Sunday, March 15, 2009

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

Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.

They didn’t get it. When Jesus told the Jews that He could raise the Temple in three days, they thought He was talking about the building of stone and mortar in which they were standing. They couldn’t believe He would make a claim like this. It took them forty-six years to build the Temple, how could they believe that He would raise it again in three days? But that’s the whole point of this week’s lessons—Jesus wasn’t talking about a building. In all our scriptures this week, we see God revealed in unexpected ways. He isn’t how we define Him; He is how He defines Himself. Our faith is not how we define it; faith is defined by God’s grace.

So, we look at our first lesson for today, a list of ‘the Law’ and wonder how this fits into God’s grace. After all, we learn that righteousness is not about what we do (as seen in the story of Abraham) but what God does. During this Lenten season we are looking at the covenants as promises. Where is the promise in the Ten Commandments?

It is important to understand that there are different types of covenants in the Bible. In this case, the type of covenant is a Suzerain-vassal covenant. This is an agreement ordering the relationship between a great king and His subjects. It is conditional, meaning that the vassal is given full protection, and his or her descendents, as long as they provide whatever service the suzerain, or king, demands. The Sinaitic covenant is a divine pledge to be Israel’s God as long as she lives by His rule and serves His purposes.

His rule, the intent He has for His creation, is found in these Commandments. His character is revealed within, and by these words we can see how we are expected to live. Can we meet these requirements of our own ability? As Martin Luther writes in the Small Catechism, “No person can keep any or all commandments perfectly, except Jesus Christ. All those who have faith in Him by the power of His Spirit willingly strive to keep these commandments.” God didn’t begin His relationship with His people with the commandments. Faith came first. Our inability to keep perfectly these commandments is exactly why God reveals Himself more fully in our other lessons.

It is important to establish a relationship, to build up trust in one another before establishing rules. In the case of the Hebrews, God did not sit down with them before taking them out of Egypt. He didn’t say, “If you do this, that and the other thing, then I will save you from this slavery that has you bound.” No, God saved them first, taking them out of bondage and into freedom. It was then, and only then, that He made the covenant with them. They knew He was a deliverer, that He could save His people. They knew they could trust Him. Then God taught them how to live in this new community together.

Notice that the Ten Commandments do not begin with “do not” 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 “do not” 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 neighbor’s 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.

We are told that the Law can be reduced to just two: love God and love your neighbor. The Law is about relationships. Within relationships, first with God and then with all creation, we find all the good things of life: peace, hope, joy. It really is all about love. God gave us the commandments, not as rules to obey but as freedoms to follow so that we will have a right and good relationship with God and His creation. We fail to keep these commandments because we fail to keep God first and we fail to keep our relationships right. Though human beings have always failed, God continues to reveal Himself so that we might know Him better and strive more diligently to be all that He has created us to be.

The book of Leviticus has a much longer list of rules, laws that the He brews were expected to keep. These rules were given to guard and protect the people from harm. The rules included instruction on how to eat, what to do about crime, how to stay clean and healthy both spiritually and physically. The rules also told them how to offer sacrifices to God. There are some who believe that the Ten Commandments were not meant to be held separate and above the other six hundred and three. Actually, they are more like categories under which all of the others fall. The rules relating to our relationship with God fall under the first few commandments. Those relating to our relationships in the world are summed up by the last few. So, even the book of Leviticus can be reduced to nothing more than two laws—love of God and love of neighbor.

It is interesting, then, that the Jewish priests and scribes spent so much time further widening the scope of each of these laws, creating volumes of interpretations and explanations of the laws. Their teaching required absolute obedience to their interpretations, even when the laws did not fulfill the laws of loving God and neighbor. The gift of the Law given by God to His people became a burden that they were unable to keep.

In the book of Exodus, the giving of the Law (chapter 20) is soon followed by the explanation of the design of the Tabernacle (beginning at chapter 25). The Temple would later be built on the same model. The Tabernacle, and later the Temple, was designed to be a reminder of God's presence among His people. It is often thought that God lived in the Temple, but God does not need a building made of stone and gold in which to live. The Tabernacle and the Temple were gifts to His people so that they would have a visual reminder of His presence in their lives. The people traveled to the Temple regularly, to offer sacrifice according to the laws and to worship their God.

It is during a time of pilgrimage that we find Jesus at the Temple in today’s story. It was 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. He was disturbed that the priests had so little respect for those whose worship was limited to the outer courts. The sales were going on in the outer court, a place where the pilgrims from other faiths were welcome to visit. It was a place of prayer for the gentiles, a sanctuary for those who could not enter into God’s presence. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus quotes Isaiah who wrote, “…for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” By filling the outer court with merchants and money changers, the gentiles had no place to experience the presence of God. In that case, Jesus was standing up for the nations of the world, whom God loved, too.

John tells us that the disciples heard Jesus and remembered a quote from Psalm 69, “Zeal for thy house shall eat me up.” They saw Jesus’ actions in the Temple as a statement about how He wanted to clean up the religion of the day. The priests had lost touch with the God for whom they claimed to work. They were more concerned about filling the Temple coffers than meeting the spiritual needs of the travelers. They were more concerned about making every little detail about the service perfect that they did not see that their world, as God saw it, was not what God intended for His people.

What is most interesting about John’s version of this story, however, is that John places this incident much earlier in Jesus’ ministry. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) have this event happening on the Monday following the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. They point out that this incident was a last straw for the leaders. Jesus had to be stopped because He was claiming authority over even the Temple business. While John also makes the point that the leaders demanded that He prove His authority, there is something deeper to John’s purpose in telling us this story.

