History deals no shortage of cataclysmic events. Interruptions, disruptions, events of an upwardly heaving nature once done, never to be undone. Things seen, never to be unseen. Revelations and revolutions, the before and after marked by a common refrain, “This changes everything.” Events natural and made, forward and backward. Huge cultural shifts affecting thousands of people. No-less-huge shifts affecting you and your family. The invention of a drug, the birth of a child, a creative act, a moment of forgiveness. Wars and rumors, losses and loves. Jazz music and the atomic bomb.Your self, your property, your sense of order, everything you have, everything you are, all changed by Christ coming into your temple and flipping over all your stuff.Most of these life-altering moments are the result of a sort of thermodynamic reaction. Pressure and heat lead to an outpouring of energy, sometimes violent, often creative. Exact outcomes are slippery and hard to pin down but one gets a sense of and a feeling for the signs. The melding and reaction of ingredients. Lessons learned from past experience. You cannot mix this and not get that. Explorers, inventors, and agents of change forever drawn to this energy, drawn to the unexpected shift that keeps alive the pursuit of the breakthrough.
I watched a pound cake come out of the oven the other day. It was beautiful. A ring of batter turned into a bulging, cracking, yellow and golden brown pan of steaming cake. As I watched it cool on the sunny countertop, thoughts turned to tectonic plate theory and surface tension and how this particular cake relates to the contour of the world, the batter heating and rising, pushing the crust of the surface up and away. I thought about the handful of blueberries in the mixture, exploding in the hot pressure, making pockets of sweet, juicy purple. We knew the signs, we knew what would happen, but we did it anyway. Through heat and pressure and a combination of ingredients, life is altered by this cake.
There’s a gigantic volcanic situation underneath Yellowstone National Park. It’s not news—scientists have suspected for years—but recently some 11,000 cubic miles of molten rock have been effectively confirmed. The earth’s crust in and around the park is land under pressure. It’s new, primordial, and still alive, one of the most beautiful places on earth, the area still heaving. You get the sense you’re watching the planet being formed. These same scientists that discovered the giant magma pool have also modeled the devastation should a giant volcano sprout and blow a hole through northwestern Wyoming. It would have 2,000 times the force of Mount St. Helens and volcanic ash would circle the globe. Through heat and pressure and a combination of ingredients, life is altered by this volcano.
You might be familiar with the dysfunctional family table flip—or at least the concept. It goes something like this: loved ones gather around a table, perhaps for Thanksgiving dinner or maybe a cutthroat round of Monopoly on a snow day. Cabin fever has likely set in. Resentment and discontent bubble to the surface. Life’s trials bring heat: bad job, car’s broke. At exactly the wrong moment, somebody—usually a dad—snaps, shouts, “Screw this!” and flips the table over. The table flip is figurative, but an incident like this—the family tantrum—results in tears, anxiety, and emotional scars for life. Through heat and pressure and a combination of ingredients, life is altered by this outburst.
In each of these examples, there is a degree of life-changing outcome. There were probably telltale signs of upheaval; indications of the pressure leading up to the disruption, maybe some safety valves were going off.
In the first story, the outcome is generally positive: a delicious and memorable cake, somewhat under control and a human-induced phenomenon. Getting married might qualify as this first type of upheaval. The second story, though speculative, is grim on an epic scale. But it’s out of our hands, an act of God if you will. Volcanoes happen.
It’s the third story that is most human, the most uncomfortable, and the one we can probably relate to best: losing one’s religion. A temper tantrum. Being so consumed by a thought, yet totally irrational in method. The moment when we snap and think, “I’ve crossed a line.” Think about what happens when we do this. We want to be heard. We’re trying to say something that is obviously really, really important. It just comes out all messed up and hurtful.
Jesus lost His cool once. It’s a strange story that often gets thrown around when discussion turns to Christian non-violence. There was an incident in The Temple. Not the actual Holy of Holies, but the portico around the outside. Jesus turned over some tables, running around the crowded gallery, shooing people away, and driving out animals. Yelling. Throwing sacred money on the ground. Calling people names. Not at all nice. He fashioned a whip of cords.
