Texts: Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
Lent is generally accepted as a time for introspection. On the surface of things it’s about the common themes of the commandments, wisdom, and worship and spiritual life. But Lent is more than a time of thoughtful study. And the driving backbeat behind the scripture texts is a question: are you becoming the glorious creation that God has made you to be?
The question for us is not: are you successful, are you fulfilled, are you honored? The question is, are you glorious? If you’re thinking that, this is a ridiculous question, there’s no human category of “gloriousness” and what kind of terminology is that? then you are missing the point that is made beginning in creation: that God is glorious, all God makes is glorious, and we, as God’s beloved creation, are made in the image of God’s glory. It is in sin that we fall short of the glory of God.
Let’s start at the beginning appropriately enough, with the Ten Commandments. Did you ever notice that the commandments, given in the Exodus journey, framed and formalized God’s relationship with the whole of Israel? Prior to this, God’s relationship with humankind was expressed in terms of certain persons who by various means became aware of God and the work of God in their lives: Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Miriam, Aaron, and so on. In those un-datable days of ancient time, relationship with God was pursued individually. But in the Exodus, it became a community exercise.
But what of the question of gloriousness? Take a careful look at how the commandments begin. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” These are not mere words of preface to the first commandment to have no other gods. It is not a matter of reminding people that God is owed a debt of gratitude in perpetual worship for getting our spiritual ancestors out of Egypt. Not at all. This little sentence frames the whole of the commandments into a narrative of invitation into gloriousness.
In brief, gloriousness is the opposite of being enslaved. Observing the Ten Commandments is a process of growing increasingly free of things that enslave and dehumanize us. Each of the commandments is an exquisitely compact statement of a thing to be either embraced or repudiated to maintain a healthy sense of perspective about ourselves and others. Keeping perspective helps us to reduce the impact of natural but potentially destructive responses such as anger, jealousy, pride, inferiority, fear, judgment, and so on. These things destroy relationship. The commandments give us the means to re-imagine all our relationships. The more ease of relationship we have with God and others, the more glorious life becomes.
Therefore the commandments are not a body of rules. They exist to help us focus outside of ourselves. Let go, lighten up. A benefit of this is restored relationships. The commandments understood in this way, underscore what Paul was telling the Corinthians about the wisdom that God offers. A key sentence from Paul is this: “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.”
The world is full of smart people. We’ve got plenty of intellect and shrewdness which together constitute the “human wisdom” that Paul refers to. This is only a tool (though a very helpful one at that) for managing and enhancing our circumstances. At their very best, intellect and shrewdness can make life better for all. At their most devious, they bring us hell on earth in all kinds of ways, from relational to environmental. And we are surprisingly slow learners when it comes to understanding that when any are suffering, we all pay a stiff price in some way.
The wisdom Paul roots for is not the commonly accepted human kind in which the general rule is to reduce sacrifice, discomfort, and risk. God’s wisdom is revealed through the cross and says that something greater, something more glorious, is possible when this rule gives way to relationship. But relationship will always require sacrifice, discomfort, and risk. Which, in turn, is why God’s wisdom always looks pretty foolish. For God so loved the world that Jesus forgot about himself, is another way to put it.
Jesus always found himself up against prevailing human wisdom. His outburst in the temple one day was the result of his continuing confrontations with people using things of God in the service of human interests. But it was not about selling things in a place set aside for worship.
All the gospel writers recognize that the temple system required a market to provide sacrifices to God that were enumerated in Jewish law. Other gospels characterize Jesus as being angry at the dishonesty of the temple market to maximize profits on the goods sold there. But John indicates that Jesus was upset at how the sacrificial system had become a substitute for actual relationship with God. So long as you bought the proper sacrifice, and presented it to the temple priest, you had done your religious duty. No particular personal sacrifice, no risk, no discomfort of mind and spirit. Also, no gloriousness either.
Jesus was looking instead for a restoration of relationship, beginning with the recognition that God is not looking for us to perform our religious duty. God is looking for us to show up personally, in response to God’s actual presence with us in Christ – a very different kind of temple. Now, is this too much for God to ask? The question still confronts us today. All our praying, singing, communing, hearing scripture, passing the peace is not done to satisfy a quaint religious duty. No more than following the Ten Commandments is done to satisfy God. It’s to prepare us to take God’s wisdom into the world, the wisdom of forgetfulness of self that leads to gloriousness. And God knows, we need the practice.
It should be evident to us all that we’re skilled at taking care of ourselves. What’s more of a challenge is forgetting about ourselves. God asks it of us, because we really are capable of it. If, as we know, we’re capable of making all hell break loose, wouldn’t it be good if we could focus instead on how with God’s help, we can be part of all heaven breaking loose instead? It’s a glorious thought. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.