Sermon preached at St Mary’s Marlborough on 4th March 2018
Third Sunday of Lent:Exodus 20.1-17 & John 2.13-22
This morning we hear what I assume are two quite familiar passages: The Ten Commandments and the cleansing of the temple. I would like to suggest this morning that both these readings teach us something about who God is, and hence, can give us an insight in who we are, and who we are meant to be.
Last Sunday, our Old Testament reading spoke about the covenant of God with Abraham, and the week before, on the first Sunday of Lent, we heard the end of the story of Noah’s Ark. That makes this the third reading that is about a covenant between God and his people. This gives us an idea how these commandments need to be approached: not as a legal stand-alone document, but a set of guidelines that teach us what this covenant is actually about.
The New Testament reading this morning is taken from John’s Gospel. We find the same story in the three synoptic Gospels, where it is placed just before Jesus’ Crucifixion. However, in John’s Gospel, it is at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, placed after his Baptism and the Wedding in Cana.
One explanation is that this is historically when the cleansing of the temple happened, but that the synoptic Gospels had to move it to make their narrative consistent, because they only see Jesus once in Jerusalem. Whether this is the case or not is a discussion better left to another time, but what we can also see is that in John’s Gospel, this is yet another confirmation of Jesus’ identity, this time as a prophet challenging the customs and structures of society.
Jesus’ identity in John’s Gospel: Jesus, the Word made flesh. Jesus, God’s Son as revealed in his Baptism, a miracle worker showing God’s generosity at the wedding of Cana, and here, Jesus, the righteously angry prophet turning the tables in the temple.
So, we are told quite a lot about who Jesus is, and by implication what God is like. And we know that God has invited us to be part of a covenant with Him, a relationship that is based on trust and comes with a structure, a set of moral guidelines, an ethos, so to speak.
And it is precisely through that relationship, through the covenant with God, that we can discover who we are, that we can discover what our identity is. One way of reading the ‘you shall not …’ in the Ten Commandments is someone saying to us ‘this is not what you do, because this is not who you are’.
God’s covenant is not a contract that restricts us, but a promise that enables us to be who we are. It is maybe a bit like a football player contracted by the right team: ideally, that contract is not about money or legal obligations, but it gives the individual to opportunity to use their gifts and so to fulfil their potential.
I know that’s not the best image ever, but I hope it conveys the idea that a contract can free us to be who we are, instead of restricting us. This is precisely what God’s covenant offers us with respect to our whole lives: it offers us the opportunity to discover and to be who we are meant to be.
That brings us back to the season of Lent: particularly in these weeks before Easter, we have the opportunity to ponder who God is, and who we are in relationship to Him. It is an opportunity to renew our commitment to the covenant we are offered and to reflect how we can more closely follow him.