It s passion time. I don t mean that we ve skipped a couple of weeks in Lent and done a fast forward to Passion week. I m talking about passion with a little p, biblically speaking that is.
Look at our Bible reading today. It s a script for a Jesus that looks like Dirty Harry or Indiana Jones. It s first century clean out the saloon time.
No, I m not trying to be sacrilegious just realistic.
How many of us carry around a mental image of a sensitive, compassionate Jesus. A fair-haired, holding-a-little-lamb-in-his-arms Jesus. An arms outstretched come unto me Jesus. The whether-we-can-see-him-or-not-we-can-count-on-him-to-gently-lead-us-through-the-valley Jesus.
Well, this morning let s wake up and smell the coffee, so to speak.
We ve got a different Jesus facing us – angry, passionate, confrontational.
Today we re faced with an angry Jesus and a violent scene. The word angry isn t used anywhere in this passage. But what else could it be? Jesus makes a whip of cords. He drives not only the cattle and sheep, but also the money changers and the merchants. He demands they leave and take their stuff with them. He overturns their tables.
But how do we really feel about this picture? Wouldn t we get a little nervous if all of a sudden the doors to the church were flung open? If a fast- walking, eyes-blazing, hard-breathing, robes-billowing-behind-him Jesus strode down this aisle, whirled around and faced us all?
A tad too aggressive looking, we might say. Whoever he is. We d hold our children close. We d draw back against our seats, consider how to exit the church as quietly as possible, get out of the line of fire, so to speak. Those blazing eyes what are they looking at or through? What s this man going to do next?
Let s face facts. Most of us are afraid of anger. We re afraid of it in ourselves and in others. It s seems so out of control. We re afraid of its destructive potential. It seems to lead so often to violence. Oh, maybe it s okay up there on the movie screen or unleashed against the bad guys in a video game. But, in real life? Don t want to be around it.
Anger is an emotion. No matter how hard we try to suppress it, no matter how hard we try to control it, no matter how much we try to ignore it or deny it or banish it from out lives, it s there – a part of us.
Many folks have the idea that anger is bad. But anger, like all feelings and emotions, is neither good nor bad. It just is. The question is not whether I should or shouldn t be angry at any point in time. If I m angry, I m angry. Maybe I m justified in being angry. Maybe I m not. But either way, the critical question is what do I do with that anger.
Anger is a gift from God. Okay, I bet some of you out there may be thinking, That s crazy. It may sound crazy. It may sound counter-intuitive, but it s true. We may label a given emotion bad or good. But God doesn t. We were created with emotions. I think we have them all, not because God was too busy to sort them all out. Not because he ran out of time to separate the wheat from the chaff in our emotion field. I think we have them all because God thought they would be of value to us. Our feelings are gifts from God, but as with any gift, the bottom line is how we use it.
I remember when my son, Logan, was about three years old. We lived on Hanover Avenue just a few doors from Lombardy Park the Children s park here in the fan. It was late afternoon and Logan and I were about to cross Lombardy on our way home from playing in the park. Logan started running across the street. A car trying to make it fast through two green lights in a row was only a few yards away. Frightened and furious, I yelled to Logan at the top of my lungs and grabbed him out of the way of the car just in time. My final memory of that moment was cradling my crying, terrified child in my arms and shouting obscenities I dare not even remember after that driver.
Fear and anger triggered a jolt of adrenaline in my system with split second precision. And tragedy was avoided.
In the newspaper yesterday morning (Richmond Times Dispatch March 18, 2006) there was a story with the headline Goal in Iraq: avenge a son. It started like this.
In the desert chill, on the lonely nighttime roads of Iraq, Joe Johnson looks out over his machine gun and thinks of Justin.
It was on Easter morning 2004 that a chaplain and a colonel appeared on Joe and Jan Johnson s doorstep with the news. Justin, the boy Joe had fished and hunted with, the soldier son who d gone off to Iraq a month earlier, was suddenly dead at 22, killed by a roadside bomb planted in a Baghdad slum.
Today it s Joe who mans the M-240 atop a Humvee, warily watching the sides of the road, an unlikely Army corporal at 48, a father who came here for revenge. After six months at war, he is ready to go home.
Joe Johnson had his opportunity – for revenge that is. He had his moment. At one point when some civilian cars sped by, he chose not to level his gun and open fire. He could have. It would have been a normal reaction in a climate of fear, where car bombs kill anyone in their path.
The article ends with the fact that Joe s headed home now, mission accomplished. No, he hasn t killed anyone. But as Joe reports, Whatever it was, I got it out of my system.
We are not here to judge whether Joe s initial motives were justified or not, but it is a story of transformation for Joe Johnson.
We have an immensely ambivalent relationship to anger. We don t want to feel it, yet we do. Often it may seem easier or safer simply to deny or suppress this emotion, but this can be destructive in its own way, to ourselves. As the author of The Way of Forgiveness, a book in The Companions in Christ series that is so popular, states it, There is much we need to understand about anger in order to recognize it fully, value what we can learn from it, and channel its destructive potential into constructive energy. Our view of this emotion and how we choose to use it is a deeply spiritual matter.
Biblically, anger is portrayed as neither good nor bad. But good things or bad things can result from how the energy that anger engenders is used. Consider the good and Godly use of the prophet s anger as they tried to convince the Israelites to turn from their wicked ways. Think of the devastatingly destructive use of Cain s anger when he became jealous of his brother Abel and murdered him.
The reality is that we are going to feel anger many times in our lives. The good news is that when we experience anger we are energized and we have a choice about what to do with that energy. It can be used either for harm or for good. This is our choice. The destructive potential of anger can be channeled for good. It can be transformed so that positive things can result. And this happens by the grace of God.
A remarkable example of this is the transformative work that has come out of a mother s anger that her child was killed by a drunk driver. MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) has impacted legislation all over this country and lives have been saved as a result. Another example? A Richmond priest whose son was shot and killed at a restaurant in the west end speaks to audiences about the spiritual path of forgiveness. He witnesses to the power of love overcoming hate, slowly but surely.
Anger can lead to transformation. Passion channeled for good.
And so we end, back where we began, with the passion of Jesus. His violence may still disturb us. If I had been his mother, Mary, I might have had a heavy heart. I might have thought, Oh dear, why can t he control himself.
But of course, Jesus actions have a significance that is symbolic. While he didn t come to overturn the Law and the Prophets, he did come as a change agent, a human yet divine agent of God. He came not just to overturn some tables in the Temple, but to overturn a temple way of life that had come between God and God s people. His anger was righteous, his passion transformative.
So, what can we take away from all of this today? Hopefully, a new way of looking at our anger. Not with fear, but with respect. Respect for the opportunity it presents for transformative change. And recognition that while anger can overtake us, it doesn t have to control us. It doesn t have to lead us to negative behaviors. We have a choice and with God s help we can choose that which leads to good.
By God s amazing grace, may it be so.