I'm now blessed to serve the church I grew up in, which helps me remember things I might have forgotten. Two summers ago, our current youth group went on a mission trip to Mexico, which took me right back to the trips I went on to Mexico as a high school student when I was in that same youth group.
These were life-changing trips for me, and they continue to be for those who go when we're able to go. But kids are kids, and discipline was an issue back when I was in high school, which makes sense. How do you keep a large group of high school students under control when driving them across the country? Some would say, "Well, you don't." But our leaders tried to keep us in line, and one technique that I remember were these bracelets our leaders gave us when I was a sophomore or junior in high school. It was just a simple bracelet that we all wore, but on it were the letters "WWJD," which stood for, "What Would Jesus Do?"
Maybe you remember these bracelets. I imagine that we were given them so that before we did something against the rules, like sneak out of our hotel rooms after dark, we'd first ask ourselves, "Now, is this something that Jesus would do?"
The bracelets made us stop and think: "Would Jesus make fun of his friend?" or "Would Jesus conceal Ex-lax in a chocolate wrapper and trick his friend into eating it?" We did that anyway, but Jesus wouldn't have. No, Jesus would be nice. Jesus was always nice, is what we were thinking as we wore these bracelets.
However, Jesus wasn't always nice. I'm not saying that he was ever mean. I don't believe that, but from Scripture you can see that Jesus wasn't just nice, or peaceful, or serene.
I took our two daughters to tour the childhood home of Martin Luther King Jr. When looking into the dining room our tour guide told us that Dr. King's father required all the children to quote a verse of Scripture before taking their first bite of supper, and young Martin was prone to quote John 11:35, "Jesus wept" - among the shortest verses in the entire Bible.
That verse, "Jesus wept," and another one like it, "Jesus laughed," are short, but they tell us so much about this Savior of ours whose emotional life we are prone to reduce to a perpetually heavenly gaze. We think of that painting of Jesus by Warner Sallman that was in all our Sunday School classes growing up. He's bearded and looking off in the distance, neither stoic nor emotional, just serene.
Then there's the other popular image of Jesus welcoming the little children which, of course, he did, but he wasn't just nice. He also wept, he also laughed, and he also got angry.
He had emotions just like we do. He was sometimes sad, just as we are. He often laughed, just like we do.
And he sometimes got angry, just like we do. But the difference between him and us is in how he expressed his emotions. That's something we don't all know how to do, even though Mister Rogers tried to teach us.
I saw a video where Mister Rogers walks towards the camera and he says, "I'm angry." Of course, he doesn't look angry. It's hard to look angry in a cardigan. Then he starts singing,
What do you do with the mad that you feel,
when you feel so mad you could bite?
When the whole wide world seems oh so wrong,
and nothing you do seems very right?
That's life, isn't it? We get mad, but what do we do with the mad that we feel?
Mister Rogers has this other song where he plays the piano because he's angry, and he sings this very un-angry sounding song. "I'm angry. I'm angry." He doesn't sound very angry singing this song. It's hard to sound angry when you sing, but then he sings, "I'm angry. I'm angry. And I can tell you why."
We read from the Gospel of John that Jesus told those who were selling the doves, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" That's one way that Jesus' anger is different from so much of ours. He feels the feelings that we feel, but he can say what he's angry about.
Not everyone I know can do that. In fact, I know a whole lot of people who won't even admit that they're angry. I'm one of them. It's hard for me to say that I'm angry, because I think I'm always supposed to be nice. My parents would ask me, "Joe, what's wrong?" I'd tell them "nothing." These days my wife, Sara, will ask me, "What are you so mad about?" And I'll say, "I'm mad about you always asking me if I'm mad."
That's not true of course, but that's what I say, because just that simple thing - saying what I'm angry about - is hard for me to do. And I'm not alone. So let me say that in taking a lesson from Jesus, we first have to accept the reality that being angry is a part of being human. Then we have to come to terms with the truth that sometimes our anger is telling us something so important that we can't ignore it. That we must say something, and maybe even do something.