Jesus tells those who demand a sign that they’ll get one. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They thought this was ridiculous, and the statement would come back to haunt Him later during His trial. They thought He meant the Temple made of stones, the Temple that had taken forty-six years to build. He couldn’t possible rebuild such a miraculous building in just three days. However, we know that Jesus was not referring to the building, but to His own body. When they destroyed Him, they would see the sign because He would rise up again in three days.

So, why does John put this story so close to the beginning? It has been organized in this manner because John’s purpose in writing is to establish Jesus as that Temple. Throughout the book of John, Jesus is identified with every aspect of the Temple worship. Each of the seven “I Am” statements that Jesus makes throughout the book takes us deeper into the Temple and deeper into the heart of God. He is the Bread which was represented in the Temple by the bread of the presence. He is the Light which is represented by the candlesticks. He is the Gate, which is represented by the altar of incense. He is the Shepherd which is represented by the royal priesthood. He is the Resurrection and the Life, which is represented by the atonement cover on the Ark of the Covenant. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life, which is represented by the contents of the Ark: the tablets of Law, Aaron’s staff that budded and a gold jar filled with manna. Then, when Jesus says, “I am the True Vine” He is telling us that any connection we have to God comes through Him. We are merely branches. He is the One through whom we can see and know God. The Temple itself was just a building. He was the place where we would meet and worship the Creator and Master of our lives.

John begins with this incident so that we might see step by step into the Holy of Holies that Jesus is the One He says He is. He is the I AM. He is our God. He has the authority to stand up not only for His chosen people, but for all people so that they might worship Him, too. His zeal is not to clean up a building, but to offer Himself to the world as the way to meet God, to know Him and to love Him.

Jesus turned the world upside down. What we see as foolishness is actually the wisdom of God, for it is in the life of that one perfect man that we find true peace and forgiveness. It is in His death that we find life. In God’s kingdom, the weak are the ones who have power because they are given power and wisdom based on God’s grace, not on their own abilities or work. In God’s kingdom, the wise are those who look to the cross for everything, not to the things of this world.

You would think that we would do better about keeping the intent of God’s word now, after the cross. We know about God’s grace, we recognize the purpose of God’s gifts of the Law, the Temple and we know why Jesus came to live and die. We have been given the Holy Spirit to help us learn and grow and mature in our faith. Yet, even now we forget and we muck things up with our own rules and interpretations. We make the Gospel so complicated, taking His two rules of love for God and love for neighbor and building around them great Temples of our wisdom and greatness. We build ministries that pronounce the Gospel as something to be obeyed rather than a gift from God.

That’s why God continues to reveal Himself to us. As we fail to live up to the demands of the Commandments, God shines the light on our failure and reminds us of His grace. He speaks the words in a different way so that we might hear.

The final verse of the Psalm is often used by pastors to begin their sermons. It is a prayer that the words they speak will be heard and that those listening will be blessed by the message. Preaching is a very difficult thing to do: to plan the right message for the people to whom it is being spoken. It always amazes me how many ideas can come out of just a few scriptures. If you attended twenty churches on a Sunday using the same lectionary, you would hear twenty different sermons, messages addressed to twenty unique communities. Even among the listeners at one church, you will find they’ve heard something different than you. Pastors are sometimes truly surprised to hear as people are walking out the door the messages they’ve received from the sermon preached.

There is a universal language when it comes to faith. No, I don’t mean that we can all hear words in other languages and understand everything we hear. While the gift of tongues is very real, that’s not what I mean by a universal language. Music comes close, because it is in music that we share in the emotion of the words spoken. An Italian opera can move a person to laughter and to tears even if they do not know a word of Italian. A Christian can attend liturgical worship in a foreign country and understand what is happening even if the words spoken are not in their own language.

But the Psalm speaks of a more basic universal language: that of creation. The psalmist writes, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork.” He also says, “There is no speech or language where their voice is heard.” God can be seen in the beauty of a rose garden anywhere around the world. He can be experienced on the top of any mountain. His handwork is seen in the sunset as it follows the path of the earth’s rotation. Every star screams “glory” and every wave mutters “power.” All that God created points back to Him.

However, we see in this scripture that God recognizes how people use language and understand words differently. His Word is described six ways in this passage: the law, the statutes, the precepts, the commands, the fear, and the ordinances. We hear those words and we identify with one or another, knowing that God’s Word is meant for us, too. Certain words may bring us a sense of uneasiness based on our experiences and culture, but other words bring comfort and calm. God has defined His Word in these six ways so that each of us might hear how His Word is perfect, trustworthy, right, radiant, pure and righteous no matter what language we speak or what words we use. God’s message gets into our hearts because God helps them get there. By His Spirit, we hear His grace.

The people in Paul’s day had their own idea of what they expected from a community of believers. Paul tells us that the Jews are looking for miraculous signs and the Greeks are looking for wisdom. We ask ourselves again, what are miraculous signs and what is wisdom? The cross does not fit into our worldly understanding of miracles and wisdom. For the Jews, the cross means the person hanging from ‘the tree’ is cursed. It is a sign from God that the person is not blessed or right. For the Greeks, the cross is not a wise way to create a group of followers. It is, indeed, foolishness to the world.

So, we see God revealed as we listen to one another, live in right relationships with the creation and with our neighbors, serve those who are needy and stand up for those who are facing injustice. We see Him revealed in all these things as we put Him first, keep Him as our God, love Him above all else. We are called to worship at a greater Temple, the Temple which is Jesus Christ our Lord, and we have been given the freedom to do so by God’s grace through the cross of Christ.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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