March 05, 2012
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
In my March 11, 2012 / Third Sunday in Lent sermon starter article for Exodus 20:1-17 (available on the “This Week in Preaching” page) I noted that we often pick up on the wrong things when we read the familiar story of God’s giving out his Law at Mount Sinai. Our tendency is to focus on what Hollywood would focus on if they were to try to recreate the event (a la Cecil B. DeMille): namely, we focus on the sound-and-light show, on the spectacle of it all, on what the Industrial Light & Magic folks could recreate with CGI special effects and with THX SurroundSound. Hollywood would want to render it 3-D but would fail to recognize that the real wonder of this story is that it’s really in 4-D and it’s that fourth dimension that is the key. The true grandeur of Exodus 20 is in the sheer weight of the holiness of God that is encountering the Israelites in ways that unhinge them in every sense.
There was no missing that grandeur in Exodus 20. But there was every chance to miss it in John 2, the Gospel text paired with Exodus 20 in the Year B Lectionary. However, if there is one thing Exodus 20 and John 2 share in common it is this: we tend to be impressed with all the wrong things. In John 2 everyone was impressed with the physical Temple. It had been undergoing construction for over four decades already and was not even finished. It reminds me of the Ken Follett novel The Pillars of the Earth that narrates the construction of a European cathedral that literally stretches across generations of construction workers and craftsmen. Some projects in days gone by were so grand, the person who laid the first brick just knew that if one day the final brick got laid high up on the spire of a bell tower, it might very well be his great-great-great-great grandson who put on that finishing touch.
How could one fail to be impressed with such a grand undertaking? And in John 2 and in Jesus’ day, how could one fail to be impressed with Herod’s Temple? It maybe did not quite hold a candle to the original splendor of Solomon’s Temple but since that building was long gone, one takes what one can get, and Herod’s edifice was quite something to behold. (In another passage elsewhere in the Gospels the disciples have their own jaw-dropping moment upon seeing the Temple in Jerusalem, too).
In John 2 Jesus makes room again in the Temple for the truly spiritual business of the place to take place in ways that had not been possible once commerce and a flea market had taken over. What Jesus did literally shook things up and so the leaders asked Jesus to produce some credentials to authorize the bold and brazen thing he had just done. Jesus said “Destory this Temple and I’ll raise it back up in three days.”
A ludicrous claim, of course. Granted, if someone were able to raze the entirety of the Temple edifice only to have Jesus wave a magic wand over the ruins and restore the whole shebang in a scant three days, that would have been beyond impressive. If a person could pull off such an architectural and engineering feat, that powerful action would be more than enough to validate any power or authority he might claim for himself.
But no one took the claim seriously. It would have been like someone’s approaching “The Pile” that was the wreckage of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center at Ground Zero after 9/11 only to say “Give me three days and I’ll have them back up again.” It took the better part of a year just to haul away the debris. Today, just over ten years later, there still is no new shining edifice rising up from that site—the construction of the new buildings is slated to take years. No one would bother, then, with a claim to instant restoration. Who could believe such a thing?
Typical of John, of course, we get a theological aside—a holy parenthetical—to inform us that the “Temple” in question was Jesus’ own body. The very Son of the Living God was standing right in front of these people but they were far more impressed with brick-and-mortar than they were with flesh-and-blood. Even if they had understood the reference to his own body, though, you get the feeling they would have been unbelieving and unimpressed by also that claim.
Unless of course it was true. Yes, it would have been ludicrous to hear someone claim to be able to restore the decimated World Trade Center site in three days’ time. But what would be more impressive: claiming you could raise back up the buildings or claiming that you could (and would) reassemble the body of every last victim who had been pulverized, vaporized, and torn to shreds in that great terrorist cataclysm?
That would surely be the grand miracle because that would not be something we could do at Ground Zero or anywhere else. Yes, we can re-build the physical structures. It just takes years to do. But we could take every second that has passed in the 13.7 billion-year history of the physical cosmos and it would still not be time sufficient to reconstruct a single human being who ever lived or raise someone up from the dust. We cannot engineer that.
Jesus does that. It happened to him first so that all may follow. That is the One who stood in the midst of that allegedly “impressive” Temple that day in Jerusalem. No one saw him for who he was. No one recognized him nor what he was really saying. But one day we will all see him for who he is. The message of Lent and Easter assures us of this. And as the Apostle Paul will later tell us, when we see him, we shall be made like him.
