Exodus 20:1-17; John 2:13-22
Welcome back to Lent 101.
A few housekeeping items again here at the outset:
hope you’re keeping up—not putting off your thinking
and your expression of that thinking—
what it means to be a follower of God.
Remember, your first paper is due next week.
I anticipate reading anything that’s turned in, because I suspect
that in your writing—in your expression whatever form it takes,
you will be as much teaching assistant as I.
I hope you have been experiencing wonderful conversations
with your worship partners—as I have been—
provocative conversations—meaningful and relevant—
challenging, exciting and energizing.
Our thought for the day comes from the psalms—from Psalm 26:
“Vindicate me, God, for I have walked in my integrity”—Psalm 26:1.
And our learning objective of the day is the affirmation that
integrity represents my words made flesh.
Words to ponder.
I’ve told you this before—
about meeting with college students,
talking about being people of the way—
those who follow God in the way of Jesus,
and asking them what they thought God expected of them.
Remember? I told you how they really didn’t like that.
They were fine with what they might choose to offer God,
but really didn’t want to talk about God expecting—
God having specific expectations of them.
Because that idea takes my living and makes it about
what someone else thinks it should be?
Which is one way of looking at it.
But aren’t expectations honestly key
to the most intimate relationships on which we rely?
You expect me to be there for you; I expect you to be there for me.
You expect me to listen; you expect me to care; I expect you to listen and care.
You expect support and encouragement from me, as do I from you,
and—and (here’s the thing), we have worked hard to generate those expectations!
Now, yes, inappropriate expectations can undo relationships—
unstated expectations—assumed expectations.
but legitimate expectations are the cornerstone to a relationship.
Having made the choice to be in relationship,
you no longer have certain choices.
That’s what we choose to offer God.
I have chosen your way
so now, other options are not my choice anymore.
Or is the truth of the matter more
that I face my choice to follow God all the time—
every day—every moment.
I tell you, it’s too easy to dismiss college students as young—
as more immature.
maybe they’re just more honest—
more willing to admit they don’t want God’s expectations around all the time.
II. Overview of the Season
A. Ash Wednesday
Remember, mortal, you are dust,
and to the dust you shall return.
Each week, we’re adding a little bit more information about Lent.
And today, we’re mindful that Lent is not just forty days,
but what we do in those forty days—
how we live those forty days.
And discipline may be how we give something up,
and/or it may be how we maintain something.
Fasting, giving up certain foods, is traditionally a part of Lent.
Long ago, the paschal fast two days before the Easter Vigil
(so fasting on Good Friday and Holy or Silent Saturday) was extended
through the forty days of Lent.
And yes, it has something to do with Jesus fasting in the wilderness—
yes it has something to do with Jesus resisting temptation,
but it’s not just about the will power—the self-discipline to give something up,
but also the hope that in giving up food, in fasting,
we might recognize and come to know that for which we truly hunger—
that we might hear again the word of God as recorded in Isaiah:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger,
the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
So part of what we do is fast by choice to remember those who have no choice—
those who cannot afford to eat.
And the disciplines of Lent manifest not just expectations of self,
but trying to attune ourselves to God’s expectations of us—
not just what we choose to offer, but what God expects of us—
and not just during Lent either.
We have two more texts to consider this morning—
both in relationship to each other and to us.
Well known texts:
a top ten list from God live on Mt. Sinai,
and a clip from a rather rare video in the series Messiahs Gone Wild.
It was several years ago now, 2009, actually,
that we took eleven Sundays in the summer
to consider rather more carefully the decalogue—the ten words of God—
popularly known as the ten commandments
(even if, as some of you may remember,
it’s a little bit of a mystery to figure out how to get ten!).
In light of that careful look we took, it’s interesting
when the lectionary assigns all ten for one Sunday.
So a quick word of overview—
a much more general comment:
the ten words all indicate something about who God is.
So as words we either embrace or don’t,
we either manifest God or don’t in our day-to-day living.
The ten words indicate that God expects nothing less
than for those who claim to follow God, to strive to be as God.
Right there in line with some of Jesus’ more disturbing words:
“be perfect therefore as your father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Reading over the ten words from Exodus, it struck me this past week,
in light of rather impassioned rhetoric about the ten commandments—
the ten commandments as the basis for our own legal system—
the Judeo-Christian foundation of our own system of justice—
in light of passionate appeal and argument
to have the ten commandments hung on the walls of our courthouses—
it struck me how we focus on our stated respect for what’s expected of us
over our lived fulfillment of what’s expected.
Let’s hang them on the wall instead of on our hearts.
Ever occurred to you that of the ten words,
really only two might legitimately constitute law anyway?
I mean we’d throw out a bunch because they’re religious
(no other gods before God, no idols—American or otherwise!
no wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God,
keeping the sabbath day holy—that one actually used to be law,
but no way we go back to it, right?).
