The Spirit of Lent: Passion for God

Spirit of Lent copy
Click here for the audio version of this sermon.

As most people know, before I was in the ministry I was a graphic designer and artist. For the first sixteen years of my adult life, I went to work each day and made a living by creating art on a digital canvas. Of course, it wasn’t true art. It was designing advertising materials, making videos, taking stock photographs, and occasionally laying out a rudimentary website. I was able to use the title artist for what I did but I never felt like a real artist. I’ve dabbled. I’ve tried. I have a few paintings I did for my children of cartoon characters and a couple of cubist examples that prove I can align geometric shapes into a discernable image, but they aren’t really art.

Art requires something of the artist that I simply don’t have: a passion for art for the art’s sake. In the true artist, there is something that borders near insanity behind this. Adrienne Sussman wrote in the Stanford Journal of Neuroscience,

A possible link between mental illness and creative output has been documented throughout history. As far back as the 4th century B.C., the connection between “divine” inspiration and altered mental state had already been made, prompting Plato to expound in the dialogue of Phaedrus: “Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings… Madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.[1]

Lord Byron referred to those of his generation saying, “We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.”[2] Sussman goes on to say,

“The list of afflicted artists is staggering, and spans all areas of art. Many of the most iconic figures in the modern Western canon, including the poet T.S. Eliot, the composer Irving Berlin, and the painter Georgia O’Keefe were formally institutionalized at some point in their careers. Others, including the writer Virginia Woolf and the artist Vincent van Gogh, actually ended their own lives because of mental illness.”[3]

This idea of the serious artist afflicted —psychologically or neurologically— by something internal, which is intense, passionate, and zealous for the art or expression of the art has persisted and to this day, most people regard artists of any kind as being not quite right.”

I believe sometimes the intensity we feel for those things in our lives that are important to us mirrors the passion that artists feel as they go about their work. Of course, I don’t mean that we suffer from mental illness because we are passionate about something, but I believe we all have those things which stir us to intense feelings and responses. The word used in the Scripture reading for today was passion, where we read “Passion for your house consumes me.” The Greek word derives from ζηλος which means zeal, passion, intensity, fervor, or with an intense spirit. The line itself is a reference to the sixty-ninth Psalm, attributed to David, where the Israeli king is crying out to God, or possibly whining at times, about being in a demanding situation. Essentially, he is saying that his fervor for God has left him disgraced[4], insulted[5], outcast in his own family[6], and hated by enemy and friend alike[7].

This Spirit—passion, intensity, zeal, whichever word you care to use—found in Jesus, finds expression in his intense response to seeing the sale of offering animals and the exchange of currency to temple currency. There is no consensus among scholars on how to interpret this act of Jesus—whether it depicts a symbolic action or records a historical event. Mary Coloe wrote, “Every gospel, while appearing to be something akin to biography, is in fact a rich theological text, in which the theology is presented in narrative form. In other words, while it may look simply like an historical record of what Jesus of Nazareth said and did, the intention of every gospel is to look beyond the historical—what happened?—to the theological—what did it mean?”[8] Symbolism, in this case, is more important than the historicity of the event itself.[9] For myself, I agree with this sentiment and so I am usually more interested in the meaning behind the story. Which I think makes sense when looking at the Gospel of John, a gospel written with an eye toward symbolism rather than the explanation and recounting of historical data. For the purposes of this sermon, I am also interested in the role of the Holy Spirit regarding the idea of passion, displayed in the life of Jesus and by extension, in our lives as His followers.

Why would Jesus be upset about selling sacrifices and currency exchange in the temple and what does the event point to/work with in the rest of the Gospel of John?

There is no apparent, straight-forward reason given for why Jesus would make a whip to drive out the animals and turn over the tables of the money changers. In the narrative, Jesus tells the dove sellers not to make “my Father’s house a place of business” but the immediate text provides no other clues. In truth, the temple system of selling sacrificial animals and exchanging currency was a centuries-old practice at this point. Both practices met needs for worshipers coming to the temple. The animals allowed people to travel without worrying about sacrificial animals being lost, eaten, or blemished on the journey and the animals provided in the temple would have been considered ceremonially clean and acceptable as sacrifices. The money-changers provided a service that also kept the temple area ceremonially clean in that the use of Roman currency jeopardized the sanctity of the temple. Roman currency had the faces of rulers imprinted on them—making them potential idols—therefore, there was a need to exchange them for Tyrian coins or shekels which had no markings.[10] In both cases, these seem like good things.

One thing to remember, however, is that the four accepted gospels were all written after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple around 70 CE. In the case of John and depending on the scholar, the gospel was written anywhere from 90-100 CE,[11] with the writing being heavily edited by someone later, most likely the person who added chapter twenty-one to the whole.[12] While dating the gospels or any other ancient literature is not an exact science, it would seem from the texts themselves that the gospels were all written after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Why is this important? As I have already said, there is a theological not a historical message here, one that used symbolism as a means of conveying its point.

