examination for life – a visit from Jesus

Image you know someone who has always dreamed of visiting the Great Wall of China. It probably wouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that someone would want to visit the Great Wall. Parts of that wall were built as long as eighteen hundred years ago by the first emperor of China – most of it was built about 500 years ago during the Ming Dynasty. It’s an historic, long and winding wall that was first built for the purposes of security and defense, and later was used as a means of regulating trade along the Silk Road. The oldest parts of the wall were made of earth and stone and wood – while the majority was constructed from brick and stone. The Great Wall of China now measures 9,000 kilometers or more in length and of course is a UNESCO world heritage site. There are tens of thousands of people who dream of seeing the Wall – this amazing feat of human engineering – tens of thousands who dream of having those ancient bricks and steps beneath their own feet.

So imagine this person you know, who has dreamed of visiting the Great Wall of China – and imagine they are finally able to make the trip. They save up enough money to pay for the airfare. They put together an itinerary; they make reservations at hotels; they book a seat on a tour bus. And the day arrives when they finally get to the wall – they step out of the bus and walk up to the wall. Oh it is glorious. They see it stretch of endlessly in one directly and in the other – they walk up the few steps onto the wall, and for a few minutes they look this way and that.

And then they turn around, go back and get on the bus, and take their seat. “Okay, I’ve seen it, I’m ready to head back to the hotel whenever you are.”

Now that would be a very strange ending to the story, wouldn’t it? That great dream; that hope of seeing the Wall; those months of saving and planning. Only to get there, have a quick look, and turn around to leave.

Strange. Unlikely. Anticlimactic.

It might seem odd to us, but this little exercise of imagination matches up pretty closely with what Jesus did on the day of his celebratory entry into Jerusalem. The whole narrative of the gospels sets Jesus on a path toward this arrival in Jerusalem. On that day, Jesus leaves from the town of Bethany on his way to the Jerusalem – he has arranged for his disciples to find a colt for him to ride – he rides up to the city with his disciples and with others singing and praising God along the way. Some wave palm branches and some lay their cloaks along the path. “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest.” Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem and went into the temple – he had a look around at everything, then he left the temple, left the city, and immediately went back to Bethany where he had just come from.

Wait a minute. What? That’s not generally how we picture it, is it?

We have this whole narrative sequence in our minds.

Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem.

Jesus enters the city with fanfare.

He goes to the temple.

He confronts those who have made the temple a den of robbers.

He holds the last supper with his disciples.

Jesus is betrayed by Judas.

Jesus is arrested. He is beaten. He is crucified.

For us there is a kind of inevitability to all of this – one event follows after the other as surely as day follows night, and as surely as each night is dissipated by the rising sun.

But the narrative isn’t nearly that inevitable. The story does not unfold as precisely as we often have it in our mind. Rather, Jesus enters the city with a fanfare – goes and has a quick look around the temple – and then he leaves.

He doesn’t offer a sacrifice.

He doesn’t debate with the religious leaders.

He doesn’t open the scriptures and teach any one.

He doesn’t offer any parable about the life of God’s people.

He arrives, he looks around, and he leaves. The truth is that this part of the story ends with a kind of thud. No drama at all.

So strange. So unlikely. So anticlimactic.

What is going on here? Well, if we want to try and understand what’s going in this part of the narrative – if we want to find some meaning in this strange turning around and leaving of Jesus – then we have to read this story right alongside the next story that Mark tells. Mark wants us to read them together. But in fact the next story is just as strange – or maybe even more strange than the story of Jesus’ odd arrival and departure from the temple.

Here’s what we read in the passage right after we see Jesus leave and go back to the town of Bethany.

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

Odd. Strange.

Jesus curses the fig tree because it had no fruit on it, even though it isn’t the season for fig trees to bear fruit. That’s like walking up to an apple tree in the middle of winter and saying: “Ah, no apples, you stupid tree.” And we discover a little further on in the narrative, that the fig tree has in fact withered, has in fact dried up, following Jesus’ cursing of it.

And this is supposed to help us understand Jesus arrival and abrupt departure from Jerusalem and from the temple?

Well in fact there is a similarity between these two stories. It might seem silly or even simplistic, but in both cases, what does Jesus do? Well in both cases he makes a kind of inspection.

The text says he went into the temple and had a look around.

The text says that he went up to the fig tree to see if it had any fruit.

In both cases, Jesus is looking for something. In the narrative of his arrival at the temple, the text doesn’t say what he’s looking for. But with the story of the fig tree it’s pretty clear what he’s looking for – he was looking for something to eat – he was looking for fruit.

