Exodus 20:1-17; Psalms 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22 March 7, 2021 – 3rd Sunday in Lent
You shall have no other gods before me. That is the first commandment.
You shall not deal falsely with your neighbor. You shall not kill them, destroy the trust they have in you, or seek to own what they own. That is the last commandment.
What comes between them is detail. Jesus tells us that in the twenty-second chapter of Matthew.
Even unbelievers have a god, but it is not the God who delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt, traveled with them through the wilderness, or delivered them to the Promised Land.
God reminds the people of all God has done for them before God tells them what they are to do and how they are to treat each other.
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”
It sounds a bit like God is telling them, “You owe me. Pay up.” But that is so much less than God is saying.
This is how I love you. Love each other the same way. I do not covet what you have. I just want you to have a good life and to pass that along to your family, as your mother and your father have passed all the goodness they have received along to you.
In fact, they may have found more goodness in them on the day you were born than they knew was there.
That goodness comes to them…to you …to all of us…from the one who watches over you…and yours…all the days of your life.
So why would you seek to follow any other god? Why would you settle for less than the God who has given you all the gifts and graces you have?
The world is full of distractions that draw us in…draw us down…draw us away from the person our God created us to be.
So everyone has a god, but there is no god as loving and generous as the God who delivers us from bondage into freedom. Why would we want to settle for less?
Jesus see the what and why of the whole thing this morning. He comes to Jerusalem after he has been proclaimed the Messiah by John the Baptist, and after he has turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana.
He comes from the country to the city. He sees things he has never seen before and he is beyond surprised. He is outraged by what he sees.
The servants of God are supposed to be caring for the sheep, but these people are shearing them and turning them back out…less their wool.
The Temple had become more than a place of worship…so much so that it profaned the great expression of Israel’s culture.
It was not a sin that they were making offerings on the altar. To give a portion of what you have produced to sustain the people who safeguarded your history and your faith was a proper thing to do.
But it had gone beyond that point. It was the obligation of every Jewish man to come to Jerusalem for the Passover. It was the right thing to do while you were there to bring an ox or a ram, or if you couldn’t afford that, a pair of turtle doves to the Temple to be offered as a sacrifice to the one who had given you life…and every blessing that made it possible for you to give your offering at this special time in this special place.
But the Temple priests had…over the years…made this sacred custom into something far more…and far less… than an expression of faith.
The animals you offered had to be without blemish. Who decided whether the animal you had brought from home was without blemish? The priests did.
And this custom of faith had evolved to the point that nothing you brought with you was without blemish. Sorry. But not to worry. You can buy an animal to sacrifice from those they kept at the Temple…for exactly this purpose.
All of them are without blemish and a fit and proper offering to the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. They cost you some money…serious money no matter what animal you were offering…but you wouldn’t want to make an offering to God that was blemished.
And it would be sacrilegious if you brought your sacrifice with Roman money. You would surely want to use shekels for such an important purchase …of the animal you were going to give to the Lord God Almighty.
But not to worry…we can change your Roman money for good old Jewish money right over here. Of course you will be expected to pay a little bit to the people who have made it so convenient to buy the right animal with the right money.
So by the time these poor people who may only have been able to come to the City of David once a year…because their faith called them to do it…were able to offer their sacrifice to the Temple priests…they had purchased a franchise animal with the franchise currency…from the people who ran the franchise.
Instead of making it an expression of faith…the people who had been called to serve the people and watch over them lovingly…as a shepherd would watch over the flock…had made it an opportunity for them to grow wealthy …at the expense of the poor, faithful people who had already left their fields and flocks to walk many miles just so they could do what was right…what was expected of them…what was pleasing to God.
Jesus could see the racket that the powers that be had made of a humble and holy moment in the lives of the good people he had grown up with… and he was angry.
He turns over the tables where the moneychangers are sitting, scattering the neatly stacked and carefully counted coins that have become their stock in trade…not a convenience for the faithful…but a profit center for people who are using their authority to use their self- decreed monopoly to soak the rich and victimize the poor.
It’s like they were playing Robin Hood in Bible times, but they kept getting the lines backwards. They turn a good and holy and humble act of worship into an opportunity…for themselves and for no one else.
The people who are supposed to be setting a good example are setting a terrible example. People can see what they are doing, and it is doing nothing for their faith.
In fact, it is doing something bad to their faith. The people can see that those who are supposed to be humble and holy have become cynical and self-serving.
They are not drawn closer to God by this. They do not become at one with God because of this experience. What was supposed to have been an expression of the most sacred relationship in their lives…with their Creator…has become a painful transaction with a bunch of thieves who have monetized a holy obligation and have victimized the very people they were supposed to be caring for.
They were supposed to be building up their faith…but they are mocking the faith of good, honest people who only want to give thanks to the God who has watched over Israel for a thousand years.
The Temple priests think they have been wise in developing this concession, but they have been foolish. They might profit, briefly, in this world, but they will certainly pay for their faithlessness when they die.
Paul writes to us this morning that the Jews look for signs and the Greeks demand wisdom, but he simply preaches Christ crucified…a hard truth, but a truth that uplifts the hearts of the faithful.
They are not looking for riches, but salvation…hope…grace…a better life …eternal life…life everlasting. If they are duped by the people who have a fiduciary duty to protect them…the people they are bound by a sacred oath to encourage and build up…will see through their shenanigans and leave them…and the Temple…and their faith.
If the people you have to trust cannot be trusted…the entire fabric of society will unravel…because the leaders are not trustworthy. It occurs to me that the first requirement of the Scout law is that a Scout is trustworthy.
My grandmother told me about what it was to be poor. I’m not talking about not having what you wanted. I’m talking about not having what you needed.
Poor wasn’t not being able to buy the car you wanted. It was about not having anything to eat and not having any money to pay for it.
Let me put that into perspective for you. My grandparents moved to Shelby in 1919 and the Dempsey Gibbons fight was held there…believe it or not…four years later.
One of the things I learned in reading about that World’s Heavyweight Championship Fight was that the local folks were so poor that they were buying things by trading IOUs.
Grandma said that all you had was your good name and if you lost that…well… you were done.
That wasn’t that different from the world that the Temple priests lived in. People weren’t bringing money to give as an expression of their faith when they came to Jerusalem. They were bringing the animals they had raised.
They knew they were expected to act without blemish, at the risk of their souls. If the people they were giving their bounty to could not be trusted, then their relationship with God was in jeopardy…and they weren’t coming back.
The great but informal authority of Temple would be compromised…and their place in society was a hoax…and their society was a hoax.
Far more important to them than being in good standing with the men who ran the Temple was being in good standing with their God.
They only had one God. They were faithful. But the people who were supposed to be God’s representatives on earth were self-serving frauds.
Today, we believe in the priesthood of all believers. You are as vital a representative of God to the people you meet as the Temple priests were to the people who came to the Temple to offer their yearly sacrifice.
People are watching you…us. If we are not a good role model of love and caring…sacrifice and service…then the people who are skeptical about this thing called faith…this thing called religion…are going to see it as a sham and a game that people are playing… and we do not have a good enough name…to get a meal, let alone a believer in the one who died for our sins.
So let us be as good as our word so power of the Word can be seen in all we say and do.
O Lord, what is it that you want to do in the world through us…through me… this day? Amen.