Crows Nest Uniting Church
Lent 3 • 8 Mar 2015


Exodus 20:1-17
1 Corinthians 1:22-25
John 2:13-22


Rev. Chris Udy



There’s something in the human spirit
that doesn’t like commandments -
especially commandments that begin
“Thou shalt not ...”.
For some reason
as soon as we hear “You will not ..” -
or any of its variants -
something in us wonders
whether we’d like it.
According to the story,
Adam and Eve had almost perfect freedom,
they could do whatever they liked,
except eat from one tree -
and that, of course,
was the tree they were dying -
literally as the story ends -
the tree they were dying to taste.
Any limit to our freedom,
any boundary to our autonomy,
seems to attract our obsessive attention.
We want to go further,
drive faster, dig deeper, climb higher
than we were told we could -
and if we’re given a limit,
not defined by our capacity,
but by someone else’s authority,
we want to know
why it is we should obey.
 
The Old Testament - the Hebrew Bible -
frames its legends, its histories,
its poetry and prophecy
in an overarching story - a salvation history -
that moves from creation to covenant,
and over the last few weeks
we’ve been reading through significant steps
in that unfolding relationship
between God and God’s people.
Things had not begun well
between God and Adam and Eve -
and from that time on there’d been decline.
Cain killed Abel; freedom was abused;
hurts and divisions had been multiplied;
the world had splintered
into discord and mayhem;
in essence it returned
to the chaos with which it began -
so, the story goes,
God allowed the waters of chaos
to return and reclaim and wash clean the earth -
but God saved one human family – the story says,
one man - Noah - and his wife and children,
as well as all the animals in the ark,
and when the land again emerged
from those chaotic waters
God gave Noah a promise:
that God would not again send chaos
to flush the earth of its illness;
from that day on,
the rainbow would be the sign
that God had chosen a different path to healing.
 
The first covenant is one-sided.
God gives Noah his promise
and asks for nothing in return.
This is a covenant that begins in a gift.
 
But it doesn’t take much time
for the gift to pall.
Noah and his family began the drift;
arrogance laid the foundations
for a tower in Babel -
a tower that would reach right up
into the heavens -
and so, in this part of the story,
another kind of chaos descends:
God confused humanity’s words
and scatters the tribes and clans round the globe -
so God now needs a new family to save.
 
Last week we read God’s covenant with Abraham -
a promise that, despite his advancing age,
he and his wife Sarah would conceive a nation,
and that they would have a place to live -
the promised land;
but this time God asked something
in return for his promise and gift:
the sign of the covenant would be circumcision.
 
Abraham and Sarah had a son,
whose name was Isaac.
Isaac had two sons - Esau and Jacob.
Jacob had 12 sons,
and his name was changed - to Israel -
and it looked like the covenant promise
was well on the way to fulfilment.
But Israel’s family ended up in Egypt,
far from the promised land,
and there, the Bible says,
they were enslaved.
In Egypt, Moses emerged
as God’s instrument of salvation this time -
and the waters came back in a limited way
as the people of God
walked through the Red Sea to freedom.
The covenant they came to this time
was carefully defined -
its terms were chiselled out and set in stone.
Moses returned from the mountain
with commandments – as we read this morning -
so the freedom Israel came to in the desert
was not like Adam and Eve’s;
Adam and Eve enjoyed the freedom of children,
living with warnings,
but largely without responsibility.
The freedom Moses was leading his people into
was more like a teenager’s -
the people of God were slowly coming of age;
they had knowledge without wisdom;
they had adult power,
but little appreciation of the cost of failure -
so their freedom was hedged in with rules and laws.
 
But there’s something in the human spirit
that doesn’t like commandments, rules and laws -
and when we’re treated like teenagers
we tend to act like adolescents too.
 