We’d throw out more because they’re personal—private
(honor Mom and Dad, don’t commit adultery
[though that one technically remains on the books in about eight states,
no one is prosecuted for it—so it’s an empty law!],
don’t bear false witness [which does constitute law in the contractual sense,
but certainly doesn’t cover gossip], don’t covet—
a precept which would just about undo our economy!).
And we’re left with two: do not kill and do not steal.
Then in conversation with a friend this past week,
he said, “You know, you’re part of a system that breaks all ten.”
Think about that. I’m still thinking about that!
I am part of a culture that breaks all ten of God’s words.
What does God expect of me?
And does the way I live reflect us more than it does God,
or God more than us?
Then this conversation gets linked with our gospel text from John,
in which gospel, you know, biblical scholars that you are,
the cleansing of the temple happens at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry,
not at the end as in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
John’s gospel, you’ll remember records multiple trips to Jerusalem
(three to be exact!—John 2:13, 5:1, 12:12), the synoptics only the one.
Of course, the fourth gospel is less interested in presenting history than theology
so, whatever the historical accuracy, this placement of the story
is somehow important to the fourth gospel’s introduction of Jesus.
So Jesus goes to Jerusalem for Passover, and in Jerusalem, he goes to the temple.
Now I want you to imagine several things:
the temple mount on the eastern edge of the slope down into the Kidron valley—
primary access from the west and the south.
There was, along the western wall, a cardo, a main street
with shops, vendors, merchandise.
Along the south end, the so-called stoa basilica, the same.
So to get to the temple mount was to cut through the market of the day—
merchants hawking their wares as they do to this day.
Even under the porticos surrounding the temple there were likely
to have been vendors and merchandise
seeking to cash in on the devout.
Then within the temple courts—probably in the outermost courts,
the tables and booths of the money changers.
A word or two about the money changers.
There was the temple tax required of every Jewish male (Exodus 30:11-16)
Now according to the Talmud, silver mentioned in the Pentateuch, the law
is always Tyrian silver (Tosefta [Ketubot 13:20]).
Why? Some scholars suggest “the temple tax would not be paid
in Greek or Roman coinage because of the human image
(the emperor’s head) on these coins …,
and foreign coinage had to be changed into the legal … currency in Jerusalem”
(Gail R. O’Day, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections
in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes,
Volume IX [Nashville: Abingdon, 1995] 543).
Slight problem with that. The Tyrian shekel had graven images on it too.
In fact, the Tyrian tetradrachma had the head of the Persian God Melqart or Baal on it—
A head the Greeks named Hercules’ and Jews mocked as Beelzebub’s!
But—but (here’s the thing), it had a higher percentage of silver!
10 to 15% more silver than other coins of the empire.
So what is it we care about?
What is more to be desired than silver, even much fine silver?
Then there were the animals available for purchase for the sacrifices.
“Cattle, sheep, and doves were required for burnt offerings in the Temple
(see Leviticus 1 and 3). Since Passover was a pilgrimage feast,
many of those coming to worship in the Temple
would have journeyed a great distance and would not have brought animals with them.
They needed to buy animals in Jerusalem
in order to participate in temple worship” (O’Day, 543).
Archaeologists digging at the base of the temple mount
discovered late last year, late December of 2011,
under Robinson’s arch, a bulla, the clay impression of a seal
on which you can read two aramaic words meaning “pure for God.”
“Archaeologists say the seal was likely used by Temple officials
approving an object for ritual use—oil, perhaps, or an animal intended for sacrifice.
Materials used by Temple priests had to meet stringent purity guidelines
stipulated in detail in the Jewish legal text known as the Mishnah,
which also mention the use of seals as tokens by pilgrims.”
So to purchase oil or animals for sacrifice,
you either needed to exchange your money into the Tyrian shekels,
or, perhaps, buy the equivalent of Disney dollars, temple tokens.
And Jesus, in town for the Passover, goes to the temple and goes nuts.
He presumably had to cut through the mall to get to the temple.
But it wasn’t the merchants that caught his ire.
It was the money exchangers—part of the temple system.
So was it the whole temple system he rejected?
Undermining the whole sacrificial system? There are Christians who would be fine with that—
thinking about Jesus as the final sacrifice or something.
Or was it that cutting through the vendors to get to the temple,
there wasn’t enough in the temple that was different?
Decisions made on the quality of silver, the amount of silver—
a mentality within no different from the mentality without.
I really don’t see Jesus actually rejecting the whole temple system.
And as good an answer as to why is actually found
within the very Jewish religious tradition some might think Jesus is rejecting.
