Sermon for 3-15-09 Exodus 20:1-17, John 2: 13-22
When I was a child growing up in Massachusetts, I was very curious about what I would see as we traveled along. When my family would visit family back in Orange we took the Daniel Shays Highway, named after one of the revolutionary war heroes. On one trip, I became curious about all the road signs we passed. I was too young to think about driving yet, so in previous trips I had not really paid attention to how we got there, just knew we would get there, no matter what route we took, Dad knew the way. However, as I said on this particular trip I took an interest in the road signs and for the first time saw that they would predict what we were about to do, a curve or an intersection, how many miles to left in our journey.
Many of the signs had arrows on them, and we started a game of deciding which tribes of Indians were leaving these arrows behind. My imagination dreamed up interesting stories, how the curved arrows were designed to go around trees. We would pretend there were tribal members still in the woods, waiting to hit us with their arrows if we believed the sign, Rest Stop, cause we knew it was just a trap to get us to stop and pillage through our picnic basket, and take us captive.
Of course, as I grew up, I began to use signs for more important things, to get around. I soon found out that even though I had traveled the road many times, I needed them to direct me to where I wanted to go.
As the people of God traveled from Egypt through the desert, there were no such signs for them as they tried to understand where they were going. In fact, they wandered around for quite a while before they ever got close to the Promised Land. However, during their spiritual pilgrimage in the desert they were given a different set of directions, the 10 commandments, the law of God, Torah! This law was to give the people of God directions for being the people of God, of how to live now that they had gained their freedom from the Egyptian Pharaoh’s rule. As one commentator points out:
We usually define torah as the Law, but the Hebrew can also be translated to say “the finger pointing the way” – a means to direct people in their covenant relationship with God.
A finger pointed their way on their journey through the desert. A finger pointing to the way of faith, of giving them directions as they practiced their worship and their living.
The commentator continues:
The Ten Commandments are a gift to those who have been set free, showing them how they can keep their freedom. They are not an assault course, a barrier to overcome in order to gain freedom. Freedom is a gift from God, not something that can be earned by years of striving. The commandments are not a prison in which God places people, a straitjacket to prevent them from getting above them. God has done what Israel could not do for itself – has given it freedom in the crossing of the Red Sea. God now gives the people a second gift – the means of keeping that freedom. In the process, God shows them who God is and what freedom is.
As we consider our lives, it is good to remember that the law of God is designed so that we too can keep our freedom, to keep us from going down the wrong roads, which lead only to danger and dead ends. If we keep the law, the torah we do not earn our God’s love and freedom these have already been given to us as a gift. This gift is ours to accept or deny ours to follow or try to go it on our own.
The key to following all the laws is to worship the one true God and keep from giving into the temptations. The other is our prayer, live so that peace may prevail. Now it is tempting to go into each individual commandment, but today lets explore how the Ten Commandments tell us are the keys to worship and living. Perhaps we can learn by exploring what some of the alternatives to worshiping God. One preacher, David Wells suggests in a book called Torah from Dixie, suggests four alternatives to the commandments.
First is to worship a different God. If God did bring them out of Egypt as the believed, if it was the same God who backed up the pleas of Moses to the Pharaoh to let his people go, with the plagues, if it was the same God who parted the red sea and destroyed Pharaoh’s army, then why should they worship any of the Egyptian gods? God has brought Israel out of slavery. What use would Israel have for any other god? And how about us, if we believe in the God the creator of heaven and earth, the God who keeps the promise made again and again to be our God, the God Jesus taught, why would we worship any other God?
A second is to make an idol. This is to worship something smaller than God does, something God has made. God made the sun, the moon, all of creation. To worship something God has made is to confuse the creation with the creator, to serve that, which cannot liberate – in other words, to return to slavery. If we make money our idol, or our jobs, or even our country we put God in second place. In the gospel
A third is to trivialize God by forgetting that the Lord’s name is holy, by using God’s name to advance our own purposes. Unfortunately there are too many who go about the work of the church as a money making operation. We all know of those high profile pastors who carve out a fortune for themselves, misuse the power they have to satisfy their own selfish desires only to be found guilty and their empire collapse. For us to, we need to be careful to make time to dwell with God, to bask in the holiness of God so that we might live holy lives, so we too will not forget the Lord.
