by Jason Micheli
Psalm 8, Matthew 21.12-17 (click to see Scripture text)
A sophisticated, culturally savvy bunch like yourselves— likely, you already know the nomination process for the 93rd Academy Awards begins tomorrow. Delayed by the pandemic, the Oscars will not broadcast until the end of April and, for the first time, the Academy will include films that did not have a theatrical release.
Show of hands, how many of you hunkered down to watch the Oscar frontrunners this year?
Nomadland with Frances McDormand?
How many of you have seen Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom? Da 5 Bloods?
How many of you have seen the critical darling the Sound of Metal?
How many of you are lying?
Back in 2008, when Netflix was not yet a streamed-movie service, a reporter for Slate Magazine, John Swansburg, investigated which mail-order Netflix movies languished the longest on customers’ coffee tables and television consoles.
Swansburg discovered that it was Hotel Rwanda.
Even though at the time Hotel Rwanda was the 10th most popular rental among Netflix’s 8.4 million customers, only a fraction of people ever got around to watching it. In fact, Steve Swasey, spokesman for Netflix, confessed to having had a copy of Hotel Rwanda on his nightstand for two years without having watched it, which is about how long we left it on our nightstand before sending it back, unwatched.
Other Oscar-bait films that people requested by mail but never got around to watching included No Country for Old Men, There Will be Blood, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Last King of Scotland about dictator Idi Amin. It goes without saying that Schindler’s List and the English Patient were also perennial dust collectors.
Turns out many of Netflix’s most popularly requested movies never left their red pre-paid postage sleeves. Their most requested films are also some of their least watched films. And even now as Netflix is streaming service instead of mail-order service, the dynamic persists.
As Swansburg notes, you add a movie like Hotel Rwanda to your Netflix queue because “you don’t want to be thought a bad person who turns a blind eye to unspeakable tragedy.” Truthfully, most of us don’t want to watch a movie about genocide, we’re too tired for a There Will be Blood, and we’re already too depressed for a Marriage Story but neither do we want to appear as the sort of people not interested in watching those worthwhile films. We don’t want to watch movies like Hotel Rwanda, but we do not want to be perceived as people who do not watch movies like Hotel Rwanda.
Just as political pollsters have difficulty prognosticating who we’ll prove to be behind the voting booth curtain, Netflix knows the truth about us. We’re not who we pretend to be. We’re not as sophisticated or concerned or altruistic or woke as we feign. Our Netflix queue reveals more about us than our Facebook feed.
Netflix knows that, when it comes to social justice, we’d rather hashtag than roll up our sleeves. Netflix knows we’re more likely to stick a sentiment on our bumper than we are to know an honest-to-goodness human-style poor person by name. Netflix knows that even though we have One Night in Miami sitting in our queue, we’re just as likely as anyone to cross the street when we see a black man in a hoodie walking our way. Netflix knows we’re all going to add the black-and-white critical darling film Mank to our queues when it becomes available because we all want to be perceived (and to perceive ourselves) as the sort of person who watches a film like Mank.
But, odds are, we won’t. Watch it.
Because, after another day hunkered down with your spouse or supervising your kids’ digital classroom, who really wants to watch a depressing black-and-white movie about the screenwriter who scripted another movie, Citizen Kane, we don’t really want to watch either.
For example, I’ve had The Hurt Locker in my Netflix queue for years, but I’ve never watched it; meanwhile, I’ve seen Sahara, the Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz straight-to-video action movie about Confederate gold and Civil War Ironclads in Africa at least sixty times.
And I love it.
Netflix— it’s just one example of what we do across our lives.
We pretend and we perform and we prevaricate. We crop out our true selves and filter it through a social media sheen. We virtue signal from behind the masks we wear. We project a false self out onto the world, which makes it ironic that the one theological conviction our culture has conditioned you into believing is that God loves you just the way you are.
You don’t even love you just the way you are.
You wish you were a Hotel Rwanda, Nomadland kind of person.
You don’t even love you just the way you are, yet our culture has conditioned you into thinking that God is just like Billy Joel. God accepts you just the way you are, which again is ironic because it turns out Billy Joel didn’t love Christie Brinkley just the way she was. He went searching for something else from someone else, which maybe makes him someone who shouldn’t be accepted just the way he is either.