In the Mishnah and the Talmud, the rabbis ask how to distinguish
between someone reading a Scriptural prayer
(which at the time would have been aloud),
and someone actually praying the prayer.
And the answer was if you direct your heart toward fulfilling the obligation,
you fulfill your obligation, and if you don’t
(direct your heart toward fulfilling the obligation), then you haven’t
(Mishnah, tractate of Berakhot, 2:1).
There was a question about the requirement to stand when praying the Amidah,
a prayer called the 18 benedictions.
But if you can’t stand, says the Mishnah, you face east.
And if you can’t face east, you direct your heart to the chamber of the holy of holies
(Mishnah, tractate of Berakhot, 4:4-6).
So what we have are physical transactions
(whether that’s standing or facing east, Tyrian shekels or two turtle doves)—
physical transactions designed to bring us into the presence of God.
So it’s not that God has some need of turtle doves—
or values in particular one direction on the compass,
no, I need this physical transaction.
I need something to do in body (to hold—to give) to point me to God.
I need to live into this direction.
This is part of John’s introduction of the incarnation.
Here’s what you do with an embodied life.
You live in this way.
And so Jesus, God incarnate, howls,
“You have made my father’s house a house of trade”—
a house of merchandising—buying and selling.
It’s the Greek word from which we get our word “emporium.”
It comes from the word merchant—itself coming from a root word meaning to journey—
the merchants originally being the one who traveled to acquire and bring back to sell.
Specifics in hand, we can forget intent.
If I have the turtle doves, that’s all I need, right?
Now intent without specifics is its own set of problems—
not ours to deal with today.
We’re reminded today that we don’t have a to-do list and a to don’t,
but a relationship.
We are on the way with God—
we are on a journey—
not as merchants, but as disciples.
Not to go acquire, but to receive.
Not to bring back to sell,
but to treasure.
The way is narrow and hard,
but we are changed on this journey
and we bring back salvation
Lent is not just forty days,
but what we do in those forty days—
how we live those forty days—
who we are or who we become in those forty days.
IV. The Tragedy of Our Time
It’s the girl at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
And she asks “someone to take a picture of her
looking at a particular piece of art for her Facebook profile….
[T]he girl had little interest in the art as such …,
but she was interested in creating an image of herself
as the type of person who would be interested in that particular painting”
(Peter Rollins, Insurrection: To Believe Is Human, To Doubt, Divine
[New York: Howard Books, 2011] 93).
For another generation, it’s the family profile in the Christmas letter. Right?
The idyllic year gone by in the perfect family.
It’s the politician I won’t name (because it could honestly be most of them)
who in support of his own ideologies,
and looking for the support of others who support those ideologies,
attacked an organization he identified as being against those priorities
by making a grossly inaccurate statement. What’s new, right?
But when confronted
an aide said it wasn’t meant to be a factual statement.
The tragedy of our time is that the name of the politician
and the details of that particular incident don’t, in truth, matter.
We are less interested in reflecting the image of God,
than projecting whatever image we think will get us what we want.
You know the expression, it’s the thought that counts.
Think about it!
I live with two little girls,
and I’m not even going to try and imagine
trying to negotiate a birthday or a Christmas
with the words, “Well, it’s the thought that counts.”
It’s not that the thought doesn’t count.
It’s that there are certain actions that are supposed to go along with it.
My girls have expectations—
expectations I have worked hard to create.
I want them to expect much of me.
And then it’s the thought that counts
precisely because there’s more than the thought to count!
Please don’t hear me saying it’s how many gifts you can count,
but too many little girls and little boys—
too many not so little girls and not so little boys
live with the tragedy of our time—
an empty reflection of what love should be.
Learning themselves the implicit lesson:
just think it; just say it.
Don’t worry about words needing to be made flesh.
V. The Word of the Day
Our transformative word of the day
is the phrase: “the reflection of God.”
It redeems us and our world.
But the tragic word of the day
is the phrase: “projection of a self”—
an empty profile full of what are thought to be impressive images
and status updates
signifying … not much at all.
VI. We Live in Hope
And so we live in hope
that our works will justify our intent—
that our lives will manifest our faith.
We live in the hope that the words of those who follow Jesus—
the words of those who follow Jesus being made flesh
will form the body of Christ in our world.
And so it is that we’re back to a daily homework assignment—or opportunity.
Each day this week, we invite you to write down
something you think God expects of you.
It might be a Scriptural command.
It might come from the tradition of our faith.
It might come from your own study and reflection—
your own praying—
a legitimate, named expectation:
what does God require of me?
We’re asking you to come up with daily specifics,
but my guess is that all your specifics could be boiled down
to your heart inclined to the holiest of holies—
to our best, richest, deepest sense of who God is,
and your living aligned with that inclination of your heart—
to realize the integrity of your faith.
The world is desperate for this.
May it be so.