Saturday, March 7, 2015

Knowing God (Lent 3, March 8 2015)

Homily:  Yr B Lent 3.  March 8 2015.  St. Albans Church
Readings:  Ex 20.1-17; Ps 19; 1 Cor 1.18-25; Jn 2.13-22

Knowing God

We tend to be a legalistic people.  Not just the lawyers in here, of which there are many, but all of us.  We like to pin things down, we like to have rules and procedures, we like stuff to be well-defined, and we’ll narrow in on things in order to help in that definition.  Case in point:  our first reading today from Exodus, probably one of the best known sections of the Bible, and what do we call it?  We call it the Ten Commandments.  We’ve made movies about the Ten Commandments, we print them on little cards, we’ve sometimes had them inscribed in our courthouses.

However perhaps it would surprise you to know that originally this section of the book of Exodus was known as the “Ten Words”, or from the Greek, the Decalogue.  Jewish people still refer to it as the Ten Words, which isn’t surprising, because that’s also the way Moses puts it:  “Then God spoke all these words”.  And even though in most Christian traditions, when we list the Ten Commandments, we start off with the first commandment as “You shall have no other gods than me,” in the Jewish tradition the first word is considered to be exactly as we find it written in the book Exodus:

“I am Yahweh, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

That’s not a commandment, is it?  It’s more of a statement of identity and the affirmation of a relationship.  And it responds to what I believe is one of the fundamental questions of our faith and indeed of all faiths:  How are we to know God?

The first word starts with relationship.  You know me, because I am the one who brought you out of slavery in the land of Egypt.  I am the one who spoke to Moses out of the burning bush and gave him my name, Yahweh.  We have a relationship, you and I.  I am your God and you are my people.  The rest of the nine words then go on to tell the Israelites how they are to live as the people of God.  They are to have no other Gods, and they are to keep Sabbath, and they are to treat each other in certain ways, without lying and without stealing and so on, because that’s what it means to live into their identity and vocation as God’s people.

But it all starts with the relationship.  Knowing God.  How are we to know God?

Psalm 19 addresses that very question.  How are we to know God?  The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork.  We can begin to know God through the beauty and majesty of God’s creation.  But we also know God through his word, the Torah, the instruction and the laws that were revealed to us through Moses and the prophets and have been written for us in scripture.  And the psalmist also affirms that we can know God in a more personal way, as our strength and our redeemer.

That’s how the psalmist answers the question of knowing God.  But every generation, and each one of us has to answer that question for ourselves.

How are we to know God?  It’s a big question, and any time we’re faced with a big question, we have a tendency to narrow the question, and to narrow the answers.

The people of Israel did just that.  As the generations passed, and as the memory of God’s action in bringing them out of Egypt faded, the big question of “how are we to know God?” tended to narrow into the question “What do we have to do to keep God happy?”  And this is where a legalistic approach started to take centre stage.  We must offer sacrifice.  We must keep the law.  These aren’t bad answers, but a focus on practices, on what we do, is a narrowing in our relationship with God.

There was another narrowing that took place.  Instead of the big question of “How are we to know God?”, people started focusing on the narrower question of “Where is God?”  In the days of Moses, God was known to be in the midst of the people, in the cloud that guided them by day and the pillar of fire that protected them at night.  As God later said through the prophet Nathan, “I moved about among all the people of Israel in a tent.”

But as the years passed, a tent wasn’t good enough. The people wanted to pin God down more than that.  They built altars on which to offer their sacrifices, and these turned into fixed places of worship.  Then, King Solomon decided that God should live in a Temple in Jerusalem, and he built a massive structure that came to be understood as the place both where sacrifices were to be offered and where God was present.  No longer was God understood as moving freely in the midst of the people – the people were instead to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem in order to be in the presence of God and to offer the sacrifices required by the law.

The kings of Israel were quite happy with the Temple and its sacrificial system.  Not only was it well-defined, but it also helped the kings to control the population and served as source of revenue.  The prophets however protested against this narrowing of the relationship with God.  “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah. “Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates.  Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean.  Cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed.”  Or as the prophet Micah puts it in his rant against the Temple system, “Shall I come before the Lord with burnt offerings?  No, what the Lord requires of you is to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”

The problem with the temple system is that when you get too focused on the “what” and the “where”, you lose your relationship with the “who”.

This is the context when Jesus enters Jerusalem in today’s gospel.  It is Passover, the greatest of the festivals.  A festival which used to be celebrated primarily in homes, but now requires a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem.  In the temple Jesus finds people selling animals for sacrifice, cattle and sheep and doves, and the moneychangers seated at their tables.  Making a whip of cords, he drives all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.  He also pours out the coins of the money changers and overturns their tables.  “Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

But the temple system couldn’t function without being a marketplace.  How could people acquire animals for the necessary sacrifices if they weren’t for sale?  How could the temple be maintained and staff be paid without payment of the temple tax?  Jesus was not calling for an end to corruption.  He wasn’t just trying to reform the system.  He was calling for its complete destruction.

This was a high risk strategy.  Jesus’ action was pre-meditated.  He made himself a weapon, a whip of cords.  His actions were violent and destructive.  He deliberately put himself in conflict with those in power.  This was a high risk strategy.  It was clearly high risk for Jesus, he was ultimately put to death by those in authority.  But it was also risky in another way.  Jesus is for us our role model, our teacher.  How are we to interpret this?  Is anger justified?  Is violent action sometimes needed?  Is this the way we should act?  Jesus’ temple action leaves itself open to misinterpretation and abuse.

Why would Jesus take such a risk?  What was at stake that would justify such a risk?

I think that what was at stake is the most important thing of all.  Our relationship with God.

We are constantly at risk of turning our relationship with God into a narrow set of practices.  We are constantly at risk of confining God’s presence in our lives to a well-defined place.

Jesus with this temple action is telling us that it’s not about our religious or ethical practices and it’s not about a particular place where we’ve deemed God to be present.  It’s not about sacrifices and obeying the law, and it’s not about the temple.  It is about knowing God in the person of Jesus.  It’s about that relationship.

How are we to know God?  The Word who was God became flesh and lived among us.  No one has ever seen God.  It is God the only Son who has made him known.  That’s why Jesus replaced the temple.

Our faith is first and foremost about knowing God.  About being in relationship with God and in relationship with all of God’s children.  That’s big, and that’s hard, and like the people of Israel, we often try to narrow it down and get legalistic about it.

Instead of asking how can we know God, we narrow the question to what do we have to do.  There are so many people who think that Christianity is an ethical system, that it’s all basically about good values.  I often get this with parents who bring their children for baptism.  When I ask them why, they say it’s because they want their children to have good values, and the church can teach them that.  And sometimes I think to myself, “forget good values, I want your child to know God.  I want your child to have a life-giving relationship with the one who created this universe and made us in his image.”  I don’t usually say that, because having good values is a good thing, and if that’s the starting point for faith, than that’s ok.  But don’t think that’s the end point.

There are many others who think that Christianity is a religious system, that it’s all basically about good religious practices.  But our faith is not about good values, nor is it about good religious practices.  Our faith is much bigger than that.  It is about a relationship, knowing and being known by God.

There are people who think that Christianity is all about going to church, going to that particular place where we encounter God’s presence, where we meet God in the sacraments of the church.  Now I’m all in favour of going to church.  But the primary reason we come here is so that we can intentionally learn and experience what it means to be in relationship with God and with each other so that when we go out from here we can continue to experience that relationship in all the places and faces of our lives.

Our faith is not primarily about practices and places.  It is about relationship.  Knowing God and being known by God in the community of God’s people.  That’s what was worth the risk.


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