“And [Jesus] found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting.”
The story comes early in John, a strong message that a challenge to the temple is central to the rest of Jesus’ ministry. John’s Greek from which “found” is translated leaves open whether this was something expected or if it was a surprise. Jesus might have been looking for these guys, probably knew what was going on, He knew the outcome, but He went up there anyway.
It’s a tough situation in light of loving your enemies and your neighbor as yourself. Jesus could have offered to eat with these people or wash their feet or otherwise bring them back from the abyss. He doesn’t have a problem hanging out with prostitutes, fishermen, and borderline criminals. But He’s pretty certainly angry here, far removed from Jesus meek-and-mild. “You know, he’s not a tame lion,” writes C. S. Lewis.
There are elements of all three of our life-changing scenarios in the temple story: Parts of it are under control, carefully regulated as to produce a sweet outcome. Parts of it are explosive and unpredictable with not a small element of destruction. But the biggest part is the family tantrum, the literal table flip, in which we imagine Jesus as frustrated but with something really important to say. Perhaps it’s helpful to think of this demonstration in the temple as a kind of performance. A bold provocation. An extravagant display, likely an embarrassment and often pointed to as the deciding factor in finally sending this hooligan to trial. A premeditated stunt according to the gospel of “Hey, watch this!”
It was the festival of Passover. A great moment of pride and a celebration of national liberation for ancient Israel. Huge party. Jews poured into Roman-occupied Jerusalem from all over the world to worship (pay taxes) and make atonement (ritual killing) at The Temple. Josephus recounts that a quarter of a million Passover lambs were dispensed, each enough to feed 10 men. Blood was sprinkled to appease the angry God and a great river flowed from the altar. Talmud says “It was the glory of the priests to be knee deep in blood.” The smell of roasted meat hung over the desert city like a shroud.
The animals killed were a system of organizing the community. It was a way of keeping control, keeping a lid on the violence and pressure that comes from people trying to live together. A prototypical top-down, caste system of haves and have-nots. Common people would sacrifice their livestock for a place in the community. Or their money. Or their livestock they would buy with their money, and mostly the priests would enjoy the spoils of slaughter. There were classes and strata of both people and sins. Animals for every atonement. Let’s say a woman had a baby since her last visit. Temple says that would require killing a young lamb for a burnt offering and a young dove as a sin offering. If you were poor it was always a dove.
This was the system of life for God’s people in Jesus’ time. The Romans have their boot on the city so the people cling to their Temple identity. In a sense, it’s all they have, all that they are. And Jesus comes along and proceeds to symbolically destroy culture; the Temple culture that is so important and vital to hundreds of thousands of people. Everything that is central to Jewish life. He’s untuned the string, and discord follows.
“Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows!”
And in turn, He untunes everything central to your life. No, He’s not tame. My friend Jim likes to say, “Looking for Christ is like a mouse looking for a cat.” There is some batting around. But I like the idea of a riled up Jesus, fully human and under some pressure, living a not particularly domesticated faith, encouraged and free to make trouble. Jesus can disrupt my life. Jesus will disrupt your life.
Your self, your property, your sense of order, everything you have, everything you are, all changed by Christ coming into your temple and flipping over all your stuff. Through heat and pressure and a combination of ingredients, reality is altered. It’s a lifelong pursuit and it probably won’t be comfortable. Upheavals rarely are. But God wants you. Not your things, your money, your animals, your time, not even this life. God wants you.
Image: Flickr: Archives New Zealand Huffington Post , (April 28, 2015). “Vast Chamber Of Molten Rock Discovered Under Yellowstone ‘Supervolcano’” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/28/magma-yellowstone-supervolcano-video_n_7153948.html  Blue Letter Bible/Strong’s Concordance http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G2147&t=KJV  Flavius Josephus, “The War of The Jews, (Book 6, Chapter 9, Section 3)” http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2850/2850-h/2850-h.htm#link62HCH0009  Pesach Toa iv. 7  William Shakespeare, “Troilus and Cressida, Scene 3”, Ulysses speaks to his comrades regarding degree, order, and factions. https://faculty.up.edu/asarnow/eliz2.htm