This seems at first to be an odd passage to read in the middle of Lent. But keep in mind that the whole of Exodus shows the people how to stay in relationship with God and, for us, that is the whole idea of Lent. This version of the Ten Commandments in Exodus was probably written and edited in light of the exile in Babylon. It is important to see them in that context. This is hard. The people are journeying through the wilderness. Food is in short supply and nerves are raw. They have quarreled and tested God but until now, they have had no real identity, no real purpose. This is the place where they are finally aware of the intention that God has for them as a people. This is the place where their lives and their journey becomes meaningful. And God gives them this covenant. The specific laws would have been selected from among the many social and moral laws over many generations. It is probable that they did not magically drop out of the sky but rather grew out of a people’s understanding of who God was.
The people are first reminded that God has already saved them before, bringing them out of slavery, bringing them into relationship with God. But you can’t help noticing that these commandments are formative of who one is before God and how one lives in response to God. The first four commandments related to one’s relationship with God and the remaining six have to do with the relationship between human beings. It is really very simple: You shall love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. (with all that you are, with every essence of your being) And…you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
But God’s grace, as we are reminded, happened before any of these laws were laid down. It is expected, then, that in response to the salvific nature of God, the people will want to respond and stay in relationship with God. In Hebrew, these laws are known as the “ten words”, and for the most part are expressed in brief sentences. Tradition says that God gave these words directly to the people and then later Moses is summoned to receive the tablets on which they are written for posterity. (Exodus 24: 12-18) Torah, or “law”, is really more about teaching and positive instruction rather than a list of rules, the way we would normally interpret “laws”. Think of it more like the law that we talk about when we say “natural laws” or “the laws of nature”. It is the way things are; it is the way order, rather than chaos and relationship, rather than separation ensues. It is the way that God draws us into God. This reading continues the theme of covenant that we have had the last two weeks. The purpose of the “law”, here is to choose life. And that choice is easy to see how it relates to us in our walk to the cross and Easter.
But in our modern-day society, there are those who have tried to make these words “law” in the judicial sense, simply by displaying them in courthouses or public buildings. But they are missing the fact that these are not laws to obey but the natural way that we are called to respond to the freedom of God. In fact, these laws, unlike many others, do not sanction a certain type of government or a specific king. Rather than dictating what we should do, they depict who we are as a people of God. They are less about behavior than they are about identity—who God is, who the people are, and who we are as people of God. It is about how we relate to God, how we relate to each other, and, even, how we provide sustenance and nourishment for our faith journey. And regardless of whether or not we believe they actually dropped out of the sky, they are like manna in the wilderness, providing sustenance and life. Think of them as declarations of freedom to become who we are called to be, rather than a set of rules or regulations that force us into becoming what someone else wants us to be.
Now, admittedly, I don’t think they belong on the courthouse lawn or on the walls of a schoolroom. I think they’re bigger than that and I don’t think they can be contained. They are, yet again, the very breath and essence of the God who dances with us rather than holds court over us to make sure we follow the rules. The Decalogue is, once again, God with us. And this Season of Lent is not about following the rules or being burdened with regulations; it is about experiencing the freedom of this God who dances with us—this one God, who, alone, drives our life with a Spirit of steadfast love and the integrity of respect; this one God who offers us rest and reflection that we might delight in Creation and that we might enjoy the best that it has to offer; this one God who knows that we can only understand the love we are given if we love in return, if we honor the ones from whom we came, if we honor life and love and all of Creation; if we are honest with ourselves and with each other, and if we want the very best for our brothers and sisters. In this way we will understand this God who offers us life and all that it entails.
- What is your response to this passage?
- What meaning for covenant do you see here?
- In what ways (if any) are these commandments formative for you?
- What does that definitive difference between burdens and freedom mean to you?
- What is your experience of The Ten Commandments?
NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Corinthians 1: 18-25
In the earlier part of this chapter, Paul has been bemoaning the divisions in the Corinthian church community. He starts here not really taking sides, but addressing the issue of wisdom and pointing out that wisdom in Christ is not the same as the wisdom of the world. Now, he is not attacking being “wise”, but is calling them to a more profound wisdom.
Think about it. The ugly sight of a mangled human body hanging on a cross confronts normal worldly values. In fact, in the first century, this was not a death of martyrs; this was a death of criminals and outcasts. There was nothing heroic about it. In fact, in terms of society, it would have been downright embarrassing. But these are not worldly values. And this first century church, no less than we, have tried to “clean up” this image and fit it into something that makes sense within the normalcy of the world. Paul is warning against the structures and intentions of the world that crucified Jesus and that are now trying to make it “presentable”. Because Paul is reminding us that for those wise in the ways of God, the cross is salvation.
