Year B — The Third Sunday in Lent

Commentary for March 11, 2012
Click here for today’s readings

Exodus 20:1-17
“Nope. Not gonna’ do it!”

Dana Carvey made a mint on his impersonation of President George H.W. Bush (the first Bush to be POTUS) and his famous line regarding raising taxes. The monologue had, as its chief virtue, the short-but-sweet repetition of the “not gonna’ do it” tag-line. It stuck in the popular culture.

Now, there is no real comparison between the Decalogue and Dana Carvey, but the strength of these “ten words” that have impacted culture for several thousand years are their brief, to-the-point presentation of the way that we should live. (Not that we always do, but we can aspire, eh?)

Other gods? No, don’t do it!
Idols? Nope.
Use God’s name the wrong way? Negative.
Labor on the Sabbath? What were you thinking?

Honor Mom and Dad…good.
Murder. Bad. 
Adultery. Unh-unh. 
Stealing…don’t even think about it!
False witness — tsk, tsk, tsk!
Really, really wanting what belongs to somebody else? Bad idea!

Psalm 19
How do you say it, but not really have to say it? Lots of guys wish they could figure this question out when it comes to professing their love. We’re not that good with words — at least not most of the time.

The heavens, on the other hand, are quite good at expressing the greatness of God without the need for any words or voice. All one need do to get a glimpse of the glory of God is to take a look around. The world is full of it!

1 Corinthians 1:18-25
What we do as preachers can certainly be considered foolish by some.

I mean, come on…we’re going to make some sort of difference in the lives of our parishioners and congregants by what we say week after week? Get a grip!

Except that the message we seek to impart — the message of the cross of Christ and its self-giving power in the midst of our existence — THAT really does make a difference when we hear and act upon it.

Preaching, and the message that we preach, may seem foolish; but, the Apostle rightly reminds us that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

John 2:13-22 
Okay, so were the sellers of cattle, sheep, and doves — and the notorious “money changers” — really doing a bad thing? No, they were actually providing a decent and helpful service to the pilgrims who needed to travel a long way to make their Temple sacrifice. Nothing wrong with the service itself.

But…we must always be careful of allowing even good acts and intentions of encroaching on the space that belongs to God and God alone. Selling stuff “in the temple” is a whole other ball game. The temple is set apart for worship; sheep just really don’t fit here! (Ahem, see the “ten rules” mentioned above.)

Are there any ways that we are filling God’s temple with things that don’t really deserve to be there? What encroaches on the “holy space” in our lives that belongs to God and only God?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Samuel Wells, now the Dean of the Duke Chapel and minister to Duke University, writes of something that happened 20 years ago in Romania.

The Iron curtain was falling all over Europe, Communism was collapsing. On Christmas day of 1989 Romania’s President was arrested, tried and executed. 

The country was in turmoil. No one seemed to be in charge. Reporters flooded the country, looking for anyone who could speak English. 

Finally they found someone, and in one sentence she summed up not only Romania’s predicament, but the human condition: “We have freedom,” she said, “but we don’t know what to do with it.” (Christian Century, March 15, 2000)

A similar thing happened in Germany after the Reformation started. Turned loose from the rules and regulations of the Catholic Church, many people thought the Gospel meant that they were free to do as they pleased because God’s grace was free.

Martin Luther himself was sent out to visit the churches all around Wittenberg and wrote his catechisms, Large and Small, as a response. 

Referring to his visitation of the churches he wrote in the introduction, “Alas, what wretchedness I beheld. We have perfected the fine art of abusing liberty.”

The Bible tells us that this was the situation of the Hebrew people when God gave the Ten Commandments.

They had just been liberated from slavery in Egypt, they had been handed a great gift of freedom, and they didn’t know what to do with it. They too were perfecting the fine art of abusing liberty.

The word we often translate from Hebrew into English as law is Torah. Instruction, guidance or teaching would be better.

The Hebrew people themselves never considered the law to be onerous or a burden; rather they saw it as a gift. A gift flowing out of God’s love and concern for the people who needed to learn how to live with their new freedom.

We too struggle with issues of what to do with our spiritual freedom, our religious liberty; and how to treat God’s law in light of God’s grace and forgiveness.

Many of us give ourselves lots of slack in regards to the Ten Commandments, believing ourselves to stack up pretty well. Which is, I think, to miss several important points.

The Ten Commandments aren’t rules that God has laid down as a test to see if we’re good enough to get into heaven; rather they are God’s very practical guide to living a fulfilled and fulfilling life.

As such they work on several levels. 

First, they are an outline for living together as ethical human beings; a picture of the kind of life God wishes for us. It is perfection we will not reach, but that is no excuse for not trying.
Second, they are a “mirror for the soul,” as Luther put it, helping us see ourselves as sinners in need of God’s grace.

I was looking them over and trying to figure out which ones I had not broken; at least not in the strictest, most literal sense.

No other Gods – Nope. No Baal or fertility cult worship going on in the Chilton household.

No graven image – Nope. No bowing down to a man-made object that’s not a God.

Not taking the Lord’s Name in Vain – Nope. Well, I do have a barn-yard vocabulary but I draw the line at G– D—.

Remember Sabbath Day – Nope. Always go to church on Sunday, seldom do manual labor or other such work.

Honor parents – Nope. Birthday cards, weekly phone calls, Christmas gifts. Done.

You shall not kill – Nope. Never even been in a fight since 7th grade.

You shall not steal – Nope. Unless you count sneaking fries off my wife’s plate when she’s not looking.

You shall not bear false witness – Nope. Like Daddy said, always tell the truth. That way you don’t have to remember what you said.

You shall not covet, neighbor’s house, wife, slaves or his ox or his ass – Nope. Good on all of them.

Looks like I’m in the clear. Based on this record, I didn’t need Jesus to die for me. I’ve got the being good thing covered.

On the other hand, if “Other Gods” means things which get more of my attention and loyalty than THE GOD, then I’m probably guilty.

And if “Graven Images” implies earthly things to which I have devoted a great deal of time and energy and which are the most important things in my home, well . . .

Suppose taking “the Lord’s name in vain” means using religion for less than holy reasons, oops!

And the Sabbath could be about creating enough silence and space in my life to allow God to seep in and nurture and lead and refresh me. Oh my!

Honoring father and mother may have something to say about how I deal with those who have taken on the responsibility for leadership; have I been responsive and cooperative? Dang!

Well, I really haven’t killed anyone; but I haven’t prevented or protested a lot of the violence which goes on in my name, funded by my dollars.

Adultery? Well there is that “lust in the heart” thing Jesus talked about.

You shall not steal? What was it Augustine said, “Anything you have more than you need is stolen from the poor.” Ouch!

False Witness? Wee, I do not lie, but I can “spin” the truth like a whirling dervish.

Okay, okay; but I still haven’t coveted anybody’s donkey and nobody can say that I did!

The law may be a good teacher but most of us are, in one way or another, bad students.

No matter how hard we try we fail more often than we succeed in our attempts to live up to its requirements.
Lent is a time when we are called to examine our hearts and our lives and to repent and
return to the LORD.

It is time when, like Jesus chasing the money-changers out of the temple, we are called to gird up our loins and chase the evil-doing and misdirection out of our lives.

A look at our lives in the light of the Ten Commandments shows us why what Paul in First Corinthians calls “the foolishness of the cross” was necessary.

It is also a time when we are reminded that there is palace where we can let go the burden of trying to live up to laws and expectations.

A place where God’s grace is freely given and where we freely accept it and live in it.

A place where our freedom is made complete.

That place is the foolish stumbling block of the cross; where our need and God’s love come together.

Amen and amen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s