SJF • Lent 3b 2006 • Tobias S Haller BSGEvery human society on earth, every culture, every household has it rules. Whether these are laws handed down from on high by the hand of God, like the Ten Commandments; or enacted by an elected legislature such as our U.S. Congress or state assembly, or simply the rules set in place in our own households — such as who does the dishes or takes out the garbage — some sort of rule or law is useful for the orderly operation of a nation or a household.
I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind. Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
I remember when I was young, a family friend of mine also came from a large family — and like mine lived in a fairly small house. I was always amused when I went to visit, because his parents had put up by a novelty sign by the front door: a mock version of an old Western saloon sign giving the house rules, customized with their family name — so this one said the Smith Saloon House Rules, and then went on to list such things as, “all empty seats must be shared” and “no more than six in a bed” and “please use the cuspidors.” (I didn’t know what a cuspidor was; but when it was explained I recognized them immediately — those odd shaped buckets for people to spit tobacco juice into were a common feature of the TV Westerns and cowboy cartoons!) Such were the Smith Saloon House Rules.
In our Old Testament reading we hear God deliver the House Rules for his people Israel — there would be plenty of other rules as well, but these were the ones that God wrote himself in letters of fire on tablets of stone: the Ten Commandments. We reminded ourselves of how important we still hold these to be, even though we are not Israelites, when we used them at the beginning of our worship, in the form that Anglicans have called the Decalogue since the days of the first Book of Common Prayer. We Christians give this portionof the law of Moses a central place in our understanding of God’s will, and we regard this portion of the Law not simply as the code of a peculiar people, a wandering tribe of Middle Eastern nomads, but as still having something to say to us in the ordering of our lives. Even our secular society, divorcing these laws from their religious context, gives them a place of honor as a monument in human legal history — along with the Code of Hammurabi, and the Analects of Confucius.
But what happens when we treat these commandments as a monument or a historic document rather than as a set of real house rules. What happens when they no longer are seen as guidance for one’s actual daily life, but simply become decorative artifacts — what they call giving lip service to God; all show and no go! There was once a Boston businessman famed for his hard dealing, who told writer Mark Twain, “Before I die I mean to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land; climb Mount Sinai and read the Ten Commandments aloud at the top.” Twain replied, “Why not stay in Boston and keep them.”
And of course, the problem is in keeping them — as even Mark Twain himself discovered in later life as tragedy hemmed in this great writer of comic tales, and he ended in skeptical and agnostic bitterness towards both humankind and God. The truth is that it is easier to give lip service than to put one’s hands to work. It is easier to erect a monument to the 10 Commandments on the courthouse lawn than to reform the justice system; it is easier to recite the Decalogue than to observe it.
Saint Paul knew this well — it’s what he is trying to explain in that passage from his letter to the Romans which we heard this morning. Knowing what is good, knowing what is right, isn’t enough. Even when we want to do good, we end up doing what is wrong. As Paul puts it, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do!” He describes the situation as a civilwar or a rebellion — the willful flesh fighting against the mind that delights in God’s will, the head and heart unable to control the hands that find evil lying close by, and take it up for evil use. Finally Paul cries out in desperation, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” And then of course he gives the triumphant answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
The simple fact of the matter is that on our own we are unable to help ourselves, unable to save ourselves. However good our intentions, however well we know our household rules, we cannot on our own obey them — apart from him. Paul uses the most powerful imagery at his disposal when he says that we have been sold into slavery under sin — even though in our minds and our hearts we want to be obedient to the law of God, our flesh holds us back and keeps us slaves to sin: We have lost the Civil War, slavery has not been abolished, we have been taken prisoner and captive and sent back to the plantation to toil under the hot sun and the whip of a merciless master. Who could possibly liberate us from this captivity?
Well, the answer for us is the same as it was for Saint Paul: thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. And our gospel passage today shows him at work in this process of liberation — wielding the whip not of a slave master, but storming into the temple like Indiana Jones, to clean God’s house of the refuse that has piled up there — contrary to God’s house rules! Yes indeed, tolerating these money changers and dove sellers isn’t just a bad idea — it’s against the law! According to the law the Temple is sacred territory — and these money changers and merchants have set up shop within the its precincts; and the chief priests have allowed it because of the kickbacks that have greased their palms.
And so Jesus comes along to set things right: to clear out these lawbreakers, and restore the house of God to its purpose as a temple and a dwelling place for the Spirit ofGod,where the prayers of God’s people may ascend in the smoke of the sacrifice — prayers not only of the Jews, but also of the Gentiles who have placed their hope in the God of Israel and have come to Jerusalem to worship and praise.
So it is that Jesus wants to enforce the rules of his Father’s house. But there is a more personal dimension to this. Jesus goes on to say that even if the temple is torn down he will raise it in three days — and he refers to the temple of his own body. But let us all remember, my sisters and brothers in Christ, that we too are temples set apart for the presence and the dwelling of God. We too are called to open our hearts that God might come and dwell within us.
And what prevents this? Have we made room for God in our hearts? Can we, on our own? Even though we know the house rules, have we, no less than the chief priests of the temple, compromised and capitulated to the force of sin? Who are the money changers of our hearts? What tables have been set up to clutter the court of our temple? What profusion of sheep and cattle and doves throng to bleat and low and coo — the noise and hubbub of the fairground and the marketplace drowning out the voice of prayer? What den of robbers have we set up in our hearts? Who can deliver us from this unfaithfulness, this captivity and distraction?
None other than our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. He is the only one who can cast out the moneychangers from our hearts, and cleanse our temple to make it fit for God to visit. Let us today, one third through our Lenten journey, commit ourselves anew to the rules of God’s household: let us fling wide the portals of our hearts to let our Lord and Master Jesus Christ come in, bearing if need be that whip of cords, to cleanse our hearts of all the iniquity from which we lack the power in ourselves to free ourselves. Let us commend ourselves and one another to God, who alone has the power to cleanse us from our secret faults, and deliver us from our offenses, to wash us through and through so that our hearts and minds, our words and deeds, may be acceptable in God’s sight, who is our Lord, our strength and our redeemer.