The 3rd Sunday in Lent, Year B
4 February, AD 2018
St Michael’s Church, O’Fallon, IL
Proper: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 22:22-30; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
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I wonder how many of you were confirmed back in the dark ages when we were required to memorize the Ten Commandments? In the baptism service in previous versions of the Book of Common Prayer, the minister would say to the parents and godparents,
Ye are to take care that this Child be brought to the Bishop to be confirmed by him, so soon as he can say the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments, and be further instructed in the Church Catechism set forth for that purpose. (BCP 1789)
The older Prayer Book tradition also required the parish priest to examine the children during the Sunday service, asking them some of the questions from the Catechism each time. Well, we’re not required to memorize those things any more as preparation for confirmation, but teaching on the Creeds and the Ten Commandments is still included in the Catechism. And of course the Lord’s prayer is an essential part of every service in the Prayer Book. We were also required in the older Prayer Books to read the Ten Commandments during the service at least once a month. So because of all that, we never read them as one of the appointed Sunday readings, as we did today.
Now the reason there used to be so much emphasis on the Ten Commandments is that they are the basic moral code of God’s people. The law that God gave to Moses on Mt Sinai consists of 613 individual commandments, of which these are the first ten, kind of like how the Bill of Rights is the first ten amendments to the US constitution. In fact, these first ten commandments are the summary of the whole law of Moses, the essence of it, as one Muslim writer (Abu Amina Elias) has said. The rest of them are sort of subcategories of the first ten. So, since we hardly ever hear the Ten Commandments read in church any more, and since they’re the substance of today’s first lesson, it’s a good day to flesh them out a little bit. I’ll go through them one-by-one, and this will all come under the general heading of Here’s a Bunch of Stuff I Bet You Didn’t Know, especially since some of the ways lots of us learned to apply them aren’t necessarily the proper ways in light of Jesus.
- I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. I mentioned last week that the forty years that God led Israel in circles around the Sinai desert was an opportunity for them to become reacquainted with him. After 400 years of enslavement in Egypt, they had largely forgotten about the God of their forefather Abraham and his promise to make them a great nation. So once God had led them safely through the Red Sea to freedom, the process of reeducation began with God giving the law through Moses. And what we read today was the very beginning of that.
You shall have no other gods before me, God says. First of all, there simply is no other god. The God who revealed himself to Abraham and Moses is the only one there is, the “maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible” (Nicene Creed). It was this God who set the children of Abraham apart to be the channel through which he would bless and redeem all people. So he is to be the only object of worship in Israel, and ultimately the only object of worship in all the world. But that part is still in the future.
- You shall not fashion any kind of image (idol) that resembles anything you can imagine, in order to bow down before it and worship it. Why? Because that’s what their former masters did. They worshipped cats and birds and other animals, and came up with some pretty imaginative images to represent all the gods they worshipped. And that’s the kind of worship that the Israelites had been exposed to for the previous four centuries. But that kind of worship is vain, empty, because none of those gods ever really existed, although you could sort of understand why they worshipped cats, since they’re about as fickle as the gods they believed in. If you worship any of those, God said, there will be consequences for generations to come, not that he would necessarily inflict those consequences. Quite often they were a direct result of the actions of the people themselves. As the old saying goes, if you play with fire, you’re going to get burned.
This is where some Protestants get upset with Anglicans and Catholics and others. We’ve got a great big crucifix on the wall, and a lovely icon of St Michael. And lots of our churches have statues and images of saints in stained glass. Some say that’s idolatry. When Oliver Cromwell’s gang of Puritans took over England in the 1600’s, they started destroying stained glass windows and statues in churches and smashing the faces in other carved images. And I bet most of you didn’t know that the last group of Christians who shared our worship space always put a screen up to hide the big crucifix during their worship. They actually wanted to take it down, but I said no, and quoted St Paul in today’s second lesson, “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” I’m positive that St Paul would have had no problem with prominently displaying a crucifix in church because it’s as bold a representation of what the Church exists to proclaim as what St Paul himself proclaimed.
Before Jesus, however, nobody knew what God looked like, because he didn’t “look like” anything. And human nature being what it is, he knew that his people would sooner or later want to make some kind of representation, some kind of carved image, like their former masters did. And in fact, they did just that while Moses was up on the mountain receiving this law from God. The people had grown tired of waiting for Moses to come down, and they demanded an object of worship that they could see and touch. So Aaron the high priest collected the gold they had all taken from the Egyptians, melted it down and cast it in the image of a calf. And when Moses came down the mountain carrying the stone tablets on which God had written the Ten Commandments, he blew a gasket. He threw down the tablets and smashed them, and ground the golden calf into dust and forced all the people to eat it (Ex 32).
But in Jesus, God now has a human face, and that changes everything. He took our nature upon himself. And we know from the example of Jesus and from the sacraments, that God uses ordinary, natural things for extraordinary, supernatural purposes. So the way the Church uses images– iconography is what we call it– is not as objects of worship in themselves, but as pointers that inspire our worship and direct it toward God. If a particular image, or even a song, a reading, or anything else for that matter, doesn’t point unmistakably in God’s direction, and especially if it contains bad teaching about God such that it contradicts what God has revealed about himself, then we don’t use it in worship. Images of stone or glass aren’t the only false idols. Anything that leads us away from God or distorts who he is, is idolatry, and needs to be strongly rejected. Churches that become more preoccupied with money than with mission also have fallen into idolatry.
