The Third Sunday in Lent, 4 March 2018

From Köln:

Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
I Corinthians 1:18-25
St. John 2:12-22

Background: Norms

Last Sunday, I attended church at Christ Church in Amsterdam. If you did not realize that it was an outpost of the Church of England the chancel would have given you several clues, for standing far above the altar in breathtaking color and detail stood the royal arms – just to remind you whose values and cultural patrimony you were under the spell. As a friend of mine wrote about my experience, “the War of the Spanish Succession is not that far away in time or in influence.” Below that were other norms – The Words, or as we call it “The Ten Commandments”, The Lord’s Prayer, and The Apostles’ Creed. All of that was an iconic expression of all you needed to know. Our time is one in which we struggle to know what is the right thing to do. Many use the Ten Commandments as a rule without having taken the time to discover their complexity and their diversity. The simpler explanation is probably not the best. However, Jesus redaction of the Law, “Love the Lord your God, your neighbor, yourself” can serve as a constructive platform for a good and decent Lenten exercise. The temptation will be to dismiss the first reading as something that is already known and understood. Resist that temptation and dive in, remembering the radical nature of the Gospel for today.

First Reading: Exodus 20:1-17

Then God spoke all these words:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Chagall, "Moses receives the Law"

Robert Alter notes that this is a rather wordy pericope, perhaps a gloss on a much simpler transcription or tradition of the words. You might want to look at Moshe Weinfeld’s proposal about a much simpler redaction in Alter’s book[1]. The wordiness of the second injunction gives us a clue as to its importance, and Weinfeld give us a hint as to its simplicity, “You shall make no carved likeness”.[2] Starting here we could have a lively conversation as have many in the past, giving in to iconoclasm or not. Each of the commandments offers an opportunity for discussion and a search for what is right and proper. What we are looking at in these words is the agreement, the covenant between a sovereign lord and the people. The blessings and curses that accompany the agreement are either implied or are evident as in the fourth (or fifth, depending on how you count them) commandment. What might be interesting in looking at these words would be to commend to them catechetical materials and explanations that work to unfold the words for the people.

Breaking open Exodus:
  1. What are the values of your family?
  2. What are your personal values?
  3. How did you derive them?

Psalm 19 Caeli enarrant

       The heavens declare the glory of God, *
and the firmament shows his handiwork.
2        One day tells its tale to another, *
and one night imparts knowledge to another.
3        Although they have no words or language, *
and their voices are not heard,
4        Their sound has gone out into all lands, *
and their message to the ends of the world.
5        In the deep has he set a pavilion for the sun; *
it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber;
it rejoices like a champion to run its course.
6        It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens
and runs about to the end of it again; *
nothing is hidden from its burning heat.
7        The law of the Lord is perfect
and revives the soul; *
the testimony of the Lord is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent.
8        The statutes of the Lord are just
and rejoice the heart; *
the commandment of the Lord is clear
and gives light to the eyes.
9        The fear of the Lord is clean
and endures for ever; *
the judgments of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
10      More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold, *
sweeter far than honey,
than honey in the comb.
11      By them also is your servant enlightened, *
and in keeping them there is great reward.
12      Who can tell how often he offends? *
cleanse me from my secret faults.
13      Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me; *
then shall I be whole and sound,
and innocent of a great offense.
14      Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my
heart be acceptable in your sight, *
Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

We move from verses that celebrate the beauty of creation to verses that see the beauty of God’s words – the commandments and instruction that God gives to God’s people. It’s not a stretch for it is the word of God that creates the beauty of the initial verses, and it is that same word that utters God’s desire, “The Law of the Lord is perfect, and revives the soul.” We live in a time of a multiplicity of words and expression. It is both the blessing and the curse of social media. Some words are false, some are spurious, some are right on – the difficulty is in discerning intent and verity. The psalmist does not see that problem with God’s words and God’s commands. These words enlighten, “and in keeping them there is great reward.” The closing verses express the wish that God’s words become our words so that God might recognize what is right in our words, and forgive us for the wrong.

Breaking open Psalm 19:
  1. Where is the beauty of rules?
  2. How is creation like God’s law?
  3. From where do you seek enlightenment?

Second Reading: I Corinthians 1:18-25

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. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Gaugin "The Green Crucifix"

Paul’s words to the Corinthians falls in line with our meditation on the words, and for Paul that is an expression of the Wisdom that is Christ. He ponders a bit on Wisdom, and wonders what is true wisdom, as he looks at the wisdom of his own time, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom.” Like the psalmist he sees the limits of human wisdom, or human attempts to know and discover wisdom. He sees wisdom in God’s word and breath – Jesus Christ. That our faith should make no sense, should be seen as foolishness by so many, should give us cause to understand it in our conversation with others, and with our dialogue of faith with our fellow believers – a Lenten discipline?

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. What do you find foolish about your religion?
  2. How do you reconcile that with faith?
  3. How is your religion wise?

The Gospel: St. John 2:13-22

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

St. Giles Cathedral, "The Cleansing of the Temple"
The wedding at Cana seems to be a beginning point that is contrasted with our pericope for this day – The Cleansing of the Temple. We have been catapulted from joy into zeal. We seem to see a great zeal in these days, but zeal for what. That is what Jesus wants us to discover and to understand. For what do we have zeal. At the temple he did not see “zeal for (this) house.” Instead there seemed to be a zeal for greed and for the marketplace – but not for prayer and for understanding. Does this sound familiar in our culture? The words that Jesus speaks goes well beyond the understanding that the people had. Where do our words and our understanding of God’s words lead us? Where is our zeal placed?

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What does the word “zeal” mean to you?
  2. What in life are you zealous about?
  3. How does that passion match your religious values?

Question: What norms do you live by today? What norms are present in our churches and society?

1.     Perhaps Lent could be a time during which we really explore our values and how we got them?
2.     How do the values of our society stand up to the values of the Commandments as we understand them?
3.     How do they stand up to Jesus’ summary of the law?
4.     Something for discussion, is your church a moral leader in your community? How or how is it not?
5.     What does Lenten discipline suggest to you as a way of approaching the community.

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Otto Dix, "Crucifixion"

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2018, Michael T. Hiller

[1]     Alter, R. (2004), The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle Edition, Location 9327.
[2]     Ibid.


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