Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham on 23 January 2011, Epiphany 4 [typos and all]
Naaman is one of those characters in the Bible whose story is familiar to almost everyone who has been to Sunday School for any length of time. Every time I read or hear the story myself, images of the fuzzy felt storyboard from my own Sunday School in the early ‘70s and ‘80s come flooding back.
And like so many of the biblical characters we encounter through Sunday School, Naaman gets a bit of a rough deal. He comes across as something of an anti-hero: he is the enemy general who has vanquished God’s people in battle, killed their king, kidnapped a poor Israelite girl as a slave, who shows no faith in the promise God makes through His prophet, and who is saved only after his servants persuade him to listen to the prophet. However, even a brief moment of self-scrutiny should make us realise that this is hardly fair on Naaman: he is certainly no worse than us. At every turn his reactions are just what you would expect from any normal, rational person. This passage is not a story about Naaman’s foolishness—it is a story about God’s foolishness, about how God saves us through wonderfully foolish means.
I don’t know what it’s like from an author’s point of view, but as a reader of books I have got the impression that the two hardest things in writing a book are the beginning and the ending. The story might write itself, but how do you open it? I suppose that’s why there we have “Once upon a time” and “They lived happily ever after”. There is no substitute for a solid opening—”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” comes to mind.
Or, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”.
But how to end it?
Well, as I was reminded while reading today’s OT reading in the Treasury of Daily Prayer, in the case of the penultimate book of the Old Testament canon, this is how:
And there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the LORD of hosts on that day. (Zech. 14:21, ESV)
The wider context is Zechariah’s prophecy of the humbling of the enemies of Israel, the bringing in of the nations to worship the Lord, and the consecration of everything from the bells of the horses to pots and pans in the kitchen “so that all who sacrifice may come and take of them and boil the meat of the sacrifice in them.”
I have read Zechariah before, more than once. However, I hadn’t paid close attention to this closing sentence before. For some reason, as I was reading it this morning, however, it hit me right in the face: Jesus in the Temple.
All the Gospel writers relate the incident of Jesus entering the Temple, almost certainly soon after his triumphal entry—i.e., some days before his crucifixion. Once in the Temple, he drove out the traders and money changers, incurring the wrath of the Temple authorities.
Rightly, much has been made of the incident. The corruption of late second Temple worship, the narrowing of Jewish exclusivism at the expense of Gentiles coming to the Temple, Jesus’ authority over the Temple and its guardians, his zeal for true worship of the Father, setting himself up as the true Temple, etc. All good and true, there in the text. Since the Holocaust, several scholars have pinpointed this incident as a clear indication that Jesus deliberately orchestrated his own martyrdom (thereby lifting the blame from the Jewish authorities, whose hand Jesus allegedly forced). Not so good and true…
However, I hadn’t made the link to Zechariah before (and, it seems, I’m not alone in that). By driving out the traders from the Temple, Jesus was signalling the fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy. And sure enough, within a week or so, Jesus had died and risen again, the curtain of the Temple was torn in two. And a few weeks after that, the Holy Spirit came upon his disciples, making them into temples for the Holy Spirit. The division between Jew and Gentile, sacred and profane space, gone. All who worship the Lord, who come to the Father through the Son, are holy to the Lord and their whole lives sanctified, holy to the Lord.
And so in Holy Week, Jesus started a new beginning—just where Zechariah and the Old Covenant had left off.