. Often, though certainly not always, words and music can intersect with us in unexpected ways. When that happens, new possibilities are possible. We are pulled outside of our own frame into another. The new frame may bring insight, comfort or discomfort but when the spirit is present, new connections are possible.
As Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5:16-18—”From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; ….17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; look, new things have come into being! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; ” Without the presence of the spirit, we will be limited to a bubble of our own making. There is no room for anything new because we are only looking for confirmation. What is natural to us is to advance ourselves. What Christ calls us to do is to remember it is not always about us. Self interest is important but not exclusive. We are called into relationships of regard. We believe it is how we find life and it is the spirit that connects us to the mind of Christ.
A second general theme was a feeling of gnawing discomfort which led people to ‘do the right thing’ whether or not it was in their self interest to do otherwise. Two FIRL members described finding or receiving money that was not theirs. One woman was given change for 100 dollars when she had only given the cashier 10. Another found cash. Both had to decide what to do. Keep it and keep walking (finders keepers) or find a way to return the money. The FIRL members felt that the gnawing feeling that led them to different decisions and different behaviors was the spirit. The spirit is not just a theological concept experienced in church or on a mountain top. The spirit spoke in everyday life.
The all too difficult dilemma in real life, however, is discerning what is the ‘right thing to do’. We have basic road signs but in real life they give direction more than specifics. It is easy to affirm “Love one another” but much harder to figure out what loving looks like in a particular situation. Love, all too often, ends up meaning “I love how I feel with you” or “I love what I receive from you”. It takes a different mindset to think of loving as an activity of regard rather than a warm fuzzy feeling. Looking for ways to enhance another person’s life (or even our own) requires attentiveness, openness and service. What in any particular situation leads to regard for self and neighbor is often a difficult and inconvenient question. It is a constant question of discernment in real life. How do we receive and how do we serve?
The spirit constantly raises these questions for us. The spirit is the link between ‘the mind of Christ’ and ourselves. In Jesus’ case, the first thing that happened after he was baptized was his wilderness experience. Depending upon the version of the story, Jesus was led—or more forcefully, Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. It was a time of discernment. All four gospels make reference to it. It was difficult and it was uncomfortable. Jesus, like each of us, had to figure out what his baptism meant in real life.
It turns out that if you need to be ‘right’, you probably shouldn’t try to be a Christian. Instead, we signed up for a life in which we are willing to be troubled. I am asked repeatedly “What is enough?” How much are we expected to give? But whether we are talking about our families or about the homeless on the street, there is no right answer. Our lives are way too short to know the impact of our decisions. We are left with the responsibility to give it our best shot. It is a dilemma that Sheldon Kopp captured in his ‘laundry list’ of words to live by—”We never have enough information to make an important decision.” And, “We are still responsible for them.” That’s real life.
We need support and humility to live such a life. Hence the dimension of the Spirit found in Jesus’ farewell to his disciples. It reads: “15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him because he abides with you, and he will be in you. 18 “I will not leave you comfortless;…(John 14:15-18). The promise is that we will always have a way to connect to the sign posts that point to love and life. AND, we will always have support as we stumble on the path. Loving is not sustainable without such support. We love because we are first (and continually) loved.
This finally brings me to the scripture for the day. This is the dramatic story of Jesus ‘cleansing the temple’. Jesus uses intentionally forceful and theatrical means to challenge the misuse of the temple. He was convinced that the religious authorities of the day had lost their way and sought to confront them and to demonstrate what God desired. The purpose of this was to help people become whole. Jesus honored his understanding of his relationship with God. Did it turn out well? Certainly not by secular standards. Jesus’ confrontation led to his death. It certainly did not lead to temple reform. The story is often used to demonstrate Jesus’ righteousness, the legitimacy of civil disobedience and an example of Jesus’ capacity to be angry. All of which can be the basis of some good sermons. But the same story can be an illustration of what it means in real life to be ‘led by the spirit.’ It can lead to uncomfortable and even dangerous places.
One quick caveat. Don’t idealize this story. There are people today who feel similarly convicted about the legitmacy, or lack thereof, of abortion. On the edges of this debate are people who steadfastly believe it is ok—even a requirement—to kill people who preform abortions. It is their version of cleansing the temple. They are protecting the lives of the unborn—protecting the defenseless. What more Godly thing could they do? It is very dangerous to assume our convictions match God’s will. Over history, an incredible amount of cruelty has been perpetuated in the name of God. We depend upon our traditions, the cloud of witnesses that have preceded us as well as our community of believers to help us discern the difference between our self righteousness and God’s righteousness. They are certainly not the same.
One of the advantages of struggling together is that we believe that whenever ‘two or three are gathered in my name…’ the spirit is with us. It will push and pull. It will support and challenge. It will bring us closer to God.
The spirit calls us out of our self centeredness and self interest into mindfulness, connectedness and love. The spirit calls us to be troubled by how we should respond—not to be right. We live in that uncertainty in the confidence that God loves us. Be humble enough to allow yourself to be led.
Let it be so.
Here is a link to a video I find helpful to remind me of our place in the universe. Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot OFFICIAL We live in the paradox that we are simultaneously a speck of dust and a child of God. When we live in that paradox, claiming to be right is almost silly. Such knowledge opens me to the possibility of being led by the spirit.