Let's use the Son of God as our example. What was Jesus angry about? His Father's house had been turned into a marketplace. You can understand why he'd be upset about that. Anger isn't always so unreasonable. Most of the time we are justified in our anger, but we get all messed up in coming to terms with what it is that we're really angry about, and then deciding what it is that we're going to do about it.
The most wonderful detail in our Gospel lesson for today is there in the third verse we read, verse 15: "Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle." In all four of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life and ministry he storms into the Temple kicking over tables, scattering the coins of the money changers, and setting free the animals, but only in John does he first make a whip of cords.
Do you know how long it takes to braid a whip of cords? I don't. And I don't know, not only because I've never done it, but also because when I get angry, I don't first stop to do anything that might help me calm down or process my thoughts. Instead, I either just start talking without thinking or go silent and brooding. Hardly, if ever, do I stop what I'm doing to sit down to think about why it is that I'm angry and what it is that I'm going to do about it.
Jesus is different. Jesus gets angry and then he braids a whip of cords. Do you know how counter cultural that is? There are those among us who get angry then send off a Twitter message. Others who get angry, then yell at the first person they see.
There's an old cartoon I remember where the boss yells at dad in the office. Then dad comes home and yells at mom in the kitchen. Mom goes upstairs to yell at their son, who then walks out into the yard to kick the dog.
Anger! Anger can destroy a family like a disease that gets passed on from one to the next.
Another thing we do with anger is keep it inside so that it rots our guts and hollows our spirit. Some try to drown it with liquor, numb it with drugs, either of which is destructive, and few take the time to sit down and really think about it. What am I mad about? Then, what am I going to do about it? The knee-jerk response - to get somebody fired or lock somebody up - can do more harm than good.
We must braid the whip. Because especially in our world today, given the year we've all had, we are all angry about something, but we have to stop and listen to our anger for it to do us or our world any good.
A hero of mine is Harris Hines, who was a member and officer at the church I now serve. He also served on the Georgia Supreme Court as the Chief Justice. In his farewell address to the judiciary as he prepared for retirement, he reminded those listening how he worked to fight the old "lock him up" order from the bench to get to a better solution, and urged those who follow in his footsteps to do the same, for just filling up our prisons is not achieving that higher goal of rehabilitation, even if it feels like it is doing something.
When I visit prisons, I see angry people who were put behind bars by angry people. That's a lot of misused anger if you ask me. So, as a culture - as a nation - we have to learn what to do with anger, because right now anger is tearing us apart.
Do you know what it's supposed to do? Purify us.
Significant background for understanding what it means for Jesus to storm the Temple is found in the Old Testament book of Malachi. Have you ever read Malachi? If you're listening now and you can turn to Malachi in your Bible, I'll give you two free tickets to the next Atlanta Braves home game. Just kidding! But let me remind you of what's written there in Malachi: "The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple." And when he gets there, he won't just be nice, walking around shaking hands and kissing babies. No. According to the Prophet Malachi "he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness."
Jesus, fueled by anger, purifies the Temple so that it might no longer be a marketplace, but a Temple. No longer a den of thieves, but a sanctuary for the hurting. No longer a place where money is exchanged and debts are paid, but a place where debts are forgiven.
And how did he do it? Through anger. Through an anger that is frustrated with what is and directed towards that which stands in the way of a better future.
Jesus didn't get upset at the Temple only to go home to write a rant on Facebook. He didn't go home to pout to his Mama. Nor did he walk into the Temple with an AR-15.
Instead, he braids a whip.
And after braiding it, he kicked over tables, he scattered money, he chased off livestock, and no one got hurt. No one died. And through him and the Temple that was his body we are given a new relationship with God, and entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven. We must learn from him to braid the whip.
For in your frustration with this world lies the motivation to make some changes. Braid the whip.
Because you deserve better, and your anger, channeled, will help you get there. Braid the whip.
Stop and listen, for the Spirit still speaks, calling us away from the way of death that we have grown used to and towards new life.
Braid the whip.