In this Season of Lent, as we come closer and closer to the cross, we get a better and better sense of its meaning. You know, Paul’s really the only one that really ever dared to speak of the foolishness of the Cross, of the foolishness of God. And he’s right, because in terms of the world, the Cross is utter foolishness. The world says “mind your own business”; Jesus says “there is no such thing as your own business”. The world says “buy low, sell high”; Jesus says “give it all away”. The world says “take care of your health”; Jesus says “surrender your life to me”. The world says “Drive carefully—the life you save may be your own”; Jesus says “whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” The world says “get what you are due”; Jesus says, “love your neighbor as yourself”.
In his book, The Faces of Jesus, Frederick Buechner says that “if the world is sane, then Jesus is mad as a hatter and the Last Supper is the Mad Tea Party…In terms of the world’s sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under delusion.” (Buechner, The Faces of Jesus, p. 61) Think about it. It is really pretty ludicrous. Here in this season, called to enter Christ’s suffering, called to follow Christ to the Cross. Are we nuts? That could kill someone!
But Paul says that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” That is why we are called to rest in God’s foolishness and relinquish our strength to God. Because, you see, God raises us up far beyond the wisdom of this world in which we live and takes our weakness unto God’s self that we might finally rely on God’s strength.
Life is not ever what we plan for it to be. It is because life is not a sterile existence that is never touched by illness or grief or hardship or suffering or deep and profound loss. Life is just Life. Perhaps it would be easier to live in a bubble or in some other sort of “Stepford-type” existence, but then that wouldn’t really be Life, now would it? God gave us life and gave it abundantly. In terms of the world, that is sheer foolishness, but in terms of the wisdom of God, that is life.
This is the power of the cross. Maybe sometimes we make the mistake of cleaning it up too soon, of trying to wash away the wreak of death that it still holds. But the power of the cross IS the power over death. It did not just wash it away, but turned it into life. In the Byzantine tradition, this third Sunday of Lent is devoted to the Adoration of the Cross. A tray of flowers and sweet basil bears a cross in its center and is then processed around the nave as the hymn is sung: “Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.”–sheer foolishness if you look at it through the eyes of the world. But if you look at the Cross and recognize God’s power to make all things new, it begins to look a little different.
One of the dangers of being in church as often as I am is that it all starts to make sense. I speak of the Christian faith so casually and effortlessly that I begin to think, “Fine thing, this Christianity. Makes good sense.” And then I find myself believing all sorts of things in church that I wouldn’t let anyone put over on me in the real world. That which people would choke on in everyday speech, they will swallow if it’s in a sermon. That’s a blessing for those of us who get paid to preach Christ crucified.
And so Kierkegaard could say, “Christianity has taken a giant stride into the absurd,” and again, “Remove from Christianity its ability to shock and it is altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them.” It’s when the absurd starts to sound reasonable that we should begin to worry. “Blessed are the meek. . . .” “Thou shalt not kill.” “Love your enemies.” “Go, sell all you have and give to the poor.” Be honest now. Blessed are the meek? Try being meek tomorrow at work and see how far you get. Meekness is fine for church, but in the real world the meek get to go home early with a pink slip and a pat on the back. Blessed are those who are peacemakers; they shall get done to them what they are loath to do to others. Blessed are the merciful; they shall get it done to them a second time. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake; they shall be called fanatics. As Paul says, when you hear the gospel not with Sunday-morning ears but with Monday-morning ears, it can sound foolish indeed — tragically foolish or comically foolish, depending upon one’s point of view…
Along with the world, we expected to see a savior coming to take charge on our terms. Then the parade comes, and we find that we are standing in the wrong place to get a good view. Here comes the carpenter’s son, bouncing on the back of a donkey — not coming for breakfast with [the president and his wife], or dinner with Congress, or consultations at 475 Riverside Drive. The smart ones, the ones who are well adjusted to the status quo, the ones in the know, neither see nor know — so the story goes. Here is a messiah who does not make sense. Only the very young, the very old, the women and the simpletons see him. They are standing in the right place to get a proper view. Along with the poor, the maimed, the blind, the lame, the prisoners and the poor old crazed men like Paul, these “fools” see things as they really are. As for us smart ones, we know better. We know that if we work hard, achieve, get advanced degrees, adjust to the way things are, and act sensibly, we shall be in the know. It all depends on how you look at it. (From “Looking Like Fools”, by Bishop William Willimon, in The Christian Century, March 10, 1982., available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1288, accessed 5 March, 2012)
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What image does the cross hold for you?