That’s what motivated Jesus to go ballistic in the temple. In order to make some extra money, the priests allowed that part of the worship space reserved by God specially for Gentiles to be turned in to commercial space. It reflected a pretty poor understanding on the part of the priests about what that space symbolized in terms of Israel being the channel of God’s blessing and redemption of the whole world. In fact, at that time they didn’t want anything to do with any Gentiles at all. It also reflected the fact that they valued profit above worship. So in effect what they had done was to make idols of themselves and of money, which put up a serious barrier between themselves and God.
- You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. A plainer way to phrase that is You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God (NRSV). That one’s pretty straightforward. I learned from my uncle long ago that Jesus’ middle initial is H. I was helping him load cows on a trailer one time, and when one of them would cooperate, he twisted her tail and prayed very loudly, saying, “Jesus H. Christ!” The prophet Joel says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” So since my uncle was a Christian man, I assumed that’s what he was doing– “save me from this wretched cow, Lord!” I also heard a young woman praying like that in the meat department at Sam’s CLub one day. She picked up several packages and read the prices out loud, and said, “$20? Jesus! … $25? Jesus!” presumably praying for the prices to come down. Of course we all know that that’s taking the Lord’s Name in vain, making wrongful use of it. The name by which the Lord identified himself to Moses– YHWH– is considered by the Jews to be so sacred that they don’t speak it. Instead they say Adonai (the Lord), or ha Shem (the Name). Similarly some Christians will refer to Jesus by saying “our Lord,” because as St Paul says, it’s “the Name that is above every name” (Phil 2:9). So if you’re not speaking the Lord’s Name with respect or in worship, then just don’t say it.
- Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Sabbath (Shabbat) means rest, as in sabbatical. Genesis says that God finished creating everything in six days– figurative days, not 24-hour days. The creation narrative is not a scientific explanation of how God created. It’s a theological explanation. It explains, not how, but why. The Church has never had any problem with any of the theories of how God created (e.g. evolution, the Big Bang). But we won’t go there today. God inspired the person who wrote Genesis to put it in terms that relate to human life and human activity. And an important part of those things is that we humans need our down time. So, just as God rested from all his labor, we should too.
Now here’s where lots of Christians somehow got the idea that the Church moved the Sabbath with all its rules to Sunday in honor of the resurrection. That is so not true. Just as in the creation story, Jesus rested from all his earthly labor on the Sabbath day. He was taken down from the cross before dark on Good Friday and spent Holy Saturday resting in the grave. By rising from the dead on Sunday, he didn’t make it the new sabbath, he made it the first day of the new creation, what the Church calls the eighth day of creation. You may have noticed a lot of baptismal fonts (not ours) have eight sides– that’s because through baptism we become a new creation (2Cor 5:17), we enter the eighth day. So in spite of what might have been drilled in us by our parents and grandparents, Sunday is not a day when Christians aren’t supposed to work or travel or have any fun. But it is the Lord’s day, when we are all supposed to celebrate his resurrection. And through baptism Jesus has brought us fully and eternally into his sabbath rest. If you want to know more about that, read N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope.
- Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You may have heard it said that the first five commandments have to do with how we relate to God and the last six are about how we relate to one another. But wait a minute, you think, 5 + 6 = 11. There are only ten commandments. And you’re right on both counts. The fifth commandment is about relating both to God and to others. In the biblical understanding, parents are part of the divine order. God is the Creator; parents are the procreators. Even in the case of adoption, parents are procreators in the most important sense, which is that their job, their vocation from God, is first of all to be the image of God to their children, and second, to raise up their children to be faithful worshipers of God. And if the parents have been faithful in doing what God has ordained them to do, their children will revere them in the way God commands.
The last five commandments are all pretty clear, and don’t need much explanation, except for number 6. Sometimes people quote it as saying, “You shall not kill,” which isn’t exactly right. Even the venerable King James Version of the Bible got it wrong. What it really says is, “You shall not murder.” Suffice to say that all murder is killing, but not all killing is murder.
All of these last five are directly concerned with how we regard other people. Jesus summed them all up in two different ways. In the Sermon on the Mount he said, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Mt 7:12). We call that the Golden Rule. He also said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Mt 22:37-40). We call that one the Summary of the Law because it summarizes, not just the commandments about interpersonal relationships, like the Golden Rule does, but all ten commandments which are, in turn, the summary of the whole law of Moses, all 613 commandments. It’s all summed up in the two commandments to love because, as St Paul says, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:9-10). Love is the reason God created us in the first place, and the reason he chose and used Israel to reach out to the whole world.
This is the wisdom of God that, as St Paul says, seems foolish to the world, to those who aren’t actively engaged in seeking truth. But it can also come across as foreign to people within the Church, who haven’t bothered to learn the basics of the faith like the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments. I don’t think we have nearly as many people like that in our pews now as we used to. Christians are fewer in number in the Western world, but there’s a much higher level of commitment to being followers of Jesus. And it behoves us all as children of God to know the basics of our faith so that, as St Peter says, we can make a case for it at the drop of a hat (1Pet 3:15); and to engage ourselves long-term in studying the things of God so that they become deeply embedded in us, and so that discerning right from wrong, idolatry from true religion, and loving our neighbors as ourselves become as natural to us as walking and breathing. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Ian C. Wetmore+