An Exchange of Kingdoms
An Exchange of Kingdoms (The Tool for Moving Mountains) by Rev. Oscar Clavel
April 2, 2017
When I was in grade school I remember reading the Scarlet Ibis by James Hurst, the story about an older brother, who as an adult, reflects on the struggles and regrets of his younger brother Doodle who was born with special needs. It’s not a lighthearted story but a conflicting account of one brother’s complicity in his brother’s death. As a kid, I remembered vividly the scene where Doodle learns to walk and run, two feats his critics said he would never do. In the eyes of a child, those stories of resiliency were inspiring. But as an adult, I burrow myself into the melancholy of the story, and come out appreciative of human life and its frailty.
I speak of stories because I wonder what is your favorite story? And I wonder if, over the years, you have gained a different perspective or appreciation?
It’s the same with scripture. Its timeless quality is not that it stays the same, meaning that you will always get the same message time and time again, but rather its ability to be a living document that moves and wrestles with us in different ways. We call it God’s Word because God moves within and behind the text, it’s not God’s Static Word.
Today I want to retell one of my favorite stories from scripture and bring into it the years of study and insights that God has given to me, and as you hear it again, perhaps God’s Word will speak something new to your Spirit. Without further ado, let’s begin.
The whole ordeal picks up at an interesting place, it’s the last week of Jesus’ life, and while he’s been to the temple before, this time it’s different. You see, Jesus loves the temple, like any Jew during his day. It was the place you could point to and say that no matter how dark the world becomes there will always be a light; that light is the temple where God’s presence lives.
As a boy Jesus said that of all the places he could be found it was in his father’s house. A place of worship and learning that he associated with those who loved and devoted their lives to God. However, age teaches us many things and the loss of innocence is one of them. As Jesus matured and he followed the path God outlined for him, he noticed that this place of worship, teaching, and prayer had been bought. Men who wore the garb of religion, men who dealt with the Roman empire, had made this place of worship into an extension of the empire – the title of worship was a cover for greed, petty rivalries and politics. The interrelation between state and religion was not a foreign concept during this time, but Israel had only one king, and God did not share his throne, much less the altars of his house with the Roman Empire.
From Rabbinical tradition, we have discovered that Caiaphas, the high priest, during the time of Jesus, was the one who introduced the money changers into the temple as a means of competing against the merchants who lined the Mount of Olives, his political enemies. That statement alone should be a paradox, but we aware of power corrupting good people and wreaking havoc.
It would be easy to throw out a word like corruption, but that’s not necessary because what we have here is judgment. Jesus came expecting to find God at the temple, instead he finds the courts full of merchants, money changers, and the faces of the devout conflicted as they try to go about their duties, but constantly brushing shoulders with very powers they hoped to find salvation from. Jesus is fed up. The priests have used their power to remain loyal to institutions rather than the people, and zeal for his house consumes him that he over turns the chairs and tables of the merchants.
Remarkably his response to this act of civil disobedience is a quote from both the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.” It couldn’t be a more pointed response that speaks directly to not only his displeasure, but ultimately to those in power who now stand judged. You see, we know that during the 1st century, due to documents from the community at Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found) the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah were abundantly quoted to speak against the Roman occupation and future deliverance. We also know that these prophets, in specific, were dangerous to those in power at the temple because of their rich symbolism. What are Isaiah and Jeremiah known for? They’re known for their harsh judgements against the priests for misleading the people to worship other Gods, for bowing down to other nations. It’s not ironic that Jesus quotes Jeremiah who in context writes, “Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, ‘We are safe’—safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord.”
Yes, God has been watching and God has had enough. It’s time for the temple to function again. Almost instinctively, the blind and disabled come to Jesus because for the first time, in a long time, they are beholding the power of God at the temple. Jesus models to the priests what the temple is supposed to be and how it should function. In this house, healing is found and in this house hope overflows. However, the cronies at the temple, the chief priests and teacher of the law who can’t stand to see their power diminish, like beasts foaming with jealousy ask Jesus, “don’t you hear what these children are saying about you, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ that’s blasphemy. What are you doing to do?”
