Tempered Temper in the Temple

The account of Jesus turning the merchants and money-lenders out of the temple is a famous one, well-known even to those who would claim no regular acquaintance with the Bible. I suppose it seems to be at odds with our idea of him. In popular imagination he is either the Christ-child, gentle and meek, or he is the God-man, giving himself up uncomplainingly to the horrors of death. Those are both facets of his character, certainly, but they are not the whole person. His tour de force dealing with the agents of commerce in his Father’s house reveal an aspect of Christ that helps us understand him better.

There is a small incident in John’s telling of this story that drew my attention this week. Having taken a whip and driven the livestock out, along with their retailers, he commands the sellers of pigeons to remove the birds from the temple.

Picture the scene: he has scattered the coins, overturned the tables and personally expelled the merchants with their sheep and oxen. But the pigeon-sellers must take themselves and their wares out with no help from Jesus. What prevented him from sweeping their cages to the floor, or throwing them outside? Of course I don’t know, but I am inclined to believe that it was compassion. To rough-handle these gentle creatures would have been cruel and capricious – and, whatever people who don’t know him say, that is not in his nature. This is someone, in fact, so wholly consistent, so reliably in control of his responses, that he can direct and channel his wrath where it is deserved, and turn on a sixpence to show gentle consideration in the same moment.

His anger is not an emotion in the way that mine or yours might be. Sometimes we are controlled and directed by our feelings to a degree which can be destructive. Indeed, our forefathers believed that envy, for one, could be so powerful as to cause physical harm to the object of our desire, without us even knowing what we had done. That phenomenon – usually referred to as ‘the evil eye’ – is mentioned in a lengthy list in the Bible, alongside a whole host of other evils which are not external, but which actually emanate from within ourselves.

That’s quite a bitter pill for us to swallow – that we are not always the poor dupes of Satan, but more often than not, the willing perpetrators of badness ourselves. Our anger, our mean-spiritedness, our jealousy, our greed, our lust, our self-righteousness, our unconcern for others – that’s all on us. Satan just seeks to exploit the way we’re already inclined by nature.

What I like about this aspect of Christ is its realness. It demonstrates even further how completely I can trust him with my life. I have often been unjust to others, judging them harshly, expecting more of them than I should, and then feeling angry towards them when they fall short of my unrealistic demands. But he never has ‘a bad day’. When I go to him in prayer, he never casts up at me that I forgot him the day before when everything was going fine; he never grumbles that I do nothing for him, or retreats because he wants a little ‘me time’.

He is not a two-dimensional nursery god – Christ is multi-faceted, but not mercurial; he displays feeling, but is wholly consistent.

This is why people read Scripture: it is a means of seeing a little more clearly the beauty of Jesus Christ. And it is why, in a way, I prefer John for advent reading. The baby Jesus, whose life was in danger from the moment he was conceived, and the circumstances whose birth has become so culturally iconic as to be almost Disneyfied in the eyes of the world, he is easy to love. All babies are easy to love and none more so than the manger-child who gave us Christmas.

John presents us with something more challenging, though – he brings us Christ, who doesn’t lie helpless in a manger. He walks abroad and challenges those he meets with his very presence; and when it is necessary, he shows his wrath. Wrath to the defilers of his Father’s house, and gentleness to the helpless creatures who are guiltless of any wrong. I wish I had the wisdom to know the difference, and the self-control to treat them accordingly.

But, more than anything, this Advent, I’m grateful to know him a little better than I did last year. What an unparalleled feeling it is to be assured that there will never be any unpleasant surprises with Christ – that even his displays of anger are wholly justified, and trained precisely on the target.

Fear the People

From the very beginning, Jesus’ life was under threat. The mere fact of his birth brought Herod’s paranoia to a murderous pitch, and all through his public ministry, the ostentatiously righteous sought to place him under charge. 

As believing people, we struggle with, if nothing else, the sheer arrogance and effrontery of the scribes and the chief priests. We can’t believe how blind they were to the presence of the Lord – so much so, in fact, that they even sought to judge his conduct! 

In Luke 19: 9 – 18, Jesus tells the parable of the wicked tenants, which his detractors recognised immediately as being ‘told against them’.

Their reaction reminds me very much of our own modern-day unbelievers. They say that they reject Christianity, that they do not believe in God . . . yet they are offended by him and his teaching. Do not tell an atheist that he’s at risk of hell, or that he is guilty of sin because you may hurt his feelings.

And how do unbelievers deal with this? Well, remarkably similarly to the way we see the scribes and the priests reacting in this passage. They work in secret, insidiously trying to trip Christians up by accusing them of hate speech and ‘isms’ of various kinds. While they may say ‘tolerance’ in public, in private they act against any such thing.

Sadly, this chapter reveals something else that is a factor in our time too. We find it at verse 19, when we learn that the only thing restraining the scribes and chief priests is that ‘they feared the people’.

No respect for God incarnate, but fear of the world. Think on that: what blindness, what stupidity to be in the presence of Christ and feel only enmity. To wish him restrained, arrested, silenced, killed. 

And for nothing to stay your hand but fear of people.

If it sounds familiar, there is a good reason. Our generation despises God and has placed an idol on his throne: public opinion.

Public opinion will not be long suffering, nor slow to wrath. Public opinion will not look on us with mercy when we offend it. 

Yet, it seems we have made our choice.

My Eyes Have Seen Your Salvation

In Alexander Mackenzie’s famous book, ‘The Prophecies of the Brahan Seer’, his prognostications are divided into various categories, including those which have been partly fulfilled, and still others, the fulfilment of which is doubted. There is something about this classification which tends to make the already shadowy figure of Coinneach Odhar even more indistinct. We suspect both he and his gift to be less than genuine, and the visions which have not borne fruit do nothing to restore them in our eyes.

Unfulfilled prophecy in the Bible, however, does not represent failure. Because of its source, we can trust that it will come to pass. At least, we ought to, if we are in a right relationship with the Lord.

Simeon, in chapter two of Luke’s Gospel, is always a challenge to me for the simple reason that he did not give up on the promise that he would see the Saviour. It is difficult to imagine a faith so steadfast. He is rewarded in full measure, though, when he holds the infant Jesus in his arms. For me, this echoes Moses seeing the Promised Land,upon which his living foot was not destined to tread. The old man in the temple is presented with a child. All his life, he has waited for this Messiah, and when the moment of fulfilment arrives . . . there is only a tiny, little boy.

I wonder what I would have thought in Simeon’s place. Would I have been inclined to disappointment? All that waiting – and then a mere baby. Really, was this not just another promise to replace the earlier one? This child could not deliver his people from their bondage. Might I not have felt cheated that this was all God would reveal to me? Isn’t it possible that I would see only salvation postponed?

Probably, for I lack the faith – or the faithfulness – of Simeon.

But he gave thanks to God. It’s interesting that he did not say ‘for my eyes have seen the instrument of your salvation’. No, ‘my eyes have seen your salvation’. Jesus is not a means to an end; he is, himself, our salvation. Simeon in his wisdom saw that. He did not have to witness the resurrection, or even the crucifixion, to believe that here was the fulfilment of God’s promise.

Today, taking Jesus into my heart anew, I echo Simeon and give thanks to God. Not only have my eyes seen his salvation, but my soul has felt its redeeming power. An infant in the arms of a faithful old man, and the risen Christ indwelling the souls of his people are one and the same astonishing, beautiful Messiah.