First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
March 4, 2018
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
Exodus 20:2-17 (NRSV)
2I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me. 4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 8Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
12Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13You shall not murder. 14You shall not commit adultery. 15You shall not steal. 16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
John 2:13-22 (NRSV)
13The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
Wilderness. It’s not usually the place where people aspire to be. Wilderness brings with it risk and danger. People get lost in the wilderness. People die there. But people are also found and obtain new life in the wilderness. And so it is that wilderness become a metaphor for spiritual journeys. It was in the wilderness that the Hebrew people learned what it meant for them to be a people of Jahweh, God. It was in the wilderness that they learned to trust and rely on the one who had brought them out of slavery. It was in the wilderness that God provided food and water for them. It was in the wilderness that they struggled with a new identity of what it really meant to be a people named, claimed and led by God, for their very lives depended on it. It was in the wilderness that they became a community, a people, a nation, distinct from all the others, worshipping one God—something that they had never been before. Something that did not yet exist in the world in which they lived.
For the world in which they lived was filled with gods, many gods. Gods of earth and sky. Gods of fertility and war. Gods of the grain and of the water. Gods of life and of death. Gods that were represented by statues crafted by human hands and to sacrifices were made.
But the God that had liberated this bunch of slaves, was different. This God was mysterious. There was no human-made idol. The name was odd and illusive…. I am. I am? I am what? Or I am who? Just “I am.” Mysterious or not, illusive or not, unseen or not, this was the mighty force that had brought plaques upon Egypt and then brought forth this ragtag bunch of slaves into the wilderness where people get lost and die and have to rely on whatever they can to survive. That “whatever” was that “I am.” They were now inherently bound to this “whatever” that had brought their freedom and then sustained them in the wilderness while they were trying to find their way. They owed, “I am” their very lives. Whether they had intended to from the beginning or not, they were in this relationship now and it was time to put some definition to that relationship. It was time to understand the rules, to set some boundaries. Of all the slave nations in the world, “I am” had picked them. It was the ultimate bachelor reality show. Now what?
They would have to be different because this God was different. The relationship arose out of mercy and compassion. I am had heard their cries. Before there was sacrifice. Before there was commitment. Before there was sworn allegiance. There was mercy. God reached out to them first. This relationship had its beginnings out of compassion. This relationship was built out of a profound need and the merciful response by one whose main characteristic is steadfast love. The Hebrew word for it is “hesed” which literally means “womb-love.” W O M B – love. The kind of love felt by mothers after giving birth. Just rest with that for a moment and think of the implications of that one. It’s the kind of love that will stand up to bullies. It’s the kind of love that will go to the ends of the earth for the sake of someone else. It’s the kind of love that, no matter how angry or hurt or disappointed, will never end.
And this is Old Testament stuff. So whenever I hear someone proclaiming that they don’t like the God of the Old Testament, I wonder if they mean the God that leads them beside still waters, and frees slaves, and speaks truth to power because the powerless are getting the short end of the stick. If that Old Testament God is unlikable, what is?
This is the God who heard the cries of people held in bondage for generations, brought one of the mightiest empires to its knees and liberated the powerless. And now it was time to develop the relationship between savior and saved. This was something that was intended to last so the marriage vows had to be good ones.
The commandments given…. and received…. are what defined that relationship. Some of them would be that which would distinguish these people from their neighbors. Although all of them are important, a few bear some significance on this particular relationship.
The whole not having other Gods and graven images? That’s what everyone else in the neighborhood was doing. There were lots of very active gods at the time. None of them had heard the cries of the people, or if they had, they didn’t do anything about it. This, this is the God that heard them. This is the God to whom they owed their life, their freedom, their salvation. Allegiance is not owed to powers who do not care about your well-being. Devotion is not due to forces that do not extend mercy. Faithfulness is not to be extended to entities who hear the cries of the poor and do not act on them. So, I am and I am alone was to be the God of their devotion. There was not room in the relationship for any other gods.
And the Sabbath part. We’ve come to understand that as setting aside time for worship. And it is. But there’s more to it than that. As former slaves, they had known a life of continual work, 24/7. It’s one of the ways that the empire exerted its power and control over them. They were no longer slaves. The one to whom they owed their lives would not else, human or beast. Even the land would eventually be given a break from its labor. By building Sabbath into the relationship, “I Am” was reminding them of their past so that it would not be repeated again in the future, for them or anyone else.
Ultimately, these rules, these “laws” were the conditions of what it meant to be in relationship with the one who had heard their cries, acted out of mercy and set forth a new way of life in relationship with them and they the world around them. By living out the nature of the one who liberated them, their relationship would be maintained. When the relationship was honored, things went well. When it wasn’t, well, not so good.
Fast forward a few thousand years to the time of Jesus and it’s clear that things had gotten a bit rocky for folks. There was another empire in town, this one from Rome, and it was making life pretty tough. And, to make matters worse, there were things that were getting in the way of the people’s relationship with “I Am.” In what was originally intended to be a temple built to “house” the evidences of the relationship between “I Am” and the people, a barrier to that relationship had grown. People had come to believe that the relationship was established in ritual and sacrifice and presence at the temple. It meant that some, the poor and marginalized were kept from entering into that relationship.
Again, they cried out for deliverance and “I Am” heard them. And this is where Jesus comes in. Fast forward…. Beyond Jesus’ ministry and life and death and resurrection to the people who had been touched by Jesus in some way or another, or had heard of others who had. And what they discovered was, in this Jesus, people experienced a new, a different relationship with God. A relationship that wasn’t bound up in laws and rituals. It was a relationship that revealed that human life and divine blessing could meet even though holy structures crumble, even though practices once thought sacred ceased to hold meaning, even though cultures and customs and nations rise and fall. The holy blessing of compassion and mercy still reaches into the brokenness of the world to give life. The sacred offering of justice still rolls down like waters so that everyone has that which they need to live and to rest and to have hope. The only requirement is to remember where this comes from and to live life out with the same compassion and justice as had been shown. When Jesus sat with people and connected with them. When Jesus reached out to those in need he connected with them. When he fed the hungry it wasn’t just with daily bread, it was with the love that knows eternity for that is where it comes from. When Jesus welcomed the outcast and loved the unlovable, he was behaving in perhaps the most divine way. When Jesus stood up against a mighty empire and revealed their weakness through the strength of compassion, he embodied, not a political stance but the eternal “I Am.” An embodiment that is so everlasting that not even the powers of evil or death can stop it from spilling out over the face of the earth.
It is in Jesus that we claim to place our relationship with God. And it is in this season of Lent that we work to strengthen and renew that relationship. Sometimes it helps to look back and recall these important stories, to go back to the days when the relationship was new and discover anew how it may have all gotten started… not in details about dates and history, but in the center of what the relationship was all about from the beginning: a God of mercy who hears and acts on the cries of the world and commands that we do likewise. Let us go forth in that relationship.