Then God spoke all these words:
I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
You must have no other gods before me.
Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow down to them or worship them, because I, the LORD your God, am a passionate God. I punish children for their parents’ sins even to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me. But I am loyal and gracious to the thousandth generationj of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Do not use the LORD your God’s name as if it were of no significance; the LORD won’t forgive anyone who uses his name that way.
Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. Because the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Honor your father and your mother so that your life will be long on the fertile land that the LORD your God is giving you.
Do not kill.
Do not commit adultery.
Do not steal.
Do not testify falsely against your neighbor.
Do not desire your neighbor’s house. Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.
- Exodus 20:1-17
The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved. It is written in scripture: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reject the intelligence of the intelligent. Where are the wise? Where are the legal experts? Where are today’s debaters? Hasn’t God made the wisdom of the world foolish? In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching. Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called — both Jews and Greeks — Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
- 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
It was nearly time for the Jewish Passover, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. He found in the temple those who were selling cattle, sheep, and doves, as well as those involved in exchanging currency sitting there. He made a whip from ropes and chased them all out of the temple, including the cattle and the sheep. He scattered the coins and overturned the tables of those who exchanged currency. He said to the dove sellers, “Get these things out of here! Don’t make my Father’s house a place of business.” His disciples remembered that it is written, Passion for your house consumes me.
Then the Jewish leaders asked him, “By what authority are you doing these things? What miraculous sign will you show us?”
Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.”
The Jewish leaders replied, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and you will raise it up in three days?” But the temple Jesus was talking about was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered what he had said, and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
- John 2:13-22
Last week we talked about covenant, the covenants God makes with Noah and then with Abraham and Sarah. And in the Bible story, 400 years after covenanting with Sarah and Abraham, God makes a covenant with Moses and Israel. God brings the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and guides them toward the promised land, and in return the people will keep the law God gives, beginning with the Ten Commandments.
We recited the Ten Commandments today. Our Methodist ancestors did this every time they celebrated Communion, way back when. It used to be quite common to see pictures or sculptures of the tablets with the commandments listed, in homes and churches and even in public buildings, but they’re rare today. Now a lot of us have trouble remembering which commandment is which, whether the sixth commandment is thou shalt not murder or thou shalt not commit adultery. Number six is not murdering, by the way. Although I should mention that the numbering of the commandments differs among Jews, Catholics and Protestants –number six is not murdering for us, but it’s number five for Roman Catholics and Lutherans.
Another thing worth mentioning is that the commandments are arranged in two groups. The first five commandments make up the first group, each containing the phrase “the Lord your God” and spelling out a duty to God. This group begins with prohibiting acts of disrespect for God: have no other gods, don’t make or worship idols, don’t misuse God’s name. Then there are two duties to God which honour God: remember the Sabbath and honour your parents, which is seen as a counterpart to honouring God.
The second group of commandments contains duties to other people, and these duties are shown as being of just as much concern to God as the duties to God in the first group: don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t covet, or desire, your neighbour’s property. The things listed here that you might covet are from a society different than ours: we don’t consider our spouses our possessions, or have slaves, and only a few of us have oxen or donkeys. But the point is not to lust after anything that is your neighbour’s. The original Hebrew word we translate as “covet” can mean “scheme to get your hands on.” So we would say, don’t plot how to acquire your neighbour’s house, or pets, or LCD TV, or snowmobile, or ATV, or anything else that’s your neighbour’s.
The Ten Commandments is only one of today’s readings. We also had Psalm 19, in our call to worship, about God’s commandments being pure, right, true, perfect. And we heard from the New Testament, about God’s foolishness being wiser than the world’s wisdom, and the story of Jesus clearing the money changers and other merchants out of the Temple. So what do all these have in common? What could the theme be here?
All of this language and drama seems very foreign to us. A society where people are either Jews or Greeks. Cattle and sheep and doves for sale in a place of worship. And it seems even more long ago and far away if we study the Bible, and discover that the meanings of some of these commandments in the ancient Middle East are not the ways we see them today. And we find that the moneychangers whose tables Jesus flips over in the Temple are there because using coins with the Roman Emperor’s picture would violate the second commandment against idols, as the Emperor was worshiped as a god. So these had to be exchanged for Temple coins for the offering. We just don’t see our money the same way. We have a picture of the Queen on every coin.
