3rd Sunday in Lent

March 15, 2009
See Also: 

Lenten Candle Liturgy
John Cobb on redemption
Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (Cobb)

Reading 1: 
Exodus 20:1-17
Reading 2: 
Psalm 19
Reading 3: 
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Reading 4: 
John 2:13-22
By Paul Nancarrow

Exodus 20:1-17
The Third Sunday in Lent brings us to the third in the sequence of covenants by which God works to bring blessing to the world as a redemptive alternative to destroying sin. In the first covenant with Noah, God promised never again to destroy the world in order to wipe out sin, but to seek a more creative response to the corruption and violence of the world. In the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, God promised to make them the parents of many nations, peoples who would be formed in intimate relation with God so as to be a blessing for all the families of the earth. In the covenant made with Israel through Moses, God particularizes the universal promise of blessing: God chooses a particular people to form and shape in the life of communal blessing. The Torah, summarized in this reading in the Ten Commandments, is God’s particular instrument for forming this people in the way of blessing. The Ten Commandments are often treated today as if they were general moral principles, rules for life that all people of all cultures could and should recognize. But it is worth noting that some of these commandments are highly specific to the historic people of Israel. The requirement of monotheism, for instance, and the prohibition of images of the divine would have set the Israelites apart from their historical neighbors in a very distinctive way. This became even more true of the commandment to keep the Sabbath during the Babylonian Exile centuries later, when the Sabbath and kosher laws became important means by which the Jews kept themselves distinct from their captors. These laws are not simply general moral principles, but are signs of a particular relationship with God and means to stay faithful in that relationship. Seen through this lens, some of the other commandments among the Ten reveal a particular concern with fidelity, as well. The commandments against adultery, false witness, and covetousness, could be seen as generally useful guidelines for good order in the community; but they can also be understood as requiring an intention to be faithful to the neighbor, and in so doing to mirror the people’s specially faithful relationship with God. The Mosaic covenant with its practical expression in Torah is the specification of God’s covenantal promise to redeem, not destroy, the sin of the world, in that it maps a lifeway that replaces corruption and violence with fidelity and justice.

Psalm 19
The psalm is a hymn of praise to the Torah, continuing the theme begun in the reading from Exodus. It is Torah, as God’s guidance for the life of blessing, that rejoices the heart, revives the soul, enlightens the eyes, gives wisdom to the innocent. But the psalm links this life-giving quality of the Torah also to the creative power of God revealed in the heavens. The orderly procession of day and night, the dome of the heavens, the light of the sun, all show forth God’s creating power--and that same power is revealed in the realm of human life in the blessings conferred in living the Torah way. Far from being a set of empty rules or arbitrary legalisms, the Law is deeply linked to the very Way of the world in God.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25
The Epistle reading seems to be chosen largely for its connection to the Gospel: in response to his cleansing the Temple, the bystanders ask Jesus “What sign can you show for doing this?” and Jesus’ answer is to predict his crucifixion and resurrection. This links to Paul’s assertion in 1 Corinthians that “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,” but the only true satisfaction for such demands and desires is “Christ crucified.” In Paul’s formulation, both Jews and Greeks look for displays of God’s power. In the Jewish tradition inherited by Paul, “signs” would equate to the “mighty acts” of God, powerful interventions by God on behalf of the chosen people. Greek interest in thaumaturgy, and the practical sophia that could enable one to perfom such wonders, is well documented in this period, along with the more academic schools of philosophy, and likewise reflected a desire for manifestations of divine or numinous power. But over against this general desire for power, Paul sets the particular message of “Christ crucified,” and this revelation of power made perfect in weakness is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” Paul asserts here that Jesus’ obedience to God’s call and vindication as God’s Risen One is the particular pattern of divine blessing creatively transforming human life. This pattern of living is “wisdom” in the truest sense.

John 2:13-22
John’s account of Jesus cleansing the Temple is a kind of variation on the theme of particular ways of blessing introduced in the Exodus reading. John provides the detail that Jesus’ complaint against the merchants is that they are making the Temple “a marketplace” (the Synoptics make the charge that they are turning the Temple into“a den of robbers”); that is, they are failing to respect the holiness of the Temple by treating it like any other space. The Temple is intended to be a place set apart, a consecrated space where the faithful people can come to be mindful of the presence of God. The Temple is the place where God causes the divine Name to dwell; to be in the Temple, therefore, without being responsive to the call to be in co-creative action in the Name, is to refuse the particularity of blessing offered by God. The merchants and money-changers fail to recognize that particularity, and so Jesus drives them out. That makes it even more significant when Jesus makes the symbolic connection between the Temple and his body. Just as the Temple is the place where God’s Name dwells, so Jesus is the presented locus where God’s Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. Jesus’ life and ministry serves for his followers as the particular revelation of God’s blessing guiding and permeating human life, the exemplification of divine ideals embodied in human reality. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus functions for John as Torah does in the reading from Exodus and the Psalm: it maps God’s way of transforming corruption and violence into fidelity and justice.

Paul S. Nancarrow is the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia, where he makes use of process ideas in preaching, worship, pastoral care, and leadership. He is a co-author of the book, The Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in the Contemporary World and writes a regular column on liturgy for Creative Transformation.