Third Sunday of Lent

Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson, Dean

Exodus 20: 1 – 17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 25, John 2: 13 – 22

I suspect that, like me, most of us struggle with the Ten Commandments. They seem so old fashioned, unrealistic in this 21st century life of free choice and emphasis on my right to choose. They seem not only anachronistic but terribly arrogant – the great voice booming out from heaven – “I am the Lord your God dah de dah de dah…” And so we ignore them, the Ten Commandments which have shaped and fashioned life for the Jews and, after them the Christians. Or, as the Jewish people themselves do, we make jokes about them.

  • Headache? Do what Moses did. Take two tablets.[i]
  • Moses to the people: Well, we’ve got them down from twenty to ten – but adultery is still in.
  • Moses to God: How much do these tablets cost? God: They’re free. Moses: I’ll take two.

What’s actually happening in these jokes is they are putting space between us and God – for to be in the presence of the Almighty God is, as the people who followed Moses discovered, a terrifying and awesome thing. Read the chapter before the Ten Commandments, Exodus 19, and you will see that God does not have an intimate conversation with Moses. There’s no sweet talking. Suggest to the people that they might think about doing this or that and we’ll overlook whatever else they do and I’ll take care of you no matter what happens. Nothing like that! Rather – the Ten Commandments are delivered in thunder and trumpet and smoke, heard and seen for miles around. And they begin: I am the Lord your God … you shall have no other gods but me.

These Ten Commandments, also called the Ten Words, encapsulate the covenant, charter, between God and the people. In fact, it is better that we use the special Hebrew name of God – understood as so holy that the four letters that spell out the name were not, and are not, ever spoken out loud by the Jews. Translated into our alphabet those four letters are YHWH. Put two vowels into them and we get Yahweh. Put three vowels in, one between each consonant, and we get Jehovah – the unutterable name of the Holy and Mighty God. Nor is the collection of commands in Exodus 20 the only one in the Bible, there are a number of lists of laws and codes, including that known as the “Holiness Code”. Nor should we forget the way in which Jesus drew together two particular summaries of the Ten and other commandments when he talked about loving God and loving neighbor.

But let’s go back a little. The 2nd book in the Bible, Exodus, begins four hundred years after Genesis. You may remember that Joseph, he who had eleven brothers and a fine multi-coloured cloak, was sold into slavery in Egypt. He rose through the ranks to become a powerful and extremely wealthy man – able to save his people during a devastating famine by bringing them to Egypt. Four hundred years later, when Exodus begins, things are not so good for Joseph’s descendants. Enter Moses – a Hebrew boy hidden by his mother in the bull rushes to escape the terrible edict of the Pharaoh that every Hebrew boy should be killed. Brought up in the Egyptian court Moses straddled both Egyptian and Hebrew culture. A spontaneous, if naïve, attempt to help his countrymen lead to Moses killing an Egyptian and fleeing into the desert, the Outback. There he discovered God in a most unexpected place – a burning bush. It is here, barefoot and in trembling awe, that the holy name of God – those four Hebrew letters YHWH – is revealed to him, along with a commission. Much of what happens next is related during Holy Week and the buildup to Easter. What matters now is that Moses lead his people out of slavery into freedom in the desert, where they too met God – and received the Ten Commandments.

This God who rescued them – and the reminder is there in the very first Command – is a jealous God who will brook no rivals. This God reveals Godself in the terrifying strength and power of the natural world – things, that even today, are difficult to understand and impossible for humans to control. Thunder, lightning, smoke, fire and flood – the forces of nature are indeed awesome and rightly cause us to tremble.

Perhaps it’s no wonder then that as soon as Moses turned his back the people began to make safer, less demanding gods; gods that they could control. It was an easy step to melt their gold and silver and make a beautiful statue of a calf. This god did not make demands on them. They could worship it in whatever way they fancied and then go about their own business. Throughout the Old Testament, and into the New, the prophets and then Jesus himself, rail against this parody of God.

N T Wright suggests that the two tablets each contained the full set of the Ten Words – one complete document for each of the two parties joined in the Covenant: one for the people led by Moses, the other for God. Later on in Exodus we read how the people place the tablets in a tabernacle which travels with them wherever they go. The tabernacle came to symbolise God’s presence being with the people wherever they went. Still today modern Orthodox Jews bind phylacteries to their foreheads and arms; a reminder of God’s presence. As Christians some of us make the sign of the cross to remind us of our baptism and the commitment to be disciples of Jesus. The bread and wine of the Eucharist of Holy Communion can carry a similar sentiment. God is present among us – not only in the symbols of bread and wine, of phylacteries or the tracing of the cross over ourselves, but in loving, breathing human life.

This close relationship between God and the people is well captured in the 4th Commandment: Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy. The three Commands that come before speak of how to understand and relate to God; those that come after speak of how to relate to society and the people in it. The Sabbath ensures there is time for people and God to be together in a comfortable nourishing relationship.

This constant presence of God in our lives, revealed to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is a continual joy and a continual challenge. There are times, many times, when we would rather not hear God’s voice (whether it thunders from the mountain top as in Moses’s day, or is found in the sheer silence of Elijah’s) and so we seek diversions. The ancient Hebrews built their golden calf; later they would build a beautiful temple and institute a complicated system of sacrifice of birds and animals, which included the need to change the money in current circulation, and which bore the head of the hated Roman emperor.  It was this system that Jesus attacked in cleansing the temple. Rather than bringing people closer to God, it kept God at a distance. There are other ways too of distancing ourselves from God and the things God really wants us to hear.

Writing to the Corinthians St Paul acknowledged that to most Greeks the idea of worshipping someone who had been crucified was utter foolishness, and a terrible stumbling block to the Jews. Their ‘golden calves’ were ridicule and the inability to see that God comes in the most surprising of ways. Rather than listen to the message that Paul had it was easier to pour scorn; or to be so shocked that they could hear nothing of the Gospel.

Of course, we are not like that. We don’t make golden calves, or laugh at the preacher. We do build cathedrals – some even of extraordinary beauty. We fill them with treasures – silver chalices, stained glass windows, wood paneling with our names engraved on them. We too ignore the Ten Commandments – call the Law that God gave out of date, irrelevant in today’s sophisticated modern world; portray clergy in films as, at best, whimps, and at other times, dreadful people who prey on vulnerable women and children; are fearful and apologetic when challenged as to why we go to church, or call ourselves Christian. And all the time, we do our best to keep this awesome God at bay, at arms’ length; to pretend that this strange man who came from Nazareth is not really calling us to follow him.

And so Moses smashes the tablets containing the Ten Commandments; St Paul speaks of the foolishness of the cross as the power of God and the wisdom of God; Jesus takes his whip of cords and drives out the cattle, sheep and doves – and then offers the riddle of the temple being destroyed and in three days raised up.

And us, what of us? Dare we pray, as in fact we have already done in the words of today’s Collect? Dare we pray as we continue our journey through Lent, moving on to Hoy Week and the mysteries of that week?

Lord our God, by your Holy Spirit write your commandments upon our hearts and grant us the wisdom and power of the cross, so that, cleansed from greed and selfishness, we may become a living temple of your love; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

[i] I am deeply indebted to the ideas of N T Wright for most of this sermon, and quote freely and frequently – as found in his little book “Twelve Months of Sundays, Reflections on Bible Readings. Year B” SPCK