Thanks be to God!
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
Whatever Jesus saw that set him off that day in Jerusalem, there is one little detail we should notice because it might just give us a clue as to what this should mean for us even yet today. The telling detail is John's insertion in verse 17 of Psalm 69:9, "Zeal for your house consumes me."
If you look back at Psalm 69, you will find that it is a psalm of lament, a heartfelt cry to God on the part of the psalmist. The reason the psalmist cried out was because he was being looked down on and poked fun of on account of his faith. So the original context of the verse quoted in John 2:17 is someone who is zealous for the house of God but who is suffering because of that enthusiasm. If I tell you that I have great zeal for the ministry and the purpose of First Church, you might take that to mean that I am devoted to that church, that I am dedicated to making sure that unholy activities are kept well away from First Church. Zeal for God's house, we think, means protecting it.
But that is not quite what the writer of Psalm 69 meant. His point was that because he was zealous about the house of God, his neighbors made fun of him, insulted him, told him he was a backward-thinking idiot for finding so much meaning in something as silly as a temple. Psalm 69 is about suffering for your faith. It's about how the world sneers at us for claiming that a worship service is more valuable than anything that could ever happen in the citadels of worldly power. It takes faith to believe that what we do in worship on a Sunday morning matters in an eternal sense. It takes faith to believe that what a preacher conveys in a biblically true sermon is vastly more vital than anything that could ever emerge from the U.N. or from the office of any president, king, or prime minister. The writer of Psalm 69 believed that the ancient temple of Israel was the center of the universe, the house of God, the dwelling place of the cosmic Creator. And his neighbors saw this zeal for God's house and they laughed out loud. How could he believe such an outlandish, silly thing?
That is the verse John throws into this story. And it tips us off that what this is all about is how sharp our spiritual vision is. Do we know what matters in life and what doesn't, and are we willing to put up with the world's scorn rather than give up on our faith? So maybe Jesus threw out the moneychangers because their ever-expanding emporium was eclipsing the real meaning of the temple. Maybe the temple had started to look like just any old Jerusalem flea market, and so people were forgetting that to have faith was to believe that God's house is most definitely not just any old place. Maybe Jesus wanted to shake people up so they could remember that to have faith is a radical thing that should make us radically different from those who do not have faith.
Jesus’ fellow Jews had the wrong focus. They no longer had the radical faith of Psalm 69. The psalmist endured insult and injury because of his outrageous belief that the living God actually dwellt in the temple. But some of the Jews in Jesus' day had forgotten. They saw it as their own accomplishment in which they could do whatever they wanted because it was, after all, their place. They had built it and it was theirs.
Jesus reminded them that it was God's place, or was supposed to be, and if they didn't perceive the presence of the living God there, then there was nothing distinctive about the temple at all. Jesus was a little more sensitive to such things than the average person in Jerusalem. Maybe others could walk past kiosks, cash registers, and blue light specials in the narthex of God's house and not bat an eye, but as the very Son of God who himself would soon become the living, walking, breathing temple of God, Jesus took the affront of all this personally.
As most all pastors and scholars know, Matthew, Mark, and Luke each presents Jesus' cleansing of the temple as happening right after his Palm Sunday “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. In all three of the synoptic gospels this story comes at the end of Jesus' ministry. It is the deed that leads directly to his arrest. But as you can easily see based on where we are in John's gospel, John shows Jesus doing this exact same action at the very beginning of his ministry, long before the final week of his life.
There are two scholarly options to explain this difference. The most literalistic explanation is that Jesus cleansed the temple in Jerusalem not once but twice: first at the beginning of his public ministry and then a second time at the end of his ministry. Matthew, Mark, and Luke record the second cleansing but not the first while John records the first but not the second. But many commentators deem that to be an unlikely option and so believe that Jesus cleansed the temple just once and that it did happen at the end of Jesus' ministry. But if so, then that means John changed the timing of this event. He moved it out of order.
