Today’s Old Testament reading (Exodus 20:1-17) is probably one of the best-known passages in the Scriptures, and also one of the most misunderstood. The psalm (19) appointed for the day is a prayer of praise for God’s covenant with Abram in Genesis, for which the Exodus was intended as an acting out of that covenant promise. The Epistle lesson from First Corinthians (1:18-25) is a reminder that salvation is a process and not a one-and-done action. And the Gospel reading is intended as an inaugural address for the portrait of Jesus in the Gospel of John that was written decades after Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection .
Where does that leave us, on this third Sunday in Lent?
Let’s unpack these ideas. This is going to feel more like a Bible study than a traditional sermon. That’s because today’s lectionary is like a Jenga stack: the readings are tightly and carefully balanced on one another, and if you just pull one out, the whole thing collapses.
Here is one of my ideas about what a more updated translation of Exodus 20, verse 1, might sound like:
I AM the Lord, I AM your God, I brought you out of the land where you were slaves, I brought you out of the life of slavery, and because I liberated you, I AM your God, and you are my people in community. Therefore, worship me as your god before any other gods. Put me first.
God has set these individuals free. When we live in slavery, we can have energy and compassionate attention only for our own selves, with nothing left to be in compassionate relationship with any other person. God’s first task in the wilderness was to show and to tell God’s people how to be in community and in relationship.
The Ten Commandments are not a map to heaven. They are not IKEA instructions for how to earn or keep God’s favor. They Iarei live giving truth.
Psalm 19 begins, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.” It continues, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.” The law of the Lord revives the soul. The law of the Lord is meant not as a vasoconstrictor, something to tighten our hearts. It’s a vasodilator: something to enlarge our hearts. Something to allow us to be in community and in relationship – that is, something to allow us to be in relational community together with God. This is covenant community.
Paul writes: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” If we are not in relational community together, we’re dying. We do not have our hearts wide open for God’s love and mercy and grace and forgiveness.
Then Paul writes: “But to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”
This is one of those sentences that works better in the Greek in which Paul wrote his letters. “Those who are perishing” is, “Those who are in the act of being destroyed,” because they are not choosing to live in relational community together in God’s covenant. And because they are choosing to live not in community, Paul thinks that choice is foolish. It’s foolishness. Paul makes a distinction between such people and “us who are being saved,” “we being-saved ones,” would be the Greek. He’s reminding the Corinthians that salvation is a lifelong, ongoing process that they are engaging in, and that he hopes they will continue engaging in. Paul is greeting the congregation and reminding the people that they have agreed to live together in covenant, relational, community, and that they’re in the ongoing action of being saved, and it grieves him to learn that they are in conflict.
And now we arrive at the destruction of the Passover preparations in the Jerusalem Temple, described in today’s Gospel reading.
Notice that I didn’t call it “the cleansing of the Temple.” This picture of Jesus’ actions is set in the Gospel of John, chapter two. This is at the beginning of Jesus’ life and ministry in this Gospel. That’s why I said it functions more as an inaugural address. The Temple authorities don’t know Jesus and don’t know that he is a traveling teacher with a handful of students. The lay people in the Temple, and the merchants acting as money-changers and animal sellers were going about the faithful work of observant Jewish people preparing for Passover. And let’s remember what Passover is an observance of: The Exodus. The liberation from slavery of God’s people, when he led a bunch of individual slaves out of slavery and into the desert, so that they could live in relational community in covenant with God.
You see? Jenga. Pluck one out and the whole thing collapses.
On this occasion, when Jesus goes into the Temple, makes a whip of cords, and breaks up the business taking place, he is disrupting faithful worship. He is intentionally tearing up preparations for the holy celebration of Passover. Why is Jesus, an observant Jewish male, disrupting Passover preparations?
Because he wants to show, in a vivid, attention-grabbing, unmistakable message, that his father has sent him as a new way of being in ongoing, lifelong, relational community with God.
Jesus, through his death on the cross and his resurrection – “the message of the cross” of which Paul writes – has made a new covenant in his blood with us and for us. A new covenant that we will shortly celebrate at the table.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer. Amen.
 Gratitude to the Rev. Mary Hinkle Shore, Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Brevard, NC, for the idea of John 2:13-22 as Jesus’ intentional disruption.