a sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent [Year B]
John 2:13-22 and Exodus 20:1-17
When Moses comes down Mt. Sinai after the Israelites have been released from bondage in Egypt, and before they begin a forty year journey in the wilderness he bears in his hands a list of laws that would come to be known as the Ten Commandments. Read aloud as our first lesson this morning, they form the backbone of how God wants his people to navigate the complexities of life. They are a hard-and-fast, unchangeable rules that are not supposed to weigh them down with duty but actually lift them up to create an environment for a good, safe, and prosperous life. The Ten Commandments are a gift, even though the people pretty quickly reject them.
It got me thinking, we’ve kind of had a very similar experience over the past year when it comes to navigating and living safely as a human community during this pandemic. We’ve watched so many officials coming down out of governmental institutions bearing clipboards we probably could compile a list of the Ten Commandments of COVID. What do you think they’d say? Here are some I’ve thought up…
Thou shalt wear a facemask.
Thou shalt remain six feet or more from other human beings.
Thou shalt wash your hands fastidiously.
Honor thy doctors and nurses.
Thou shalt not go anywhere if you have a fever.
Thou shalt not sing in public.
Thou shalt learn how to unmute yourself on Zoom.
Thou shalt not hoard toilet paper.
Do not covet thy neighbor’s vaccination. Or thy neighbor’s ox’s vaccination. Or donkey’s.
Things seem fairly set in stone about it all now, but it wasn’t always so clear what we were supposed to be doing. Remember when we were still leaving our groceries on our doorsteps for 48 hours before bringing them inside? I know some of you are still doing that—not judging! And we still have governors and other officials rescinding orders and backtracking on health guidelines. It’s all so confusing, even if we were to have them listed out like Moses’ Ten Commandments.
One of the main benefits to having these rules from Moses in Exodus listed so concisely and so systematically and engraved in stone is that it leaves no question as to how God speaks to us and how God wants us to be together. The law comes across so self-explanatory. “Do this and don’t do that.” God’s presence and God’s goodness are going to be really clear and obvious whenever and wherever people are obeying them and putting them into practice.
We do this kind of thing with God’s laws and God’s words all the time. We basically roll into one the rules and God himself, and as long as we’ve got the rules down pat—so we think—as long as we know what’s expected of us and do our best to meet those expectations, we’re on God’s side. It’s like God is in the rules and if we do the rules then hunky-dory and if we don’t do the rules, then there’s probably some way we can make it up, or just try again.
It’s kind of like COVID. We think as long as we follow all the main rules and trust Dr. Fauci or Michael Osterholm or whichever official we put on the pedestal we will keep the virus at bay and live in safety.
Except we don’t. Some of us still get sick, even though we follow all the COVID commandments. I can’t tell you how many people I know, some in this congregation who have gotten the virus, and they don’t have a clue about how or where they picked it up. A safe life was never supposed to be guaranteed with the COVID commandments, and a relationship with God was never guaranteed by following the law. God meant it as a tool for living in that relationship, but eventually even those who love God distort its use.
This distortion of the law and the overly corrupted systems of religion is what we see Jesus confronting in bold fashion as he comes into the Temple of Jerusalem. The tables and booths where people were selling cattle and other livestock were taking up precious space in the temple’s interior. People were so convinced that by just keeping the law, by fulfilling whatever sacrifices the religious authorities interpreted the laws to require, that they had found God and God’s favor.
In Jesus’ eyes, the Temple looked like a market. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a middle eastern market before. They look similar to one of our flea markets or maybe a farmer’s market—narrow rows that take you by table after table where people have set up their wares for you to see and buy and maybe barter for. Could you imagine coming to worship and finding that, people barking over tables at you, trying to get you to come closer? I would imagine that most people back then, if they just stepped back and looked at what had become of their Temple, would have been shocked at it. Jesus sees it with fresh eyes, a Nazareth guy from way out in the country, disgusted that the Temple had become this.
