March 7, 2021
Professor Joy J. Moore, for Luther Seminary’s team of “Sermon Brainwave” podcasters, turned commentary about the 10 Commandments into preaching the other day, and I have to say it was awesome. I won’t do it justice, but I’ll try. She reminded us that these set of rules weren’t given by God to the dominant culture so that its individual members could keep their sin levels in check while carrying on with business as usual. In fact, these weren’t rules so much as they were a way of life, a 24/7 action plan for an enslaved people whom God had declared “free!” To hear these words correctly we need to remember the generations of those who had been owned, subjugated, stripped of their names, denied their humanity, robbed of their history, and put at work to build a broken world. Then, when we hear God say, “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other Gods before me,” we know that God is now saying, “You are now free! Free to worship me, not the gods of your captors, but the creator and covenanting God who rescued you from oppression because I am faithful and true to my promises whereas the world is not.” And, you don’t need to make an icon of me because I’ve already done that; it’s you! And, you don’t have to take the labels that your captives have given you because you are transcripts of the Trinity. In fact, Your free to rest! (God is saying this to slaves; can you imagine how they heard that!) You are free to take a day off. In the rhythm of the way that I created the universe you bear my image by taking for yourselves a regular rest. And you are free to honor your ancestors and the traditions they held dear. Your captors are wrong; your heritage can be kept alive because they are mine and you are mine and my love is alive within you.
And, then there’s the second tablet, the one about how it is that the free people of God will live with one another. Because of our relationship with God we can live with each other with the conviction that God has given us enough. We don’t have to take the lives of anyone else; we don’t have to covet the things of anyone else; we don’t have to take more than what we have in our relationships. What Moore is saying is that these commandments amount ultimately to a deeper liberation for newly liberated people. They pose a counter cultural way of life that in fellowship with an unbound God says they are free never to be like their oppressors, but instead to be living images of the living God.
God here was giving them their truth, God’s truth, and that truth was making them truly free. Jesus says as much when he says it in John’s Gospel, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” Those words of Christ were chiseled across the most monumental building on my college campus. I think it’s telling that few students knew who actually said them. For the most part the assumption was that this place of learning wanted you to know that your education would enlighten you, and being so enlightened you would be unencumbered by ignorance and undeveloped thinking. But, as valuable as a good education is, a liberal arts degree was not what Jesus was talking about. Rather, Jesus was talking about himself. He was the truth. He was the very expression of a man freed up enough to live and even die as one unwaveringly devoted to the reality of God’s image shining through in unconquerable, unstoppable, self-giving love.
John’s version of the cleansing of the temple story is different from the versions that appear in the other three gospels. Most notably, John’s version happens at the very beginning of Christ’s ministry. In the other gospels it’s part of the Palm Sunday story. Jesus makes his “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem and cleanses the temple. But, in John, Jesus is in and out of Jerusalem multiple times and the tearing down of the temple marketplace serves almost as an opening statement. I am the temple. I am where God is found. I am the home of God among mortals. This is how John’s readers are to understand who Jesus is.
In his book, “The Prodigal God,” Timothy Keller explains: “when Christianity first arose in the world it was not called a religion. It was the non-religion. Imagine the neighbors of early Christians asking them about their faith. ‘Where’s your temple?’ they’d ask. The Christians would reply that they didn’t have a temple. ‘But how could that be? Where do your priests labor?’ The Christians would reply that they didn’t have priests. ‘But… but,’ the neighbors would have sputtered, ‘where are the sacrifices made to please your gods?’ The Christians would have responded that they did not make sacrifices anymore. Jesus himself was the temple to end all temples, the priest to end all priests, and the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.”
Keller notes that religion, by definition, demanded sacrifice. Sacrifice was what brought reconciliation between the deity and its subjects. Sacrifice made things right. But, the early Christians found that in Christ things had been made right; they had been made right; whatever they could possibly have offered had been offered for them. Whatever they owed was paid. God didn’t want that what they could afford, it seemed. God wanted to be with them and for them in a different way. And so, God took care of the sacrifice Godself.
Let’s not get sidetracked about atonement theory here. This is about the Jesus that John’s church had come to know and it was about the Jesus they were still knowing by the presence of his Spirit, which was teaching them the truth of their lives: that by some great grace they too were embodying God; that Spirit of Christ shared with them was making them also into homes in which God would dwell.
This also is the point of St. Teresa’s book, “The Interior Castle,” which I referenced last week. God has made us in God’s image by granting us souls that are eternal, Teresa says. In the deepest most intimate part of our souls God resides, and it is our great gift to be able to journey into that place. The first step in the journey is awakening to prayer as the doorway into the soul’s encounter with God. It is to become a person of prayer. In stage two, which Teresa calls the “second mansion,” we discover the presence of God mediated through the words of loved ones, a sermon, a book or some other source. We begin finding God in these ways, but we also recognize our incapacities to find God, and we recognize our susceptibility to the temptations that draw us away from our God-centeredness and our our God-seeking. As God becomes real so do our shortcomings and our lack of faith and our inability to get beyond our pasts and our imperfections. It’s like believing in a God of grace without believing that that grace is really and truly poured out for you. It’s like the guy from AA who so loved the people of my church, but when I invited him to join us on a Sunday he said he never could, not after all the life he had lived.
But, Teresa says this struggle is a gift because it teaches us to rely on God and to comprehend the mercy that’s poured out for us. It teaches us that God does for us what we can’t do for ourselves; it teaches us that God loves well beyond the limits of our own loves; and it invites us to submit to that love in a deeper way by accepting grace even for that within us toward which we ourselves wouldn’t be gracious.
So, here’s a thought for today’s gospel passage: why not imagine Christ entering your own interior castle? Let him go in there and cast out the money changers and the sacrificial animals. Let him free you from your bargaining with God. Let him liberate you from any thoughts you might have of relying on something other than grace. Let him dispel the notion that your faith is a transaction, and let him guide you into the transformation and freedom of being utterly loved from the beginning to the end.
 Sermon Brainwave, 3rd Sunday in Lent (B), March 7, 2021
 Timothy Keller, “The Prodigal God,” page 16.