Sermon preached at Toodyay, Western Australia on 7 March 2021 at a combined Anglican/Uniting Church service. Lectionary based: 3rd Sunday in Lent
Do you remember playing “snakes and ladders” as a child, or perhaps still today with your children or grandchildren. The principle is that you move along a path on the board and if you land on a snake you slide backwards. If you land on a ladder you climb up along the path.
It makes me think about the path of our Christian walk. Sometimes there are events in life (sin, temptation, troublesome situations) which seem to knock us backwards – these are the snakes.
And sometimes there are really great God moments when we surge ahead in our faith: when we are climbing ladders. Times when we are absolutely sure that God is able to do so much more than we could ever ask or imagine.
In the testimony of your faith, what is it that brings you near to God: Obedience to the Law, Signs and wonders, convincing argument, something else? Is it the spectacular experience, or the provocative speech?
In my own journey, all of these have been significant milestones. I have sought to be obedient to the Ten Commandments, I have heard the voice of God in the night, I have seen people miraculously healed, prophecies fulfilled and the exercising of the gifts of the Spirit. And I have been motivated by stirring sermons and wise words.
But, as I look back on the four decades which I have walked with the Lord, I see that while these have been important, even essential for the journey, there is another factor at work.
Indeed, I see this other factor as the very path upon which I have placed my feet, the path of my faith – the other things have been simply the scenery as the Lord has given me glimpses of the Kingdom to which He is leading me.
And, of course, there have been times when sin and temptation and the worries of this world have caused me to fall.
There have been some marvelous vistas in my life with God and I will, no doubt, see more of them, but the essential is the path, not the scenery. It is the path which leads us to the goal, not the scenery. The scenery is pleasant, magnificent, scary sometimes, but it takes us nowhere.
It is the path which is important.
In our reading from Corinthians, Paul writes, “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified”.
The signs and the wisdom are good – but more important is Christ crucified and raised from the dead. Here is the essence, the truth, the path. And as we walk THIS path, we will see the spectacular views: the miraculous signs and the defining wisdom.
We cannot, without faith, understand anything of this otherworldly dimension which the Cross brings into this world. And we cannot, without faith, see that the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead is to bring the world of the Father into our world.
The Kingdom from above is declared in our world through the death and resurrection of Christ and we discern it by faith in the Lordship of Christ.
It’s an incomprehensible idea that God should enter His creation, take on human flesh and then pay it down to redeem us. It is incomprehensible that Jesus, whipped, crucified, certified as dead should rise from the dead. It is a mystery, a paradox.
It is in this mystery of Cross and Resurrection, where the new world of the Holy Spirit touches the old world of the flesh. But it touches it, as Karl Barth explains, as a tangent touches a circle – without actually touching it. And precisely because it touches without touching, it creates a new frontier for our journey of faith – we have a paradigm shift in which the “ladder” in the board game of our life suddenly takes us right off the board – into another dimension, a dimension which is known, yet not known, for it is of faith and of the Spirit. It is a leap of faith!
And that brings us to the incident in the Temple where Jesus cleared out the sellers of the sacrificial animals and the money-changers.
In trying to understand this event, scholars have presented three basic reasons to explain why Jesus did it. I will briefly outline these but I really want to make the point that this incident was much more than these reasons – it is a challenge to us to make the leap of faith from the mundane of the world into the glory of Christ’s Kingdom.
First, they said that Jesus was angered because worship in the Temple was no longer reverent. Second, they said that the sacrifices were no longer relevant and third, that the market traders had closed off the Gentile Court to non-Jewish worshippers ie it was no longer a house of prayer for all nations. (Mark 11:17)
All of these are quite valid but I think there is more, and we find this in the response of the disciples and in the response of Jesus.
The disciples, witnessing this incident, remembered the words from Psalm 69 – “Zeal for Your house will consume me.” They saw a zeal in Jesus which had turned into anger, an anger at the flippancy with which the people of God were dealing with the things of God. It was an anger of centuries, not just the moment. It called into question the extent of reverence which the people accorded to the Almighty, it challenged the relevance of their sacrifices and it showered doubt on their understanding of the mission of God.
And more … that prophetic word – “Zeal for Your house will consume me” pointed to the Cross, the death of Jesus, the purpose for which He came.
These things, lack of reverence, irrelevant sacrifices and the selfish clinging to the promise of God for themselves only were about to be blown out of the water in the death of Jesus. In His obedience to the Father He was to show what true reverence is; in His death, the true meaning of sacrifice and in His invitation to the repentant sinner beside Him on the Cross, He was to reveal the true recipients of God’s promise.
At the request from the Jews for a sign (or evidence) for His authority to act in this way Jesus responds quite dramatically – “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” They thought he was speaking of Herod’s Temple. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our Lord was not interested in bricks and mortar, or even marble and polished limestone.
No! He was speaking about His own body. He was speaking about death and resurrection.
He was not going to break down and rebuild the scenery – for that’s all that the Temple really was. It was a means of faith. It was a help, a metaphor of what is to be. No, He was not going to erase that ladder from the board game of life, only to replace it with another one.
This was a big time change. This was a paradigm shift that He was offering. This was a new dimension to our relationship with God. This was a new frontier – He was about to take the world into a place it had never been before.
He was taking us to the Cross. He was showing us the way to new life. He was pointing us to resurrection and a new hope. He was setting a new path before us – the scenery would be the same. There would still be laws and signs and wisdom – they were needed to encourage us on the journey. But Jesus was focusing us into a new dimension. He was showing us that it was the path which mattered, not the scenery – not signs and wonders, not wisdom but simple faith in Christ crucified.
The Methodist Communion Liturgy has a simple statement of faith included in the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving. It goes like this:
Christ has come
Christ has died
Christ has risen
Christ will come again
Our search for the meaning of life is often sought in the signs which we see around us, the events, the miracles, the understanding but this is the path, this is our faith – Christ crucified gives the real meaning to our life.
We do often want to focus on the signs, what we can see – the scenery but the faith dimension requires us “to be sure of what we hope for, certain of that which we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1)
Faith is to step out of the realm of the created world and to begin to see the signs of the world to come – the destroyed Temple, the crucified Christ, the empty tomb, the Risen Christ, the ascended Lord. It is to experience the sovereign reign of God now, as we wait for the return of Christ.
To the Philippian jailer, Paul said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” It was a call to understand the sign of the Cross and the significance of the Resurrection.
And that is my call to you this morning – enjoy the ride, appreciate the scenery but most of all “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” Understand the sign of the Cross and the significance of the Resurrection.