The Reverend John Allison
March 7, 2021
Christ Church, Hudson
“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.”
You perhaps recognize today these words of my prayer as being the concluding lines of our Psalm for today. They are often used by preachers as a reminder that the witness that I am called here to provide is ultimately grounded in my acknowledgment that whatever I might offer grows from my dependence on God as my strength, as my rock as it’s sometimes translated.
I offer this because our Old Testament reading from Exodus offers today another manifestation of how God has served as rock, as foundation and strength for the people of Israel. The Ten Commandments, or more literally the Ten Words, form the basis for Jewish law but more importantly serve as a sign of God’s covenant with the people of Israel. The Commandments are given to Moses to be shared with the people of Israel and describe for them a vision of how the covenant that was first made with Abraham, which we heard in our reading from last week, is to be lived. It comes after Israel has been led out of slavery in Egypt and through the waters of the Red Sea; Israel had wandered in the wilderness and God had sustained the people with manna. The commandments were a gift to Israel to structure a common life and shape individual lives to be worthy of the God who had brought them out of bondage. It was a way to protect a people who were no longer slaves and open to them a path to the abundant life God wills for creation. This is reflected in the words of the psalmist:
“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
The decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;
The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes;
The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever;
The ordinances of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
Sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.”
The Commandments are not only a way to live but a gift to be celebrated. Even for us here today, as Christians, they remind us of our duty to God and our duty to our neighbor so we may not forget the foundation of God’s covenant. Indeed, Lent is a time to be reminded of our covenant, as we have heard in our Old Testament readings on these first three Sundays in Lent: last week, as mentioned, in the story of Abraham and Sarah, and the week before in the story of Noah.
And yet, do we really discern the principle, the spirit, that these Commandments intend us to fulfill, as individuals but also as the gathered Body of Christ—to honor God and love our neighbor? Do we follow the Commandments freely and appreciate their guidance?
I ask this because all too often, especially in a culture such as ours where rules and laws are often portrayed as limitations on individual freedom, many come to experience the Commandments as something that binds us rather than as the sign of freedom that they were for the people of Israel. We follow them out of fear of retribution rather than out of love for the God who has given them as a gift. To follow the Commandments freely, to choose the way of life to which they point, is to turn from wandering aimlessly and live in the peace of God’s promise. They are an enfleshment of God’s promise. For a people who live by the Commandments, in the daily living and day-to-day interactions of life, God’s promise is manifest in God's people. We can say that today every bit as much as the early Israelites. Jesus tells us this, quite succinctly: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and your mind and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus is the ultimate enfleshment of God's promise, the very Incarnation of God. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law, the end to which all the Law and the prophets point.
Our Gospel reading today from John tells us the story of Jesus’s cleansing of the temple. He has come to Jerusalem for the Passover, and upon entering the temple he becomes enraged as he sees moneychangers and merchants in the temple court. He makes a whip of cords and drives them out; he overturns their tables, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” This is the angry Jesus we otherwise never see. So, why is that?
What Jesus reacted to was actually a quite common practice and was authorized by the temple authorities. The temple tax had to be paid in temple coinage, not the Roman money most worshippers would have carried, hence the moneychangers; sacrificial animals had to be without blemish and the long distances over rugged landscape almost ensured some blemish to the animals. All of this activity was being done in service of the temple, but, nevertheless, something was wrong. The business itself was not even being conducted in the temple sanctuary but in the temple court. But still, in all this activity Jesus saw something was wrong.
Could it be that Jesus saw the temple had lost its true purpose? The trappings were all still in place and the letter of the law was being fulfilled but the spirit had been compromised. The temple’s reason for being had become distorted and taken over by buyers and sellers whose trade eclipsed the real reason people came to the temple. The ways of the world had gradually over time invaded this sacred space. And this was something that had happened gradually, subtly. It still happens today as the church bends and follows practices enshrined in popular culture and national identity that take us far from our reason for being, that in many cases may even deafen us and blind us to where God is most present to us—in our relationships. Whether it’s something as simple as measuring ourselves by how many programs we have or the size of our congregation or the amount of money in our bank account, churches easily fall prey to measuring themselves by a standard not set by God but by a world that has its center outside God’s holy temple.
The Ten Teachings, another way the Hebrew word for Commandment may be translated, serve to call us back to discern how we are called to be in right relationship—right relationship to God—that’s the first four Commandments—and to one another, or more broadly right relationship to creation as a whole—that’s five through ten. It’s in discerning how we are in relationship to God that we discern how we are to be in relationship to one another. That’s the internal logic of the Ten Commandments. How we treat one another, how we act in community, our ethics, grow from our relationship to the Holy. In living the Commandments, in praying with them, we experience God’s love as manifest in our common life together. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and in relationship, in right relationship, in just relationship, he is here with us, right here, right now. This is the truth that Psalm 19 tells us is more to be desired than gold; this is the truth that is sweeter than honey and drippings from the honeycomb.
I’m going to leave you with some homework this week. Pray with the Commandments. Spend time with them. Reflect on them, on how you see yourself living into them, on where you can do better, on where you need God’s help, on how they can be a light to your eyes, to quote the Psalmist. Pray. In doing this, I direct your attention to another rendering of the Commandments that may be helpful in really seeing how they manifest in your day to day life. On page 847 of our Prayer Book, in the Catechism, we have the Commandments recast in the affirmative—as what we should do, rather than as what we shouldn’t do. I’ll close by reading them here but I urge you to spend some time on your own with them this week. I’ve found it helpful to read this restatement alongside the more traditional rendering as a way of seeing something familiar with fresh eyes. Pray for understanding as to how God is calling you to embody these teachings.
1. Love and obey God and bring others to know God.
2. Put nothing in place of God.
3. Show God respect in thought, word, and deed.
4. Set aside regular times for worship, prayer, and the study of God’s ways.
5. Love, honor, and help our parents and family and honor those in authority and meet their just demands.
6. Show respect for the life God has given us; work and pray for peace; bear no malice, prejudice or hatred in our hearts and be kind to all the creatures of God.
7. Use our bodily desires as God intends.
8. Be honest and fair in our dealings and seek justice, freedom, and the necessities of life for all people.
9. Speak the truth and do not mislead others by our silence.
10. Resist temptations to envy, greed, and jealousy and rejoice in other people’s gifts and graces.
Lord, have mercy upon us and strengthen us to live more fully into your love. Amen.