The third Sunday of Lent sees Jesus clearing the temple in Jerusalem. It is one of the few times that we see him displaying such raw emotion as he angrily removes the ‘thieves‘ from his Father’s ‘house of prayer‘ Matthew 21:13. Often we consider anger as a negative emotion but there are undoubtedly times when it is right to be angry. It is how we use that feeling and who we direct that anger to that can be important.
The sermon I delivered this morning reflect some of the nuances that I had heard in an Oxcept Lecture by Diocesan Canon Angela Tilby entitled ‘Fragile Selves: Shame and Healing in an Age of Envy‘ and an informal talk given by Reverend Joseph John from St John’s Cathedral in Peshawar, Pakistan
May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
Let’s imagine I am driving down one of the side streets in Hedge End. There is a long row of parked cars on my side of the road, so glancing ahead, as it’s all clear, I pull over onto the other side of the road and start to overtake them. About fifty yards down the road another driver suddenly decides to pull out of their driveway and turn towards me. I can see they are determined to have their right of way. They gesticulate repeatedly that I should reverse back down the road, the whole fifty yards. I in turn glare and gesticulate that it would be easier for them to simply reverse back up their drive, but they are having none of it and start to shout something, which luckily is unheard through the windscreen; and which is also lucky because they can’t hear the words coming from my car either! Eventually, after what seems like several minutes of stalemate, I decide it is easier to simply reverse, and do so rather slowly and erratically as I can feel my heart beating rapidly and tears pricking at the corner of my eyes. The final hand gesture as the other car whooshes past, its driver’s eyes fixed straight ahead, was I feel unnecessary and I have to sit there for a few minutes to regain my composure and let the angry feelings subside.
I knew I’d ‘lost it’, rather like a toddler, kicking and screaming on a supermarket floor, and the whole incident served no real purpose other than to raise my blood pressure and make me feel slightly ashamed. The trouble is that when we ‘lose it’ then our anger, as an emotion, is selfish, destructive, and amoral… However, as Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians ‘Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger’, which tells us that anger in itself is not an emotion we should avoid altogether
Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger
This morning we heard of Jesus’ very vivid and public display of anger and it comes as something of a shock… although not as much of a shock as it must have been for the animal traders and money changers. We much prefer to think of Jesus as meek and mild, gentle and loving, but as with all of his actions, his anger had a purpose.
And it wasn’t the first time he had displayed this emotion. In Capernaum, with the Pharisees waiting to accuse him of breaking the Sabbath by healing the man with a withered hand, ‘He looked around at them with anger; deeply grieved at their hardness of hearts’. Even his own disciples came in for a tongue-lashing occasionally. When Peter rebukes him for foretelling his death and resurrection, Jesus then rebukes Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’; hardly said with a mild sigh of, ‘Oh Peter, Peter, Peter. Let me explain it one more time’
Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things
When Jesus gets angry he is angry for the right reasons. It is not a selfish anger but focussed on the behaviour and injustice involved. He is not angry about the ‘weaknesses’ of others, but arises out of his concern for their spiritual well-being; they are defiling God’s holiness and in the case of the temple, God’s worship. It does not involve hatred or ill will. He is also fully in control and knew that when he had achieved the desired result of accomplishing God’s will that there was no need to become bitter or to hold grudges
Sometimes we need to become angry about things that are happening around us and in the wider world, at the injustices we see being inflicted on innocent victims, the abuse of children and violence against those who are defenceless, but we need to do so for the same reasons and in the same manner that Jesus has demonstrated. We need to make our voices heard in certain situations where no other voices are speaking up, in other words we need to raise awareness of situations. People are very quick to complain about the church and Christians in general when they ‘poke their noses’ into social situations, but at least it shows we care enough to state an opinion that might upset someone! And we shouldn’t underestimate the effect that holding regular prayer vigils, such the monthly ecumenical world-wide prayers for the Middle East or the annual Women’s World of Prayer can have on bringing issues to a wider audience.
However, should we not be in a position to interact with the public sphere then taking our concerns to God in private can create a safe space in which to express our anger about a situation. As the psalmist points out, ‘With my voice I cry to the Lord; with my voice I make supplication to the Lord. I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him’. So there are occasions when we are justified in being angry and there are some things we are justified in being angry about. But what about when we are angry with God? What should we do then?
With my voice I cry to the Lord; with my voice I make supplication to the Lord.
I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him
Maybe we have to ask ourselves why we are angry with God. We often live our lives believing that life is supposed to be easy and that God should prevent tragedies from happening. When he doesn’t, we get angry with him. Sometimes we forget human involvement, with all its flaws and weaknesses and instead think that God has lost control of his creation and consequently our lives, so we blame God. It’s then that we realise our inability or unwillingness to acknowledge that in fact we are not always in control and that when things happen, it is then we have to trust that God understands the reason and that he will give us his peace and strength to get through any difficult situation. Trusting him in this way is an incredibly hard thing to do… but God is a God of compassion and hope, as well as being full of grace and love.
And God does understand when we get angry through frustration and disappointment. He knows our hearts and he knows how difficult and painful life can be in this world. Perhaps instead of being angry with God, we should pour out our hearts in prayer, and trust that he really is in control and that he already knows how these things fit into his ultimate plan for the world
Recently it was brought home to me how this trusting was more powerful than any acts of anger or retaliation could ever be. The Reverend Joseph John is currently on sabbatical at Cuddesdon College. He is a cathedral vicar at St John’s Cathedral in Peshawar, Pakistan. When Pakistan achieved independence in 1947 a lot of its schools and hospitals were Christian institutions and even after 1956 when it was declared an Islamic Republic, the Christian communities, which now make up only 3% of the population, were successfully integrated as freedom of religion and equal citizenship was guaranteed to all citizens.
However, on the 22nd September 2013 two Taliban suicide bombers killed over 147 of the congregation at All Saints Church, Peshawar; among several of Joseph John’s close relatives. There was a lot to be angry about
Nearly two years later, whilst still seeking justice from the government, the Christians there have a wish is to be recognised and supported as the church that God called them to be. They know that they cannot simply expect God to produce peace, but must pray and work for it. This means listening deeply and trying to understand people who are different and also seeking to resolve differences without conflict and violence. The work that the church undertakes is not exclusively with Christians, in fact 95 percent of those benefitting from their education, development work and health care are Muslims.
They know that it requires courage and humility, and that it often requires sacrifice; but they continue to serve their neighbours, as Joseph John puts it, ‘by washing their wounds’. Their anger has been channelled into seeking justice and continuing to act faithfully because they trust that God is with them in this work and has a plan for all the people of Pakistan, even if they don’t know exactly what it is at this moment in time.
When Jesus speaks of the temple being destroyed and rebuilt in 3 days, those with him are also unable to see the connections to the bigger picture until it is revealed through Christ’s resurrection; then the pieces fell into place. Their knowledge and wisdom is limited to what the human mind tells them is logical. So are we foolish to proclaim Christ crucified, in order to save all who would believe its message? Human wisdom appears weak because it requires proof and concrete knowledge, but God’s wisdom and power dwarfs our understanding and therefore we just have to hand over ourselves to him and trust that eventually that wider vision will be revealed in all its glory. Amen
Trust in the Lord with all your heart;
don’t rely on your own intelligence.