I don’t mean to pile on Billy Joel; I know some of you Baby Boomers love him more than Jesus. I don’t mean to pile on Billy Joel or you. Lord knows— or least my wife knows— I’m no better than most of you.
Look, I don’t mean to smote you with fire and brimstone, but I’m a preacher. I’m stuck working with the text I’m handed, and today, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t just pitch a Temple tantrum. He is here more than a teacher, pointing us back to pure and proper worship. And he is more than a prophet, symbolically cleansing the Temple of corrupt and prejudiced practices.
Today Jesus announces that he is the Lord of the Temple.
This is why the chief priests and the scribes freak out when the children hail Christ’s Temple tantrum with hosannas, and it’s the assertion attached to Jesus’s quotation of Psalm 8 in response to them. The one whom the mouths of infants and nursing babes praise is the Maker of Heaven and Earth.
The Lord has come to his Temple, Jesus announces.
And that’s a problem because, according to the expectations of scripture, the Lord finally coming to his Temple is not good news for sinners. In fact, the Old Testament concludes with exactly this threat from the prophet Malachi:
“The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple…But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will draw near to you for judgment; he will be swift to bear witness against [sinners], says the Lord of hosts. On that day, you will be cursed…”
It’s not just Malachi.
All of the Hebrew prophets sound the alarm that the Lord is rightfully angry with how his people are more attentive to the pretenses of piety than they were to the righteousness of God. And, therefore, when the Lord returned to his Temple it would be a day of wrath and judgment. It would not be good news for sinners.
While prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah excoriated Israel for the ways they had perverted the worship practices of the Temple and warned Israel what would happen when the Lord returned to his Temple, the very fact of the Temple itself served as a reminder that, before a Holy God, sinners— like you and like me— stand condemned.
We get so hung up on Jesus’s Temple tantrum we neglect to remember the basic presupposition behind the Temple.
You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are.
The gap between your sinfulness and the holiness of God is too great. You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are. You have to be rendered acceptable. You have to be made acceptable, again and again. That’s the assumption that animates all the action at the Temple. Even before the practices of the Temple had become problematic and themselves worthy of God’s judgment, we already had a life and death problem.
This is why included in the Law he gives to Moses the Lord commands his people to make sin-guilt offerings before the tent of meeting— what becomes the Temple. “The petitioner is to make his offering at the door of the tent of meeting,” declares the Lord to Moses, “so that the petitioner may be accepted before the Lord. The sacrifice shall be accepted as an atonement for him.”
For him. On his behalf. In his place.
The offered animal, as a gift from God given back to God, is a vicarious representative of the sinner. The offered animal becomes a substitute for the person seeking forgiveness. The blood of the animal conveys the cost, both what your sin costs others and what your atonement costs God. God intended the entire system of sacrifice in the Old Testament to prevent his People from thinking that unwitting sin doesn’t count, that it can just be forgiven and set aside as though nothing happened, as though no damage was done.
Those sacrifices, done again and again on a regular basis to atone for sin, were offered at the door of the tent of meeting. Outside.
But once a year a representative of all the People, the high priest, would venture beyond the door, into the holy of holies, to draw near to the presence of God and ask God to remove his people’s sins, their collective sin, so that they might be made acceptable before the Lord. After laying both his hands on the head of a goat and confessing onto it, transferring onto it, the iniquity of God’s People, the high priest would release the scapegoat to bear the people’s sin away; so that, now, until next Yom Kippur, nothing can separate them from the love of God.
It’s easy for us with our un-Jewish eyes to see this Old Testament God behind the veil as alien from the New Testament God we think we know.
In Jesus’s Bible it’s true we’re not acceptable before God just the way we are, but notice it is God himself who gives us the means not to remain just the way we are. As Christians, we’re not to see them as alien rituals or inadequate even. We’re meant to see them as preparation. We’re meant to see them as God’s way of preparing his People for a single, perfect sacrifice.
But get this—
All the sacrifices of the Old Testament they were to atone for unintended sin. There is no sacrifice, no mechanism, in the Old Testament to atone for the sin you committed on purpose. Deliberately. Or, at least, knowingly.