But it appears the more likely option is that John re-shaped this material to make a point. John's gospel, after all, is the most theological of the four gospels. John makes no bones about the fact that his goal is to generate faith in the hearts of his readers and so he has selected and shaped various tidbits from Jesus' life in order to achieve that holy aim of leading readers to faith. John did not invent stories that never happened nor was John unaware of when certain events took place. In other words, John was not out to trick anybody nor was he such a clumsy historian that he made huge mistakes. But John was writing a gospel, a piece of proclamation, and not a history book or diary. In order to help us understand who Jesus is, John interpreted things as he went along and, here and there, moved events around a bit to help bring Jesus into focus. In this case, he chose to put the temple cleansing early in his gospel and he did it to help us, early on, begin to get very serious about who Jesus is as the very living, breathing, walking, talking Temple of God in our midst.
My colleague John Rottman recently called my attention to a story from 2007. It seems that one day in a busy Washington D.C. Metro station, a man with an open violin case in front of him played his fiddle for the passersby. Quite a few children and young people stopped and stared but were soon enough hustled off by their parents. About half a dozen people stayed for a minute or two before moving on to catch their train. A couple of dozen people threw money into the open violin case. After a while the violinist had collected a total of $32.17.
But the musician in question was no less than Joshua Bell. Three weeks earlier he had played to a packed house in Boston where tickets for the good seats went for $100 a pop (and even the cheap seats cost more than Bell collected in the subway station that day). Unbeknownst to the distracted passersby, Bell was playing one of the most difficult and intricate pieces ever composed for the violin, and he played it with not only the world-class skill that Mr. Bell possesses but he played it on a Stradivarius violin worth $3.5 million. The whole stunt had been orchestrated by The Washington Post to see if anyone would notice. No one truly did, save perhaps for a few children who sensed something was up.
Too often in life we don’t realize what is standing right in front of us. Rather like what we read about in John 2.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
While growing up in a Christian Reformed congregation, every single Sunday morning I heard the Reading of the Law. In our Calvinist stripe of the Reformed tradition, this served the dual purpose of at once convicting us of our sin but also of laying out the rule of gratitude for how we should live (Calvin’s “Third Use of the Law”). But to be honest, most Sundays those words just created a general buzzing in my ears. It got to be like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school or singing the National Anthem before a baseball game: you just did it and got through it. It was rote. It required no thought. Once in a great while some guest preacher would gussy it up, using fresh language for the Ten Commandments, or applying them in some other clever way, and that was surely always enough to make me sit up straight in my pew and pay attention. Otherwise the sheer repetition of it week to week caused few if any to even raise an eyebrow. It surely quickened no one’s pulse to hear Exodus 20:1-17.
“And God spoke all these words . . .” my pastor, Rev. MacLeod, would intone each Sunday. And then we heard “all those words.”
But how very different it was the first time around! At Sinai in the middle of the harsh and terrible wilderness, when God spoke “all those words” on that long ago day narrated for us in Exodus 20 (and yes, Exodus 20 is a narrative and not a set of principles meant to be rarified so as to be suitable for framing) the words and the sound of the words blew the people away. There was, we are told in verse 18, “smoke on the mountain” even as the sound of Yahweh’s majestic voice shook the roots of the mountain and caused the Israelites a kind of terror they had rarely before known.
The people were undone by God’s having spoken all those words. No one slouched in a pew that day. No one heard these words as a familiar buzzing in the ears. And no one—not Moses or Aaron or Joshua or anyone else—needed to gussy up the words to get people’s attention. The words very nearly laid waste to the entire landscape around the mountainside and were as frightening to the ordinary hoi polloi of Israel as if a dangerous tornado were swirling their way.
Of course, it’s relatively easy for us to chalk up this spectacle to merely the sights and sounds of it all. We could imagine, for instance, the good folks at Industrial Light & Magic at Lucasfilm pulling out all the CGI stops to create a special effects masterpiece meant to recreate all the splendor in living color and in 3-D.
But would that really get at the heart of what unhinged the hearts and minds and nervous systems of the Israelites that day? Partly. But only partly. Because the real truth of the matter is that what the people encountered that day was not just a sight-and-sound event that we could try to recreate with THX Surroundsound in a movie theater. What they encountered was raw holiness. What they encountered was the presence of the Creator of heaven and earth entering his creation so as to give out—for the first time in a sustained way—the blueprint for living and flourishing in the cosmos he had set up in the beginning. What happened in Exodus 20 was a collision of the unstained and utterly pure God of the galaxies with a world that had quite badly gone off the rails for the very reasons that would get spelled out in the Law that God spoke “in all those words.”
