Sermon delivered on Lent 3B, Sunday, March 8, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Exodus 20.1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1.18-25; John 2.13-22.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As we continue our Lenten journey to the foot of the cross, I want us today to compare and contrast God’s Law as contained in the 10 Commandments with the cross of Jesus Christ to see what each means for us as God’s people. When I was a young man, I used to hate hearing the Ten Words (Commandments) of God because I thought God gave them to us to rain on our parade and stop us from having any fun. Being a typical red-blooded American male living in the midst of the burgeoning sexual revolution I wasn’t much interested in the 10 Words’ emphasis on sexual purity. No fun there. Being much smarter than my parents on a whole host of issues, I wasn’t particularly interested in listening to them either, let alone honoring them. After all, who wants to honor people who aren’t as smart as you? And the proscription against coveting someone’s slave or ox or donkey was simply more proof to me that these Words were outdated and irrelevant to someone who was as enlightened and smart and cool as I was. Some of you who know me today may be thinking to yourself not much has changed with him.
I tell you this because I think my attitude summarizes nicely the human condition and our inherent hostility toward living as God’s fully human image-bearing creatures. I thought I knew much better than God what makes me happy. I mistook the 10 Words as moralistic rules to be slavishly (or at least begrudgingly) followed to put forth an appearance of propriety. In other words, I totally missed the point of the 10 Words and God’s Law in general. I didn’t realize (or perhaps was never taught) that the 10 Words were part of God’s unfolding plan to rescue his sin-sick and fallen world and its peoples through Abraham and his descendants, culminating in Jesus. I didn’t pay much attention to the opening sentence in the 10 Words, which tells us how God set the stage for what was to follow by reminding his people Israel that it was God who had rescued them from their slavery in Egypt so that they could become the people God called them to be in the first place, to bring God’s blessings to a world that desperately needed to be healed. To gloss over that first sentence made me miss the point that what God did for his people Israel, God intends to do for us in Jesus: rescue us from our slavery to sin.
That’s why the first two Words are where and what they are. Israel was not to worship or even recognize any other gods but the one true and living God, the God who had delivered them from their slavery in Egypt and who was bringing them to the promised land so that they could get to work as his redeemed people to bring God’s healing to the world. That’s why there could be no idol-worship because all idols are human inventions and they pull us away from living as God originally created us to live. This was the essential problem at the Fall. Adam and Eve decided not to live as God’s image-bearing stewards to reflect his glory out into the world. Instead, they wanted to follow their own model for living, much like we still do today, and as a result, sin and evil entered the world and corrupted it.
So if God were going to call a people to help put the world to rights in the manner he always envisioned for humans, they had to do things differently than Adam and Eve (and almost everybody else ever since) had done. They had to learn how to be human beings again and this is what the 10 Words were designed to help them become. Just as God was holy and set apart from the world, so too did God’s people have to reflect his holiness. And to do this, they had to behave accordingly. They couldn’t be worshiping false gods because doing so would pervert and corrupt them into doing things that were not good for them or for the world around them. They couldn’t be following their selfish ambitions and programs because God was not selfish or ambitious. They couldn’t be greedy or covetous or sexually immoral because these things corrupt and dehumanize us to the very core of our existence. This was how the nations acted and it would result in their destruction.
And we get this at a gut level. Want to destroy a family (or a church family)? Have an affair. Want to ensure that conflict and hostility are part of your life? Then act consistently in ways that are selfish or proud or arrogant or covetous and you will certainly get what you want. Want to live by the sword? Then be prepared to die by the sword. But none of this reflects God’s holiness or goodness out into the world. It reflects our own sickness. And because God created us to be wise stewards over his world, when we are sick, the world around us is sick. So here we see God beginning to teach those he called to be his people how to think and act the part. God understood that we humans will become exactly what we worship and so he gave his people the Law to help them learn how to be holy so that God could use them to help rescue his world. Worshiping false gods or idols would send them down the same path as everyone else.
This is a far cry from seeing the 10 Words as rain for our parade given by an angry God bent on punishing us at every turn. Seen in its proper light the Law can help us learn to see the very heart and nature of God, the God who loves his world and its people, and who wants to set us free from our slavery to the sin that dehumanizes us and ultimately kills us. The psalmist gets this about the Law because this is exactly what he celebrates in our psalm today. The Law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The testimony of the Lord is good, making wise the simple. And what is the beginning of wisdom? A healthy and reverent fear of the Lord! This isn’t rain for our parade. It’s the spiritual oxygen we must breathe to have abundant life!
