Sunday, March 11, 2012

Third Sunday of Lent
Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

The law of Jehovah is perfect, restoring the soul: The testimony of Jehovah is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of Jehovah are right, rejoicing the heart: The commandment of Jehovah is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of Jehovah is clean, enduring for ever: The ordinances of Jehovah are true, and righteous altogether.

The first half of todayís Psalm is a hymn of creation praising God. The psalmist describes how the heavens and earth glorify God, especially in the way that even the sun shines forth words that canít be heard about Godís majesty and graciousness. God gives the sun a place to run with joy and everything under its rays is touched by its light. Isnít it interesting that some ancient (and even modern) religions make the sun a god, and yet in our faith the sun is a creation which exists to praise the one true God? Those of us who live in south Texas understand the line ďAnd there is nothing hid from the heat thereof,Ē especially in the middle of the summer. But even when the sun is hidden behind the clouds or is down for the night, the sun continues to touch the earth.

It is jarring after this poetic description of the sunís praise to God to hear the words Iíve chosen as todayís focus. The psalmist uses six different ways of describing the Law. In many ways, weíd prefer to go on with the song of the heavens, to listen to the silent voice that speaks knowledge of God in a way that is perceived rather an understood. We donít like to talk about the Law because we see it as a burden, especially as it had come to be understood in the days of Jesus. When the Law is abused and misused, it is easy to take advantage of those who just want to be faithful.

In Jesusí day the religious leaders wanted to be seen as faithful, but they used their power and position for their own benefit, not to glorify God. They made it difficult for the average person to live up the expectations, expectations that were man-made, not God-given. Thatís why Jesus responded so radically to what He found in the Temple courts. The moneychangers were taking advantage of the pilgrims, and the leaders were getting their cut. They didnít care about the spiritual welfare of their flock.

Unfortunately, neither do those who focus solely on pretty words and songs of praise. Godís love and grace are the foundation of everything we have and everything we are. The Law does not make us children of God. It does not save us. Obedience to a set of rules will not make the world a better place, especially when the rules are burdensome and we are imperfect. We will fail. We might do well with a rule here or a rule there, but we will eventually fail. We might be able to keep from murder, but weíll probably hate someone. We might not steal, but it is likely that we will covet something of our neighbor. Jesus tells us that it isnít just active disobedience of the Law that is sin; we sin even when we think about it.

Knowing that it is only by Godís grace that we can overcome our sinful nature, we avoid talking about sin and focus on grace. God saved me, that is for sure. However, how do we know we need to be saved? Thatís the problem with much of todayís preaching: we avoid talking about sin and focus only on thanking God for all the good things Heís done. We focus on the creation, on worshipping God in the trees and the sun and the mountains. We focus on the people and what we can do for them. We focus on meeting the physical needs and we ignore the reality: we need to be saved and reconciled to God because we are sinners. We need a Savior. We need Jesus, not as a friend or teacher, but as the Lamb who was slain. And we wonít know we need Jesus without the Law.

The Ten Commandments, as listed in todayís Old Testament lesson from Exodus, gives us a good foundation on which to build the Law. The Jews had a list of six hundred and thirteen laws governing everything from hygiene to discipline for bad behavior. They had rules about what kind of clothes to wear and when they could do certain tasks. They had a long list of requirements for offerings to God. This isnít necessarily what the psalmist is talking about in todayís psalm. Yes, the laws give us a foundation for living as God demands, and if we obey those laws we will find ourselves blessed. The reason for this is not because God rewards good behavior, but because the laws protect us from harming ourselves and others. The Law acts as a cover that guards us, and if we step out beyond it, we will suffer the consequences.

The psalmist turns to the Law in the second half of the passage because even though we can know God through the creation, the Law is a gift given so that we can know what God has to say. The law, testimony, precepts, commandment, fear and ordinances teach us Godís will. We can see God in nature as many have throughout the ages; but we can know God fully in His Law. Without Law, Gospel is meaningless. Without Gospel, Law is a burden. The Law leads us to the Gospel. The Gospel keeps us from dying under the weight of the Law.

Now, it is interesting to note that within the Old Testament text along with the Commandments is a piece of good news. This is a covenant, a promise. The hard part for us to understand is why God would ever include the word ďif,Ē but this is a bilateral covenant. Some of Godís covenants are one sided: we canít do anything in the keeping of those covenants; it is all up to God. But we are reminded that we bear some responsibility in our relationship with God. Obedience will bring reward. But notice the promise within: God will show steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love Him and keep His commandments. Jesus Christ was obedient even unto death, and we are made heirs through Him. God loves us because of His obedience, not because of our own. He loves us because of Jesus.

The Ten Commandments do not begin with ďdo notĒ rules. They begin with relationship building rules. It is about putting the One who saved them out of Egypt first in their life, and then those whom God has appointed as elders. The last few commands are the ďdo notĒ rules, but they are meant to be relationship keeping rules. The things we do against other people are the things that cause the brokenness of our world. When we murder, commit adultery, steal, lie and covet our neighborís things we build walls between one another. These rules are not given to make our life harder. They are given to keep us right with our neighbors and therefore right with God. In the end, if we keep the first commandment, keeping God first, we will by His nature not disobey the others because we will want to please the One who is our Savior and Deliverer.

