“Who is this?”
“Behold, thy King cometh unto thee”. He came unto his own city and they welcomed him, it seems. “A very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way”, all the while crying out “Hosanna to the Son of David”. They received him, it seems, with wondering gladness. For “when he was come into Jerusalem all the city was moved, saying, Who is this?”
A welcoming scene, it seems, but how did he receive the city into which he came? With open arms of gladness and joy? No. With wrath and anger. And surely, too, that must move us to ask, “Who is this?” Who is this who casts out, with such fury and wrath, “them that sold and bought in the temple; and overthrew the tables of the money-changers, and the seats of them that sold doves”? He was received with the cries of hope and joy; he responds with judgment and with wrath.
We would rather not see this, I fear. We would rather the spectacle of our welcoming Christ and not the sight of his fierce anger and disapproval of our ways. Our ways? Yes. It will not do to suggest that Christ’s anger is only directed at some imaginary ‘them’, as if we can be in the crowd that welcomes him – or so it seems – and not be in the same crowd busy at everything in the temple except what belongs to the purpose of the temple. For what has provoked his wrath and anger? Only ourselves in the busyness of our own ways, in the pursuit of our own self-interest and selfish gain wherever we are.
Make no mistake. Between the church porch and the church pew, between the church pew and the altar rail, have not you and I thought about a myriad of things, none of which bear any connection to our being here in this Church and in this service? Are there not thoughts of Sunday dinner, of the Grey Cup game, of an afternoon nap, of a visit and a chat, of gossip and a drink, and that is only to begin to speak of the things which are, in some sense, speakable!
O, what a judgment you are thinking! How dare he! He doesn’t know what goes on inside me, inside each one of us! True enough. “We do not have windows into men’s souls”, as that wise theologian and ruler, Queen Elizabeth the First once said, and a good thing, too, we might add. The sight of our thoughts about one another, I am sure, would slay us all. We would all be dead if thoughts could kill. Even worse, we would all be murderers. And yet, we can look, albeit in a glass darkly, into ourselves and if we will be honest, see what is there that should convict and move us to find ourselves in this story here. In the telling of this story we are compelled to look into ourselves and to recognize that which in ourselves is unworthy of God and unworthy of ourselves. It is undoubtedly true of me and do I really err in supposing that it might, just might be true of you? I think not.
For the good news of this wonderful scene of Christ coming into Jerusalem and cleansing the temple is that it speaks to you and me. It speaks about the meaning of his coming into our souls, the meaning of his advent, we might say, and unless he cleanse our souls and make straight his way within us, there can be no coming and no hope, no Christmas joy, no delight in the wonder of the mysterium divinum, the wonder of God with us. His wrath and anger are about our denial of his coming really and he would shock us into receiving him in his truth.
It makes no sense, of course, if we close our minds to the meaning and the truth of the one who comes. It matters altogether “who he is”. In a way, it is the Advent question. For the coming of the king is not about the politics of power; it is about the power of truth, the truth that at once transcends the political and shapes our souls into the things of heaven. We neglect and deny that truth at our peril. Advent is our wake-up call, a wake-up call through the spectacle of the wrath of Christ over and against the sentimental emotionalism of the Christmas season, the saccharine sweet over-coat of our vulgar and grasping natures. We are the thieves of God’s grace because we would take the things of God captive to ourselves, to our own ends and purposes, ends and purposes which are invariably about ourselves at the expense of God.
Advent begins as it has for centuries upon centuries with the spectacle of Christ’s royal entry into Jerusalem. Since the late sixteenth century, thanks to Archbishop Cranmer, we have been privileged to read the further continuation of that story in Christ’s wrathful and violent cleansing of the temple. Somehow we have to hold these moments together, the regal entrance and the joyous reception of the King coming to his city, on the one hand, and the scene of his wrath and anger at what he finds within the city, in the holy place of the holy city, the temple, on the other hand. We cannot help but ask, what will he find within us?
“He came unto his own and his own received him not”. That is part and parcel of the great mystery of Christmas, part and parcel of its essential meaning, and we will not even begin to understand that mystery apart from the pageant of the Advent of Christ which begins here with joy and celebration and then turns to wrath and anger. Both moments have their truth in Christ. He is our joy, to be sure, but when we fail to perceive and know who he is, then there is the experience of his wrath and anger against us. Why?
Because he comes with a purpose, the purpose of Revelation and Redemption, but we have ignored all the signs and markers along the way, both the long way of prophecy and law in the witness of the Scriptures and the long, long way, too, of the folly and deceit of human experience. We seem to have received him with gladness - everyone likes a parade - but in truth we “received him not”, received him not in the truth and purpose of his coming. He comes to restore and redeem and in ways that challenge all our fondest hopes and aspirations, and all our assumptions and preconceptions. Only his wrath, it seems, might, just might, get our attention.
And such is the Advent of Christ. “The night is far spent, the day is at hand”, now and always, as St. Paul reminds us. “Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness”, those works of hard thoughts and harsh words, of mean and selfish actions, of blindness and ignorance of the wonder that is before our eyes, the wonder of the love of God who wills to come unto his own. We are his own despite our wayward ways. He would have us know that so that now we may repent and accept his chastening wrath, that then we might finally be among them who received him, “to them that believe on his Name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” It means to learn from the one who comes, to learn who he is and who he is for us. Such is the purpose of his advent towards us. We are bidden to “come and see” that we may know “who this is” and follow him into the joy he brings.
“Who is this?”
Fr Ed Bakker