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You can read most of the sermons preached at Faith in the past few years here. This archive is a blog, which is duplicated on Blogger. You may add comments here or in the blog if you wish.
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Effective Expedient Expert Idols
Text: John 2:13–22
Other texts: Exodus 20:1–17
Lutherans have a lot to say about the Law. When Lutherans speak of the the Law, the Law of the Bible, the Old Testament Law of the Torah, not the books in the statehouse, it is always with a capital “L.” Few other Christian denominations make such a big deal of the Law. Some Christians see the Law as at best an outmoded irrelevance to them. Something not applicable to the New Testament and Christianity. Some see it as at worst a toxic burden. Something that Christians should reject as legalistic and condemning.
But that is not how Luther—who learned Hebrew so he could translate the Old Testament—it is not how Luther saw it. And it certainly not how Jesus saw it, who said he came not to dissolve the law but to complete it, to fill it out.
The Law was and is a gift. The psalm we just sang together is a song of celebration and thanksgiving. Thanksgiving for the law. Not only the whole Torah, which means teaching, but the Halakah, the particular 613 statutes that include the ten commandments. So we sang, “the teaching of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul.” And we sang, “the statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart.” These are verses that describe a valuable and welcome privilege and gift.
The law is guidance. God gave the laws so people would not be confused and uncertain. The word for the statutes, Halakah, means a path that one walks. It is easier to walk a path than to bushwhack. Easier to travel on a road than cross-country. Easier to follow the road signs—or the GPS—than to figure out the directions at each turn. The law is a way, instructions for the good life. They come from God. They are the words of God, which is a better translation than “commandments.”
So we sang, “More desired are they than gold … sweeter far than honey.” This is how Jesus would have known the law.
The foundation of the law, expressed in the little preface to the Ten Commandments—the ten words—is freedom. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt. I am the one who freed you from slavery. This is not a statement that establishes God’s authority. Not: “I am God your creator and I am a lot bigger than you, so obey.” Instead it establishes God’s compassion and trustworthiness. “I am the God who remembered you, sought you out, guided you, cared for you, freed you” What is behind these words is a God whom we know from experience we can trust and follow. We are easily distracted, tempted, and trapped. God who freed the Israelites from slavery is a God who frees us from traps.
We just heard this story in John of Jesus acting pretty violently. Throwing stuff all about, yelling (I’m sure) at the people there, whipping them or at least their stuff, dumping all that money on the ground. “Get out of here,” he says. “This is not a marketplace, not a shopping center.” Maybe we are shocked at gentle Jesus acting so belligerently. Or maybe we are thrilled. “Go Jesus, get rid of those sleaze-oids who are shilling in the church.”
But the people who were there would not have been shocked or thrilled. They would have been mystified. For the merchants were in the Temple as a convenience for the worshippers.
People had come from all over to Jerusalem for Passover. They would have been expected to make an offering of a lamb or a dove. But it would have been difficult to carry such animals on their journey to the city, so the travelers would buy the animals from the Temple merchants. They would have wanted to pay Temple taxes, so they would change their Greek or Roman money with the money changers. It was an efficient way to run the system.
The first of the Ten Commandments is this: you shall not make yourself any idol. Idols are traps. Idols are things, ideas, habits, values, or points of view that entrap us. We grant idols power over us. Idols then guide us. Money is a commonly cited example of an idol. Sometimes we do things because we want money or because we fear losing money; then we have let money control our behavior. Sometimes the desire for money or the fear of losing it makes us do things that betray our natures as children of God. Then we might say we are worshipping an idol.
There was nothing really wrong with the merchants conducting business in the Temple. It was practical. It was efficient. It was effective. It was convenient. It made good use of the merchants’ skills. It was all those things. It just had no place in God’s holy house.
We share with the Temple leaders a love for effectiveness, expediency, and expertise. But we have to be careful that we do not let these become idols that trap us and lead us astray. We do things that are effective because it gets things done. They accomplish the productive goal. We do things that are expedient because it gets things done with a minimum of fuss, bother, or conscience. They accomplish the goal conveniently. And we rely on expertise because it gets things done more quickly, elegantly, and correctly. It is efficient and prudent.
There is no problem with all this. Theoretically. But the things we do in the name of effectiveness, expediency, and expertise are not always the best things for the people involved or affected. Sometime it hurts them. Sometimes us, too. Sometimes it is better for people to be allowed to be a little sloppy, inconvenient, and amateurish.
Our love for God and neighbor overrules our love for accomplishment. Better to do something in a half-baked way than to harm others. Better to take longer than necessary. Better to do things more poorly. Compassion for others might move us to settle for less than the best, the fastest, or the most economical. It might move us to work less frantically. It might help us tolerate a little disorganization and uncertainty. It might let us lower our standards. To settle for good enough. To give others and ourselves a break.
The world needs some slack. Slack is the sabbath of everyday life. (Sabbath being the third or fourth commandment, depending on how you count). Even in these scary economic times, we need to put aside time for nothing useful. Slack is the enabler of forgiveness, at the center of Christian theology and life, to allow harm done without retribution or revenge. To not tie up all loose ends. Slack is grace.
The Temple, the church, is a sanctuary. It is an institution set aside by the culture. We come here for lots of reasons. But one reason is to be freed from idols. And to learn to escape from their traps. That does not mean that the world’s presence is not felt. We do talk about building projects and fund-raising and lending a hand with chores and accomplishments. But in the physical and spiritual space of the church—and, we hope, in our lives day to day—God comes first. And neighbor comes first. Everything else comes second.
The passionate actions of Jesus in the Temple need not shock us or thrill us. They can comfort us. Jesus comes to the Temple mindful of the first commandment and freedom on which it is based. Jesus’ job is not to make things work smoothly. Jesus defends us from compelling and sneaky idols. Jesus, the way, frees us.