It is no wonder, then, that Jesus was upset with the activities going on in the Temple courts. The sales people and money changers were not honoring God by selling the sacrificial animals, no matter how they justified it. They were making worship harder for the people who came to the Temple.

The Gospel story from John happened during the Passover feast, when as many Israelites that could come did come to Jerusalem to offer their gifts and celebrate. Though not originally found in the design of the Temple, the marketplace had become an important part of the worship experience. Pilgrims could not bring perfect animals with them on their long journeys. A sheep or a goat or even a dove would be too difficult to carry for long distances. The sacrifices were required so that the pilgrims could be restored to a right relationship with God before they entered into the sanctuary. The moneychangers provided an important service, exchanging the money that had graven images to a type of coin that did not, which was the only type of coin that could be received in the offering. To give to God, they had to change their own money for that which was acceptable. These merchants and moneychangers were there at the request of the priests, to make things easier for the pilgrims attending to do their duty and obey the law.

If the marketplace had been outside the gates of the Temple, we may not have seen this story in our Gospel texts. Though Jesus did fight against heartless worship, He was not arguing against the pilgrim offerings at the Passover feast. It was not just a time of pilgrimage for Jews, but for those who sought to know and understand the Hebrew God. The nations were welcome in the outer courts of the Temple to pray and learn and perhaps even choose to become a Jew. Pilgrims of other faiths were only allowed in the outer courts.

Jesus was disturbed that the priests had so little respect for Godís grace to the nations. The sales were going on in the outer court, making it impossible to pray and learn and choose the God of Israel. The place of prayer for the gentiles and sanctuary for those who could not enter into Godís presence became a den of thieves. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus quotes Isaiah who wrote, ďÖfor my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.Ē By filling the outer court with merchants and money changers, the gentiles had no place to experience the presence of God and to hear His word. Jesus was standing up for the people of every nation which God loved, too.

Jesusí actions in the outer court sparked the disciplesí interest and they saw Jesus in light of the scriptures. They remembered the words of the psalmist describing the Messiah as one having zealous passion for the house of God. The Jews wanted a sign proving that Jesus had the authority to drive the marketplace from the Temple. This was an offense to their power and their authority, an offense worthy of punishment. It is evident in the other Gospel versions that this was the beginning of the end for Jesus. His actions in the Temple would force their hand. He had to be stopped, even if it meant killing him.

When asked what sign He would give to prove His authority, Jesus said, ďDestroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.Ē This is the first time Jesus talks about His death and resurrection, but they see it as a boastful claim that He will rebuild a temple of stone in three days. How could He rebuild a building that took forty-six years to build? He was not referring to a copy of Godís image built in stone. He was referring to the real thing: Himself. It was not until much later that the disciples realized what He meant that day; after the resurrection the disciples remembered and believed. The Law helped people see their need to visit the Temple to be reconciled with God, and it does the same for us. But we are blessed to be one of the generations receiving the promise in the Law. The Temple is Jesus. He died and was raised so that we can present living sacrifices to God: our hearts, our hope and our lives.

But thatís just foolishness. Why would a God of love demand such a high price for our failures? God seems to take the most incredible situations and make them work for His glory. Grace is found in the Law, as God promises to bless us for generations for the obedience of our forefathers, but the greatest moment of grace came when Christ died on the cross. But Paul saw the doubt of men. Why would Christ have to die? Why did God require blood sacrifice? What possible benefit could the world get from the cross? How could one life make up for all our failures? It is easier to think that we can do it on our own, being obedient to the letter of the Law or to think we can ignore the Law completely and see God in the trees and the sun and the mountains. It is easier to see God in our good works that meet the needs of our neighbors. It isnít so easy to see that we need a Savior and that Jesus is the One.

It was said that you could find a wise man on every corner in Corinth who had the solution to the worldís problems. Paul quoted this passage from Isaiah because they were not pointing at the true solution, the cross of Christ. There are still plenty of wise men trying to provide answers to lifeís deepest questions, but their answers depend on human wisdom. They point away from Jesus Christ. As Christians, we are called to look for the wisdom of God, to not only perceive Him in the world but to know and understand Him through His Word. That word came for us first in the Law, then in the Temple and finally in Jesus Christ.

Yes, the law of Jehovah is perfect, restoring the soul: The testimony of Jehovah is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of Jehovah are right, rejoicing the heart: The commandment of Jehovah is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of Jehovah is clean, enduring for ever: The ordinances of Jehovah are true, and righteous altogether. But we know that the Law points us to Jesus, and this is the Word we are called to preach, no matter how foolish it might seem.

Are we speaking this foolishness that Jesus is the answer we seek? Do we call people to recognize their sin and point them to Jesus the Savior who saves us from our failure to live up to Godís expectations? Or are we like the wise ones in Paulís day seeking signs and earthly wisdom rather than the cross of Christ? Have we allowed our own sanctuaries to become marketplaces that sell programs and agendas rather than proclaim the cross of Christ? Are we willing to join with the psalmist in praising God with the silent voices of creation while also living in the gift of Godís Law? The Law He gave is not meant to be a burden, but is perfect, sure, right, pure, clean and true. As we live in that Law, our souls will be restored, weíll be made wise, our hearts will rejoice, our eyes will be opened and we will endure forever. Most of all, as we live in the Law as it came to us in and through Jesus weíll be made righteous, blessed for generations and into eternity.

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