For the writer or writers of John, the point seems to be simple: there is a new way of seeing the temple now that the temple is gone. Throughout John’s Gospel, we see repeated references to the worship of God that does not take place nor need to take place in the temple. One theologian wrote, “Jesus brings temple activity to a standstill in order to point to another holy place altogether. ‘Destroy this temple,’ Jesus says, ‘and in three days, I will raise it up.’”[13] For God’s people, the temple was the meeting place between them and their God. The sacrifices offered during religious festivals and at special times in people’s lives—such as in honor of a birth or in thanksgiving for a harvest—helped to mark the temple as a holy place, a place where human life and divine blessing met.[14] For the writer(s) of John, Jesus’s body is now the new holy place, an idea spelled out with the first chapter of the gospel, “The Word became flesh, and lived among us.” The birth of Jesus the Nazarene marked the beginning of a new dwelling place for God, within creation, within human beings.[15] So, when Jesus is running the animals and money-changers from the temple, this is not a literal act that had to have physically taken place, this is a symbolic event in the narrative to say that the temple system—something the Jews had relied on as a means of connecting with God for centuries—was made obsolete by the coming of the Spirit in Jesus.[16]

What does this point to regarding what we should be passionate about in our own faith?

The passion of Jesus in this passage is the passion—the zeal, intensity, fervor, intense spirit— written of throughout the Gospel of John: a passion for the worship of God through the Holy Spirit. Notice where the writer(s) of John expresses this in other passages. In John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that we are born both of water and of the Spirit to truly know and worship God.[17] In John 4, Jesus tells the woman at the well that those who worship God, worship not at a temple in Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim, but in Spirit.[18] In John 6, Jesus says that the words He has given the people are “spirit and life,” which enable us to be in the presence of God.[19] And in the final discourse of John 14-17, Jesus talks repeatedly about how the Spirit that will come, the Holy Spirit that has already come to Jesus at His baptism, will come to remind the followers of Jesus about those things that Jesus had taught them, which would include these things about worship.[20]

For those of us who follow in the Way of Jesus, worship is the central activity of daily life, the centering of our being as we seek the presence of God through the various acts and means we have learned from Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. All of this, however, is only possible by the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians,

God has revealed these things to us through the Spirit. The Spirit searches everything, including the depths of God. Who knows a person’s depths except their own spirit that lives in them? In the same way, no one has known the depths of God except God’s Spirit. We haven’t received the world’s spirit but God’s Spirit so that we can know the things given to us by God. These are the things we are talking about—not with words taught by human wisdom but with words taught by the Spirit—we are interpreting spiritual things to spiritual people.”[21]

Ultimately, we must remember that, “the Holy Spirit is God…. Through the Holy Spirit we are made for participants in another world: the world of God’s life is Trinity. The Holy Spirit validates that God is closer than we are to ourselves. Not only is this true, but by the grace of God we are transformed to be witnesses that through the work of the Holy Spirit God claims us as friends, citizens of the Kingdom of Christ.”[22] That transformation of our being by the Spirit of God, that witness of the Spirit, that grace, is what allows, invites, and calls us into worship; not just on Sunday morning, but every day, in every moment.


References

Casey, P.M. “Culture and Historicity: The Cleansing of the Temple.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 1997: 306-322.

Coloe, Mary L. “Temple Imagery in John.” Interpretation, 2009: 368-381.

Domeris, William. “The ‘Enigma of Jesus’’ Temple Intervention: Four Essential Keys.” HTS Teologiese Studies, 2015: 1-8.

Haenchen, Ernst. John 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of John Chapters 1-6. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.

Hauerwas, Stanley, and William H. Willimon. The Holy Spirit. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015.

Lewis, Karoline. Working Preacher: Commentary on John 2:13-22. 03 08, 2015. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2377 (accessed 02 26, 2018).

Mathews, Kenneth A. “John, Jesus, and the Essenes: Trouble at the Temple.” Criswell Theological Review , 1988: 101-126.

Sanford, John A. Mystical Christianity: A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2000.

Shore, Mary Hinkle. Working Preacher: Commentary on John 2:13-22. 2018. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3575 (accessed 02 26, 2018).

Sloyan, Gerard. John: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching. Lousiville: Westminster/John Knox, 1988, 2009.

Spong, John Shelby. The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013.

Sussman, Adrienne. “Mental Illness and Creativity: A Neurological View of the ‘Tortured Artist’.” Stanford Journal of Neuroscience, 2007: 21-24.

Wright, N.T. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. New York: HarperOne Publishing, 2006.


[1] (Sussman 2007, p.21)

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] Psalm 69:6

[5] Psalm 69:7

[6] Psalm 69:8

[7] Psalm 69:4-5, 6, 9

[8] (Coloe 2009, p. 368)

[9] (Sloyan 1988, 2009, p. 40)

[10] (Mathews 1988, p. 123)

[11] (Haenchen 1984, p. 7) (Sanford 2000, p. 4)

[12] (Sloyan 1988, 2009, p. 2)

[13] (Shore 2018)

[14] (Shore 2018)

[15] (Shore 2018)

[16] (Lewis 2015)

[17] John 3:5

[18] John 4:21-24

[19] John 6:63

[20] John 14:26, 15:26, 16:13

[21] 1 Corinthians 2:10-13

[22] (Hauerwas and Willimon 2015, p. 66)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: