(Preached at Alger First UMC on 3/8/2015)
Lent 2B: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
That first reading from Exodus, was that familiar to all of you? It was the 10 Commandments, right? Who had to memorize those as a kid in Sunday School? When I was a kid in Sunday School, we would play Bible trivia sometimes and whenever we would play, questions on the 10 Commandments usually tripped me up. As a pastor’s kid, I usually owned Bible trivia, that was my game, but for some reason I could never memorize these commandments.
So these 10 Commandments are pretty important to us, right? They kind of form a lot of our ideas of morals and ethics; what’s right and what’s wrong, how we should behave. Some people see them as so important that they need to be placed in front of courthouses and schools and everything like that. I don’t really know how that will change anything, but some people see them as that important, and that’s good.
For the Jewish people, these laws were not just important commandments, they were groundbreaking words from God. The Jewish people call this list the 10 Words of God, not just the 10 Commandments, because they believe that when these were given, it was God speaking directly to the people of the nation, not through Moses or a prophet, but directly to them. So they weren’t just this list of “Thou shalt not’s” that they had to recite, this was what formed them into a community. This was the beginning of the nation’s covenant with God. We’ve been talking a lot about covenants during Lent, haven’t we? In our Scriptures, we heard about the covenant God made with Noah to never send that big of a flood ever again. Last week we heard about the covenant that God made with Abraham where Abraham would commit his whole, complete self to God and God would make him the father of many nations, he’d be transformed beyond his wildest expectations. This week we have another covenant, and this one’s huge. This is the beginning of the covenant that the whole nation of Israel had with Yahweh, this was the beginning of their relationship with God as God’s chosen people that shapes the whole rest of the Bible and continues to shape our lives today.
Now, the Jewish people had a different understanding of these 10 Commandments than we do today. One of the big differences has to do with the very first commandment. Now, we normally think of the 10 Commandments as beginning with “You must have no other gods before me,” right? The Jewish people saw these 10 Words as beginning with the phrase before that. So the first Word or commandment for the Jewish people was this “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You must have no other god before me.” And I think that this is incredibly important. What this does is right from the outset, these words are not just legalistic commandments that the people absolutely must follow or they will die. This is relational. Remember how we talked about covenants last week? It’s not a contract agreement, this is a covenant relationship. So this first commandment is incredibly important. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You must have no other god before me.” So if we interpret the rest of these words following that first commandment, we see the real covenant relationship that God is beginning here with the Jewish people. God says “I saved you, I brought you out of the land of Egypt and across the Red Sea for a reason. I saved you so that you would be my people and live in the way that I created you to live. Here are the guidelines for my way of life.”
So if we read it in this way, we see that these are not just a list of legalistic commandments and rules that the people must keep or else they will die a horrible death. This is God saying “I saved you, so live in the way that I created you to live.” And the people agreed to this, they said “All that the Lord has said, we will do.” So the people agreed to these, they said “These are the guidelines that will govern our life together as a community of people following Yahweh.” Does that all make sense? Remember this, we’ll come back to this.
Our Gospel lesson today comes from John 2:13-22, if you want to read along with me in your Bible or one of the pew bibles
(Read John 2:13-22)
Now this is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. Jesus kicking all the vendors and money changers out of the temple, that’s an awesome story, because I always assume that I am on Jesus’ side, right? I always picture myself right next to Jesus kicking over the table, sending the coins scattering everywhere as the greedy merchants dove for them on the ground, opening up the pens and letting the cows and doves and animals go free. I like this story.
Now, the first question I think of when I read this story is “What were all of these merchants and vendors and money exchangers doing in the temple? You don’t really see anything like that in any church you go to here, do you?
Well this actually goes back to the laws that God gave the Israelites. It started with the 10 Commandments that we just talked about, and those served as kind of a skeleton of the whole covenant. God went on to detail the rest of the covenant relationship that would govern the Jews’ way of life and give them a way to live together. A big part of the law was the sacrificial system. In order to remain in this relationship with God, the people had to sacrifice animals, and there were specific animals required for certain sacrifices or blessings or anything like that.
The law also said that this could only be done at the Temple. There were a lot of pagan cultures living in the area and Yahweh didn’t want his people to start worshiping with the pagan cultures around them, so God said that people could only worship in the temple so that the priests could make sure that the people worshiped the true god. Now, there were a lot of people who lived too far away from the temple to go their regularly, so what they would do is they would make pilgrimages on the high holy days to the temple. The Passover Festival was the most important and most holy time of the year, that’s when all of the Jewish people would make the pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem. It was probably kind of like the Hardin County Fair. Now, if you had to travel on foot with your whole family for several days to get to the temple, are you going to bring a cow or a bull or whatever other animal you need to sacrifice? No, you have your kids and your wife and your whole extended family to worry about. The animals might be easier to travel with than your kids, but you had to bring your family, so you weren’t going to bring all the animals with you. So when you got to Jerusalem, you had to buy your own animals. So there was a genuine need to sell these animals. And you might as well sell them near the temple-you don’t want to make the pilgrims go searching for them after they’ve just traveled that distance. That’s just basic hospitality.
Now, when Jesus was around, the Romans occupied Judea, a lot of foreign people were mixed with the Jewish people, so there were a lot of foreign currencies. So when these pilgrims came to Jerusalem, they might’ve had the wrong kind of money, so they would’ve had to exchange their money for the correct currency so that they could buy these animals so that they could worship God and make the sacrifices they needed so that they could live by the covenant relationship they had with God.
So right now, none of this is necessarily bad. A little convoluted and confusing, but not necessarily bad. All of the merchants and vendors and money changers were just helping these people worship in the way God wanted them to worship, right? But maybe, over time, the Temple’s budget starts getting tight, so they charge the merchants $25 to have a stall or table in the temple to sell animals from or exchange money. And then maybe the priests want a cut of this because they’re in charge of the temple, right? And then maybe the Trustees start charging rent because these people are using the property, and they were the ones who would have to clean up after them. And maybe the women’s society sees that these merchants are using the kitchens and oh my goodness, that is their realm, so they start charging for the use of their kitchen. And all of this makes the merchants start charging more and more because they want to make a profit and the prices keep growing until it’s hard for the pilgrims to afford to buy these animals because not many people are rich. So it’s starts to become difficult for these pilgrims to worship Yahweh in the temple because of all of the corruption that came from all of this buying and selling within the temple
Then Jesus comes in and sees all of this happening. He sees the pilgrims having to grovel around to get enough money and good favor to buy what they need, they see the merchants jacking up the prices on the animals, he sees the money exchangers fixing the exchange rate and pocketing the extra. All of the vendors and merchants are just sitting there as God’s chosen people buy their way in to worship God. And Jesus gets mad. Real mad. He makes this whip and chases everyone out of the temple, drives all the animals out, overturns tables. He goes ballistic.
And remember, this happened during the Passover, the busiest time of the year for the Temple. And Jesus, the Son of God, is making it impossible for the people to worship God during this time, the single most holy time in the year, all because he throws a temper tantrum. Why in the world would Jesus our Savior do something stupid like this?
I think the answer lies in how this text is paired with the 10 Commandments. These are the passages the Lectionary has assigned for today, the third Sunday in Lent. Just as a reminder, the Lectionary is the calendar of assigned Scripture readings that takes us through all the high holy days and seasons of the Christian year, with themes for each Sunday to help us prepare and reflect on these big holy moments in our faith. In the season of Lent, all four of the passages are supposed to work together around one theme. Now, the lectionary has been in use for a long time. It’s been changed over time, but some of these Scriptures have been connected together for hundreds of years, and if two Scriptures are connected together, you can interpret them together. So this week, we have the 10 Commandments paired with Jesus clearing out the temple. What does this pairing tell us?
With the 10 Commandments, we see the beginnings of this covenant. This is how the Israelites’ relationship with God began, this was their original covenant. God spoke those 10 Words directly to the people of Israel, starting with “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You must have no other god before me,” and continuing from that original relationship, and all of Israel agreed to that covenant, they agreed to order their lives and their relationship to God by this covenant.
\Now, in our Gospel lesson, we get a glimpse of how the Jews were doing with keeping that covenant. And we see that they had now let all of those other laws cover up that first law. All of the other 9 Words crowded out that first Word, where God said “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You must have no other god before me.” They had let the other 9 laws become this set of legalistic rules and laws and absolute commandments that put this huge burden on their shoulders because they had forgotten that first Word-you shall have no other god before Yahweh, because this Yahweh brought you out of Egypt and out of the house of slavery. They had forgotten that first Word and allowed themselves to enter back into slavery under the masters of Consumerism and Greed.
And this is why Jesus came-to bring them out of this new house of slavery and back into the freedom and joy of the original covenant relationship with God. Jesus came to clean house, to kick out all of these false gods that had been controlling his people Israel, to kick out all of the evil powers and the ways of the world that had an iron grip on the hearts of Jesus’ people. Jesus came to cleanse his people.
Jesus comes to us in much the same way. We said last week that we fall under this covenant with Israel because God started the relationship with His grace and nothing can cancel that out, not time, not distance, not sin, nothing. So we are in this same covenant relationship that began with the 10 Commandments. So my question to you is-how are you doing with it? How are you doing with upholding your side of the covenant? How are you doing with living the way that God would have you live, spelled out in the Commandments?
Think back to the first time you committed your life to Christ or any time that you have recommitted your life to Christ. Think of all the promises you made and all of the stuff that you said you would do. Think of how joyous you were and how you were sure that nothing was going to bring you down from this. Think of how sure you were that you were going to keep following Christ with the same obedience and determination and joy that you started with. How are doing with keeping that up?
I would again call us back to that first word. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You must have no other god before me.” This is the god that saved you from a life of sin and death, that renewed you and brought you out of the slavery of your former way of life into the freedom of this covenant relationship with God. This God is saying that to continue living in the freedom of this relationship, we must have no other god before Him. So how are you doing with that? Have you allowed any false gods to spring up in you? Maybe you find your job a more worthy god to worship than this God. Or maybe it’s just the money you get from your job. Maybe it’s your family or your spouse. There are so many things that can creep up in our lives and become gods that we put before the One True God. Jesus shows us today the only way to deal with this and get back to a right relationship with God-we must clean the house. Or, better yet, we must allow Christ to cleanse us. We must allow Christ to kick over the merchants’ tables and scatter the coins of the money changers. We must allow Christ to cleanse us of all impurity and sin and wrongness and wickedness and gather up all of our broken pieces. I said earlier that this story of Christ kicking the merchants out of the Temple was one of my favorite stories in the Bible because I always pictured myself beside Jesus. But what I fail to realize is that I am the merchant whose table gets turned over. I am the money changer who goes crawling for the coins that Christ scatters. I am not the one doing the cleansing, I am the one needing the cleansing.
This is how we prepare for Easter. This is how we prepare for Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. This is how we prepare for the new life that Christ is offering to us. We must be cleansed.