Lent 3: Speak Boldly

Here are Bishop Emma’s sermon notes for the Third Sunday in Lent.

John 2:13-22

Have you ever done anything really foolish?

Like the German bank clerk who fell asleep mid transfer of 62 euros and ended up transferring 6 hundred and 22 trillion, 2 hundred and 22 billion, 2 hundred and 22 million (etc etc) euros instead.

Or the record company executive who turned down a recording contract with the Beatles on the grounds that “guitar groups are on their way out.”

Or bird watcher Sophia Hadi, who drove all the way from Leeds to Washington, Tyne and Wear after a friend there reported hearing a rare thrush, only to find it was, in fact, the noise made by a fork lift truck reversing at the local Asda.

No wonder Puck says in A Midsummer Night’s Dream “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

Sometimes it can seem as though the Christian faith is quite foolish. I guess that’s what quite a lot of people would have said about Jesus and his disciples, as they travelled to Jerusalem. Indeed, Jesus’s own family said he was out of his mind (Mark 3:21). Jesus seemed to revel in causing outrage and scandal. Eating with tax collectors and sinners. Allowing unclean women to touch his clothes and weep on his feet, telling strange stories about fig trees and wedding banquets. In his Kingdom, the last will be first and the foolish wise. It’s a topsy turvy kingdom that turns the ‘sensible' things of the world on their heads.

I reckon Jesus probably looked pretty foolish when he turned up at the temple and turned over the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves. It’s a great story, but we’ve taken the shock out of it. We call it ‘the cleansing of the temple’, which makes you think he went round with tissues and Dettox. Jesus actually stormed around the place, throwing furniture, shouting at the top of his lungs, and flinging money into the air - pigeons fluttering, stampeding cattle, and small furry animals running for their lives. And Jesus in the middle of it all lunging round with a home-made whip.

It happened in the court of the Gentiles, where travellers and non-Jews could come to worship. It was meant to be a place of mission and hospitality. Yet in that place animals were being sold for sacrifice. You had to pay a temple tax, but it was preferred that it was paid in a particular temple currency. And the exchange rate in the temple courts was shocking. It’s not the business Jesus is objecting to, but ripping people off in a holy place. It was a system that excluded some people by virtue of their state.

I wonder what you feel passionate about? What gets your goat? What makes you passionate, and even angry? What is it that you would like to take your whip to?

Today we come to the second in our Lent series looking at the 4 themes of the refreshed vision.

And this week it is the turn of ‘speak boldly’. This is of course about evangelism, the commitment to “share our faith in Jesus Christ in everyday ways, seeking to connect with everyone, especially those currently unrepresented in our churches”, but it is also about speaking boldly about, and caring passionately about, the things that God cares passionately about, living for him in the world and speaking out wherever we see oppression, injustice, wrong. And sometimes that might make us look a tiny bit foolish in the eyes of a cynical world.

Jesus stands in a long line of holy fools. It’s a tradition we don’t hear a great deal about these days. I’ve been doing a bit more research. There was St Simeon - who dragged around a dead dog and threw nuts in church and blew out the candles, but who also performed miracles and great acts of kindness. Every year, until the ‘sensible’ church people outlawed it, there used to be a festival called the ‘Feast of Fools’ (which was a bit like medieval Red Nose Day) – in which a child is made bishop and a donkey brought into the cathedral. The normal, respectable things are turned on their heads – right at the heart of the church.

And what this says, I think, is that at the heart of the gospel is a foolishness, and a playfulness and comedy, and rebellion, that isn’t actually a million miles from telling the truth. Just look through the Bible and see who God used to tell the truth. Isaiah walked naked and barefoot for three years predicting captivity in Egypt; Ezekiel lay before a stone, and ate bread baked on cow dung. Jeremiah buried his underpants! The one who tells the truth and the one who is considered foolish are often one and the same.

The other reading set for today is from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians where he says: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”. (1 Cor 1:17-18)

Christian faith might look at times like foolishness, but in a world that at times appears to have lost its head, the cross becomes the wisest and most powerful of things, and proclaiming Christ crucified begins to make real sense.

Jesus reminds his disciples that God will never be contained in buildings (how we have needed to remember that during the pandemic as our church buildings have been closed) and that the true temple is his own body, that will die and be raised again to life. We as the church are now Jesus’s body on earth - his hands and his feet, his voice and his heart, living stones, being built into a new kind of temple for him, the whole people of God living the whole mission of God.

So all this leads me to think again about how I feel about being foolish. Perhaps as the world gets more and more crazy, people who ‘speak boldly’ about what is right and true will begin to sound more and more sensible.

Maybe in a world where money is everything, freedom to choose is valued above all else, and worship happens at the altars of consumerism, the really wise person is the one who turns the tables on all that and chooses to live in a different way.

So, what kind of fool are you?

Perhaps you’re the kind of fool who really does actually believe that God is so wildly in love with the world that he gave his only Son to die on a cross, and be raised to life, so that all could come close and know him.

And maybe you’re even foolish enough to consider speaking boldly about it.

A prayer of St Augustine

Thou awaken us to delight in thy praises,

for thou madest us for thyself,

and our heart is restless,

until it finds its rest in thee. Amen.