A version of this sermon was first preached on October 18 at Wine Before Breakfast by Matthijs Kronemeijer, a Dutch theologian. It has been expanded and revised after feedback.
“God is action”. This is our image for the day, as we consider images of God this season.
God is action. These words create a tension, a question.
If God is action, what action is this, and who acts? If God acts, where are we? If we act, where is God?
If there is no action going on, does that mean that God is somehow absent, not paying attention? What should we make of this inaction?
A lack of action can be hard to endure. It makes people impatient. I know that all too well myself. I have been unemployed since my family and I moved to Canada two years ago. Being unemployed does not equal being inactive, but even so, it can certainly lead to a sense of impatience. Especially when the urgencies seem to pile up around one, as I have experienced, both in the United States and in Canada.
A large part of what I have done over the past year and a half is study the gospel of Mark. Mark is the gospel of action, of God’s action. Mark presents Jesus’ ministry as a sequence of fast action, especially towards the beginning and end. The middle section has room for something different: it has more reflections, and it tells the story of Jesus’ disciples being led up the mountain where they hear God’s own voice. “This is my Son; Listen to him”.
The general plan of action in Mark develops a bit like the hymn we are going to sing in a moment, “The love of Jesus calls us” (Common Praise 434). After the initial joy and wonder at God’s mercy there follows a period of reorientation and transformation to be true followers of Jesus. And after that comes a time to challenge the status quo, the powers that be, by means of direct action. This is where the confrontation with ongoing abuse and exploitation can get pretty overwhelming – as it does for Peter and the other disciples in our chapter 11.
There is also a part of the action plan in Mark that is missing in the hymn, but I’ll come to that. Before I get deeper into Mark, I want to consider an obvious point about God as action, so obvious that I neglected to mention it when I preached this sermon live. “God has no other hands than our hands”. Thus runs a famous saying attributed to St Theresa of Avila, a 16th century nun, who was both a contemplative and a woman of incredible action.1 God has no body but ours, and thus we should act for God, use our hands and hearts and minds. If this is so, if our works can be the works of God, this is one way for God to be action. But you will agree that this understanding of God’s action is not too prominent in our passage. I would not want to read this text as an exhortation to smash the furniture of this lovely church or a call to do good works of love and mercy. We have many other Bible texts about good works, and the fate of the furniture in this church should be left to its congregation. Although I fancy it would make a great banqueting hall, if a suitable cover for some of the windows could be found.
In one word, our passage is about a home-coming – Jesus coming into his true home. We have skipped the story of the homecoming parade, 11:1–10, which has Jesus on the colt entering the city. (I am not sure if you do that at the University of Toronto, but we did at Michigan State). The verse we started with is a spectacular example of (seeming) inaction. After Mark has raised all these expectations, Jesus does nothing more than go to the temple and look around. It is almost like he takes a glance at his watch and decides it is time to walk back to Bethany. After all the royal hosannas it feels like a letdown. Where is the action?
Action kicks in the next day. Jesus and his disciples are back on their feet, walking from Bethany to Jerusalem. And the action is negative – Jesus curses the fig tree. I find the image of the cursed fig tree profoundly sad and in fairness, disturbing. We would want our God to stop random destruction, least of all to carry it out himself. To me, this image evokes the ongoing news of the ongoing destruction of our natural environment that clamours for action. It also captures the apparent futility of so many of our efforts, including mine, to produce meaningful change. We might well wonder: Was this destruction really necessary, given that it was not even the time for figs? And does this destruction also foreshadow our own, unable as we are to produce good fruit at a critical time?
Jesus’ true homecoming, the next day, leads to his most dramatic public action, the “cleansing” of the temple. Jesus puts an end to the work of sellers of cattle and of doves for sacrifice, and to the work of moneychangers. We hear of him overturning the tables they use, the seats where they sit, and prohibiting the carrying of any gear, “vessels” or merchandise. (There is something in these words). Now why did Jesus do that, and what is happening here?
One explanation for Jesus’s actions can be found in the verses Jesus quotes to support his actions in the temple. “My house shall be called a house of prayer before all peoples”. As a Jewish friend and bible scholar suggested to me, this verse is the key to Jesus’ actions. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the selling of animals, the changing of money, or the carrying of merchandise – except that in Jesus’ view they got in the way of the core function of the temple. That is: to be a house of prayer, for all people.
Jesus truly comes into his own here. The actions that Mark squeezes into four verbs show how Jesus acts as messiah, king, and prophet. He exorcises evil, establishes his authority, and teaches. The need for an exorcism fits with his claim that the temple is a “den of robbers” – the second verse Jesus quoted. A den that is being purged, at least temporarily. Temporarily, since after all, the temple is going to be destroyed.
As I read Mark, he comes very close to the belief that the synagogue and the temple were to be replaced by the Christian church. This means that the words Jesus speaks in the temple can also be applied to the Christian church. Understood in this way, Jesus’ words suggest that to live up to its calling, the Christian church should be exactly this: “a house of prayer for all people”. And to be sure, it needs to be uncorrupted by commercial interests. For us who live in North America, where Christianity long sustained a culture of exploitative colonialism, domination and slavery, leading to all forms of internal corruption and also sexual abuse, that criticism hits home. By their subservience to these abuses, our churches and other Christian establishments have become “dens of robbers” too, in spite of the good intentions and true devotion that were and are still present in them. (Chapter 12 of Mark captures these tensions very well). Some Christians continue to align themselves with the political heirs of racism and colonialism, and in any case, the negative patterns created during earlier times – defensiveness, a closed mentality, self-protection – are still ongoing. To some degree, perhaps a significant degree, our churches are still corrupted and in need of cleansing.
