— Rev. Phil Hobson

March 8, 2015

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

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

In Jewish readings of the Exodus passage, these are called the Ten Words, not the Ten Commandments, and the first word is not even a commandment. It is a statement. It is testimony to who God is and what God has done:

I am the LORD your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery;

God is the one who heard his people crying out, God remembered God’s covenant, God called and sent Moses, God defeated Pharaoh and his court sorcerers at Pharaoh’s own game, God led the people out of Egypt, out of slavery, and brought them to a place to give them new life.

The actor is God. The plan is salvation. This is the first word; everything else derives from it. The rest of the commandments are not then designed to send people back into slavery to the rules, but to keep them free.

We can bow down to the golden calf and say it freed us from Egypt if we want to, but that calf will not guide us through the wilderness anymore than it will moo. Today we can substitute money, guns, retirement accounts, privilege or anything else that we claim is the source of our freedom, for the golden calf. Same principle.

We can make false promises on God’s name, but they will no more work to keep us safe than that calf of gold. We can lie about our neighbor, covet their property, commit adultery, steal or kill, but these are the actions of people just as enslaved to something other than the God of liberation as the people were to Pharaoh in Egypt.

The Ten Commandments are the baseline of a new way to live for a people who have been liberated by God. But like any system, we run into problems when the system loses focus on what is important, and why we do what we do.

The scourging of the Temple is one of the stories that appears in all four Gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke all have it much closer to when Jesus is arrested, where John practically opens his Gospel with it. Paintings of this scene often show Jesus with a whip of cords threatening or attacking the people in the Temple. And this story has often been used as a justification for Christian acts of violence.

But let us stay close to the text. He overturned the moneychangers’ tables, tablets which had graphic representations of the exchange rates on them since many of the people could not read. You put your five coins on those five circles, I put my four coins on these four circles, I take yours, you take mine, deal done.

But Jesus does not whip people. “Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.” The cords are used to drive the animals from the courtyard. This is a story of disruption of business, but not of violence against people.

Even without violence, there are problems here. Everything the moneychangers and sellers of animals were doing was necessary for the Temple system to work. It was Passover, which means that everyone who could get to Jerusalem, to the Temple, from all over Israel and beyond, was there. It was the busy season. And that is when Jesus shut the Temple down. No tithes that day. No sacrifices. No worship until it was all cleaned up.

A question: If Jesus came in here and trashed our sanctuary, what would we do? Would we call 911, fill out a police report, get our insurance agent on the phone? Maybe harbor thought of what we would do if we caught him? These are all reasonable actions. But would we stop and ask what Jesus was trying to tell us?

Bill McNabb, a writer for the Wittenberg Door, wrote in response to all the hubbub about “The Last Temptation of Christ” (but it well applies to our difficulties with this story as well):

“I had an old seminary professor who began and ended his apologetics lecture with one sentence: “You defend God like you defend a lion — you get out of his way.” God, it seems, has never had much trouble with his enemies — it’s his friends who give him fits…. The theologian Karl Rahner put it this way: “The number one cause of atheism is Christians. Those who proclaim God with their mouths and deny Him with their lifestyles is what an unbelieving world finds simply unbelievable.” Perhaps the best defense of God would be to just keep our mouths shut and live like He told us to. The gospel would then have such power and attraction that we wouldn’t have to worry about defending it.”

The question is, what must Christ do to wake us from complacency to the needs of the poor and the damage that our system does to people whose skin color, or language, or religion, or sexuality is different from our own? What does it take for us to ask God for guidance and then being quiet long enough to listen for the answer.

On this 50th anniversary of the march in Selma, Alabama, I learned that the name prominently displayed on the bridge over which they marched was a senator and grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. So this lovely new bridge was emblazoned with a name that let everyone know to whom progress belonged, and for whom advancements were possible, and who was going to be left out. The march across the bridge made news. The photos of police dogs and water hoses changed our world. It caused great disruptions, and still does. But we also know the system is still not yet right.

Some of you may remember some variation on the poster called “The Rules.”

Rule 1: I’m the momma, that’s why.
Rule 2: When in doubt, see rule number 1.

We might state it similarly:

Rule #1: Love God and love our neighbor.
Rule #2: If the system, any system, treats our neighbor as anything less than a child of God, made in God’s image, change the system and get back to Rule #1.

You and I are children of God. If we act like everyone we meet is a child of God as well, imagine how liberating it would be for them and for us. Imagine how close it might be to the kingdom Jesus preached …

Thanks be to God.