Exodus 20:1-17 (The Ten Commandments)
In Psalm 19 King David sings, “the law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, and gives wisdom to the innocent; the statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart… More to be desired are they than gold… sweeter far than honey…”
In one way or another all of our scripture readings for this morning are about the “Law of the Lord”. The Old Testament passage is the Ten Commandments; the lesson from Romans talks about how impossible it is to keep the commandments; and in the Gospel reading John shows us a picture of God’s law in action.
I could easily spend a half hour on each reading! For now, though, I want to focus on something King David said in the Psalm. He describes God’s law as “sweeter than honey, and the drippings of the honeycomb.”
This description jumps out at me because when I read God’s laws – when I read the Ten Commandments – that’s not the reaction I have. I respect God’s law. I honor it, because it helps avoid life’s pitfalls, helps me live well. And like David, I believe the law of God is something we can depend on. It’s a foundation to build life on. In fact it’s the foundation of many secular laws both in America and in Europe. If it were OK to steal, murder, cheat on one’s spouse, and make false accusations against other people in court, life would be hellish. So God’s laws are good… but sweet is not exactly the word that comes to mind.
Another reaction I have to the Ten Commandments is a sense of familiarity. These words are something I’ve known since I was a kid. They’ve always been there, part of the fabric of life. So God’s laws are foundational… but again sweet is not really the word.
A third reaction I have to God’s law is a sense of failure, especially being aware of how Jesus interprets the law. Jesus said things like “You have heard it said… ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” (Matt 5:21-22). I may never have murdered anyone, but never being angry with someone? I’m not that good. In our Psalm for today David prays, “who can tell how often he offends? Cleanse me from my secret faults… let them not get dominion over me.” That’s real… because the nature of sin IS to get dominion over us. Every one of us fails to live up to God’s standards in one way or another. And the Bible says the penalty for breaking God’s law is death. No way is that sweet!
When we come face to face with God’s excellence, and then look at ourselves and how flawed we are, we can be tempted to despair. But in our New Testament lesson Paul provides us with an answer to this predicament. He writes, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24-25) Or as he says in his letter to the Corinthians, “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (I Cor 15:57) Because Paul knows, as we know, that Jesus gave his life to give us the victory over sin and death.
Jesus’ victory is sweet. But does it make the Law sweet? In my mind, not yet.
I would submit for your consideration that the sweetness of God’s law is not in the reading or in the understanding or even in the repenting, but in the living. Let me offer two examples.
The first example is found in our Gospel reading for this morning. The tale of Jesus turning over tables and throwing animal sellers out of the temple is an odd scene. Very rarely in scripture do we see Jesus angry, and for this reason a lot of modern scholars have attempted to debunk this story, tried to take the teeth out of it. I think they do both Jesus and us a disservice when they do this. Here’s why.
Imagine for a moment that we are an extended family living in Israel in Jesus’ day. It’s time for the Passover, so we (along with every other Jewish family in the country) prepare to make the journey to Jerusalem. When we get there we will worship, confess our sins, sacrifice a sin offering in the temple, and then celebrate our redemption and freedom. The journey takes many days over rough terrain. Donkeys carry the very old and the very young, and we bring extra animals with us to sacrifice. We climb up Mount Zion, singing Psalms to keep our minds off the difficulties of the journey. We finally make it to the top of the mountain and see the great city of Jerusalem. We locate our hotel and get settled in.
The next morning we take our sacrificial animals over to the temple. The city is packed. We finally make it to the outer courts of the temple and we get in line to enter. The air is hot, dry, dusty, and smelly. The kids are nagging: “What’s taking so long? When are we going in?”
The outer court where we are standing is where the Gentiles are supposed to worship… but there’s no worship going on here! Instead the priests and their workers have set up tables where our animals will be inspected. It says in the law of Moses that animals sacrificed to God can’t have any blemishes, so the priests inspect. Most of the time they find blemishes. That’s what happens to our animals. They can’t be sacrificed. We have to go buy unblemished animals, so we are directed to the next set of tables. Here we can buy cows, sheep or doves, depending on what we can afford. (It’s a matter of status.) The prices for all of them are sky-high, but we have no other options. We have to buy one for each family.
So we pull out our sack of coins… and the man at the table says, “Wait, wait… we can’t take that kind of money. Only temple coins can be used to buy things in the temple. The money-changers are over there.”
