God Healing the Division Between Us and God

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reflecting upon Jesus as the means of our atonement with God. These meditations are selections from my book, “Why Jesus?” (Abingdon, 2010).

When Jesus finally led his disciples into Jerusalem (on the day the church now calls “Palm Sunday”), many of his followers expected him at last to stand up and act like a Messiah, become King, storm the Roman garrison and set up a grand new “House of David” government. To their surprise, he bypassed City Hall and attacked the temple. Why did Jesus not head for the palace, confront Pilate and do something really useful rather than make such a fuss over a place of worship?

Jesus grabbed a whip and kicking over their tables, spilling their precious coins across the floor, drove the money changers from the temple. When Jesus cleaned out the temple,[i] charging the money changers there with turning the Lord’s house into “a den of thieves,” this seems a severe, unwarranted reaction by Jesus. After all, the money changers were there as a public service, following scripture, helping people to buy the requisite animals for the temple’s sacrificial rituals. How did Jesus expect people to worship at the temple? It’s like expecting a modern preacher to give a sermon without a Powerpoint projector. How are we to be with God without an appropriate ritual vehicle to get to God? Why Jesus?

The story of Israel could be read as a record of our repeated attempts to get to God. The story begins in darkness as progenitor Jacob dreams of a ladder let down from heaven to earth with heavenly messengers taking God’s mail back and forth.[ii] In the Exodus much of the biblical account of the escape from Egyptian slavery is consumed with minute details about a portable tent (“the Tent of Meeting”) that Israel utilized in the desert in order to meet and to be met by God.[iii] Those stories find their culmination in the grand temple in Jerusalem, the center of the world, Mount Zion where God condescends to God’s people and heaven and earth traffic with one another. The temple took almost fifty years to build. Its complex of buildings occupied over thirty acres and was a wonder of the ancient world. Jews everywhere, when they prayed, turned toward the temple, place of divine-human meeting. When pilgrims trudged up toward Jerusalem for festivals, they weren’t just going up to the capital city; they were going to heaven.

Isaiah foretold a day when, not just Jews, but all the nations would stream into the temple singing, “Let’s go up to Jerusalem, to the temple where we can learn the ways of God and walk with God.”[iv] Everybody would gather to worship the true God at the temple, a “house of prayer for all people.” [v]

Jesus seems strangely, severely critical of the temple. When his disciples expressed awe at the temple’s grandeur, Jesus quipped that he could tear the whole thing down and rebuild it in three days (exactly the number of days Jesus’ body was in the tomb.)[vi] In driving the money changers from the temple, in disrupting the temple system, in healing people outside of the temple’s rituals was Jesus thumbing his nose at the temple hierarchy (notorious collaborators with the Romans)?

John’s gospel says that Jesus was setting himself up as the new “temple,” the new means of mediation between God and humanity. Jesus argued with a Samaritan woman at the well.[vii] When she said, “You Jews say we’ve got to go to Jerusalem to worship rightly and we Samaritans say it’s at Mount Gerizim,” Jesus responded that one day soon, “true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” The woman confessed confusion about what all that “spirit and truth” meant and the right location for worship, saying, “Oh well, when Messiah gets here, he’ll explain it all to us.”

Jesus said, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” Somehow discussions of where best to worship are being shifted from Mount Zion to Jesus. About three decades after this exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman the majestic temple lay in ruins. The patience of Emperor Titus ran out with these troublesome Jews. Rome had attempted to pacify the Jews by allowing them to have their temple; now the Romans decided that there was no way to keep Jews quiet without reducing their temple to ashes. Christians came to believe that the temple, the meeting place between God and humanity, was now a man from Nazareth.

Some people think of the cross of Christ as our way to get to be with God in heaven when we die. Surprisingly, the gospels portray the cross first as God’s way to get heaven to earth now. When Jesus breathed his last and died on the cross, Matthew says that the curtain in the temple – the veil that separated heaven from earth at the high altar, sinful people from righteous God — was mysteriously ripped in two.[viii] Who slashed the curtain? It was as if in one last, dramatic, wrenching act of self-sacrifice, God ripped the veil of separation between earth and heaven. Now Israel need not gather on the Day of Atonement (the day of “at-one-ment” with God), stand before the temple, give over their sins to the priest who pulled back the curtain, entered the temple’s holiest place, and offered their sins to God. The curtain was ripped asunder. Now we could get to God because God had gotten to us. On the cross, Jesus had somehow done something decisive about the distance between us and God.

Will Willimon

[i] out the temple. Mark 11.
[ii] back and forth. Genesis 28:12.
[iii] met by God. Exodus 27:21; 33:7.
[iv] walk with God.” Isaiah 2:2-4.
[v] all people.” Matthew 21:13.
[vi] in the tomb.) Luke 18:33.
[vii] at the well. John 4.
[viii] ripped in two. Luke 23:35.

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