This post (longer than most) is based on a sermon I gave last Sunday at Trinity Lutheran in Lindstrom, MN based on Luke and Mark’s Gospels. I dressed in a “Biblical” costume and told the Palm Sunday story from the perspective of Levi, a priest in the temple of Jerusalem. Inspired by C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, I seek to move the congregation beyond mere observation.
Levi enters from side door, speaking to unseen persons behind him.
Just a minute. I agree something must be done and I will help, but first I have to meet with the visitors. Maybe I can get their support.
(Turning to the congregation to greet them) Good Morning.
My name is Levi and I am one of the priests who serves here in the Temple of Jerusalem. On behalf of High Priest Caiaphas, I want to welcome you to the Passover festival here in Jerusalem.
I know that some of you have come a long way to be here in Jerusalem and this is your first time in this magnificent Temple. I hope you are impressed with the huge stones and craftsmanship.
I must apologize for being a bit late. You see we have a problem. A big problem and it is growing. You might think it is just a problem for the priest and servants of the temple. But it is a problem for each of you as well.
Model of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. By Berthold Werner – Own work, Public Domain,
First just a bit of background. This temple has been here for more than 50 years, built by the great King Herod. It reminds us of the great temple built by King Solomon, a thousand years ago, but Solomon’s temple was destroyed centuries ago and the second was built over its foundation.
As you know temples are important. They give us a sense of calm and peace in an age of great uncertainty. I am guessing most of you came here today to find some peace and calm, some rest for your soul. Here in the rituals and music of the temple we can feel safe; we are able to block out the terrible evils of the world. Like the dread Roman army that occupies our land. Or for you it might be the problems in your families or work or at school or with friends. We can escape for a time.
We need places like this temple to find rest for our weary soul. In a sense, to find oil to replenish our lamps. The temple can be a safe haven, a safe harbor, in a dangerous world.
But that is our problem. Danger has come here, into the temple itself.
The danger is a man named Jesus of Nazareth. A troublemaker first class, that we need to take care of.
I heard of Jesus several months ago. There were reports coming from Galilee, that province up north, about a man doing miracles and teaching. A prophet like John the Baptist. Stories and rumors of his deeds came to our attention, but we, the priests, ignored them. We have sufficient problems keeping a great institution like the Temple running to worry about some crackpot prophet in distant Galilee.
Oh a few scribes were sent to observe him, to test him. And I am sure he is a crackpot. For example, this Jesus claimed the power to forgive sins. Just who does he think he is? Only God can do that, and only when we have a sacrifice here in the temple. Jesus seems to think he could speak for God. How could he be a prophet, nothing good can come from Nazareth, that tiny insignificant town.
The stories kept growing. 5,000 people fed, a lake storm quieted. But you know how people like to embellish the truth. I am sure none of you would fall for such preposterous rumors.
I and the other priests tried to ignore these stories and Jesus. To talk about him only seem to inflame the crowds. But then last Sunday, our hands were forced. We have to deal with him, because he came here to Jerusalem.
Jesus rides into Jerusalem
And in no quiet way either. He came like a king, riding a donkey. I bet some of you saw it. As you well know, there are always huge crowds coming to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. And the crowd, like foolish children, cut down palm branches and took off their robes and laid them in the street. They shout Hosanna, Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna means “save us.” How could Jesus possibly save us?
I certainly hope none of you were shouting his name or cutting down palm branches. I hope none of you were drawn into his promises and claims.
Jesus is dangerous and to be avoided at all cost.
Then after the parade, Jesus came into our temple and cleaned out all the money changers and sellers of turtle-dove and lambs. He threw over table and pushed people out of the courtyard. He made some speech about how this is to be a house of prayer. Well certainly we can pray here, but how are we to do our business without the money changers to take the filthy Roman coins and exchange them for proper Jewish coins? Or how are people to make a sacrifice for Passover without sheep or turtle-dove. I see that none you are carrying a turtle-dove with you. There is a practical side to running a temple after all.
“Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple” by New Zealand artist Michael Smither, 1972 (Victoria University of Wellington Art Collection, New Zealand)
Jesus is dangerous and he has stirred up the crowds. Some think he is the Messiah, the anointed one of God. Last night I was a supper with Simon, my cousin. Jesus was there as well. I told Simon not to invite him, but Simon went ahead in spite of my advice. I looked Jesus over carefully. He was a simple ordinary man. He ate with two hands, he drank wine, he even laughed at Simon’s bad jokes. Nothing unusual there.
Nothing unusual until a woman from the street came into the room. She is not the proper woman I would allow into my home. She carried an alabaster jar of perfume. I could tell this was not some cheap perfume, but the very expensive kind. She walked right up to Jesus, broke open the bottle and poured the whole bottle on his head, just like he were a king. I immediately object to this waste of money. I said, “This ointment is a waste. It could have sold for several thousands of dollars and the money given to the poor.” I thought for sure Jesus would join in my rebuttal. He would see the waste.
But no, He rebukes me and gives praise to the woman. That she has done a very good deed.
Good deed, my eye.
Jesus should not be anointed. He should be locked away in prison.
You know what he said about the temple. One of his disciples told me that he said, “This temple will be destroyed.” This beautiful, magnificent temple destroyed. God forbid.
How can we worship God without a temple, without the institution?
Where are you to go to offer sacrifice for God’s forgiveness if the temple is destroyed? How will you know you are forgiven unless blood is shed?
For Jesus to talk about the temple being destroyed, he should die!
That is what we were discussing back there before I greeted you.
How to stop Jesus! Stop him from making more trouble.
And most of us agreed, he must die.
Oh we could execute him by stoning him to death for blaspheme against God, as Jewish law permits. But the crowd may interfere.
So someone had the idea, “Let’s take him to Pontius Pilate. (Pilate is the Roman Governor), “We can use Jesus’ claim as King as the reason to execute him.” After all the Roman form of execution, crucifixion, is such a horrible way to die. But it will show all his followers that Jesus is a fake King.
Don’t you think it would be fitting for King Jesus to have the cross as his throne?
And after he is dead, we can go after all his disciples.
All his disciples, except for one. One who was smart enough to come to us and help us. I met him at Simon’s dinner last night. The disciple agreed to find an opportune time to turn on Jesus, when the crowd is not around. A smart man, that Judas Iscariot. You can learn from him.
Which leads me back to you. What role will you play in this unfolding story?
I am sure most of you see the danger in Jesus.
Do you really want a King who tears down temples and says that God is free to go anywhere, be anywhere?
Don’t you feel safe with God here in this box, where you can come for comfort and support?
Do you really want God out there in your everyday world, in every nook and cranny of your life, who can surprise and disrupt your lives? Won’t you prefer to run your own life?
One thing I will guarantee.
By the end of this week, Jesus will be dead and buried in a cold dark tomb.
And that will be the end of his story and his mission.
And within a few months his name will be forgotten.
I see some skeptical looks on your faces.
Do some of you actually believe Jesus’ talk about rising from the dead?
Don’t be so foolish? How many resurrected people have you met?
The resurrection of Jesus is as likely as this magnificent temple being destroyed. It will not happen. Trust me.
I must go. I need to meet that very smart man Judas and pay him for his help.
Remember, I have warned you. Jesus is dangerous. He could turn your life upside down and inside out.
Are you sure you want him as your king?