In other words, what the people encountered—and what blew back not just their hair but their very sensibilities—was God’s vision for life as it should be and could be. The people encountered goodness, holiness, shalom. They encountered in “all those words” a vision so powerful in its beauty, so weighty in its moral splendor, as to render the world around them tawdry, bland, and tragic all at once.
It goes without saying that we don’t quite sense the power of all this when we hear the words read in church these days. It also perhaps goes without saying that neither do we convey such moral grandeur when we use the Ten Commandments as a finger-wagging rebuke when we try to post them in various public places as though just displaying these laws will turn things around in schools or courtrooms.
There is a majesty to the Creator’s intoning the instructions for shalom, a majesty that is simply the sheer heft of holiness—a heft we often fail to appreciate today. In too many places (even in places of worship) we value familiarity, conviviality, and casual latte-sipping atmospheres over a sense of a grand encounter with the God of the galaxies. That may be bad enough but in Lent we can reflect on this from also another angle: a failure to engage fully with who God is and what his vision for shalom is really all about diminishes also the cross of Jesus.
Golgotha properly bowls us over with another form of divine majesty and holiness when we see what even the holy God who blew the Israelites away at Mount Sinai had to do to realize the reality of a world of flourishing and shalom. The cross is God’s answer to the question, “What can make things right again? What can realize God’s vision for this cosmos?”
If we downplay that vision, we downplay what Jesus had to do to realize it. But downplaying all that is most surely not what the Season of Lent is all about.
One of my favorite scenes in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy comes in the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring. Gandalf the wizard had just fallen in the mines of Moria, felled by the terrible Balrog, a fiery and demonic creature of the ancient world that had been attracted to the Fellowship by the powerful Ring of Power that Frodo carried. That had been a spectacle of sheer horror as a creature of intense power and evil undid the great wizard.
But it’s the next scene that I like even better because it has a grandeur to it more powerful than any Balrog. The Fellowship arrives in the great realm of the Elves, Lothlorien. This is a realm ruled by the goddess-like Galadriel, Queen of the Elves, and a figure of significant moral power and (one could very nearly say) righteousness. As Galadriel greets the Fellowship, she looks at each member in turn. When she looks upon Frodo’s Hobbit companion Sam—a figure of sheer moral goodness in Tolkien’s world—Sam is able to smile at her and she at him. They share a bond of goodness. But when Galadriel’s gaze falls upon the duplicitous Boromir—who has already been sorely tempted to take the Ring away from Frodo by force so as to wield its power for himself and for his people of Gondor—Boromir cannot abide her gaze. He begins to quake and shiver and must look away. When Galadriel’s goodness meets Boromir’s badness, the guilt and sorrow of the disconnect between who Boromir wishes he could be and who he actually is becomes simply too much for him.
Something of this was going on for the Israelites when God spoke from the mountain, too. It wasn’t just the smoke and the fire and the thunder. It was the holiness of it all that unmade them.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
C.S. Lewis once called Psalm 19 “the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.” So it’s no wonder that lyricists have set a number of beautiful interpretations of it, including “The Heavens Declare Your Glory” and “God’s Glory Fills the Heavens,” to music by famous composers such as J.S. Bach and Franz Haydn.
Rolf Jacobson suggests that the psalmist organizes Psalm 19’s hymn of praise around the central theme of “word” or speech.” In verses 1-6 it speaks of nature’s “words” of praise to God. The “heavens’” words, however, may be inaudible. While the NIV translates verse 3 to mean, “There is no speech or language where [the skies’] voice is not heard,” according to the NIV Study Bible it may also mean, “They have no speech, there are no words; no sound is heard from them.”
In any case, the psalmist insists that God’s glory is visible in God’s handiwork that is the “heavens” and “skies.” The Reformed confession of faith that is the Belgic Confession makes a similar claim in Article 2 where it insists that “the universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures … are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: his eternal power and his divinity.”
Psalm 19’s poet asserts that creation somehow joins the worshiping congregation in praising its Creator and Sustainer. After all, what God creates isn’t itself divine, as parts of our culture insist. Instead, things like the “heavens” and “skies” point to the glory of the One who made them. The praise they offer is as unceasing as the rhythms of day and night. God’s creation praises the Lord on a daily basis throughout the day and night. That praise also extends across the whole world, just as the heavens and skies cover that world.