So we go to the next table to change our money. The exchange rate is outrageous – highway robbery. But we have no choice. The sacrifice has to be made. We are barely going to have enough money for the trip home.
Suddenly, just before we exchange the coins, Jesus of Nazareth storms into the temple courtyard. We’ve heard about this man. They say he works miracles – heals blind people, brings the dead back to life. He’s shouting “My father’s house is supposed to be a house of prayer! And you have made it a den of robbers!”
And he knocks over the money-changer’s tables. Coins are flying everywhere! Then he shouts “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” and He goes over to where the animals are being sold, and he sets them all free! Cows and sheep are running every which way! Doves are filling the air! Children are laughing, people are cheering, and at last we can all enter the temple. We can celebrate the Passover with our families just like in the old days.
How sweet is this? It’s an end to injustice. Freedom from oppression. The way God meant it to be. Jesus has made a way for people to approach God without being cheated. And then after the sacrifice we sit down to feast with our whole extended family. Let the celebrations begin!
God’s law, when it is lived, is sweet.
Here’s a second example from a little closer to home. Last Sunday for the first time I took a close look at the stained glass windows in this church. They are a message to us from the parents and grandparents and great-grandparents of this parish.
The tradition of stained glass windows began in the Middle Ages when most people couldn’t read… so the great stories of the Bible were told in pictures instead. The founders of this church honored that tradition and these windows tell us what they believed. Their choice of pictures – because there are many, many passages they could have chosen to illustrate – tells us what they thought it was important we should know. It cost them a great deal to leave these stories for us but for them it was worth it.
This morning we are going to obey the commandment, “honor thy father and thy mother” by listening to what they have to say.
The windows in this church, taken together as a group, tell the story of Jesus’ life and our salvation.
The story begins in the back of the church, where we enter the building. The first window shows the Annunciation: the angel coming to Mary and telling her “you will be the mother of God’s son”. The angel is holding lilies over Mary’s head to indicate her purity. In the window next to it we see that prediction coming true as Jesus is born in the manger, with Mary and Joseph and the animals at His side.
The next pair of windows shows Jesus turning water into wine – his first miracle – and someone being blessed and healed in the temple. The first miracle puts us in mind of communion, and is a foreshadowing of what is to come. The second shows Jesus’ willingness to forgive and to heal. In both of these windows one thing stands out: Jesus’ hands. We have a God with hands — a God who isn’t ashamed to touch us as we are.
In the next pair we see Jesus calling disciples by the Sea of Galilee. These are fishermen – we can see the boat in the background – probably Peter and Andrew. In the next window we see Jesus surrounded by children. It brings to mind Jesus’ saying “let the little children come to me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven”. In both of these windows we see that God does not show preference for the strong and the rich but rather for the average working person and for the smallest and least of people.
On the other side of the aisle we see Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. The Holy Spirit is above Jesus descending on him like a dove. Baptism is something that is meant to wash away sins… so Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. But he was willing to become one of us and identify with us in every way, so he did it anyway. In the next window we see the Transfiguration – Jesus on the mountain talking to Moses and Elijah. This brings to mind the words of Jesus “I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them.”
In the next pair of windows we see Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on what has become known as Palm Sunday. A few days later, we see Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He is praying while his disciples sleep, and we see the cup before him (figuratively) as he prays “let this cup pass from me, but not my will but Thine be done”.
The story continues in the window above the altar. This window is placed in the most prominent place in the sanctuary because it is the heart and soul of the story. We see the Last Supper, with Jesus holding the cup and the bread on the table in front of him. Above that we see a Bishop’s mitre. The mitre could be interpreted a number of ways, but I take it to mean Jesus has become our great high priest – the only go-between between people and God.
Above that we see Jesus on the cross, dying in our place to take away our sins. Two women stand at the foot of the cross bearing witness. Above that we see a Bishop’s staff – which is shaped like a shepherd’s crook – indicating Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
And then finally the last window, tucked away above the choir. Here is the victory! Jesus is alive! We see the nail scars in His hand and feet, but the grave can’t hold him.
These are the things our parents and grandparents wanted us to know. And whenever we share the story of Jesus, either here or outside the walls of the church, especially outside these walls… we obey God’s commandment to honor our fathers and our mothers. How sweet is that?
The sweetness of God’s law is in the living. By the power of the Holy Spirit may we live it more and more. AMEN.
– Sermon given at Church of the Atonement, Carnegie, March 11 2012 –