The fourth is to make gods of us. This is the underlying warning of the commandments concerning the Sabbath and parents. We are not gods, we are not to be worshiped we need to remember the only one worthy of worship.
Now with this basic understanding and review of the 10 commandments, perhaps we can read the actions of Jesus in the temple with more understanding. Jesus too is on a pilgrimage, one that takes him from the manger to the cross then as a risen Messiah. He knows the history of the temple and why it was built. This was the place where so many searching for truth and purpose in their lives came to reconnect to God. This was where God was encountered, and many from the countryside would make their way after leaving everything they had worked for in their life.
Jesus found something else going on here. He found corruption, and violations of God’s commandments in the very place built of encountering God. The moneychangers had found a way to take advantage of the desire of travelers to honor God by charging high prices for the objects of sacrifice. This was in direct violation of the 10 commandments. These unethical merchants were trivializing God, using the practice of offering sacrifice as a money making endeavor for their own gain. They believed that a profit was more important than worship; they had made money their god.
Jesus saw all this, and had a choice of how to remedy the situation. He could act boldly, radically, or he could try some other less upsetting method. Jesus chose the radical movement and drove the moneychangers out of the temple with a whip. Now it is interesting to note that nowhere does it say Jesus whipped anyone. In fact, I could see in my minds' eye, using all the authority of God to proclaim the message, using the whip as a threat of harm without actually using it. This is a side of Jesus we rarely see in the gospels, but it witnesses to the fact that sometimes-passionate responses are needed to free us from those who practice evil in the world. Sometimes it is important to clearly state what is wrong and take action to make things right. Sometimes it is good to get mad at the injustice of the world, and upset the current denial that anything is wrong.
`Conflict can be destructive or constructive, depending in large part on our attitude, which governs our response. Conflict is natural and necessary. It can be a catalyst for growth, learning and positive change. Our response to conflict is a matter of faith. With a constructive and faithful attitude, we can transform conflict in a positive way. (ENGAGE CONFLICT WELL: THE SPIRITAND ART OF CONFLICT TRANSFORMATION Thomas W. Porter, Jr)
We need to sometimes be radical in our approach to break the shackles of oppression and violence. Sometimes we need to confront what is wrong with society with determined and radical action.
Now what can we learn for our spiritual pilgrimage as we prepare for our week?
First, we need to rededicate ourselves to worshipping the one true God. Worship with all our hearts our minds, our strength with all our love. Each time we gather we bring all our sorrows, all our joys to the Lord. We receive God’s love in abundance, we receive the forgiveness we ache for, and we receive guidance for daily living.
Second, we commit to putting God first in our lives, and worship only God. This is not easy in a world that calls us to worship money, power, and status first. We need to put our trust in the one we worship, trust God first, others will let us down, others will testify against us, others will cause us to suffer, others will break promises, but not our God, God love us, and promises us with an everlasting promise to be our God, to give us all we need.
Third, we need to remember not to trivialize our faith. We need to remember that what we do has implications, a ripple effect to the whole world. As United Methodists when we give to the worldwide funds of the United Methodist Church, we give to provide care for those who would not otherwise have that care.
This week our conference sent another rebuilding team to Mississippi area to help rebuild homes destroyed by the hurricanes. When is the last time you heard a news report about this trip? The world in general has moved on to other news, but our brothers and sisters have not forgotten those who live have been changed when they lost everything.
Lastly, we need to remember that as a church we are called to reach those in our communities who are hungry for a new way of living, whose souls are aching to find a higher purpose, to be connected to a higher power. They may have very successful lives in other ways, but are missing the keystone to the foundation of their lives. There are those too who have lost everything in today’s current financial crisis, those who have been swindled out of their money by promises that have dissolved. We have a part to play in the rebuilding of our communities by offering ourselves in service to those who are hurting, searching and afraid.
This church exists for God, not for us, and so we need to continue to follow God’s directions to serve a hurting world. There are social clubs who can be a place where people can hang out together, there are sports where people can play together, there are city, county, state and national political groups where people can argue politics together, there are places of learning where people can learn new skills and prepare for their careers, but in the church, we are hear to serve God, to trust God, to worship God, and to study the life of Jesus and how to live as Christians, to follow the prince the peace.
Today you will receive the stamp of a temple. This symbol is a reminder to all of us to make our church first a place of worship, a place to connect to the Lord of the Universe. All we do here should honor God.