Sunday, March 4, 2018

Third Sunday in Lent
Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
John 2:13-22 (23-25)

For you see your calling, brothers, that not many are wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, and not many noble; but God chose the foolish things of the world that he might put to shame those who are wise. God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong; and God chose the lowly things of the world, and the things that are despised, and the things that are not, that he might bring to nothing the things that are: that no flesh should boast before God.

I once attended a very large Christian gathering that was impossible to recognize as Christian. There were banners with the organizationís acronym, but unless you knew what the letters meant, you would never have guessed it was Christian. The logos and decorations were very secular, with not a single cross to be found except in the marketplace. The speakers were non- or nominal Christians who did not even name Jesus except in heretical ways. The entrance into the worship space was crowded with vendors selling all sorts of spiritual and religious artifacts and books or giving away brochures on all the things the visitors could do to change the world. I was an attendee and a Christian and I had a hard time finding Jesus in the midst of it all. I canít imagine what an on-looker must have thought.

The Temple had a very specific design, beginning with Mosesí Tabernacle in the wilderness. It was designed by God, with each piece having a purpose. It was filled with symbolism; the bread, the candles, the curtains and even the hooks that held the curtains onto the polls. The materials chosen were specific: bronze for the outside, gold for the innermost parts. Goat hair and linen had their places. Certain woods were gathered to be carved and used for support and decoration. The tabernacle represented Godís house; it was a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ, in whom God dwelled wholly and completely.

The Temples, first Solomonís and then Herodís, followed the same pattern, although other practical parts were added when the Tabernacle was given roots and made permanent. There were storerooms and meeting places. There were rooms for the priests and others to live. There was probably even a janitorís closet somewhere in the site. The important things were still there. The Holy of Holies still contained the Ark and the Holy Place was the inner sanctum of sacrifice, prayer and worship. Certain places were open for only certain people; the priests could enter the Holy Place, the Jews the inner courts, but the outer courts welcomed the gentiles to pray and learn about the Hebrew God and the Jewish faith. Many even choose to become Jewish.

The outer court was also used as a marketplace. According to our Gospel lesson, Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover which was a time of pilgrimage and sacrifice; He was disturbed that the priests had so little respect for Godís grace to the nations. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus quotes Isaiah who wrote, ď...for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.Ē The outer courtyard, the only place the gentiles were allowed to enter, was filled with people, merchants, and moneychangers. The marketplace made 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 in the inner courts had become a den of thieves. The gentiles had no place to experience the presence of God and to hear His word. On-lookers could not see or understand what it truly meant to be one of Godís people. Jesus was standing up for the people of the nations whom God loved, too.

The leaders in the Temple, who benefitted greatly from the marketplace, asked Jesus who gave Him the authority to do such a thing. When asked what sign He would give to prove His authority, Jesus said, ďDestroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.Ē The Temple is merely a foreshadowing; Jesus is the real. This is the first time Jesus talked about His death and resurrection, but they saw His words as a boastful claim that He could rebuild a temple of stone in three days. How is that possible? It took forty-six years to build! He was not referring to a copy of Godís dwelling place built in stone; He was referring to Himself. It was not until much later that the disciples realized what He meant that day; after the resurrection the disciples remembered and believed.

Jesus is the Temple. 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. 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?

Paul saw the doubt of men. We suffer from the same doubts today. Why did Jesus have to die? Why did God require a 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 as we meet the needs of our neighbors. It isnít so easy to see that we need a Savior and that Jesus is the One. This is why Christian gatherings focus more on changing the world rather than on repentance and redemption.

The Psalmist shows us the only way we can live righteously for God: ďForgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me.Ē Only with Godís help, Godís hand in our lives, will we ever be kept blameless.

I recently read a quote from C.S. Lewisí ďThe Weight of Glory.Ē Lewis writes, ďI find that when I think I am asking God to forgive me, I am often in reality (unless I watch myself very carefully) asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking Him not to forgive me but to excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiveness says, ĎYes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology; I will never hold it against you and everything between us two will be exactly as it was before.í But excusing says, ĎI see that you couldnít help it or didnít mean it; you werenít really to blame.í If one was not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive. In that sense forgiveness and excusing are almost opposites. Of course, in dozens of cases, either between God and man, or between one man and another, there may be a mixture of the two. Part of what seemed at first to be the sins turned out to really nobodyís fault and is excused; the bit that is left over is forgiven. If you had a perfect excuse, you would not need forgiveness; if the whole of your action needs forgiveness, then there was no excuse for it. But the trouble is that what we call Ďasking Godís forgivenessí very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses. What leads us into this mistake is the fact that there usually is some amount of excuse, some Ďextenuating circumstancesí. We are so very anxious to point these out to God (and to ourselves) that we are apt to forget the really important thing; that is, the bit left over, the bit which the excuses donít cover, the bit which is inexcusable but not, thank God unforgivable. And if we forget this, we shall go away imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves with our own excuses. They may be very bad excuses; we are all too easily satisfied about ourselves.Ē

The psalmist writes, ďThe heavens declare the glory of God. The expanse shows his handiwork. Day after day they pour out speech, and night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.Ē 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 earthís rotation. Every star screams ďgloryĒ and every wave mutters ďpower.Ē Everything that God created points back to Him. But we need more than the creation to have a relationship with our Father in heaven. Christianity is a faith based on grace and we cringe when there is a focus on law, but we need both to be whole. The Law shows us our need for Godís grace.

