Audio Sermons, Lent 3B, Sermons

Sweeter than Honey

(A sermon for Lent 3B — March 11, 2012 — Psalm 19; John 2:13-22 — click here for audio)

Last summer a friend brought us a jar of honey from her own bees. I don’t particularly like honey, but the jar was pretty, and I liked the little label with her address on it, “Fell’s Lane Honey.” I admired her willingness to work with the bees and go to the trouble of putting things in jars, because since in her day job she is a high-powered lawyer, she is not someone you would necessarily imagine in an apron, canning.

Sweeter than honey, says the Psalm, sweeter than honey are these things: the law of the LORD, the decrees of the LORD, the precepts of the LORD, the commandment of the LORD, the fear (or awe) of the LORD and the ordinances of the LORD.

Sweeter than honey.

And I say I don’t like honey, but really I don’t know that. I just know I don’t like honey-flavored things. They have a sweetness that does not feel right in my mouth.

It’s a matter of taste, I realize that. Somehow I think of honey as sickeningly sweet, not marvelously so, which may be strange coming from someone who grew up eating not only Lucky Charms, but Sugar Pops. (Yes, kids, that’s what we used to call Corn Pops, in the unenlightened days of yore.)

Sweeter than honey, says the Psalm, sweeter than honey are these things: the law of the LORD, the decrees of the LORD, the precepts of the LORD, the commandment of the LORD, the fear of the LORD and the ordinances of the LORD.

But you heard those rules I read to the children, the Big Ten, the Law of the LORD. They are hard and direct. We don’t always feel like following them. Our language isn’t always what it should be, and we may have times we don’t feel like honoring one or the other of our parents, and hardly any of us hasn’t seen something a friend or neighbor has and wanted it for ourselves, whether it’s a car or a relationship or a vacation or a job. How sweet is that? Not very.

Not very.

By the time Jesus visited the Temple in the story we read from John’s gospel, there were far more than ten rules. There were so many that it took a lot of time to observe them just right. It was easier to do if you had servants to clean your pots and prepare your food the right way, so rich people had a much better chance to observe them just right.

The ordinances of the LORD are SWEET. Well, if they are really the LORD’s. In Jesus’ time, there were more rules than just the written ones. There were unwritten rules, too.  And people who came to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple didn’t have much choice about where they bought their sacrificial doves and lambs. They came from far away and traded their local money for Temple money, and then they used the Temple money to buy the approved animals for sacrifice. Jesus was right. The Temple was more like a marketplace. People turned a profit on other people’s attempts to worship God.

Sweeter than honey, says the Psalm, sweeter than honey are these things: the law of the LORD, the decrees of the LORD, the precepts of the LORD, the commandment of the LORD, the fear of the LORD and the ordinances of the LORD.

We want to stop at sweet, before Jesus makes a whip out of cords and lets fly.

We want to stop at sweet, Sunday School Jesus, Honey Bear Jesus.

I think maybe those plastic bears are the reason I don’t like honey. I mean, the bears are cute, but the honey in them is not usually so delicious. I wouldn’t ever put it right on anything, but I’ve had it in tea. To me, it’s hyper-sweet. And I think maybe that is just what we want Jesus to be. We haven’t watered down his message so much as turned it to candy. We read the words “sweeter than honey” and hear it in our terms, in the context of a high fructose corn syrup world. Sweeter than honey – that’s a Snickers bar or a vanilla milkshake or a peppermint stick, yes?

We offer a sweet faith to our children that way, suggesting that everything will be just fine. We confuse faith with manners. We conflate faith with citizenship. We embrace the Jesus who calls little children to sit on his knee and ignore the very real Jesus who absolutely loses it in the Temple and knocks the tables over and releases the doves from their cages and makes the religious leaders so angry that they spend the rest of John’s gospel trying to kill him.

And this is only Chapter 2.

They had a sense of order. There was a way things were done. There was an acceptable group for leadership and a great middle segment of people who were expected to show up at the Temple on appropriate occasions and on the margins were the poor and the widows and the orphans and the sick and the broken, keeping to their appointed places.

Found it here.

Into the middle of all this order comes Jesus and he does not move the tables carefully, as Jeanne taught us to do yesterday in the Fellowship Hall. He knocks them over. He makes and uses a whip.

He pours the money on the ground.

He lets them have it.

His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” (John 2:17, NRSV)

Zeal is a strong word. It has flavor, texture. It means fervor and desire and ardor. Ardor: that is not a Lucky Charms word, not a Sugar Pops word. Ardor for God’s house will consume me, they remember, fervor and desire and ardor. He is real put-your-hand-in-the-beehive Jesus, not some artificially colored and sweetened substitute. They can kill his body, but he is coming back again.

We want Honey Bear Jesus.  We want something safe and sweet instead of a bracing challenge to engage with the Christ who redeems us, who can heal us and make something new out of us.

The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.  (Psalm 19:17-19, NRSV)

I don’t always get this right. I may not turn the house of the LORD into a marketplace, but I fail at upholding the sweet and right precepts of God with some regularity, even though Jesus made it simpler by shortening the list to three rules:

1. Love God with all your heart and soul and strength.
2. Love your neighbor as yourself.
3. Which suggests the third: love yourself.

I’ve been listening to people say all my life that honey is good for you when you have a sore throat or a cough. I’ve gagged on honey-flavored cough drops and considered the possibility of squeezing the plastic bear into a mug of tea, but I never felt enthusiastic about it. Then, this winter, I remembered those jars of honey from my friend. And I opened one, letting myself believe that in a small jar lay phenomenal cosmic powers. I stirred it into hot water, and I drank it.

I was pretty sick. I got better. I don’t know if the honey actually helped. I just know it was real put-your-hand-in-the-beehive honey.

Jesus put his hand in the beehive every day of his life on earth. He risked himself with the bees – that’s us – to prove there was still something sweet, something worth harvesting, some measure of healing and even transformation in the encounter between God and humanity.

They killed him for doing it.

It wasn’t until yesterday that I actually opened the jar, put a spoon in and tasted the honey, all on its own. Now I know. Real honey has zeal. It tastes like ardor. It makes me desire something truthful, drives me to fervor sweeter than honey.

These words, this book, they are old and sometimes feel dusty and even incomprehensible. The printed words are not what matters so much as the Living Word, Jesus himself. They broke his body down, but in three days he rose up again, and he is still with us, risking the sting of our disregard, our money-changing, our attachment to our own rules, and worst of all, our corn-syrupy sweet and safe version of faith. He is still with us, sticking his hand into the beehive of our lives.

And we can choose, each one of us, whether we will be processed and safely encased in plastic or whether we will risk zeal, risk being real and raw and changed forever. In the name of the One whose ardent Law of Love is truly sweeter than honey. Amen.