There was a picture of Jesus that hung in one of the Church establishments I once stayed at. It was probably in a monastery but hung in the room where people met. I think it was once a famous rendition of Jesus as it was a copy of a painting by Walter Sallman. Some of you may have seem it but many may have not. In the portrait, which is comprised of umber, gold and bronze tones, Jesus sits in three-quarters profile, looking serenely into the distance, his light brown hair gleaming and brushed back from his face, highlighting his high cheekbones; his beard neatly trimmed and his light-coloured eyes softly yet intently focused on some point of reference off to his slight left field of vision.
This was the Jesus I saw in my dreams— the dreams in which he spoke with me outside in the gardens of that monastery, and at times near my father’s fruit trees when growing up. The eyes in the portrait were spooky and they could follow you when you moved around the room a bit like they say the painting of the Mona Lisa by Da Vinci does. The two things I remembered thinking about that portrait of Jesus at that time were how the picture of Jesus had survived all those “hundreds” of years, and I marvelled at how much Jesus looked like this mate of mine. I honestly thought that someone had painted Jesus when he was alive, and that a copy of it had survived to the 1970s, when it was copied for the rest of us. Sometimes the picture of Jesus we hold in our minds and in our hearts is really hard to shake, isn’t it?
But the Jesus in this story is so very different from that one. Hindsight is 20/ 20, and we humans understand much of life only in reverse and after the fact. Jesus’ disciples were no exception. This week’s gospel lesson from the fourth evangelist, John recounts Jesus’ dramatic cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem. There is a lot going on here, and you may want to look at some historical source material to set the stage fully and help your understanding. Oppression under the heel of the Roman Empire, the commoditisation of religion, and economic abuse of the marginalised fuel Jesus’ anger, and he makes mighty quick work of cleaning things up. What a sight that must have been! Think of how things generally go today when someone challenges established practices and authority. It is usually not too pretty. One only has to look at what’s happened to Professor Trigg’s who has bought to our attention in a report as to how we as a nation and especially our politicians are treating children in detention.
Jesus had some explaining to do, and the religious people ask him for a sign (in other words, “Who made you the big cheese, you marginal Rabbi Bogan from Galilee?”). Of course, in typical Jesus fashion, he gives them a sign that on the surface makes no sense at all. John in his Gospel is big on signs, so fortunately for us, we get an explanation. Many people still have a tough time getting what Jesus is all about, and Christians have not done the best job of sharing the good news and living out faith in love. Not everyone will understand or be open to the amazing grace and mercy that is so freely given. Paul makes that clear in the epistle lesson this week. People still want signs, seek wisdom, crave power, and ignore truth by looking for it in all the wrong places. Yet Christians celebrate what the world derides as foolishness, believing instead that nothing is impossible with God— not even redeeming this beautiful, broken creation with a crazy, amazing, incarnate love.