Sunday, March 19, 2006

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

Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Throughout Lent we have been reminded of the covenants between God and His people. This week is no different as we see that which God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The Sinaitic covenant, like the Abrahamic covenant we saw last week, is a Suserain-vassal covenant. Here God promises to be guardian and protector of His people as long as they live by His rule and serve His purpose in history. The sign of this covenant are the Tablets of the Law, the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments.

In recent years we have seen references to the Ten Commandments in the news quite often. There have been lawsuits surrounding the display of sculptures and pictures of the Ten Commandments in different government buildings. The argument is that since the Ten Commandments are the basis of Christian moral thought, then they make a large portion of the population feel excluded from the public administration of our nation.

It is interesting that Christian moral law is actually built on a somewhat smaller list of commandments love God and love your neighbor. These two sum up all the Law and the Prophets, for every law given by God beneficial in restoring and encouraging the relationships of His people with God, others and themselves. The ten can be divided between the two. Our love for God is obvious in the God-fearing life, in the avoidance of idols and false vows, in the keeping of the Sabbath. It is even seen in the honoring of one's authority figures, for they are given by God as His representatives in our lives. Loving our neighbor is practiced in the life that does not kill, commit adultery, steal, lie and covet.

The book of Leviticus has a much longer list of rules, laws that the Hebrews were expected to keep. These rules were given to guard and protect the people from harm. The rules governing health and dietary measures would literally keep them alive, for they lived in a much different world than we do today. They did not have refrigeration to keep meat from spoiling. They did have the sanitation we have today, thus requiring rules for distancing oneself from those whose illness might cause disease to spread. Each of these rules were designed to govern the people in a world where the love of God and the love of neighbor were the central tenets of the lives of the people.

As I was reading about the Ten Commandments, one writer suggested 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. Those relating to our relationship with God how to worship, how not to build idols or altars to other gods fall under the first few. 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 one of the two true commands the intent of God's law. 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.

Unfortunately, since the Law had become such a burden, the presence of the Temple was more a reminder of the demand for sacrifice and obedience than of God's love and presence among His people. The people traveled to Jerusalem to worship their God. They went to do as was expected to offer sacrifices according to God's Word and they were subjected to a carnival atmosphere and heavy requirements. Since they could not travel well with their offerings, merchants were available to sell whatever was needed at a tidy sum. There were even money changers present who would take the pagan coins which were unacceptable in the offering plate and exchange them for temple coins at a nice profit for both the money changers and the Temple priests who allowed the marketplace to be set up in the outer court of the Temple.

The outer court of the Temple was a place where all people could gather in the presence of God. In that place women, children, foreigners and even non-believers were welcome. Yet, in Jesus' day the outer court was so overrun with merchants and their stock that no one could find a moment of peace to commune with God. The marketplace made it impossible for the world to even get close enough to become familiar with the God of the covenants of Noah, Abraham and Moses. The Temple could no longer stand for the presence of God because the world would see God as nothing more than a crook and salesman, demanding a high price for the sacrifice He required. Why would a stranger, a foreigner, a Gentile want to come into a place such as this to pray and meet the God of Creation?

This is what Jesus saw when He walked into the Temple in our Gospel lesson for today. John's version of the cleansing of the Temple comes early in his telling, while the Synoptic Gospels place it much later in His ministry. John's telling of the story of Jesus helps us to see how the Temple was a representation of the character of God the character which is then seen in the life of Jesus. The Temple had lights; Jesus was the Light of the world. The Temple had bread; Jesus was the bread of Life. Every detail of the Temple pointed to Jesus who was the perfect image of the God of Israel. A marketplace was not part of the design. It was not part of God's character. It did not point to Christ. It had to be removed.

The disciples saw Jesus' actions and remembered the words of the psalmist describing the Messiah as one having zealous passion for the house of God. Of course, 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. It is harder to see that in John, because the story happens so early in the book. Yet, even in John, this event gives the Jews a reason to distrust Jesus, to seek His failure.

When asked what sign He would give to prove His authority, Jesus said, "Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days." 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 the copy of God's 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. As a matter of fact, it was not until after His resurrection that they remembered and believed.

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. 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. We make such demands on the people who come to see the God who is supposedly present among us and they see nothing more than a marketplace.

They come because they see something they think they want; we draw them in with our exciting programs and we make them feel very welcome. They might come back, but if they never really meet Jesus and experience His life-changing grace, they will eventually go looking somewhere else. The hard part is that to really meet Jesus, to know His grace, it is necessary to share the whole story. It is not enough to talk about God's love we have to see His wrath as it was revealed both in our Gospel lesson but even more so on the cross. We have to experience the anger of the Law as well as the hope of the resurrection.

Some people don't want to hear about a God that demanded such obedience that His Son died on the cross, and yet it is in those very words that we are saved. We want pleasant signs like healing and miracles but we refuse to see the suffering and pain. We follow after wisdom and intelligent teaching, but we ignore the foolishness of the cross. I've even heard it said that some Christian schools and churches are teaching that the crucifixion and resurrection are just nice stories, not the reality. The truth of God's purpose is a stumbling block to many and unfortunately, we think it is more important to sell ourselves than to give our visitors what they really need.

It is much easier to talk about the Law than the Gospel. It is much easier to give people a list of ten, or hundreds, of rules to follow than it is to give only two to love God and neighbor. Yet, it is not in the lives of those who claim to be righteous that God's glory is seen. It is not in the Temple full of moneychangers and sacrifices that God's grace can be found. It is in the pure Law of God, the Law that points to our need for Jesus and His sacrifice on the cross.

The Law was a gift, a sign that shows us God's care and concern for our health and safety. The Temple was a gift, a sign that reminds us of God's presence among His people. Even more so, however, our Lord Jesus Christ is a gift, because He is the Law in flesh and His body is the true Temple. In Him we truly see God's care and concern for us and His presence among His people. Thanks be to God.

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