Sunday, March 8, 2015

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

But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who was made unto us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption: that, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.

I get a lot of those emails from foreign dignitaries (or usually their recently widowed wives) that claim to have millions of dollars that they need to smuggle out of their country before it is stolen by the evil government and they want to use my ministry as a beneficiary. They promise that they will give me a huge percentage of the money for my trouble, and ask only that I give them some important information so that they can begin the process. These emails always focus on their humble desire to support the great work that I'm doing.

These emails sound wonderful. Imagine what I could do with millions of dollars! I could do more than write a few words of inspiration and instruction every day. I could open a retreat center. I could publish my own books. I could share my windfall with other ministries that are doing incredible work in the world. I would try to glorify God with every cent of that gift and hope that it might help change lives and create faith. It is tempting to answer, "Yes."

But I'm not foolish; I would not fall for the scheme because I know that it is too good to be true. I have to admit that I considered the possibilities the first time I got one of these emails. I did a little research on the Internet to see if there was any truth to what was written. It didn't take very long before I found websites revealing the truth of these offers. Someone has been doing this for a very, very long time. They build a relationship with the victim and slowly gain their confidence. Eventually they ask for a bank account number or other personal information. Some even claim that they need a few dollars (or a few thousand dollars) to pay for the legal fees, which they can't afford because the money is tied up until the transaction is complete. They sign with official titles and use real names, making it seem as if it is legitimate. It sounds too good to be true, and it is.

It amazes me that anyone would fall for these schemes, and yet they do. The schemers have ways of making people believe that what they say is true, or ways to make people think that something bad will happen if they don't cooperate. I heard a story about some scam that is often targeted at old people. The schemers claim that the people have won a lottery and that all they need to do is send a filing fee. Eventually the victims end up sending large sums of money, often several payments over time. When promises stop working, the schemers threaten the victim and the money is sent out of fear. The victims are often those who can't make decisions; they have mental issues or are desperate. Some are simply greedy and think that they can beat the conman. It is foolish to think that it could be true, but our fear, desperation and greed can make us see things from a skewed perspective. A few kind words and a promise can offer hope to someone who is anxious for salvation.

Hope is a tough thing to find in our world sometimes, especially if we pay attention to the evening news. The stories are all about death and destruction, the latest terror or economic upheaval. There are stories of fires and shootings, disease and suffering. I regularly see stories about the latest scam and how to avoid falling victim. Even the lighter news is disturbing because it shows us that we live in a world that is upside down and confused. That which is good is bad and that which is bad is good. We don't want to hear just warm fuzzies; we need to know what is happening in the world for our safety and well-being, but some days I would rather not know. Sadly, they are trying to make us wise but in reality most of the news actually makes us afraid, desperate or greedy.

Unfortunately, in our modern age, the words of our mouths are filled with things that are displeasing to God. Death is not a good thing; it is not what God desires for us. He has created us to glorify Him with love and life. We live in a world filled with sin, the Law shows us how we are separated from God by our words and deeds. But we have set aside what God says is good, right and true. We ignore God's Law because that's just not the way we do things anymore. The news shows us in very dramatic ways where sin leads us: into death. And while the Law will never save us, for it is only through Christ where we can have eternal life, remembering God's Law will help us to walk more safely in this world in which we live.

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

The final verse of this passage 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. The wonderful thing about preaching God's grace is that it isnít the words that the preacher speaks that will touch them, but God's Spirit that will do the work. We have to trust in this miraculous and mysterious truth, thatís why preachers ask God to bless their words and the hearts of those listening, so that He will be glorified in both the speaking and the hearing.

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." Everything that God created points back to Him.

However, we are reminded that we need more than the creation to have a relationship with our Father in heaven. Those who think it is enough to worship God on the mountaintop miss the beauty of dwelling in God's Word. The commandments as we hear them in today's 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 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 our 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 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 is the reality of God's grace. He loved us so much that He died for us.

