At times the journey of Lent can seem disheartening. The mood is somber; the music often in a minor key, the purple is everywhere to remind us of our need for repentance. Outside the church we are anxious for spring and sunshine and signs of new life. Sometimes death is so much in our thoughts during this season, and we so want it to be over!
Yet even in the midst of all of this darkness and sober, seriousness we have the Eucharist to remind us that God is with us in, and loves us through all seasons and all times. The comfort to be found in taking the journey that is Lent, is a deep and lasting comfort, entering our souls in the very middle of the pain and disquiet. During Lent we practice skills and habits that we can draw on to aid us when we are in crisis at any time in our lives.
As we reflect on the love God has for us and how he calls us to love him in return, we often look to scripture for help. Today’s lessons in particular have caused me to think about how we view God; what are God’s attributes; who is He?
How might you and I describe God?
Mike and I have dear friends we have known from elementary school and sometimes when we are together we play games, board games, card games and so on. One New Year’s Eve gathering stands out in our memories for a particular round of charades and one dramatic clue. The person doing the acting, drew themselves up as tall as possible and put one finger in the air and then quickly drew their arm down with finger pointed. They repeated the gesture multiple times with a very stern face. Now they had a paper crown on their head so it looked a bit ridiculous but we quickly got it.
The word on the slip of paper was “God”. (Come on now you knew it had to be something associated with church!)
God and No!
Oh, we got that clue all right; and have never forgotten it even though that particular charade game was over 25 years ago.
I wonder, is this how you picture God? A stern face telling his beloved people NO! Some people have said that the Old Testament descriptor of God is of an often angry law giver; “shape up or else face his wrath”. And in a similar way that the New Testament picture of God, particularly in the person of Jesus, is of a mild, compassionate being; “I love you all and therefore, anything you do is ok because I love you.” I wonder how todays’ scriptures might fit with these descriptions of God.
Let’s begin with God the Father, how does the lesson from Exodus help us?
These ten “commandments” coming at this point in the Israelites Exodus journey point to their importance. They are similar to a creed, containing the principles essential to life lived in community. Their structure came from an oral tradition and so easily remembered: ten fingers, ten words. Many are said, using the same negative phrase, “you shall not”. Arguably, this makes them easier to remember. These ten can be broken into two groups, the first part deals with our relationship with God and the second part with our relationship with other human beings.
As a child growing up in the Bible belt I saw these Ten Commandments written in many places and most children I knew had them memorized. Perhaps that was good, perhaps not, but in any case it is from a time in the past. Now we remember Jesus’ summary of these words, stated in a positive way, that we are to love God and to love our neighbor. So, I wonder today, how does this Exodus passage help us in our picture or view of God?
I would like to look at how the reading began. It says, “God spoke all these words to Moses on Mount Sinai.” Note, these are not named as commandments, but rather God’s words for the Israelites. Note also that God says, “I am the Lord, your God”, making this a personal statement, you and me, God’s words spoken to his people. And God, who spoke these words, is the same God who had redeemed them from their slavery in Egypt. He reminds the people of that at the beginning of the passage. The same God, who loved them enough to lead them out of their bondage, is loving them still with the gift of these words.
Understanding that, they are not a burden placed upon the people by a God removed from them, but rather a gift of how to live in better relationship with Him and better relationship with other human beings. They offer a structure of a peaceful life spent in community. They give boundaries for people’s actions, yes, but for the purpose of allowing them to live in a loving way with God and their neighbor.
What might this lesson add to our own picture of God? Is God’s always saying no and at the ready to punish for our transgressions? Or does our Creator love us in a way that we may not necessarily understand or desire?
Now, I do not pretend to answer for God, but I do believe that He wants the best for us, his children and his creation. God offers mercy and grace and forgiveness throughout the Old Testament time and time again. While we have free will to do as we wish, God’s desire is to have us love him and put him first in our lives and to treat others in a just way. What does it mean to be loved by God and how does this affect how we see him? These are questions that arise during this season of Lent and are well worth our consideration.
So, let’s look at the morning’s gospel and see how it informs our picture of Jesus. “Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple.” This demonstration of Jesus’s anger doesn’t really fit with the idea of a mild and welcoming nature. For some it seems out of character. And yet it is not; rather it is a part of Jesus’ character not to be forgotten. This is Jesus in his prophetic mode, which is a switch for his followers, both then and now. We have been hearing of all of the healing and compassion Jesus has shown. What is going on now in this story is more.
What caused Jesus strong reaction was not so much that the outer part of the temple was being used as a market place, as it was that the money changers were abusing the poor.
Temple worship required offering sacrifice. Those who came from far away could not bring sacrificial animals with them and so would need to purchase these before entering the Temple. Often those who were poor could only afford birds for their sacrifice. (As an example, look at the Simeon window above our high altar. Mary is giving two doves as her non-wealthy family’s offering to the priest.) The economic system built up around the Temple involved taking the government’s money and exchanging it into Temple money to use for these purchases. And, of course, it was for a fee. This is how the world’s system of enterprise works.
This monetary extortion of those trying to worship and demonstrate their faith in God is intolerable to Jesus and he reacts in a prophetic way they will not forget. Proclaiming justice and mercy are two of Jesus’ main themes and so his actions in this gospel are not out of character. His coming to earth to redeem God’s people, to heal, to take away our separation from God; these are his main purpose. He has come to redeem us and to bring us into harmony with God and with each other. To use a pop phrase, in this gospel passage, Jesus uses tough love expressed in a tough way.
Yes, Jesus loves us; he loves us beyond ourselves, with a love that is deeper than we can often comprehend. He loves us in the beautiful parts of life, of course, but even more so he loves us in the ugliest parts of life and he will stand for us when we cannot. In this incident of driving the money changers out of the temple courtyard Jesus is standing up for all the poor who are at the mercy of an unjust system.
Just as in last week’s gospel when Jesus began telling the disciples what will happen to him at the end of his life on earth, that he will suffer and die, we know His love is not all sweetness. It is a love that is demonstrated in very tough, painful and difficult actions. Our perception of who Jesus is must be fuller than a mild, gentle guy. Today’s gospel startles us into that realization. Jesus will do, and does do, everything to bring us into right relationship with God. This Jesus is a complex person who is not easily understood or easily put into compartments.
Our picture of Jesus must be multi-faceted and richer than what we might think at first. Jesus does not take away the law, he fulfills it. Jesus does not just speak truth; he is truth. Jesus does not just speak words; he is the Word, God’s Word. And he does not just speak love; he is love, deep, and lasting love that will carry us through all parts and times of our lives, the good and the bad.
Lent can be difficult and we do want it over—who wants the difficult parts of life? And yet those difficulties are there, for everyone they are there. It is in those times and through those times that we can better understand the depth of our God’s all-encompassing love. Personally I am grateful for the season of Lent and the growth it offers to each of us. Being loved by the God, who is Love, is total peace. And so it should be. God wants us, each and every one of us and he desires and quite honestly deserves to be first in our lives. In this time of the year we have the chance to realign ourselves with his son, the Word that he has given us.
Easter is coming my friends, the light is near, but the comfort of better understanding our need for that light is part of the season we are still in. The final hymn this morning has this as the last verse, which for me is a good summary of the purpose of Lent:
Teach us to know and love you, Lord, and humbly follow in your way. Speak to our souls the quickening word, and turn our darkness into day.