But these ancient words from the Bible do have something to say to us and something to do with us. Speaking of coins, I remember when we did experiments in physics class in high school, and we had to put round metal weights on a balance and try to bring the weight on the two sides into alignment. It seems to me that our passages from the Bible today are about bringing things, bringing life, back into balance.
I picked up on a little sermon starter in Gathering, our United Church of Canada worship resource, about balance. The Ten Commandments are about balance: between communal responsibility and personal behaviour. We talk about that a lot after we read and listen to the news, because there is always tension between the freedom we have as individuals and the obligations we have to the community. You know, there’s a balance between our freedom to use our property and allowing our neighbours to enjoy their property. The Ten Commandments are a 35 century-old model of how to balance what we do individually with what we need to do in common. And they stand up pretty well.
The reading from the First Letter to the Corinthians is about balance between God’s foolishness and the world’s wisdom. We need the world’s wisdom to function in our individual lives and in our lives together – our society would break down without law enforcement, and computer networks, and health care, and weather forecasting. But the Apostle Paul, who wrote this letter, reminds us that everything the world considers wise is nothing compared to God. After all, God created the planet, and the weather, and the electrons computers are based upon, and gave us the abilities that led to language and mathematics and everything else that our civilization is based upon. Yet even after God gave humans all that we have, our society just pays lip service to the message of Christ put to death on the cross and then risen from death. It doesn’t truly listen to this message or recognize its implications. So there needs to be a balance, between human wisdom – which really comes from God in the first place – and God’s wisdom which seems so foolish by the world’s standards.
Jesus comes into the religious centre of his people, and drives out the moneychangers and the sellers of animals, saying that God’s house can’t be a place of business. And this story is all about balance. Things in the Temple were out of balance. Sacrifices of animals were supposed to bring people into right relationship with God, as commanded in the laws that follow the Ten Commandments in the Bible. But the whole system of sacrifice was being distorted. There was corruption in the exchange of money. The act of worshipping God had become a commercial transaction, with all the emphasis on buying animals and changing coins. The Temple priests were more concerned about power and privilege and profit than the relationship with God the original covenant had been about. So Jesus comes to restore balance. With his whip he upsets this scheme of buying and selling which is throwing worship out of balance, throwing over tables and chasing the sellers and their animals out. He speaks of his body as a temple, for his body brings God and humanity into relationship, into covenant, bringing back balance: not through animal sacrifice, but through his own sacrifice on the cross.
That is why, the Corinthians are told in our reading, we preach Christ crucified. It may be scandalous to many, and foolish to others, but to those of us who are called, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom – and God’s balance.
We need balance. We know that our lives, our society are out of balance. I realized that I need to restore some balance when I was running around at the end of each evening plugging in all these electronic devices to charge – I spend too much time charging iPod and tablet and cell phone, and keeping batteries charged in TV and DVD and Wii remotes. We need balance between work and leisure. We need balance at home. We need balance in our politics, our government, business, in God’s creation.
In the Bible, after Moses receives the Ten Commandments he hands down hundreds of other laws, governing everything from hair length to eating. Orthodox Jews still observe these laws today to keep their side of the covenant with God. Jesus sets us, who are not Jewish, free from keeping all these laws, for he brings us into covenant and we are saved by faith. But there is a whole chunk of the New Testament about this, telling us that, even though we do not need to obey the laws and we may not even remember all of these hundreds of requirements, we still follow the spirit of the laws through faith, as if by instinct. There is something deep within us that echoes the truth of God’s laws, with their emphasis on justice and the common good.
So as Christians we don’t need to worry over obeying the law about not wearing clothes that mix wool and linen together, or the rules on buying back family property. But we do observe the gist of the laws, summed up in the Ten Commandments, 3500 years old but still a model for balance. We don’t adhere to the commandments out of fear. In the Ten Commandments, there are no punishments spelled out. Following them isn’t motivated by being afraid of punishment, but by wanting to live according to God’s will. This isn’t primarily about behaviour – it’s about relationship, and living in relationship with God. And this seeking relationship, seeking balance, can’t help but affect how we live in every way. As we live in relationship with God, in balance, then we will live in the spirit of the law, our lives echoing the truth of the Ten Commandments: truth for us, truth for the church, truth for our community and our country and our world. May God write all these laws on our hearts. Amen.