“Yes”, he responds, and he quotes Psalm 8, “but haven’t you heard that God will use the shouts of praise from children to overcome his enemies.” From the Jewish translations of this psalm we see a more detailed description that reads, “from the cooing of babies God will call forth praise.” Why quote this? Because these men should have easily recognized the presence and work of God in their midst, yet they can’t even muster a single nod of praise. God must call forth children and the cooing of babies to praise him because these men of religion won’t do it. You want to know what is the height of blasphemy – it’s when Godly people can’t even acknowledge God in their midst because God isn’t doing it their way. It’s when your agenda takes precedence over God’s. It’s not a lack of faith, it’s having faith in the wrong thing.
Jesus has had enough. He turns around and walks away to spend the night outside the city.
The next morning, as he returns to the city, he encounters a fig tree that shows the appearance of bearings figs, but nothing is found. It reminds you of the previous day where the temple had the appearance of bearing fruit, but instead Jesus finds nothing. As a lesson to his disciples he says to the fig tree, “may you never bear fruit again,” and the tree withers immediately.
What did the tree ever do to Jesus? This is the type of question I usually hear. A better question would be, “Why a fig tree?” The fig tree in the Middle East symbolized great abundance, it’s a sign of peace and prosperity. King David had orchards full of fig trees to signify his abundance and blessing by God. In time, it became a national symbol for the nation of Israel. Let’s modernize the significance. What’s the traditional signal for the United States? A bald eagle. Imagine Jesus speaking to a bald eagle, “may you never fly again,” and it dies. You’d know exactly what that meant. Jesus is not mincing imagery here, the temple is sick, it’s beyond repair, and a new temple must be born out of its death.
It makes me wonder what in your life needs to die? I’m not being harsh here either, because anger can kill you, jealousy will consume you, bitterness will destroy you. There are many things that if we let fester because they look so good from far away, but once you get close there’s nothing that will kill you.
The Romans saw fig trees in a different way, for them it was about power and royalty. From statues to the symbolic traditions the twin founders of Rome – Romulus and Remus—are depicted as children playing next to fig trees or transported in a fig tree basket. Maybe there was another message in this tree withering, but you’ll need to think about it.
The disciples are amazed, not in a stoic sense, but in the way that 20 something year old men get excited when they see true power. Imagine them saying, “What, oh my gosh!! Jesus is bringing judgement to the house of Israel. Jesus is about to clean house.” You could almost imagine that if the next words of Jesus were, “pick up arms and let’s run into Israel to overtake it,” they’d be full of adrenaline that they would blindly believe they could do it. In fact, from history, we know that others had tried and died tragically.
No, instead Jesus says, “You think that was pretty cool. Let me give you the weapons of your warfare, let me give you the only tool at your disposal to call out power, to call out obstacles to God’s gospel and work, let me give you true power on earth.” Jesus says, “pray!”
You might think prayer is inconsequential that it only soothes the conscience but it can’t do much beyond that. At least, that’s what people say who use prayer to get things and then get angry when it doesn’t happen for them. This is a child-like way of prayer. You know how children react when they don’t get what they want? They throw a tantrum and cause havoc. So, I’d agree with you that if this is your model for prayer you will be deeply disappointed and not want to pray.
What if your model for prayer though wasn’t about getting things. In fact, I’m not sure you can get much out of prayer except for one thing – God. What if prayer was about trusting in the one who knows what’s best for you and in the end what you receive from your time in solitude is just God. Plain and simple.
We need to stop thinking of prayer as manipulation, and I’m in that camp as well. If it’s just manipulation we miss out on the real power of prayer which is telling obstacles of power and circumstances beyond our control to get up and move.
Look, I don’t know what you’re facing today. I don’t even know what you’ll face next week but I can guarantee you that your life is not so neatly put together that it’s under your control. You will run into complete chaos, and when you pray if all you want is to tell God how to fix your problems and He doesn’t do it your way; you will be disappointed and stop praying altogether. Instead, I want you to see the mountains in your life and say, “move and get out of the way.” That doesn’t mean that we’ll get everything we want, that’s impossible. Instead, you’ll learn that the mountains move because they hinder the work of God in your life, and not because God doesn’t love you or care for you. No, God is good and he knows exactly what is best for us. Prayer is getting to that place in your spiritual mind where you trust the One who holds your life in His hands and will always bring you through.