By contrast, the Book of Hebrews, which frames Jesus not just as the Lord of the Temple but as the Temple itself, describes Jesus’s death as the sacrifice for sin.
One sacrifice. Offered once.
Ephapax is the word: “once for all.”
For unwitting sin and for willful sin.
For just the way you are and all the ways you aren’t who you pretend to be.
A gift exceeding our every debt.
We choose to put him on a cross.
But this Great High Priest chooses on it to gift himself as sacrifice, to sprinkle his own blood on the mercy seat of the cross.
To make atonement.
Once for all.
“The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple…But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”
The good news is— you can.
And so can I.
On account of Christ.
On account of Christ’s faithful life lived in your place and his obedient death offered for you, you and I, who again and again come up lame attempting to walk in God’s ways; you and I, who persist in shutting our eyes blind to the needs and injustices of the world around us, can stand, free and unafraid before the Lord, and, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness and not our own, we can expect the Lord to declare over us, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Ironically, Atonement, the high-brow, arthouse film starring Keira Knightley and based on the award-winning novel by Ian McEwan, has sat idle, unwatched, in my Netflix queue since 2007.
I put it in my queue after it cleaned up at the Oscars.
Meanwhile, I’ve watched all seven seasons of Californication three separate times, and just last night I wasted two hours of my life watching 3,000 Miles to Graceland starring Kevin Costner and Christian Slater and Courtney Cox,
(And I loved it).
And last night too, I was short with my kids. And I only half-listened to my wife as she told me about her day. And I didn’t call a friend who I know is hurting and then I told myself I’d forgotten, but I hadn’t. And after dinner I tossed the recycling into the trashcan because it was too chilly to take it outside.
Martin Luther said the cross frees us to cut out our BS and call a thing what it is.
So here goes: I’m not anyone’s idea of a leading man. I’m no hero. I’m certainly no saint.
But I don’t have to be.
There’s no role I have to play. The only mask I need to wear is my N95. There’s no character I need to project out onto the world other than the broken, butt-headed but baptized person I am.
Because the Lord of the Temple, Jesus Christ, has taken on the role of our Great High Priest, because God judges me not according to my sins but according to Christ’s perfect sacrifice, I’m free.
Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross, the Apostle Paul says, sets us free from performing the obligations of the Law.
And that frees us from the obligation to perform.
It frees us from the obligation to pretend.
It frees us from the burden of projecting a false more faithful self.
The cross frees me to be me.
The cross frees me to play no other role than me because, honestly, if anyone were to play me it would probably be Steve Buschemi.
Or that creep Willem Defoe.
The cross frees me to be me, unafraid and unashamed, because my life is not the good news— and that’s good news!
Faith alone in Christ alone by God’s grace alone, Luther says, puts a believer back in the Garden before the Fall. Faith frees you to be you, just the way you are, like Adam before the apple, naked and unashamed.
Because you are not what you do. And you are not what you have done. You are what the Lord of the Temple, our Great High Priest, has done in the Temple that is his Body.
Because the worship that is his cross is perfect and once-for-all, there is nothing you can do to make God love you less. And there is nothing you can do to make God love you more.
That’s called the Gospel.
And it’s what distinguishes Christianity from Moralism. As Robert Capon writes, “Ethics tells you what you ought and ought not to do in order to be recognizably human. Christianity tells you about a God who takes unrecognizable and unacceptable human beings and accepts them in Jesus, whether or not they happen to have done what they ought to have done.” All religions have the Golden Rule in common. What makes Christianity unique— what makes Christianity the opposite of religion, in fact— is the news that in your moral failures, in your failures to follow the Golden Rule, another has stepped in and done it perfectly for you.
As Robert Barnes, the sixteenth century English Reformer, preached in the sermon that led to his martyrdom, “The faith with which we have in Christ and his precious blood are alone and sufficient in justifying us before a Holy God without the help of any other work.”
That’s the good news of the Gospel.
And you don’t have to wait in any queue for it. You don’t have to earn it. You don’t have to deserve it. You certainly don’t need a fake ID to purchase it.
It’s yours. By faith. And it’s free. Just the way you are because of the way he was all the way unto a cross. Ironically, this free gift alone has the power to transform you into more than just the way you are.
O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
12Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” 14The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 16and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?” 17He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.
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