Godís Law is described five ways in todayís Psalm. These words sound so similar: law, testimony, precepts, commandment and ordinances. However in the Hebrew the words are all very different. The law is the Torah, the teaching of God. The testimony is the witness to Godís wisdom and works. The precepts reference Godís authority. The commandment refers to the entirety of Godís Word. The ordinances speak of Godís justice, the verdict over sin. We hear those law words knowing that Godís Word is meant for us, too. They bring us a sense of uneasiness based on our experiences and culture, but they also offer comfort and calm. Godís Word is perfect, sure, right, pure and true; His message gets into our hearts because He puts it there. By His Spirit, we hear His grace. His Law restores the soul, makes wise the simple, makes our heart rejoice, enlightens our eyes, and we will endure forever. We can trust in His Word because He is righteous.

Many Christians would rather skip over the Old Testament, the laws and Godís wrath. They want to worship God in creation and avoid the hypocrisy of the institutions. They think by doing so they are more like Jesus, overthrowing the unfaithfulness found within. Those who think it is enough to worship God on the mountaintop miss the beauty of dwelling in Godís Word. Those who reject the Church, reject the body of Christ, the true Temple.

Thatís why Martin Luther did not ignore the Old Testament and he thought it was so important to include a teaching on the Ten Commandments in the Small Catechism. Catechisms existed long before Martin Luther penned the version we know today. They were designed to instruct new believers before their baptism. By Lutherís time, the catechisms included the Lordís Prayer, the Creed and the Ten Commandments.

While visiting a congregation, Luther discovered that the ordinary Christians in the villages knew nothing of the Christian faith. The pastors were unskilled and incapable of teaching these things to their people. Luther was shocked and determined to write a simple booklet explaining the beliefs of Christians in a way that the average layperson could understand. The pastors and preachers were encouraged to use it word for word so that the people, especially those who could not read, could learn it through repetition: writing the words on the hearts of the believers and avoiding the confusion that comes when the words are changed over and over again. To Luther, it was not enough for the believer to recite the prayer, creed and commandments; he felt that all Christians should understand what they mean. So, he wrote one sentence explanations answering a simple question, ďWas ist das?Ē

Luther changed the order of the catechism, beginning the booklet with the Ten Commandments, then the Creed, and finally the Lordís Prayer. This guided the reader through a journey of Law to Gospel, so that they could see their need for grace, confess belief in the only source of grace and then learn how to pray.

The commandments as we hear them in todayís Old Testament passage are not simply a list of things we should and should not do. It is a covenant between God and His people. It is important to establish a relationship, to build up trust in one another. In the case of the Hebrews, God did not sit down with them before taking them out of Egypt. He didnít say, ďIf you do this, that and the other thing, then I will save you from this slavery that has you bound.Ē 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 ďdo notĒ rules. They begin with relationship building rules. It is about putting the One who saved them out of Egypt first in their lives, and then those whom God has appointed as our 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 by keeping God first, we will not disobey the others because we will want to please the One who is our Savior and Deliverer.

We are reminded during our Lenten journey that He did not just deliver the Hebrews out of Egypt, He delivered us from death. He did that while we were still sinners, which seems so foolish, but it is the reality of Godís grace. He loved us so much that He died for us. Yet we are also reminded during this period that we are still sinners. We still need His grace. We still need to look to the cross and ask Him for forgiveness. We need to do this daily, constantly reminding ourselves that though we are saved, we still fail to live up to the expectations of our God.

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

Paul tells us that the Jews were looking for miraculous signs and the Greeks were looking for wisdom. We ask ourselves, 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 ďthe treeĒ is cursed. It was a sign from God that the person is not blessed or righteous. For the Greeks, the cross was not a wise way to create a group of followers. It is, indeed, foolishness to the world.

But, we learn that 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 Godís kingdom the weak, meek and humble are the ones who have power based on Godís grace, not on their own abilities or strength. In Godís kingdom, the wise are those who look to the cross for salvation, not to the things of this world.

You would think that we would do better about keeping Godís Law by now, after the cross. We know about Godís grace, we recognize the purpose of Godís 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 excuses for our sin and we ignore the reality of our failure to live up to Godís expectations. We build ministries that pronounce the Gospel as something to be obeyed rather than a gift from God. The nations come to see the God who came to dwell among us and they see nothing more than a marketplace.

They come because they are seeking something; 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 tell the whole story. It is not enough to talk about Godís love: we have to see His wrath as it was revealed both in our Gospel lesson but even more so on the cross. We learn during Lent to experience the anger of the Law as we look forward to the hope of the resurrection. Lent is about repentance. Without repentance, the grief of Good Friday is foolishness and there is no real joy at Easter.

Are we speaking this foolishness about Jesus to the world, telling them that the only answer to evil and sin is found in Him? Do we call people to recognize their sin and point them to Jesus the Savior? 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 sanctuaries to become marketplaces that sell programs and agendas rather than proclaim the cross of Christ? Have we allowed our own marketplaces to make it impossible for those outside our faith communities who seek God to pray and learn about Him? Have we taken advantage of those who are afraid or desperate by giving them a false hope and phony promise? Do we think that all will be well if only we would change the world?

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 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 enlightened 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.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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