SJF • Lent 3b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG,
God spoke all these words to Moses on Mount Sinai.
This Lent we have been exploring the meaning of the word covenant — in particular by looking at the various covenants that God made with humanity or with the chosen people of Israel. On the first Sunday in Lent we reviewed the covenant God made after the flood, which he signed and sealed with his own name in the rainbow set in the clouds. Last week we looked at God’s covenant with Abraham, the covenant sealed in Abraham’s flesh and that of all of his descendants. And we saw from these two examples, the two sides to every covenant: an agreement and a sign of the agreement.
Today we come to Mount Sinai, the mountain of God, the mountain upon which God writes up the terms of his covenant with Israel on tablets of stone, and delivers them to the people with whom he wishes to enter into this covenant, this agreement — he is their God and he has high expectations of them: including right from the beginning the insistence that this is an “exclusive contract.” The people are to have nothing to do with any other god or object of worship — nothing on earth or under the earth or in the heavens is to become the object of their adoration, but only God — who openly admits that he is jealous.
Jealous as well as faithful — that is important to remember; God does not want the people to worship only him because he needs their worship but because he knows that it is good for them to worship one who will be faithful to them and rescue them when they turn out to be less than faithful themselves. As we know from the rest of the story in Exodus the ink was hardly dry — or I should say rather that the chiseled tablets hardly finished — before the people down in the camp, down at the foot of the mountain, under Aaron’s leadership had made a golden calf and begun to worship it — a dead thing — instead of the living God. And indeed God in his jealousy would have wiped them out had not it been for Moses standing between them and God’s very righteous indignation.
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This covenant then, what we call the Ten Commandments, is an agreement to which God wishes to hold his chosen people — these are the conditions of the covenant, spelled out in no uncertain terms. It is a covenant that calls upon them to respect and honor God — but perhaps even more importantly, it calls upon them to respect and honor each other — not just even each other, but everyone — every human being is to be respected. Only the first three of these ten commandments directly involve God, the worship of God, and the sanctity of God’s holy Name. All of the rest of the Commandments — the other seven — in this covenant have to do with people and their dealings with each other. This starts with the commandment to observe the Sabbath — which is not really so much about God as about people. remember what Jesus said about the Sabbath, it was made of us, and not we for it. It is about people, people who aren’t supposed to be worked to death, but to have a day off each week — and this includes everybody, not just your family and your employees — but even the livestock and the aliens with whom you share the country.
As the list of the commandments goes on, you can see that this covenant lays out really much more about how to treat other people — with honor, but without violence, without infidelity, without theft, without slander, and finally, without even envy or greed. This is the covenant that God lays out before his people, and the first of the covenants with which we’ve dealt in which the sign and its contents are one and the same.
The rainbow was meant as a reminder to God not to flood the earth. Circumcision was a sign in the flesh to remind Abraham and his offspring that they were dedicated to God. But the Ten Commandments — those ten laws about how we are to behave toward God and toward out neighbor — those Ten Commandments simply mean what they say and are what the command — a covenant whose sign is also its contents.
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But as with much that God commands, the Ten Commandments are easy to understand — easy to recite as we did this morning at the beginning of our worship — but hard to keep. These moral rules were hard on people — they still are! — people find it all too easy to fall to dishonor or exploitation of others. People are easily prone to violence, betrayal, theft and envy and greed. The people wanted to shift the attention away from these requirements about how they should treat each other, towards something else, something perhaps less clear about how to treat other people, something more mechanical than moral. What they wanted was “religion.”
Now before anyone thinks I’ve gone off the deep end to speak anything ill about “religion” let me immediately clarify that I’m not talking about faith. There is, in practice, a huge difference between religion and faith. The Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels never mention the word religion even once; it does come up a few times in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle of James, but that’s it. What the Scriptures speak of, for the most part, is not religion, but faith. As the theologian Karl Barth has said, “Religion is...a human attempt to anticipate what God in his revelation wills to do and does do. It is the attempted replacement of the divine work by a human manufacture. The divine reality offered and manifested to us in revelation is replaced by a concept of God... evolved by man.” (The Revelation of God.) In short, as I would say, religion can be a form of idolatry — putting something else in the place of God’s revealed will. God inspires faith, but humanity offers religion.
And so it was that turning away from the high moral demands of God, the priests of Aaron’s line developed the rules of sacrifice and offerings which eventually came to form the religion of the temple. This substituted law of sacrifice was more subtle than the substitution of the golden calf — it had all the appearances of honoring God. But as the prophets would later have to say, time and again, but perhaps most succinctly in that wonderful phrase, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” God wants faith, not religion.
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Following in this line of prophecy and bringing it to fulfillment, Jesus casts the money changers out of the temple. They symbolize the mechanical nature of the religion of sacrifice — you pays your money and you takes your choice — thinking that the blood of sheep and goats could wipe away sin. As if, as the Psalmist would say, God needs the blood of sheep and goats. “Are not all the beasts of the hillside mine,” says God. “Do I need you to kill all these animals for me? Do you think I eat meat?”
God wants us, God has always wanted us — God wants us, not just what we do mechanically, not even just what we do morally, but our whole selves devoted to him — serving only him and having no other God before him. And further, out of that devotion, God calls us to serve our sisters and brothers and treat them as we would be treated, with dignity and respect and honor.
Jesus does not just end the cult of sacrifice — he transforms it by himself becoming the ultimate and final sacrifice of God. He becomes the temple that not made with hands, and its most perfect offering. He is the temple, that if they destroy it, will rise in three days — not the 46 years it took to build that temple of stone, but the three days he lay in the tomb, and would then rise, restored, alive again. As Karl Barth also said: “Jesus does not give recipes that show us the way to God as teachers of religion do. Jesus is himself the way.”
At this midpoint of our Lenten journey with him, let us remember that God gave us rules for good conduct, toward both God and each other; but also that God gave us himself, in Christ Jesus our Lord. He gave himself to us and for us; let us give ourselves to him. +