Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
March 4, 2018—Lent 3B
Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
God never wanted a Temple. If you go back and read those conversations between God and King David, this is exceedingly clear. God worries that building a Temple, a single unmoving house where God lives, will limit God’s capacity to be with God’s people. God loved living in a tent, traveling with the people wherever they went. God loved wandering with the people, out there in the desert. Why? Perhaps because there was so little to distract them out there. Wilderness is good that way; it teaches us what we really need, and what we can count on, when everything else is gone. Or perhaps God loved it because the liberation from Egypt was still so fresh in the people’s minds. They had been slaves. They had been a possession, a commodity in the hands of a greedy master who exploited them for his own ends. But God had brought them out of all that, freeing them for a whole new life.
After the wilderness, however, came the Promised Land. The people became established, and slavery a distant memory. At which point, it only seemed right to build God a house, a permanent place to dwell.
God, reluctantly, allowed it. Knowing the danger. Knowing that a Temple will always tempt people to believe that this place, right here, is the only connection between heaven and earth. This place is the only place to meet God, to speak with God, to make things right with God.
A temple is incredibly powerful, but it can also be terribly limiting. Not only does it hem God in these ways, but as we see in today’s gospel, there’s the difficulty of needing to travel from wherever you might live, bringing the appropriate sacrifices with you. Of course, if it’s too far to bring the necessary sacrifices, you can always just bring money, and purchase them when you get there. That’s what’s going on in this story, and it seems to work okay, as far as it goes.
But then comes Jesus, suggesting ways for the system to go way, way further. In John’s version of the story, Jesus overturns it all. “Destroy this temple,” he says, “and in three days I will raise it up!” And he’s not just looking ahead to the Roman destruction of the Temple in the year 70. He’s also pointing back into Jewish history, reminding them of God’s warnings about a Temple, and inviting them to remember what it was like when God moved around with them. Because if you look at the text, (as Mark Davis points out in “Left behind and loving it”) you discover that the verb translated here as “destroy” is also the verb “to loose:” a word with strong liberation overtones. As in, Let my people go. And while you’re at it, let my temple go as well! Liberate the meeting place between God and humanity from this fixed location.
Find it instead in a person. Find it in the person of Jesus, the One in whom heaven and earth, divine and human, so fully meet. This is the message Jesus brings in John: the message of a God set free from any limitation of nationality or location. The message, as David Lose puts it, that everywhere in Creation can be a “thin place” (a place where it feels like finite and infinite touch).  Everywhere. This is what “God with us” means: a God who can be as present in Detroit as He is in the Holy Land. As present in a mall as She is on a mountaintop. As present in our loss and dismay as in our victories and joys.
In the person of Christ, God is loosed. God is liberated from the limitations we have put upon Him. Which is good, since that makes it easier for God to continue to liberate us!
Because liberation is never some kind of done deal. It is ever and always a “now and not yet” kind of thing; something that God has accomplished and yet continues to bring into being. Witness today’s giving of the ten commandments (or, as Walter Brueggemann calls them: ten strategies for remaining emancipated). I brought you out of Egypt, God reminds them. I freed you from the exploitation, violence and greed of Pharaoh. Now, let me tell you how to live, so that you do not re-enslave yourself to the ways and values you just escaped.
First (second and third): Honor God, and do not put your trust in other loyalties or purposes. Don’t start to believe that money or nation or success or self can fill you up or save you. Every last one of those things will enslave you.
On the other hand (which is to say fifth through tenth): Act rightly toward your neighbors, taking care not to do them physical, spiritual or emotional damage. You are connected. You are, every last one of you, community. Act accordingly.
And between those strategies of loving only God and loving our neighbor, Brueggemann notes, is the commandment to keep Sabbath. This one, in many ways, sustains our ability to do all the rest of them. It reminds us to rest and reflect. It invites us to step out of “the rat-race of busyness and exhaustion to which [the world] always summons us.” And it gives us just enough space to consider the ways in which we are drawn to, and seduced by, the ways of Pharaoh.
The Ten Commandments are not a set of bars to limit and trap us; they are the keys that will keep us free. They are the map to a life with God, liberated from the idols that ensnare us, from the false promises we are so prone to chasing. And they are a guide to remaining connected rather than alienated, cooperative rather than merely competitive with each other.
They are, in other words, a way to invite God to travel with us. A way to set ourselves and God loose in the world. They are thin places that let glimpses of heaven shine through into this world, making the powers of Pharaoh nervous! Thanks be to our liberating God, and may it ever be so. Amen.