It’s strange isn’t it, how quite trivial events can stick in your mind for years and years? Some 20 years ago, in another life, I was teaching a maths lesson in a comprehensive school not far from here when my eyes lighted on the cover of one young lady’s exercise book. Quite a lively girl, but not generally naughty, she had emblazoned right across the standard issue plain orange cover, “rage against the machine.” Shocking eh? And what do you do? I reflected, of course that it was probably a spirited but ultimately doomed attempt to spark radical political change by protesting at the straitjacket imposed and epitomised by the national curriculum and the structures of education but it was a maths lesson so I chose not to engage her on those terms and merely required her to cover the book.
As it happens, I was totally wrong - as some of you will no doubt have recalled but what I didn’t know until shortly afterwards, Rage against the Machine was a notably loud American rock band with an angry and strikingly left wing agenda. You can still enjoy their offerings on youtube if you fancy a little light background music to accompany your Sunday lunch - so this young lady was merely indicating her musical preference, and you’ll be relieved to know that she is now happily married and living in Malvern with the regulation 2.4 children.
In our gospel reading, we’ve just heard of an earlier example of rage against the machine - Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. Coming hard on the heels of the wedding at Cana, John seems to present it as Jesus’ coming of age party - his opening statement, so to speak. And what an extraordinary statement it is. As I think I’ve said a few times now, it’s hard to get the force of some biblical stories because they have been so “interpreted” as it were. We find it hard to allow ourselves to think of Jesus as anything but saintly and perfect, all his actions measured and significant . But read this story as if for the first times and skip over John’s little commentaries and you have to wonder what on earth he was up to. He stormed about bringing chaos to a significant annual celebration; when asked a perfectly reasonable question about why he’s doing this he answers with a complete non-sequiter about pulling down the temple and when pressed a little further on by the authorities on why they might be thinking of pulling down something they’d just spent the best part of 50 years building, he has nothing to say.
It’s all very odd and does have the air of a fit of rage -something we’ve probably all experienced at some stage, but are rarely proud of. It’s another passage which is going to pose more questions than answers, I fear.
For what provokes us to rage? It’d be quite fun to pool a few answers, but I’m under instructions to keep it brief so that’ll have to wait for another day - or you can tell me afterwards. For myself I still get pretty fed up with inconsiderate motorists when I’m out on my bike, but I long ago learnt there’s no point in raging - the motorist has the whip hand and there are some who don’t care how they use it. I was thinking about this just yesterday when the nice driver of a pick-up truck was actually prepared to remain stationary for a few seconds to allow us safe passage along a narrow section of Flapgate Lane out there. A cheery wave of thanks to show how much we appreciate that is not much but it is actually the only positive thing you can do. It’s an old educational mantra - affirming good behaviour is more effective than just criticising actions you don’t like.
As well as asking then, what would Jesus rage against today, we might do better to ask the parallel question, what behaviour would Jesus affirm today? The problem with this is that you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God dislikes all the same people you do and that God likewise affirms all the folk of whom you too approve, and that is all to likely to happen.
So while I’d like to get stuck into some broader aspects of the way the world is developing I think we’re going to struggle to identify the modern day good and bad guys in the time remaining.
Let’s rather content ourselves with reflecting on the symbolism of this story and why the gospel writers chose to include it. Clearly Jesus didn’t effect any long term change by his actions - all would no doubt have been back to normal the next day. Neither was he trying to take the place over. The last thing he wanted to was be in charge there. All four of the gospel writers record this event and what they’re asserting is that for the followers of Jesus, temple buildings mean little. Likewise today, God’s church consists of God’s people so while we may enjoy and value this building, for example, the important thing is our fellowship through Jesus and with each other. And what we’re looking for in that is some support in looking at our world, locally and more broadly and learning how we might act to affirm what is good, and maybe sometimes to confront what is not so good.
And next time you’re close to rage, take heart and reflect. I’ve never quoted from Spurgeon before, but here we go:
A vigorous temper is not altogether an evil. Men who are easy as an old shoe are generally of little worth.