Over the next few weeks
as we come to Easter
we’ll read about the way
this covenant of law moved on and developed.
Next week’s reading is an adolescent tantrum -
Israel complaining about everything
from a lack of water to boring food -
and God’s response in the story
is poisonous and deadly.
Then, on the final Sunday in Lent,
the week before Palm Sunday
we’ll read God’s promise from the prophet Jeremiah:
“This is the covenant I will make
with the house of Israel after those days,
says the LORD:
I will put my law within them,
and I will write it on their hearts;
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
No longer shall they teach one another,
or say to each other, "Know the Lord,"
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,
says the Lord.”
 
Law can work very well to teach and guide;
when it represents an agreement,
a consensus to work together
in a particular way and to particular goals
law can be very effective -
but when it becomes a rigid rule,
enforced by punishment and deprivation -
when it no longer protects
the weak against the strong,
but instead preserves the power
of those already in control;
when it helps them keep the poor in debt
and the suffering in pain
law becomes a curse, and not a blessing.
 
Our Gospel reading from John
is often called ‘the cleansing of the temple’ -
but as our Lenten Study groups will see this week,
what Jesus was doing there
was probably something more
than a symbolic purification.
In Mark’s gospel at least
Jesus didn’t go to the temple
to set it right and begin again -
he went to close it down.
The temple had become the way
those in control -
both the Jerusalem authorities and the Romans -
came to power and kept it.
The temple was a machine
for turning law into profit -
it collected the taxes and it blessed the regime
that had stripped ordinary people
of their homes, their land and their work -
and Jesus rode into Jerusalem
to challenge and destroy it.
The city and the temple would react
with savage and deadly force
desperate to keep their hold on power -
but 40 years later,
as the Gospels were first being read
Jerusalem was overcome,
the temple was destroyed,
and Jesus had established
a different covenant -
not based on rainbows, or circumcision, or law,
but on sacrificial service
and self-giving love.
 
There’s something in the human spirit
that doesn’t like commandments -
but when we see a way to live
that leads to joy and freedom
we embrace it.
That way of life might cost us dearly -
it might include some painful discipline;
it might lead us into risk and suffering -
but if that way of life
is written on our hearts
and if it fills our minds with inspiration,
it does everything that law can hope to achieve
while it also releases life and hope and love
in a way that laws and rules can never do.
Most of us will do all we can
to live up to an example -
while most of us also tend to bend the law -
so if we want to live
in a covenant that works,
it needs to come to us
through someone we love and respect -
someone we can emulate and follow.
Jesus is our model
for a life that is - at one and the same time -
a life of total freedom - of absolute autonomy,
and a life of perfect discipline and virtue.
No-one - at any point -
forces Jesus to do anything;
but at no point can we fault
his responsibility or his compassion.
So, on the night before he dies,
Jesus leaves his friends
with a new commandment -
not a ‘thou shalt not’,
but an invitation:
“Love each other as I have loved you” - he says -
and if we do that,
we’ll do all that the law commands.
 
Covenants are unfolding, changing things;
the more we understand the world,
the more we learn about God,
the more we fill our history books
with brave experiments and dismal failures,
the more our covenant with God,
and with other people, changes.
What looked like a good idea
at the time it was first mooted
turns out to be a source of problems.
Even God learns and grows,
and the mind of God is changing -
God now knows that devastating floods
were not a good solution -
and because the mind of God is dynamic and active
we also need to live with open minds.
The heart of God, on the other hand,
is much more clear and determined.
God is love - and the heart of God
has always been fixed on God’s children:
we are made in love,
we are made for love,
and we’re made to love
with the passion and joy
we see in the love of Jesus.
The covenant we live in
will continue to change -
how we live together,
and what we hope to achieve;
the words we use to express our faith
and the things we do to affirm it -
all those things are fluid and in motion -
but the solid foundation
for our world and our faith and our lives
is the absolute assurance
that we are loved by God,
and when we live in the love of God,
and reveal it to others,
everything we dream of can be achieved.