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Third Sunday in Lent

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

Readings: Exodus 20:1–17; 1 Corinthians 1:18–25 & John 2:13–22

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “Ten Commandments”? Perhaps you might immediately think of  a set of rules or laws that must be obeyed. That was certainly how I understood the ‘commandments’ when I was growing up. They were a list of religious rules that had to be obeyed, and if you failed to keep any of them you would be punished by God.

At that time I understood where the term “God–fearing” came from, because I for one was definitely afraid of God, and what would happen to me if I disobeyed one of the ‘commandments’. Sadly, I feel that in times gone by, the ‘commandments’ were used by some in the Church as a tool to manipulate people and to control their behaviour, which is not what they were originally designed to do. They were intended to provide the people of Israel with a structure for their common life, and to also shape individual lives that were worthy of the God with whom they were in relationship.

The ‘commandments’ were divided into two tablets, or sections. The first tablet was God–centred, and consisted of a set of instructions against making false idols and taking the Lord’s name in vain, and commandments to keep the Sabbath Day, and to honour one’s father and mother. These are commandments that concentrate on an individual’s relationship with God. The second tablet was neighbour–centred, forbidding acts of murder, adultery, stealing, lying, and coveting. Like the boundary lines on a football field, the commandments outline the basic expectations of human behaviour, and protect humanity from running out of bounds and falling into patterns of living that will destroy it and lead people into chaos. At the same time, the commandments provide encouragement for a healthy and proper love of God and neighbour.

Jesus best summarised the commandments when a lawyer asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:35–39 NRSV)

These ‘Two Great Commandments’ as they are called, are synonymous with the Christian Faith, which itself is of course symbolised by the cross. The Apostle Paul said of the cross,“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”(1 Corinthians 1:18 NRSV) What is the message of the cross? Well, it’s really the principle belief of the Christian Faith: that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah and Son of God, died for the sins of humanity, so that all of humanity might be reconciled to God.

Paul states that to those people who don’t believe in this (whom he describes as “those who are perishing”) it’s nonsense, but to those of us who do believe (whom Paul refers to as “us who are being saved” – because we are reconciled to God), it is a demonstration of the power of God. Paul argues that the cross is a “stumbling block” to both Jews and Gentiles, with the Jews needing signs as proof of anything, and the Greeks requiring a plausible explanation,  because for both groups, the notion of the Messiah (or God) dying on the cross, so that humanity might be reconciled to God, just didn’t make any sense. If God were the all powerful Creator of everything, then surely he would just use His power to correct everything that was wrong with the world and with humanity.

But that’s not how God works. God doesn’t act or think as human beings do. As God Himself spoke to the people of Israel through the prophet Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.”(Isaiah 55:8 NRSV) Or, as Paul puts it, “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”(1 Corinthians 1:25 NRSV)

We see throughout the Bible that the values which God gives priority to are very different to those that humanity prioritises. And the people in the Bible through whom God works, are not the types of people that most human beings would expect to be chosen to perform the tasks or mission that God calls them for. Take the figure of Paul himself, not only had he previously been someone who persecuted the early Christians because of their beliefs, but he also considered himself to be inadequate when it came to public speaking. His opponents wrote of him, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.”(2 Corinthians 10:10 NRSV) And Paul himself said that he was untrained in the skill of rhetoric, or public speaking. Regardless of all that, Paul was arguably the most influential person in the history of Christianity, apart from Jesus of course.

Today’s passage from John’s Gospel, in which Jesus clears the Temple of animals and money changers, also demonstrates the difference between God’s ways and the ways of human beings. For centuries the people of Israel believed that God resided in the Temple in Jerusalem, and the people would travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival of Passover. As Jewish tradition required, it was necessary for offerings of sacrifice to be made in the Temple, and naturally it was not practical for people to travel long distances with animals for the sacrifice, so animals could be purchased at the Temple for use in sacrificial offerings. Likewise, people needed to pay the Temple tax, so it was necessary for money changers to be there so that people could exchange coins for the appropriate currency required for the tax. 

Even though these were all necessary aspects of worship in the Temple, Jesus is nonetheless angered by the lack of reverence displayed by the people in Jerusalem towards the Temple, seeing that the people supposedly believed that God resided there. When Jesus drove out those who were selling animals, and overturned the tables of the money changers, the Jews, who as Paul said required signs as proof of anything, asked Jesus what sign he could show that justified his actions. He replied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” In effect, what Jesus was telling the Jews was that God didn’t reside in the Temple, but that He was present in the world through the person of Jesus, who was the incarnation of God in the world.

As Christians in the world today, our values and beliefs are going to be increasingly  inconsistent with those living around us, and while we may not necessarily find ourselves being persecuted or oppressed because of our religious beliefs, we may start to witness passive signs of discrimination against us, which I think are already there to a certain extent. 

Some people may ridicule us for our values and beliefs, so it’s therefore important to remain strong in our convictions, and to remember that what they may consider as both foolishness and weakness, is actually wiser and stronger than what they put their trust in. God came into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, and he died so that all humanity could be reconciled to God. And Jesus gave us the best possible instructions to live as God intended when he gave us the Two Great Commandments: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:35–39 NRSV)

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