The gospel writer wants us to make a link between these two stories. And the similarity on this point – the similarity in portraying Jesus as examining and looking for something – this similarity becomes important when we read all of this in the light of passages like the one we read today from the prophet Micah. In that prophecy Micah represents God in this way:

What misery is mine! I am like one who gathers summer fruit at the gleaning of the vineyard; there is no cluster of grapes to eat, none of the early figs I crave. The godly have been swept from the land; not one upright man remains. All men lie in wait to shed blood; each hunts his brother with a net.

There is a similar passage in the prophet Jeremiah, who writes:

Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among the fallen; when I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the Lord. When I would gather them, says the Lord, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them.

Jesus is described in these words from Micah the prophet.

Jesus is described in these words from Jeremiah the prophet.

Jesus comes looking for fruit in the temple. Jesus comes looking for faithfulness and goodness and mercy and compassion and holiness and truth telling – he comes and he looks around the temple. But he doesn’t see what he’s looking for. What he sees, instead are religious leaders oblivious to what really matters in the kingdom of God. He has come looking for covenant faithfulness in the religious practices of the temple, but in the temple he finds nothing of the sort.

So then it will come as no surprise that the very next story in the narrative unfolds like this, whether the next day or a few days later:

Jesus came to Jerusalem and entered the temple, and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations? But you have made it a den of robbers’.

Jesus came to the temple as a child of Israel – he came to the temple as the Son of God – he came to the temple the embodiment of God’s kingdom – he came looking for a house of prayer for all nations.

But instead Jesus found narrow legalism – he found a system of exchange and barter in service to empty religious ritual. Jesus came to the temple looking for a house of prayer for all people – he came looking for dedication to the holiness and compassion of God. But he found the superficial religiosity of the religious leaders – religious leaders at the time who had lost sight of the worship and service of God.

Jesus is the embodiment of God’s way in the world, but the religious leaders who managed the temple and supervised the religious activities at the temple – those religious leaders could not accept him, could not embrace him, could not manage him, could not find room for him. There was a fundamental disjunction between what the temple had come to represent and what Jesus represented. And so the religious authorities of that day conspired to take care of Jesus.

Jesus’ response to the religious culture of the temple and its leaders will be dramatically expressed a few chapters later when he says:

“Tear down this temple made with human hands and I will rebuild it in 3 days.”

There is going to be a renewal of the human relationship to God – but the temple leaders can’t imagine that renewal. There is going to be a renewed path to forgiveness and fullness of life – but the religious authorities can’t find that path. There is going to be an end to injustice and sinfulness in human lives – but the temple leaders have become blind to that possibility.

“Tear down this temple made with human hands and I will rebuild it in 3 days.”

Jesus came to the temple as a child of Israel, as the Son of God, and as the hope for God’s people and for the world. Jesus comes with his diverse and ragtag bunch of disciples –

with Mary and Martha,

with Bartimaeus healed of his blindness,

with reformed tax collectors, still repaying their debts

with a formerly paralyzed man and his four friends, ecstatic,

with a family remembering thousands fed with a few loaves of bread,

with a woman healed of her bleeding,

with a man astonished by this new authority and teaching.

Jesus comes with his diverse and ragtag group of disciples – he comes embodying the compassion and holiness of God – the kingdom of God. He is the hope of God’s people – but the religious authorities and their temple cannot contain him.

“Tear down this temple made with human hands and I will rebuild it in 3 days.”

And on the other side of those three days Jesus does not cease to visit us. And when he visits us, there is no less an inspection than when he visited the temple courtyards and walked silently away – when he visits us there is no less an inspection than when he walked up to that fig tree in hope of fruit to nourish his hunger.

The risen Jesus visits us – visits us as his followers and as his people – and when he visits us he comes looking for compassion and for joy and for obedience – he comes looking for mercy and forgiveness and justice. Jesus comes looking for the fruit of the Spirit in us as individuals and his people together. This Son of Israel, Son of God, comes looking for the embodiment of his kingdom.

Sometimes he finds what he is looking for – for his Spirit is among us.

Sometimes he does not find what he is looking for – for we resist his Spirit among us.

And when he does not find what he is looking for, he speaks a strong and gracious word – the same strong and gracious words he spoke to women and men along the roads and in the towns of ancient Judea.

If he speaks a word of judgment, it is always a judgment in service to his grace.

If he speaks a word of correction, it is always correction that will humanize us.

His intention, as he puts it in John’s gospel, is not that anyone should be condemned but that we might have life through him. By his Spirit he examines our lives, and invites us to live in holiness, compassion, truth telling, and integrity – and to live in the faithful worship of God. May we open ourselves to his examination, and trust that he has more than enough grace for us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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