Homily for the Third Sunday in Lent
March 23, 2003
(Once again, a homily undelivered! This time it was the pastor's turn to preach)
(Based on Exodus 20:1-17; Ps 19:8-11; 1st Corinthians 1:22-25; John 2:13-25)
"I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall have no other Gods but me." -- "Jesus was well aware of what was in the human heart."
Have you ever seen someone actually be so consumed with anger that they threw over a table and scattered everything on it? Or someone make a whip and thrash anyone near by?
The scene in today's Gospel is a genuinely scary one, hardly the meek and gentle Jesus we all want to console us.
And the scene from Exodus where we just read of the giving of the Ten Commandments is equally disturbing. There was lightning and thunder, 'so that all the people in the camp trembled.' Mount Sinai was all wrapped in smoke, 'for the Lord came down upon it in fire.'
We are moving deeper into Lent, and we are learning of the seriousness of the journey we are on. The compass in Jesus' heart points unwaveringly back to his Father, the one he called Abba. Zeal for the Father's will consumes him.
You know, we are all so familiar with the Ten Commandments it's easy to miss the real point of what's going on here. The Ten Commandments are not just a moral code like any other. Something else is going on here. All the other Near East cultures of that day had similar codes that were intended to govern social life. There was nothing new in the matter of the commandments themselves: you don't lie, you don't cheat, you reverence your elders, you don't take your neighbor's wife or goods.
What's new in the account in Exodus is the motive, the reason for these norms of conduct. They are presented as the will of a different kind of God. God is one, not many. God is engaged in our human story, not someone up on Olympus. God is active, God cares about our plight. It is Yahweh who has freed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. And this God is jealous, brooking no rivals. That is why we are challenged to these behaviors.
I found myself thinking of all those politicians posturing and grandstanding about how we need to post the Ten Commandments in front of every courthouse and school. It's so easy, it will put a stop to human misbehavior. The truth is that the monuments will become the scenery, outdoor wallpaper, having about as much impact as the statue of the long-forgotten general right next to them. In fact, it's very possible that the monument itself has become the idol.
It's easy to posture and blow steam. It's something else to resist the temptation in the human heart to build idols so we don't have to face the living God.
In the case of Jesus the idol was the whole institution itself of ritual sacrifices, which had become more important than the prayer and submission to God that they were supposed to represent.
The buyers and sellers themselves were good people. They were following the accepted routine that had been passed on to them, with its special kind of money to pay the temple taxes, the whole paraphernalia of animals and blood which must have been a chaotic sight to behold. The trouble was that they didn't see they were missing the whole point.
In First Corinthians Paul says the Jews were seeking 'signs' and the Gentiles were seeking ;wisdom.' They would recognize the allusions he is making to the situation in Isaiah's time. He's calling them back to Isaiah 29, when the leaders of Jerusalem thought they could save the city through alliances and political maneuvering with the surrounding rulers instead of living the covenant with Yahweh. Isaiah has God say:
Since this people draws near with words only
and honors me with their lips alone,
though their hearts are far from me,
And their reverence for me has become routine observance of the precepts of men,
Therefore I will again deal with this people in surprising and wondrous fashion.
The wisdom of its wise men shall perish
and the understanding of its prudent men be hid.
Woe to those who would hide their plans too deep for the Lord!
We can follow the same line as the traders in the Temple or the leaders of Isaiah's time. We can make our own idols.
Our community is engaged these days in a study of the changes we might need to make in order to do liturgy 'right.' And that's a good thing. We can always improve, and we should always try to make our worship pleasing to God. But if we concentrate too much on the right rituals we could miss the deeper conversion it is calling for, the change in our hearts.
In the same way we can distort a genuine love of our country, and reduce it to an irresponsible abdication of our responsibility to our consciences. We can stop asking difficult questions and turn patriotism into jingoism and boosterism, drowning out dissenting voices and treating them as traitorous instead of seeing them as the glory of our freedom.
You may have heard the story: Shortly after 9/11 a man noticed that people were beginning to fly the American flag. In his desire not to be outdone he bought four flags and mounted them on his car. He drove down Main Street as proud as he could be. Then he stopped at a light and another car pulled up alongside his. The other car had five American flags on it. And the other driver rolled down his window and called out to this fellow "Go back to Afghanistan!"
The truth is that only God is holy through and through. Every human relationship and commitment is relativized by the call of the transcendent God.
Again and again the prophets tried to warn the Israelite people: put not your trust in princes, and horses. In our day we'd have to say, 'in tanks and missiles, and generals and admirals.' And presidents.
Even if we 'succeed' and our technology makes this war brief and less costly in lives on both sides -- as we all surely pray that it will -- that is not the sign we can place our trust in. From a spiritual standpoint maybe the greatest risk we face is a quick 'success' which we interpret as God's sign that we are the saviors and liberators of the world.
Salvation and liberation have already been done. Through the folly of the cross, a stumbling block and an absurdity. For God's folly is wiser than that of humans, and his weakness more powerful than human power.