March 26, 2000
[ Read the texts
at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
Stan and Jan Berenstain have written a series of children's books called the Berenstain Bears.¹ The stories are all wonderful lessons of life for young children as Mama and Papa Berenstain Bear along with Brother Bear and Sister Bear encounter things like a bad dream, trouble at school and going to the dentist.
My daughter's favorite story is "The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room." It is a lesson about house cleaning. The introduction warns:
The crisis in the story comes when Mama Bear gets fed up with the mess in Brother and Sister's room is too much to take. It goes this way:
I think my mother must have been friends with Mama Bear!
It's like that sometimes with our lives, isn't it? Things pile up until it is just too much to take. We have to clean up the mess. Whether it is a messy room or a messy set of circumstances at work or at home, the time comes when we just want the mess cleaned up. A mess devalues something of worth. It might be a room we want to enjoy or a household where we want some peace and quiet. But, when it's messy, it can't serve its intended purpose.
I have a messy desk. Someday I am going to clean my messy desk, but I never seem to get around to it and I can only imagine how mice it would be to have a whole desk top on which to write my sermons. There are days when I wish "Post-It" notes had never been invented. My friends think I have yellow wall paper.
There are times when a mess can be so serious, nothing but radical housecleaning will correct the situation.
That's what today's gospel lesson is all about. Jesus finds a horrible mess in the temple and becomes very angry. He actually took a whip and drove the merchants out of the temple courtyard where they were conducting business. He overturned the tables where the accountants were making change and he told the merchants to take their merchandise away.
You have to picture the scene to even begin to appreciate the spiritual bombshell Jesus set off with his actions. The moneychangers scrambling after their coins, the people who came to the temple standing in shock and the officials frozen with rage and indignation would have been something to see. Who in the world does this peasant from Galilee think he is?
This isn't the "Gentle Jesus meek and mild" we are accustomed to -- not the Jesus who "wants me for a sunbeam." What is it that has created such passion in him?
"The disciples", the gospel says, "Remembered that it was written, 'Zeal for your house will consume me.' " [Ps. 69:9] Jesus says the center of Israel's worship life, the temple, has become a marketplace. They have turned the church into a department store. It is as though, when no one was looking, someone or something robbed the reverence of the people of God and displaced the worship of God with the whims of human desire.
Why was Jesus so enraged?
The scene that confronts Jesus as he goes to the temple is representative of the whole corruption of Israel's religious life. His conflict is with a system and with religious officials who are by their actions, breaking every one of the first four commandments!
We will have to look closely at our text from Exodus to get the connection between the Decalogue (10 commandments) and Jesus' cleansing of the temple.
The first four commandments are all about the holiness and sovereignty of God. Nothing is to take center stage in our living but the Lord God. There is no other god. We must not take the name of the Lord in vain -- or as the text more correctly expands this concept -- "You must not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord..." And, we are to keep the Sabbath -- or worship day -- set apart for God.
It's all about reverencing God.
With all the buying and selling and money changing, the temple system had become corrupt. Instead of contributing to the worship and reverence of God, it missed the point. Oh the idea of money changing began with good intentions -- instead of using pagan money to buy offerings, the pilgrims would exchange their worldly money for temple money. The problem was, the system was a setup for corruption. The price of a pair of turtle doves jacked up a little here... the exchange of money tilted a little in favor of the money changer there... soon the thing that was supposed to facilitate the worship and reverence of God was turned into something that cheated people and made it more difficult to approach a Holy God.
It's all about wrongfully using the name of the Lord.
What if, in the name of the Lord, we required that your offerings be exchanged for "spiritual" money. We decided that the world's dollars and coins were "unclean" to give to God, so you would have to obtain "spiritual" money. Then suppose we gave you 85 or ninety cents of "spiritual" money for your "worldly" money? Jesus just might begin cleaning house again!
It is important to realize that there are different kinds of messes that require different methods of housecleaning. There are physical messes, emotional messes and spiritual messes. All of them have a few principles in common.
What does spiritual housecleaning look like for you and me? Do you remember the saying -- "When all else fails.... [read the directions?"]
Our scripture reading from Exodus has one of the most complete and helpful sets of instructions in all of recorded history. We know it as the Decalogue or Ten Commandments.
The one basic principle behind the whole Law of Moses and in particular the Ten Commandments is the centrality of God in our lives. Jesus sets it out this way in Mark 12:30, "...you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength." God comes first in all things in all dimensions of our lives.
We need to set apart a time for building our relationship with God and a time to "keep a Sabbath." This may be one of the key principles in rebuilding our hectic, urban, driven lives. We need time from the routine and take that time for our relationship with God and each other.
Then there is the issue of honoring our parents. In fact, honoring our parents, our brothers and sisters, our neighbors and indeed persons is honoring the God whose image lies within each person. A loss of reverence for God will finally lead to a loss of reverence for persons and for life.
The "shall nots" of the Decalogue reflect the honoring of persons. We will not murder, steal from, or lie against persons we honor. Jesus put an addendum to the Great Commandment in Mark 10:312, "...The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."
The Ten Commandments could well be called, "Instructions for Healthy and Fulfilled Living." If we take these principles and go through the nooks and crannies of our inner lives -- as though doing a thorough housecleaning -- we will discover the joy of living in a fresh, clean house.
May God grant us the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives to do the spiritual housecleaning that will bring us closer to the Lord's intent for our lives.