- In what ways do you think we try to “fit” God into our worldly values?
- What is your notion of the “foolishness of the cross”?
- What is your notion of the “power of the cross.”?
GOSPEL: John 2: 13-22
This is always sort of an odd passage for us because we don’t usually think of Jesus getting angry. Here, as he approaches the temple, there is all this activity blocking his way. There are those who are exchanging currencies so that people can purchase animals to be sacrificed (because foreign currency was considered “unclean” and had to first be exchanged.) (and, of course, making a little money on the side!) So he “turns the tables”—literally and figuratively. Jesus cleared the temple not because they were necessarily doing anything wrong but because the temple should be pure, clear of all merchandising, all bargaining, and reward-earning. Now before we discount this with our “God doesn’t just live in the sanctuary” bit, remember that for these first century Jewish followers, that was exactly where God lived. Just as Solomon had intended when he constructed the first temple, this second temple was THE place where God dwelled. This was the House of God. And in the inner holies of the temple was the Ark of the Covenant, the very dwelling of God. So, I think Jesus probably did mean this to be taken literally to remind people that God was the master here, that this was God’s house, God’s dwelling place.
So, fast forward…our theology tells us that God dwells everywhere in our lives. Really? Everywhere? Are you sure? The temple is a metaphor for our souls, the temple where God should indeed be the master. But think about our own society. Our lives are reward-driven and because of it we live with the idea that we should get what is “due” to us. We believe that by working hard and doing the right things we will be rewarded. And often that carries into our spiritual lives. How many of us do the things we do because we think we should, because we think that it will in some way earn us points with God, or, even, because we think that we are the only ones that can do them? It is our own way of merchandising. What do we do because we love God and what do we do because we think that will reap a reward?
Meister Eckhart (13th-14th century German mystic) said that “as long as we to get something from God on some kind of exchange, we are like the merchants. If you want to be rid of the commercial spirit, then by all means do all you can in the way of good works, but do so solely for the praise of God.” Eckhart then exhorts us to “live as if you do not exist…then God alone dwells there.”
So, where, then, do we encounter God? Where do you expect to meet God? Where do you love God? If we really take all this journey stuff seriously, in what parts of our life are we aware of God and in what parts do we fall a little short? After all, if God dwells within our souls, if our souls are the temple for God, then why is this even a question? A life of faith is supposed to be just that—a LIFE of faith. This is not a trade-off. There is no such thing as “of the world” and “of God”. God is not locked in the sanctuary and we are not seeking some reward for a job well done. Our encounter with God in the sanctuary should, in essence, propel us into the world, carrying that encounter with us. God dwells with us. The Holiest of Holies is deep within our souls. That is how we connect with God—by growing our relationship with God.
When this Gospel version by the writer that we know as John was written, it was probably already late in the first century. Paul had written his letters and was gone. The writers of the synoptic Gospels were gone. And, more importantly, this temple would have been destroyed ten or twenty years earlier in 70 C.E. during the Siege of Jerusalem. (The Temple has never been rebuilt. After the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in the 7th century, the Dome of the Rock, or al-Aqsa Mosque, was built on the temple mount. And even though Jews are now allowed to pray at the Temple Mount—actually the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall—the mount itself is under the administrative control of the Muslim Waqf.) So, the Christian tradition holds that the temple is not needed, that Christ and we as followers of Christ are to become God’s dwelling place in the world. Boy, that Jesus was a troublemaker wasn’t he? Look at that…he just turned everything over on our lives. So what do we do now?
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What does it mean for you to be a “temple” of God?
- What would it mean to “live as if you do not exist”?
- Do we live our lives the way we do (or should!) because we want to please God or because we love God?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
The world dies whenever reality demands absolute dominion. (Amery, on the wall of the Israel Holocaust Museum)
Spirituality is the ability to live with ambiguity. (Ray Anderson)
We are what we repeatedly do. (Aristotle)
Going through Lent is a listening, When we listen to the word, we hear where we are so blatantly unloving. If we listen to the word, and hallow it into our lives, we hear how we can so abundantly live again.
Lord, teach us to listen. Teach us to be quiet. Teach us to hear. Amen.
(Paraphrased from “A Listening”, from Kneeling in Jerusalem, by Ann Weems, p. 33)