The Third Sunday in Lent

Ex. 20:1-17 • Ps. 19
1 Cor. 1:18-25 • John 2:13-22

Moses brings ten words to the people, mined as if from a sacred mountain, a pinnacle of flashing flame, sulfur smoke, crashing cymbals, trembling earth. Gripped with fear, the people say, “Do not let God speak to us, or we will die” (Gen. 20:19). Moses encourages them and explains, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin” (20:20). This passage, following hard upon the Decalogue, highlights the demand that the people hear and not ignore. Still, earthquake, fire, and smoke, though incitements to rapt attention, are not generally conducive to rabbinic reflection. Confusion has its place.

Get to the Savior and it gets no better. Evidently, the Son of the Father wants it this way, at least initially, that “seeing they may see and not see, and hearing they may hear and not understand, lest they turn and be loosed” (Mark 4:12). If we understand immediately, we turn away, and are thus loosed back to the world of our dead wonders. If we do not understand but know ourselves summoned by the mystery of all being, we are less inclined to turn away. The second look, and the third, and the thousandth, are like steps upon the way, tentative tastes of the true, a libation of lifted life.

Jesus enters the temple and drives out the moneychangers, having armed himself with a whip of cords. Do you understand? The scholars do not; instead, they write page after page and leave one guessing, which is an open door to the preacher’s perennial temptation: make the passage say exactly what it does not say. Make Jesus always nice, gentle, and meek. He did not turn over the tables; they somehow turned themselves over and Jesus said something about a “house of prayer.” The “authentic” words are just what we want. Jesus is a canis familiaris.

So let us set aside the words of Scripture for a moment, though not quite, as the Psalmist sings in our ears. The poet wants us to see and hear. The heavens talk glory, the dome of the sky stretches out works, one day dictates to another, the night points to science. Knowledge goes forth without a single human word. The voices, though hauntingly real, are not understood (Ps. 19).

The firm foundation of our understanding is that we do not understand, not immediately. Look again and again and again. The ten words of Moses, buried though they are in a distant time, step forth, as if from a black night sky, when we fear not smoke and fire, when wakefulness and dreams kiss each other and the old and unusual are given a chance. The words demand our fidelity to God, uncompromised and true. The holy name is not to be invoked for luck at the casino or anyplace else. Rest one day a week, you and everyone around you. Respect your parents. Murder, adultery, and stealing are bad ideas. Do not lie in court. Do not covet, it will make you miserable. As the psalmist singing a nighttime song, it is easier to hear.

Jesus cleanses the temple. Yes, he makes a lot of noise, turns over tables, and drives out the sellers and the livestock. Is he not forceful to demons and storms? Now he is saying, “I’ll get you to the Father without the payment of a single coin, without the blood of a trembling animal. My life sacrificed for you, it is finished; access is not just a hope, it is a deal sealed with my blood.”

Look It Up
Read Exodus 20. Only ten words.

Think About It
Read and mark. Read and mark. Your first thought is not the jewel.