Those who preach and teach Psalm 19 may want to find ways to help people explore how to slow down enough to “listen” for that praise in a world that’s often far noisier than its skies. They might also want to ask if those heavens don’t actually make any audible noise, how do they declare God’s glory? Might we think of this a bit like the way we think of one of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings? After all, when one studies something like “Starry Night,” one can hardly help but notice and perhaps praise Van Gogh’s artistic genius. How much more, then, might God’s handiwork declare its maker’s praise?
Part of God’s handiwork that somehow declares God’s glory is the sun (4b). While some of the psalmist’s contemporaries thought of it as itself divine, the poet asserts that it’s merely one of God’s creatures. It’s certainly a creature that’s eager to do that for which God created it, giving off light and heat as the earth circles it. In fact, the psalmist compares the sun to a bridegroom who’s straining to leave his parents’ home for his wedding or a racehorse that’s chomping at the bit to race. The latter image recalls scenes of thoroughbreds racing in something like the Kentucky Derby, eagerly lunging forward toward the finish line.
Psalm 19’s verses 7-10 signal a noticeable shift. After all, the Hebrew name for God changes from el to Yahweh. The verses become poetry with what Jacobson calls “crisp and measured meter.” Most of all, however, they shift our attention from the creation that quietly, if not inaudibly declares God’s praise to Torah that very tangibly declares God’s glory. Verses 7-10’s six phrases have a similar structure. Each lists a synonym for God’s law, plus an adjective, plus a description of that law’s positive impact on those who gratefully observe it.
So a description of the creation’s inaudible words of praise to God morphs into a description of the concrete word of God as we find it in God’s law. Article 2 of the Belgic Confession mirrors that shift. After all, it insists that God “makes himself known to us more openly [than in creation] by his holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life for his glory and the salvation of his own.” In other words, while God’s creation declares God’s glory, God’s word declares that glory even more plainly.
Those who preach and teach Psalm 19 may want to help people consider how the wider culture thinks about God’s law to which the psalm most specifically refers. Do people think of the commandments as a killjoy by which God tries to take away all freedom? Do they think of it as a kind of one-ton albatross that drags them down?
Psalm 19’s poet clearly doesn’t think of God’s law that way. One might say he thinks of it as more like an owner’s manual. After all, a car owner might think of that manual as something that restricts his freedom to use the car as he chooses. So he might choose to exercise his freedom by doing something basic like running the car without putting gasoline in its tank. However, the people who designed and made the car know what’s best for it. So the wise owner is the one who follows the owner’s manual’s instructions to periodically fill the car’s gas tank with gasoline
Psalm 19’s author uses a number of synonyms for God’s “owners manual for people” that is God’s written revelation. However, no matter which synonym she uses, she always points to the positive benefits of obeying that law. Some of the imagery the poet uses is very vivid. In verse 7, for example, she insists that it revives our soul like a cold glass of water revives our drooping bodies and spirits on a hot summer day. In verse 8 she notes that God’s law makes even the simplest people who obey it wiser than members of the Mensa Society who ignore it. And in verse 10 the psalmist insists that God’s law is even more precious than two of God’s creation’s most valuable commodities: sweet honey and valuable gold.
Yet in verse 12 it’s as though while the psalmist knows all of this about God’s glorious creation and law, he recognizes that he has still disobeyed that law. It’s almost as though he recognizes that he has treated it like a worthless piece of junk. After all, knowledge of God’s perfect, trustworthy, right, sure and precious law isn’t enough all by itself to keep God’s sons and daughters faithful. We need God’s gracious forgiveness for sins of which we’re both aware and unaware. We also need the Holy Spirit to equip us to respond to God’s grace with thankful obedience. After all, as Jacobson notes, it’s not the law but the Lawgiver who graciously makes both God’s children and their prayers “pleasing” in God’s sight.
People have always considered gold to be one of the most precious and valuable minerals in the whole world. So the psalmist may have shocked his contemporaries when he insisted that God’s law is “more precious than gold.”
Yet in the last decade alone the price of gold in American dollars has risen almost 600%, from about 260.00 to nearly 1800.00. One analyst predicts the price of gold will jump as high as $2200.00. So would the psalmist still assert that God’s law is “more precious than … much pure gold”?