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This God is True

This God is True
March 4, 2018
Series:
Passage: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22)
Service Type:

This God is true. And if this God is true, then the people who gather
in the Name and Presence of that God must live this way.

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In the Penitential Order (which St. Paul’s uses in a number of Sunday
Masses during Lent) we hear the Decalogue—the Ten
Commandments or Ten Sayings (“sayings” is a better translation of
the word “dibrot”— דיברות—than commandments). Then we ask for
God’s mercy after we hear each of them, and in that context, we
confess our sins.

This morning we hear these Ten Sayings as our first reading, so I’ve
been thinking about them a lot, and what occurs to me is that nearly
the half of the Ten Sayings (depending on how you divide them up),
and more than half the words (no matter how they’re divided up), are
telling us that God brought us out of Egypt, that we should worship
no other gods, and definitely not make idols or bow down before
them, honor God’s Name, and keep the Sabbath Holy. Religious
stuff.

What we modern people see as the strictly ethical sayings flow from
those divine truths. And it all begins with “I am the LORD your God
who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of
slavery.”

This God is true. And if this God is true, then the people who gather
in the Name and Presence of that God must live this way.

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David Dark wrote a book called Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not
Religious. He is a friend of some friends in Cincinnati and we had him
come speak to a group of us about his book one Sunday Evening and
he said something I think about a lot. He said something like (the
details might be wrong but the idea was his), “If you show me your
GPS history, your bank statements, and your smart phone calendar I
can pretty much tell you what your religion is.”

He didn’t mean he could tell whether you were a professing Christian
or Hindu. He meant that how we live reveals the true god or gods we
worship no matter who we claim is our God.

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Those other gods—the gods we really worship—came up for me
because of the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple in the gospel
today.

It’s too easy to think Jesus was upset because the Temple wasn’t
religious enough—that it was too secular. But religious and secular
aren’t first century categories. There was no such distinction then.
There was no secular. Everything had to do with everything, and
everything was what we would call theology then. It ALL had to do
with deeper spiritual realities.

So that wasn’t Jesus’ issue.

For Israel, the Temple was the center of everything. It’s impossible to
exaggerate the central place it had in the lives of everyone and
everything in that part of the world at that time. It was so important
that Rome wanted to keep it around (at least for a while) because
even Rome benefited from it both politically and economically.

It was the Temple and Temple officials that managed everyday life
for everyone. Dispute about property? Temple courts (right up
through their supreme court called the Sanhedrin) settled these.
Police were Temple police. Temple officials did banking, money
changing, tax collection, and obviously dealt with sacrifices.

But even this was a complex system. Sacrifices were not just killed
and burned. There was a hierarchy of sacrifice that determined what
happened to them, ranging from almost total burning to roasting and
eating for priests, and on down to ultimately selling much of the meat
in Jerusalem and the surrounding area.

So it was Temple, Supreme Court, police force, bank, Federal
Reserve, Wall Street, IRS, warehouse, slaughterhouse and meat
supplier and more all rolled into one.

And in Jesus’ time,1 this enormous, all-encompassing system worked
against the peasant laborers and for the priestly and other elites. The
people tithed, of course, and this wasn’t optional. They didn’t pledge
what they thought they could afford. It was ten percent. Period.
Sacrifices were also expected on a regular basis, and they were
expensive. Pilgrimages to Jerusalem were expected three times a year,
and these were also expensive. And if you sinned, or if you had a
baby, or for any number of other reasons, you might have extra
sacrifices. More money. Don’t forget about the high exchange rate of
the money changers in the Temple, and add all of this to local taxes
and to the oppressive Roman Imperial taxes, and you begin to see
how hard it was on most people who were subsistence farmers and
the like.

It didn’t take long to get behind in all of this—to get underwater in
debt. And there were ways the Temple courts dealt with this debt,
including confiscating part of your herds or your crop in payment, or
parts of your land, or confiscating all of your land and changing
your status to tenant so that you would have to work your family land
until you could pay off your debt and redeem it (which was rarely
possible)—essentially taking away the means of production and
making people servants on their own family property.

In Jesus’ time the Temple system was an economic engine of
incredible scale, but it worked as an engine of wealth extraction,
taking most of the wealth generated by the work of peasant laborers
who fell deeper into debt, and moving that wealth up the economic
spectrum to the rich, priestly elites who controlled the courts,
taxation, the bank, and religious legitimacy.

So when Jesus shows up and starts trashing the place, it’s not that he
has a problem with the Temple being too secular. What he’s angry
about is that it has functionally become a house of worship for the
wrong gods.

Because the God of Israel was a God who cared for the poor and
forgave debts and redeemed land and people, while Temple worship was
oppressing the poor and piling debts on them and enslaving them.

At least when Antiochus Epiphanes set up the pagan altar in the
Temple nearly two hundred years earlier it was a gentile doing it! One
might expect that! But now it was priests and Temple leaders who
had introduced the worship of some other god (Mammon?) into the
Temple no matter who they claimed to be worshiping.

No wonder Jesus was angry!

This God is true. And if this God is true, then the people who gather
in the Name and Presence of that God must live this way. And if
we’re living another way, then maybe we have decided (on some level)
that some other god must be true.

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In Lent we’re given a time to be intentional about

  • taking stock of our lives and our life together,
  • about asking which gods our lives reveal that we’re really
    serving—really worshiping,
  • about naming those false gods and repenting of our worship of
    them.

And in a few weeks we’ll celebrate Holy Baptism and have a chanceto renew our own Baptism, return to the God in whose named we
were baptized, by saying together our Baptismal Covenant.
Though the last five questions and answers of that covenant get the
most attention, the first three are about who God is:

  • Do you believe in God the Father?
  • Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
  • Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?

Like the first four sayings in the Decalogue, these questions and answers far outweigh the rest in word count, and it’s only if this is
who God is that what we promise to do with God’s help in the next
five questions makes any sense.
We will

  • continue in the apostles’ teaching, fellowship and worship,
  • resist evil,
  • proclaim the good news,
  • seek and serve Christ in all persons, and
  • strive for justice and peace

because the God into whose life we have been baptized is the one
revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the life, death, and
resurrection of Jesus Christ.

and in this way, with God’s help, by God’s power, our lives and our
life together will reveal this God to the world.

Because this God is true. And if this God is true, then the people who
gather in the Name and Presence of that God must live this way.

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1 Not necessarily in other times.