¹ Stan and Jan Berenstain, Random House / First Time Books; New York, 1983
Connections in the Text
Each of the texts addressed the issue of community in one way or another. The life of the family of faith is central to the overall direction the texts take, albeit in different ways. The issue of "housecleaning" taken up in our full text sermon can be related to the issue of community as each of the texts comes at it.
In brief when God is central, the community of faith can function as the people of God. When something other than God is central, however, the community can be nothing other than dysfunctional.
The text from Exodus is one of the most familiar in all of the bible. For our Jewish friends, the Feast of Shavuot is a commemoration of the receiving of the ten commandments as well as being the Feast of Weeks which celebrates the harvest season. There is more about Shavuot and the legends surrounding the receiving of the commandments at: http://www.holidays.net/shavuot/story.htm
One of the issues in this text which is difficult for "moderns" to deal with is that of a "...jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of the parents, to the third and fourth generation..." On the other hand this is the Lord who shows, "... steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments..." Several factors impact this issue:
1. Our contemporary western culture is committed to choices, options, personal freedom and a kind of "I Did It My Way" mentality. A God who insists on absolute and exclusive devotion seems "overbearing" (as one fellow suggested to me.) "What does it matter what I believe or who I worship?" In other words, a "relative" world does not do well with the concept of an "absolute" God.
2. The passage needs to be understood in light of the fact that the people Moses led into the wilderness were a "rag-tag," disorderly, pagan bunch. They had neither identity nor purpose. Formation of a people who would have the Lord God at their center would be no easy task in a pagan world. (As the early Exodus / Golden Calf episode documented well.) That the punishment of pagan living would fall to three and four generations is more the consequence of pagan living than God's desire to punish.
3. The "Steadfast love -- Hesed" of God is even more radical than the command to worship only the Lord. Here the eternal love of God, offered to this special people, will endure to the thousandth generation. If worshiping other gods carries consequences -- commitment to the God of the bible brings wonderful consequences beyond imagining.
It may not sit well with an antinomian, radically individualistic culture -- but the commandments were essential to the creation of a people of God. Had the ten commandments come as ten suggestions, or one possibility among many possibilities -- the biblical drama would have ended in the wilderness and no more would have been heard of this people.
4. A fourth factor in dealing with this text is the strong sense of community and community relationships that comprises much of the Decalogue. Commitment to the Lord and commitment to relationships with each other is intimately bound together. Jesus will make the connection when he is asked what the greatest commandment is. Love of God and neighbor go hand in hand.
The text in Exodus centers the life of the people of God in love for and commitment to God and correct relationships with other in the community. Love of God and neighbor. 1 Corinthians addresses the unity of the community of faith and the divisions that beleaguer the church. On the surface, the Johanine text here would not seem to fit, however the improper use of the temple and its surrounds goes to the issue of community. When the "House of God" becomes a marketplace, it is no longer the center of the community, but a center for selfish persons who control the system. The "marketplace" ethos that had developed was divisive in its effect. It accomplished for the people who came to worship what the parties in Corinth brought about. Something other than God came to reside at the center of the life of the people.
When Jesus is asked for a sign to show that he has authority to intervene in what is taking place in the temple area, he refuses to give a sign. Instead he points them to the sign which will become the cornerstone of the Christian Church. (See below on another request for a sign in John 6.)
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
There is a bit of a connection between Exodus and 1 Corinthians in that both go to the issue of community. In exodus, the community is being formed and given shape. In 1 Corinthians, the issue is once again community -- except the community which is rooted in Christ and the Good News is threatened by divisions within the young Corinthian church.
The specific problem addressed here is that there was a group in the diverse Corinthian church which was devoted to Greek wisdom and logic as tools in the search for truth. Rhetorical skills rooted in the classical tradition emphasized reasoning skills. Some of this is seen in Paul's warning about those who followed one preacher or another. ("I am of Apollo," "I am of Paul...")
Paul counters that true wisdom and power reside in the cross of Jesus Christ. The world in its wisdom totally missed (and continues to miss -- as per the items under the Exodus passage) true knowledge of God. Christianity is not a logically or rationally discerned truth, but a revealed truth.
On the other end of the discerning God spectrum in the Corinthian church was the group of Jews in the church who looked for miraculous signs for divine truth. It was the "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?" of John 6:30. The only thing that can unite the church is the centrality of God's action in Christ and not the miraculous signs one group wants to see or the rationally discerned truth the other wants. Faith and the unity of the community rest in Christ and his work of salvation and not in the ability or whims of humankind.
Call To Worship
A Prayer of Confession
Assurance of Pardon
Brothers and sisters in Christ, the mercy and grace of God are deeper that any offense we can commit and the love of Christ more powerful than any separation we can build. If we confess our sin, God will forgive our sin and renew a right spirit within us. Open your heart and receive the forgiveness of God. Amen.
Prayer of Thanksgiving
O Lord God of grace and mercy, we praise you today that your love for us is a searching, healing, renewing love. In you we find comfort in times of sorrow, strength in times of crisis and most of all a love that will not let us go.
In the honest depths of our hearts we know that there are times when we turn away from your amazing love to the disappointing promises of the world. And yet, when all is done, you come as a shepherd looking for the one that had foolishly left the fold.
We rejoice in your love today and we celebrate the extraordinary cost your Son Jesus paid to reconcile us to you. We proclaim your praise throughout the world because you have loved us more than we deserve and have been patient with us beyond measure.
For all you have been to us we give thanks.
For all you are to us we praise your name.
For all you will be to us we rejoice.
Thank you Lord! Amen!
Prayer of Dedication