March 7, 2021

Exodus 20:1-17; John 2:13-22

“An Everyday Covenant”

In the words of Psalm 19 that we heard again in the Ministry of Music, as we come to worship God in prayer and praise, in preaching and sacraments, we pray that what we do and say and think and feel will be pleasing to God. Those who lead in worship at our church and in faith communities around the world pray something like that before we begin each service. We remind ourselves that God is the reason why we are doing all this, and above all, we want to honour God with our offering of praise and thanksgiving.

In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus enters the central place of worship in Jerusalem and uses a whip of cords to drive out the vendors and the money changers from the outer court. These are the ones who are exchanging the currency of the people coming to worship from around the world for Temple currency and selling animals appropriate for Temple offerings and sacrifice. And the incident makes us wonder, “why?” What was happening that Jesus was objecting to? What was it that was not pleasing to God in this place where all the nations gathered to pray and to worship God?

Amy-Jill Levine, author of “Entering the Passion of Jesus,” which we are studying this Lent together with Presbyterians across the country, refutes many of the usual assumptions about why Jesus was so angry. People say that “the Temple must have been a dreadful institution; that it exploited the poor; that it was in cahoots with Rome; that Caiaphas, the High Priest in charge of the Temple, was a terrible person; that it banned Gentiles from worship and so displayed hatred of foreigners, and so forth.” But Levine shows that none of these views fits what we know about either Jesus or history.

Jesus did not hate the Temple, but called it “my Father’s house,” and his followers continued to worship there during and after his lifetime. He says nothing about the Temple exploiting the population, and there is no indication that the vendors were overcharging or cheating the poor.

But there’s no denying that Jesus was angry and that what was happening was not pleasing to God. Levine, who is a well-renowned biblical scholar, suggests that he was angry about the disconnect between what happens in the Temple and what happens in the world, in the people’s everyday lives.

There is nothing wrong with coming to worship and making a special offering, giving of ourselves to honour God and participate in God’s work. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating religious festivals like Passover – the Feast of Freedom that was happening at the time Jesus upset the tables in the outer court.

But there is something wrong when our institutional worship practices become the sum total of our commitment to living in relationship with God. We come to church, do our thing, make our offerings, and then go back to our daily lives as before. That’s when our religious offerings cease to be pleasing to God, when we honour God in our worship, but ignore God or put “other gods” first the rest of the time.

Of course, this wasn’t a new idea that Jesus was promulgating, but it was rooted in the relationship God had long-ago established with the People of Israel. After being freed from slavery and led out of Egypt, God initiated a covenant with the people. It didn’t include building temples or churches or making sacrifices. It was all about living in love with God and with our neighbours day-by-day.

God didn’t ask the people to promise to attend worship on a particular schedule or hold special feasts or festivals during certain seasons. Not that those are bad things to do in themselves, and God does eventually suggest special ways of honouring God and remembering God’s faithfulness through festivals and holy days.

But first, God establishes an everyday covenant with the people with the Ten Commandments that God gives to Moses and the Hebrews in the wilderness. In the gift of the commandments, God is taking us by the hand to show us how to love God and each other well every day. They are not arbitrary prohibitions, but rather loving limits that guide human beings towards living with justice, grace, and dignity. They mark out a way of relating and listening to God in everyday life.

As I suggested in the children’s message, I do think it’s worth our effort to each consider which of the commandments is difficult for us, and what steps we can take to live into them more intentionally.

If keeping a Sabbath is one of your challenges, making a commitment to worship and carving out dedicated time for prayer every day will be pleasing to God and beneficial to your own heart and spirit as well.

If you find yourself being driven by keeping up with the neighbours, then an intentional self-check to let that jealousy go and be content with your life might be what you need to work on. Remembering that what people post on social media is the absolute best version of their lives (rather than an accurate reflection of their struggles and challenges) may help you to keep things in perspective.

If you struggle with your words, often hurting others through your blunt criticism or exaggerating the faults and failings of people around you, it may be important to keep on reminding yourself that every person is God’s beloved child, even when they mess up or do wrong things. It may also help to remind yourself that YOU are God’s beloved child just because you are you – not because you are smarter, stronger, or better than anyone else you may encounter.

When Jesus, in the Gospel story today, drives the vendors out of the Temple, he says, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Biblical scholars note that he is alluding to Zechariah 14:21, the last verse from this prophet which says this: “And every cooking pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the Lord of hosts, so that all who sacrifice may come and use them to boil the flesh of the sacrifice. And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.”

So, I don’t think that Jesus was specifically angry at the vendors or the money changers themselves, but he was making a statement through this symbolic action about the coming Reign of God. He was anticipating the time when there will no longer be a need for vendors, for every house in all of Judea will be like the Temple itself. The sacred nature of the Temple will spread through all the people.

Levine believes that Jesus’ message is a profound one that we must consider in our practice of faith today: “Can our homes be as sanctified, as filled with worship, as the local church? Do we ‘do our best’ on Sunday from 11 am to 12 noon, but just engage in business as usual during the workweek? Do we pray only in church, or is prayer part of our daily practice? Do we celebrate the gifts of God only when it is time to do so in the worship service, or do we celebrate these gifts morning to night? Is the church just a building, or is the church the community who gathers in Jesus’ name, who acts as Jesus taught, who lives the good news?”

Those hearing or reading John’s Gospel at the end of the first century were already living in a world in which the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, and they were discovering that their relationship with God was not dependant on that building or the religious practices they used to engage in there.

Whereas our buildings – our temples and churches and chapels – may crumble, perhaps never to be built up again, Jesus teaches his followers that the Temple that is his body will be destroyed, but it will be raised up again in just three days.

Levine explains that “The Jewish followers of Jesus took comfort in the idea that Jesus’ body was for them a new temple. In the sacrifice of Jesus, and in eating the bread and drinking the wine, they could find the reconciliation that they had previously found in the Jerusalem Temple.”

The Covid-19 Pandemic has emphasized for us that this building in which I stand is not the centre of our faith or religious life. As much as it is a good place to gather in community for worship, service, and fellowship, this building is not the church. It is not what we do in this place, it is not our religious rites that reconcile us to God, but it is God’s gift of coming to us in the person of Jesus Christ that keeps us in right relationship with the God of the universe.

And the Body of Christ in the world today is all of us – the followers of Jesus, the people of God, the church living and loving and serving in the world every day.

Every day. That’s the most important part of all this – that God has invited us into an everyday covenant. God loves you every day. God is with you every day. And God invites you to acknowledge God’s presence, to listen for God’s guiding, and to be obedient to God’s commandments every day too.

Ultimately, I think that’s how our lives will become pleasing to God – not only in what we do here in worship, but as we participate with God in the everyday covenant.