He takes a whip of cords and drives them all out. It’s like Indiana Jones Jesus. It’s a famous scene and one of the first things we actually see Jesus do in John’s gospel. He changes water into wine at a wedding, and then he immediately goes to Jerusalem for Passover and confronts the religious system of sacrifices and this misguided understanding that following the law gets people closer to God.
One thing this scene should make us stop and think about is what our own churches and religious buildings look like and what their interior and exterior communicates about God and our relationship to God. This week I stepped outside briefly because the weather was so nice and found Mike Long, one of our members, thinking through our new signage. As you know, the entrances to our building have changed drastically, and it’s not immediately clear where people are to come inside to find the sanctuary or the office, for example. Something as basic as a sign shouldn’t be so complicated, but he and I walked around for a good bit talking about where we’d place it and what it should say and where the arrows should point.
I admire him because he clearly thinks about this kind of stuff all the time and is good at it. You don’t want to put up a sign at a church that is going to confuse people about where they’re supposed to go, no matter how obvious you or I may think the path may be! By the same token, houses of prayer should communicate above all things that God is worshiped here, not something else. Churches and sanctuaries and common areas and the art and furnishings and decorations in them should point a clear arrow to God’s grace.
But no matter how good the signs are, they don’t—and they can’t—point an arrow to where God may be found. And that is really the message Jesus is driving home when he makes the whip of cords and overturns the tables. God can’t be found in building or a temple any more than God can be found in following rules.
And so when Jesus overturns the tables he is doing more than redecorating the Temple narthex. He is overturning the way of thinking that says the commandments contain our relationship with God.
He is overturning the beliefs that say as long as you’re at church you are holy and sacred.
He is driving out the wrong idea that we can build a building to contain God or write him down on pieces of paper.
God is not located in a sanctuary and God is not found in the law or in Holy Scripture. God is found in Jesus. And even more amazing than that? If God were to make a sign about how to enter relationship with God, the sign would say, “Wait! Stay where you are. I’m coming to you.”
Just as Jesus changes water into wine and flips tables, Jesus also completely changes our whole stance toward God. Gone are the days where we need to search or change or sacrifice something in order to get to God or grab God’s attention. In the cross of Jesus, God comes to us. “Destroy this temple,” Jesus says, “and in three days I will raise it up.” He’s not talking about the building. He’s talking about himself and the incredible lengths he himself will go to in order to prove that God loves and reclaims every aspect of the human experience. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, God reaches out to all of humankind and to all lonesome paths that humans walk, even the walk of the grave.
That kind of grace can’t be contained in a list of laws or in a structure or institution. It is made known each time selfless, sacrificial love is shared with someone else. God’s love seems foolish to the world, which almost equates force and violence with strength. And God’s self-giving ways are a stumbling block to systems that say we have to be wise or clever to know God.
When I sat down with the Nass family to prepare Alice for her baptism a few weeks ago, I was slightly aware of our language barrier. Being from Brazil, her parents speak Portuguese. They are much better at speaking English than they think they are because I have no problems understanding them, but sometimes they are worried they misunderstand me. I noticed that they had taken our baptism preparation packet, all four pages of it, and entered it into Google translate so they could really read and understand it and know they weren’t missing anything.
their delightful surprise, everything said exactly what they were expecting it to say. There were no differences, as it turns out, in how a baptism in their old church in Brazil would go and how a baptism here in Richmond would go. And furthermore, there was no difference in what the baptism would signify. Two different cultures, two different languages, two different countries, but one clear sign that pointed to grace: Jesus has torn down the temple of his body and raised it back up to cleanse Alice of her sins and claim her forever as God’s child. And how she will be a little arrow that points people to Jesus.
That, my friends, is the action of a God whose grace is now unleashed in the world, a God who likes and uses commandments, a God who likes and uses buildings for worship, but ultimately a God who will not be contained by culture or language or privilege or sacrifice systems or human wisdom or human strength or time or place or death. That, my friends, is the God who loves and claims you.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.