Boxing God
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

March 11, 2012

Exodus 20:1-17
John 2:13-22

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

We have a problem. This is not a new problem. This is an ancient problem. Our problem is that life is risky. Everywhere we go, life is risky. It is at risk.

Farming is risky. Weather, yields, speculation, prices, costs. Farmers are at risk.

Business is risky. Overhead, ventures, consumer confidence, the market. Businesses are at risk.

Family is risky. Health, money, employment, house, car, sex, kids, parents. Families are at risk.

Wherever we are on life’s journey, life is risky. It is at risk.

So it would be nice if religion were nice and stable and settled and solid and unmoving, a rock in the sand, a shelter in the storm, an anchor in the turbulent sea. Since before the golden calf, we have wanted to craft a god that we can touch and hold and control and domesticate and turn to as something that will not yield in the midst of the risk and riskiness of life.

We want to box God in. Something manageable would be nice, seeing how much of life is out of our control. We want God settled, once and for all.

The recent forays into the prosperity gospel try and settle God. They cast God in the role of the magic genie of the bank account. If you have true faith, your blessings will multiply, and by blessings, they mean money.

Some forms of fundamentalism tries to settle God into a nice, snug, personal theology. Once you get the formula down, you really don’t need to keep listening to God. You are saved, and the rest is just unimportant. Never mind justice, or care for those in need, or compassion for the enemy, the stranger, the foreigner. Don’t worry about the prophets’ cries, or the harsher words of the Gospel. Surely those are for the unsaved.

The problem with each of these attempts to make God less than risky is that they make God less than God.

In the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, Jesus goes in and overturns the tables of the moneychangers and drives out the sacrificial animals at the end of his ministry. It is a narrative point that is being made. It is part of the reason for his arrest his trial. It underscores the tensions between the various religious movements and reformers of the day. It is part of his triumphal entrance to Jerusalem, staged to draw attention, meant to get him in trouble.

John tells the story differently. In John, the cleansing of the Temple comes at the beginning, right after calling his disciples, right after his first miracle at the wedding in Cana. John is telling us that what is God is doing in Jesus stands in direct conflict, opposition and tension with religion as usual, and especially the attempts by Temple (or church) religion to settle God into a box. John is going to remind us time and time again that Jesus is about a living relationship with God, even if that living relationship upsets the way we have always done it.

Life is risky. So we turn to God, and we find out that God is risky! Now what?

God has always been risky. We just heard the Ten Commandments recited from Exodus. These are not the final word of thou shalts and thou shalt nots. These are the beginning of a new life with God. These were not given to a people who were settled in as slaves in Egypt, or who settled themselves in as masters in Jerusalem. These are given to a people in the wilderness, who are on the risky pilgrimage from slavery to freedom. These are words of a new covenant.

Interestingly enough, if you back up a few verses, you find the people agreeing to the covenant before they have even heard what it is. Some say that a people who have just come out of the brickyards of Pharaoh know that whatever the God who can bring them out of slavery offers has got to be better.

And God spoke all these words, saying, I am the LORD your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

The relationship begins with the reminder that God saved them, brought them out, and is going before them.

The list goes on to say: Don’t settle for any lesser god than the one who saves, who brings out, who gives life and new life. No lesser god than God, no idols, no ascribing God’s name to anything less than God, no signing God up for any agenda less than God’s own agenda (this is what it means to use God’s name vainly).

From there we get the instructions for a pilgrim people. You had no rest in the brickyards of Pharaoh. Keep the sabbath, so that you may enjoy your relationship with God.

Honor your mother and your father. They have been through much to get you here. Without them, there is no you.

Other people are not a commodity, something to be used, someone from whom you can steal, someone whose relationships don’t matter. To treat them this way is to declare that they are less than created in the image and likeness of God. It demeans them, and it hurts yourself, and it denies God’s image.

Don’t forget that God provides all that you need, so quit eyeballing what your neighbor has.

These are the ways of walking with God. Not a settled God, not a lesser god. But the God who is able to save; the God who is able to carry us; the God who wants not sacrifice, but mercy; the God who is still speaking (as we say in the United Church of Christ).

Life is risky. It is at risk.

But the God who will not settle for the way we have always done it, the God who makes all things new, promises God’s presence in the midst of whatever we face.

Sometimes Jesus calms the storm. Sometimes he lets the storms rage, and he calms his brothers and sisters.

Life is at risk. God is not settled.

God is faithful.

Thanks be to God. Amen.