March 4, 2018: Lent 3B (English)

Lent 3B, 2018. Zion, Baltimore.
Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
Pastor Eric Deibler

The desert is a strange and marvelous place. It’s one of those places that can be instantly transformed. By day, it appears desolate and lifeless. And then, the instant the sun goes down and the sand cools off, suddenly there are all kinds of creatures to be seen crawling about.

But the desert is also a place of transformation. This was recognized early on by the first Christian mystics. They were known as the Desert Fathers or the Desert Mothers. They intentionally separated themselves from the larger society because they recognized that, in the desert, they would find themselves utterly alone. In being utterly alone, they recognized that they would eventually be confronted by their self and by God.

They were hermits, but they didn’t live in solitude. At least, not necessarily. They practiced a unique hospitality. They would welcome anyone. They would provide for anyone. They were, in fact, the first spiritual directors. Individuals would come to them, seeking advice and guidance in their relationship with God. The Desert Fathers and Mothers were not the first to recognize the desert or wilderness as a place of transformation.

The bible continually shows us this, over and over. And the story that we have today from Exodus is one of those transformational moments. It’s a decisive moment. It’s such an important moment because it redefines who the people of Israel are.

First, it provides for them a sense of unity. The people who wandered out of Egypt with Moses were not a homogenous group. They weren’t just a bunch of Hebrews. They were Hebrews, and Egyptians, and whoever else managed to fall in with Moses and his crowd when they saw the opportunity to escape the oppressive life they lived in Egypt. So, the giving of the commandments is a moment that binds them together as one people.

But the commandments also do something else. The commandments, and what they demand of the people, set them apart from the general population of the region. The Ten Commandments are often treated today as if they were general moral principles, rules for life that all people of all cultures could and should recognize. But some of these commandments were very specific to the people of Israel. The requirement of monotheism would have set them apart. The prohibition of images of the divine would have set them apart. During the Babylonian Exile centuries later, this became even more true of the commandment to keep the Sabbath, when the Sabbath and kosher laws became important means by which the Jews kept themselves distinct from their captors.

The commandments, then, are something more than general moral principles. They’re signs of a particular relationship with God. They are the means by which the Israelites attempted to stay faithful in that relationship. Seen through this lens, some of the other commandments among the Ten reveal a particular concern with fidelity, as well. The commandments against adultery, false witness, and covetousness, could be seen as generally useful guidelines for good order in the community; but they can also require an intention to be faithful to the neighbor, and in so doing to mirror the people’s faithful relationship with God.

The Sinai covenant with its practical expression in the Law is the concrete, outward expression of God’s covenantal promise to redeem, not destroy, the sin of the world. It maps out a way of life that replaces corruption and violence with fidelity and justice. The commandments are a way of setting apart the people of Israel, so that they are unique in their identity as the people of God and as a source of blessing for the rest of the world. It’s a theme that we see being repeated in the lesson from John.

John tells us that Jesus’ complaint against the merchants is that they are making the Temple “a marketplace”. They fail to respect the holiness of the Temple by treating it like any other space. The Temple is intended to be an expression of the relationship between God and the people of God, just like the Commandments. The temple is intended to be a place set apart, a consecrated space where the faithful people can come to be mindful of the presence of God. The Temple is the place where the divine Name dwells. So, to be in the Temple without being responsive to the call to be in co-creative action with God, is to refuse the reality of God’s presence and the blessing offered by God. The merchants and money-changers fail to recognize this particularity, this state of being set apart, and so Jesus drives them out. That makes it even more significant when Jesus makes the symbolic connection between the Temple and his body.

Jesus is presented, now, as the place where God’s Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. Jesus’ life and ministry are the particular revelation of God’s blessing, guiding and permeating human life. Jesus is the perfect example of divine ideals embodied in human reality. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus map out for us God’s way of transforming corruption and violence into fidelity and justice.

Lent is a collective desert experience. It’s a time when we intentionally strip away much of what crowds in on our lives. It’s a time that we intentionally set apart, in order to examine our lives in Christ. It’s a time when we consider what it means to be set apart as the people of God.

Do we even recognize that our lives are set apart? Or do we allow the world to occupy our lives the same way that the money changers and merchants occupied the temple? Our lives are a sacred space. Our lives are set apart for a specific purpose identified wholly and entirely as belonging to God. Our lives, as the children of God, are intended to be an expression of the relationship between God and the rest of the world, just like the Commandments. Our lives are intended to be a place set apart, a consecrated space where people can witness the presence of God. Our lives are the place where the divine Name dwells. To occupy our lives without being responsive to the call to be in co-creative action with God is to refuse the reality of God’s presence and the blessing offered by God.

I am not a disciple of what is sometimes called “decision theology”. That our decision for Christ is what saves us. But recognizing the gift of God’s grace, recognizing the gift of faith and what it means for us in the grand scheme of things, we are forced to decide how we will respond to that grace. The commandments placed demands upon the people of Israel that set them apart over and against the general culture.

When people look at our lives, do they see any evidence that we are set apart as the people of God? Is our behavior a visible outward sign of the inner relationship, the indwelling of God’s spirit, or not?

As I said before, Lent is a collective desert experience. Ideally, it’s a time when we intentionally strip away all that which crowds in upon our lives. It’s a time when we intentionally focus on our relationship with God and examine that relationship with an honest, unflinching eye. And it’s not an easy thing to do.

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus map out for us God’s way of transforming corruption and violence into fidelity and justice. Can we honestly say that we live our lives in a way that transforms corruption and violence into fidelity and justice? Are we living as the people God has called us to be? Are we living as a sign of God’s redeeming presence in the world? Are we living as the body of Christ in the world today? It’s a question that all of us must ask. It’s a question that is borne out of the isolation of the desert. It’s a question by which we are confronted both by God and by our selves. It’s a question that invites us into a place of transformation. But living a transformed life is not something that happens all by itself.

Living a transformed life is not the result of some kind of holy hocus pocus on God’s part. Living a transformed life is not something that is done to us. Living a transformed life means allowing our lives to be transformed. It means joining in the death of Jesus. But it also means joining in the resurrection of Jesus. Dying is not comfortable or easy. Nor, for that matter, is resurrection.

Both dying and resurrection can be painful experiences. So why bother? Why bother with transformation? Why bother with dying to our selves? Why bother with resurrection? Because it’s only in dying to our selves and being raised again that we can truly know the compassion, love, and mercy of God.

You are the incarnation of Christ in the world today. Bodies matter. Your body matters. It’s how you embody the truth of the Gospel. In the end, Jesus is saying that his body is the location of God. Yours is, too. It has to be. God is counting on it because God loves the world. Jesus is counting on it because his incarnation came to an end on that cross. In your body, the Word becomes flesh -- again and again. AMEN

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