There are many who consider themselves wise in this world, yet there are those that have rejected the one thing that is true, which is God. He is sovereign and He is faithful. We know this to be true because He has laid faith on our hearts so that we can believe in the cross of Christ, that ridiculous measure of His love for His people. Through such horror, God showed His love and mercy to the world, saving us from sin and death. Yes, this all seems foolish to those who have no faith, to those who are perishing. But to those of us who are being saved it is the foundation of all we believe.

It is funny that even though it takes knowledge and maturity to truly understand the theological concepts of Christianity, most children understand God's grace better than the adults. We seem to lose a sort of innocence and trust that is found in a child's heart as we grow older and more knowledgeable. Yet, much of the world has missed out on the true wisdom of the Gospel because it seems like foolishness and weakness. The foolishness of God is truly the wisdom of life that can only be seen through faith and trust.

What is wisdom? What is power? What type of leader should we follow? Do we go toward the charismatic leader who seems to be wise and powerful? Do we follow the one who has seemingly miraculous powers, doing whatever he asks because he is able to provide for our every need and desire? Or do we follow the leader that is humble and faithful to God's Word?

The people in Paul's day had their own idea of what they expected from a leader and a community of believers. Paul tells us that the Jews were looking for miraculous signs and the Greeks were 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.

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 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 salvation, not to the things of this world.

What gives Jesus the power, wisdom and authority to do this for us? That's what they wanted to know in the Temple in the story we hear in today's Gospel lesson. Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover, a time of pilgrimage and sacrifice. The courtyard was filled with people, filled with merchants and filled with moneychangers. The merchants and moneychangers were a vital part of the festival because they offered the necessary items for the worshippers. The pilgrims could not carry their sacrifices with them, and they needed to change their money to the Temple coin. It was good that there was a marketplace in Jerusalem for them.

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. This was not just a time of pilgrimage for Jews, it was an opportunity for foreigners to get 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.

Jesus was disturbed that the priests had so little respect for God's grace to the nations. The sales were going on in the only place that pilgrims from other faiths and nations could enter. 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 God's presence became a den of thieves. 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 and to hear His word. Jesus was standing up for the people of every nation which God loved, too.

It doesn't seem very wise for Jesus to create such a ruckus at the Temple, especially during such an important time for the Jews. His actions made worship harder for many of the pilgrims because they could not get the animals or coins they needed to enter the Temple. The episode also attracted attention to Jesus, attention that was unwanted. John places this encounter early in the story, while the other Gospel writers make it later. Many scholars think it probably happened multiple times, with John showing an early event.

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, "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 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 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 that's 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 isn't so easy to see that we need a Savior and that Jesus is the One.

But then we see the stories about how people are duped out of their hard earned money by schemers who prey on the weak and we realize that our problems are much too hard for us to deal with by ourselves. The elderly couple needs someone who will watch their finances and keep them from responding in foolishness, fear and desperation. We need someone who will restore us to the God who loved us from creation, to save us from ourselves.

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. Best of all, the Law points toward Jesus; 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 Paul's day seeking signs and earthly wisdom rather than the cross of Christ? Have we allowed our own marketplaces to make it impossible for those outside our own 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?

God is revealed as we live according to God's Word and Law. He is manifest in our relationships with our neighbors and in creation. We see Him revealed in all these things as we put Him first, keep Him as our God, love Him above all else. The Jews went to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple, but today we are called to worship at a greater one; for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is the true Temple. He saved us and invites us into His eternal covenant where we will dwell forever in a relationship with Him.

Some people don't want to hear about a God that demanded such obedience that His Son died on the cross, to them it is nothing but foolishness. 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. 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. God is not glorified by those who claim to be righteous. He is not glorified by a Temple full of moneychangers and sacrifices. God's grace is found in the pure Law of God, for it is the Law that points to our need for Jesus.

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.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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