With that in mind, let us look at Jesus’s surprising response to Peter’s remark on the withered fig tree. I will admit to finding this the hardest part of the text and of God’s call to action. Not because it is unclear or unappealing. What stands out, first of all, is the compassion Jesus displays to his disciples. No more dramatic action centered on Jesus, but an exhortation to pray with confidence. To pray, specifically, the Lord’s Prayer, which Mark’s readers would have known by heart. Because it seems to me that this prayer is what the text is hinting at in vs. 25, where Jesus refers to God as the heavenly father of his disciples. As for Peter, who alerted Jesus to the withered fig tree, he might have been torn between different feelings: Awe at the power of Jesus’s curse, or regret for the loss of the fig tree. But the fig tree was always Jesus’s own anyways, as God’s son and the heir to God’s vineyard. (This story opens Mark 12). The delightful little book of the prophet Jonah shows that God can grow and give trees as he wishes, and take them away. As Christians, we have no entitlement – to the land, to the fruits of the land, to goods, even to life – only to God’s promise, never to give up on us, the people of God. God did not give up on the sinful people of Nineveh, much to Jonah’s chagrin. So Jonah sulked while God acted, even through him, perhaps in spite of him.
Jesus talks about prayer, which is exactly where the temple and its community had fallen short. Where I fall short. Prayer, for Christians, is God’s action per se – through the Holy Spirit that is moving in our hearts. It is a STILL kind of action, what contemplatives call the ‘opus divinum’, divine work. It is very hard to accomplish and to get oneself to do. Thankfully, some people are better at it than others. A great friend taught me that in prayer to God as our heavenly father, we can permit ourselves to be immature and demanding – like little children. Perhaps that image suits the kind of father – a father who is also very much like a mother – that we could allow our God to be. After all, we are told here (as elsewhere in the New Testament) to ask for the whole world. So that is another part of the action we are invited to engage in.
That said, I still much prefer more dramatic action. “You will say to this mountain”, Jesus says, “be taken up and cast into the sea”. No more dramatic action than that can be imagined, to move a massive heap of rock. But is that necessarily what the text is telling us?
Consider that “this mountain” is the temple mount, which as we just heard is corrupted by forces of evil and has become unsuitable for prayer. Next, consider that the sea can be a symbol for the waters of purification, perhaps even of baptism. Does that change our reading?
To me, it makes it sound much less supernatural, and more realistic – and more impossible at the same time. The stains on the temple mount are going to be washed away, even the blood that after an intermezzo of centuries is again shed on it. The stains on our churches are going to be washed away, even if our buildings risk being sold or destroyed, and many probably will be. That is the impossible possibility we are being confronted with.
Many young and young-at-heart people are ready to overturn tables and chairs, to unseat the powers that be, and to try to prevent commerce and exploitation from running our societies into the ground. Some form of radical action, of revolution in short. I agree that it is needed. But I suggest that we, as Christians, are not ready yet. Our action is not God’s action simply because what we do seems right and necessary to us. In matters of charity and good works that may usually be the case, but in matters of faithful engagement in politics – where the bigger challenge lies – not so much. I suggest that contemplation and deeper thinking are still needed more than action, which is also in large part why I choose to focus on it, for the present time. And perhaps we all need to have some of our convictions and sacred beliefs overturned before a way forward opens up.
The church should be a house of prayer for all nations. This speaks to me, as a Dutchman who is caught between countries, church communities, languages and cultures. It speaks to me about the need for action in the form of contemplation – watching, observing, reading scripture and meditating. But this form of action cannot be undertaken alone. If the church is going to be what she is meant to be, Christians must pray in communion with others. The needs of the present world are too overwhelming for individuals or broken communities to carry.
More practically, it suggests to me that before we pray for God to intervene and ideally solve our problems as if by magic, we followers of Jesus should work to carve out a truly Catholic space where the concerns and needs of all nations can be weighed and explored in comparative safety. Where the lives lost through war in Tigray and Ethiopia weigh as much as those in Ukraine and Russia – and here. In connection with this exploration there is a need for proper discernment and analysis. This is where the work of universities, think tanks, opinion leaders and civil society groups comes in. There is failure in politics, but also integrity, and the need to shoulder burdens that may seem to heavy to carry.
Let us dream of a temple square where people from nations and cultures large and small, poor and affluent, humble or prestigious, can meet in sufficient equality and freedom to understand each other’s needs and perspectives. For to all of us God has said, in the words of Isaiah (chapter 55), “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways”. The realities of our countries and of our part of the world are certain to look very different in the eyes of others, as theirs do to us. Only in dialogue and prayer can we lift them up to God and move mountains. Let that be God’s action plan.
1 For another version see https://www.ncronline.org/spirituality/soul-seeing/soul-seeing/christ-has-no-body-earth-yours