But of course a minute’s thought will make us realize that the Law can never rescue us because we are too badly broken and corrupted by the effect of sin and evil in our lives. Instead of seeing the Law as a good thing, we tend to see it at best as a necessary evil. This is why Paul would write in numerous places that the Law can’t give life and can only expose sin for what it is (e.g., Romans 3.20, 4.15; Galatians 2.16, 3.10-11). It can’t give life because none of us can keep the entire law. We are too badly broken. And when we are reminded of what it takes to be God’s holy or set apart people, it does nothing but frustrate and anger us. Look how much we struggle to keep our Lenten disciplines if we really are working on something that seriously impedes our relationship with God. Being the proud folks we are, we just know we can do better and are determined to pull ourselves up by our moral bootstraps to show God and others we are worthy of being in his company. This delusion, of course, ignores the reality of living in the presence of a holy God. God’s people learned this lesson when they arrived at Mount Sinai. When God descended on the mountain, the whole camp trembled in fear at his presence. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (or come into his presence), precisely because we are by nature unholy people and God is perfect in holiness (Hebrews 10.31; cf. Isaiah 6.5; Luke 5.8; Revelation 1.17). This is why the Law can never offer us Good News. If anything, it offers us nothing but bad news because it reminds us of who we are versus what God intends us to be and doesn’t give us a way to get from here to there.
But fear not, because the Law is not the last word in this business of our rescue from evil, sin, and death. Enter the cross. As Paul tells us in our epistle lesson, for those of us who are being saved, the cross represents the power of God to do the seemingly impossible for us. We ask how God can condemn our sin without condemning us. God’s word answers, “Through the cross.” As Paul would write elsewhere, on the cross God condemned our sin in the flesh by taking it on himself so that the righteous requirements of the Law would be fulfilled and we no longer have to fear God’s just condemnation. On the cross of Jesus, God reconciled us to himself and transferred us from the kingdom of darkness in which we all live to the kingdom of his beloved Son.
When we come to the foot of the cross in penitence and faith, we find real healing and true peace because as Paul tells us, the cross represents God’s wisdom and power needed to free us from the guilt and shame of our sin. By faith we perceive that God has done a terrible and costly thing on our behalf because he loves us and wants us to be healed so that we can embody and proclaim his great love to others around us, thus helping put God’s world to rights. God has saved our lives, but in a manner we never expected. We expect God to rescue us through mighty acts of power like he demonstrated at the Red Sea and Mount Sinai. But we never expected God to use the ultimate symbol of shame, defeat, and death to rescue us and give us life. Yet this is exactly what God has done for us and we have Jesus’ resurrection as proof that the testimony of God’s wisdom and power as demonstrated on the cross is true.
To a sin-sick world, of course, the cross is folly. Who ever heard of a rescue plan that puts suffering and sacrificial love at the forefront? Who ever heard of a rescue plan that uses an instrument of humiliation and shame to accomplish its purposes, especially when the person involved is God himself embodied as a human being? Does not compute! Certainly this would not have made sense to most Jews of Jesus’ day, precisely because the cross was an instrument of shame. Any good Jew knew that people who were hung on a pole were cursed by God, not blessed (Deuteronomy 21.23). Nor was dying as a criminal at the hands of hated foreigners akin to the Exodus or other mighty acts of power that the OT records. The cross certainly wasn’t the sign Jewish folks were looking for that would signal God had returned to fulfill his promise to rescue them from the hostile powers that oppressed them. Neither was Jesus’ resurrection a recognizable sign as our gospel lesson attests. Jesus’ opponents didn’t have a clue when he told them that if they destroyed the temple of his body, he would raise it up in three days. But for those of us who are being saved, the cross of Jesus is all the sign we need because it is the wisdom and power of God, seen in the light of the resurrection.
It is God’s wisdom and power because in Jesus’ death, God makes clear that it is only in and through his love and mercy that we are rescued from our sins and the ultimate evil of death. It is God’s power alone because as we have seen, none of us has the power within us to follow the Law and thus be rescued from our sin. This, of course, is an affront to a world that places a premium on power, pride, self-aggrandizement, and human knowledge. That is why the cross is foolishness to those who are not Jews. The focus is in the wrong place. It is on God and not us.
And we need to be clear about what Paul is saying here when he talks about foolishness. When we hear the word foolish, we tend to think of trivial things or being silly. But the word Paul uses, moria, from which the English word moron is derived, is much more than thinking silly thoughts. As our English word aptly suggests, it really is moronic to dismiss the cross because only in the cross can we find healing, forgiveness, peace, and life. Like I was in my younger days, so the world is too smart and sophisticated for its own good to believe in such love and grace made manifest in this way, sadly to its destruction.
This is why finding our way to the foot of the cross is so important during Lent because this is the season where we focus on developing the faith and humility in the power of the Spirit that will help us reject the false notion that the cross is foolishness, thereby learning how to be fully human and wise in our dealings with God and each other. The cross reminds us that God’s holiness is something we need to take seriously. But it also reminds us to take seriously God’s love for us and his call to us to be his holy people because that love is costly. And the way to do that is to learn to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus in his path of suffering love for the sake of the world. This means, in part, that we are to love and forgive our enemies. It means we are to bless and not curse them. It means we must abandon our proud self-righteousness, selfishness, and arrogance. It’s counterintuitive. Scandalous even. But if we really do want to live as fully human beings who enjoy the peace of God that comes from a firm knowledge we are loved and forgiven because of the blood of the Lamb shed for us, if we really do take seriously our call to live as God’s holy people, we must know that Jesus’ death and resurrection is the only way we will get there. So this Lenten season, don’t think like a moron. Instead, embrace the power and wisdom of God poured out for you on the cross and learn to walk in its way, because unlike a moron, you really do know that in the death and resurrection of Jesus, you have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.