Lent 3B Sermon (2000)

3rd Sunday in Lent
Texts: John 2:13-22;
Ex. 20:1-17; 1 Cor 1:18-25


People often look around our trouble world and see that it needs more of something. More law and order, perhaps. More religion, maybe. Or what could be better than the Ten Commandments! A combination of both law and religion. We should be teaching them in our schools. We should be posting them in our courtrooms. Preachers should be regularly expounding them from the pulpit. This world needs more of the Ten Commandments, more of a sense of law and order, more religion in their lives.

I agree. I agree that we could use more of the Ten Commandments, that is. I’m not so sure that what the world needs is more law or more religion. So I’m preaching on the Ten Commandments today. But I think we might want to separate our zeal for the Ten Commandments from wishes for more law or religion. And I can’t take all the blame here, because look what lessons the Ten Commandments are paired with: St. Paul telling us that the Cross is sheer foolishness to the average person, and Jesus laying into the religious leaders of his day.

Take a closer look at the Gospel. This is about the angriest we ever see Jesus in the Gospels. You and I might get worked up about people not following something as basic as the Ten Commandments anymore. People need more religion in their lives. But Jesus is most angry precisely among these religious types. Really, this whole chapter is about it [extemporize]:

  • Wedding of Cana and the jars of purification.
  • This cleansing of the Temple scene.

Jesus ends it by saying, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

As one of those religious leaders, St. Paul had come to understand how the scandal of the Cross of Jesus messed up our attempts at religion. [extemporize]

So what was Jesus’ alternative? What do we need more of in this world? Not religion. Not law, unless it’s the law of love. Replace all these laws with the law of love. What the world needs more of is love. There’s songs about that, usually with a romantic sort of love in mind. But that’s not what God had in mind either when Jesus went to the Cross. Nothing romantic about that. Rather, it’s a love that lays down its life for the other. So Jesus’ alternative to religion was love. He fulfilled both religion and law by showing us how to love. Do you remember what he said, for example, when asked about the greatest commandment. He reduced it to two, both about love. All the laws, all the commandments, all the rules can be boiled down to these two: Love God with your whole being, and then love your neighbor as yourself.

O.K. That helps us get back to the Ten Commandments. It helps us to see that the Ten Commandments give us tremendous guidance for our living. They are amazing in their clarity and their summary of how we need to live our lives. But, first, we needed to give up the idea that they make us more religious or more law-abiding. The first thing we can notice about them, in fact, is that they already reduce the number of laws down to a relative minimum. Go look up one of the law books of our nation, our community. That’s why we have to pay lawyers so much. We have so many laws, so many rules to follow. With the Commandments from Moses, there’s only ten. And Jesus focused that down to only two. Really, you can see it in their structure: the first three are about loving God, the final seven about loving our neighbor. In fact, we would do well to reduce these ten down to the first and the last, with all the others in between merely an elaboration of those two. The first commandment is clearly Jesus’ first commandment: Love God. And the last commandment is Jesus’ second commandment about how to love our neighbor: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Covet — not a word we use a lot anymore, but a great word. Basically, it’s about catching your desires from another person. You desire what they desire. Do not covet…. What could we add today? Do not covet your neighbor’s SUV, your neighbor’s 6-figure salary? This commandment is all about not getting caught up in perhaps the thing that defines our time the most: consumerism. Keeping up with the Joneses. What we’ve come to call “Affluenza.” The primary aim of commercial television is to get us to break the tenth commandment. Do you see it? They don’t make any money, the whole thing collapses, if they can’t get us to covet our neighbor’s things! Affluenza. This last commandment from Moses warns us about what can happen if we catch our desires from each other, if we covet our neighbor’s things. When our eyes are on each other, that’s when bad things start to happen. We steal, we commit adultery, we smear reputations, we even kill and hurt one another. No, we must not catch our desires from one another. That’s what has happened since the beginning of time, when Eve caught her desire for the forbidden fruit from the serpent, and Adam caught it from Eve.

Where should we catch our desire from if not from each other? From God! From the one who lovingly made each one of us and this whole creation. We need to catch our desire from the God who would have us lovingly care for one another and for this earth of ours, the things God has created and loves. How do we begin to catch our desire from God after catching from each other for so long? By catching it from Christ Jesus our Lord, who came in perfect obedience to God’s love and God’s desire. By being disciples of his, in learning how to serve one another.

Going on mission trips this summer with our youth is all about learning the Ten Commandments! It’s about learning to serve God by serving others instead of being trapped in this Affluenza stuff. It’s about keeping our gaze on Jesus and learning to desire what God desires, instead of watching one another and catching our desires from each other. It’s about having the same mind of Christ.

I’d like to close, in fact, by anticipating the final reading from Scripture of this Lenten season. Every Palm Sunday, we close our worship with these words of St. Paul from Philippians 2:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, March 25-26, 2000

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