A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year B
March 19, 2006
The Rev. Donna Trebilcox, Curate
Did you ever wonder how you ever made it to adulthood? I have, over and again. I don’t know about you but when I was a teenager I did more than my share of stupid and irresponsible things, some of which had serious consequences for my life. One of those consequences is that you will never be able to forget the things you have done which were hurtful or even damaging to yourself or others, even if you have tried to atone for them many times in your life.
I found myself atoning for many of the sins of my youth as I moved into adulthood, especially as I approached middle age. At that time in my life I had three children of my own, all basically good kids, but all of them were now teenagers themselves. And, of course, they were doing what teenagers seem programmed to do; they were pushing on boundaries and breaking down walls, hiding in their deceitful pleasures, and living in the absolute certainties of new found truths for living their life their own way. I can tell you from experience that living with three teenagers can make one atone deeply and often for the sins of one’s own youth. So on one particular Mother’s Day I decided to send my mother a card with my own message attached to the typically saccharin one inside. My message began like this: Dear Mom: Thank you for letting me live past my teenage years. Well, my mother did appreciate my note. She also found it amusing. The trouble is I am not altogether certain that her amusement did not come from watching me get my just deserts. On the other hand, she seemed to feel my pain; the pain of a parent who is trying to guide her willful and rebellious children through the snares and dangers of childhood so that they will reach the promised land of adulthood without having, or leaving, too many scars or wounds.
Sounds a lot like the work Moses was given to do as he tried to lead his willful and rebellious children to their promised land. So today we heard the Decalogue. And as if once would not be enough, we had to hear it twice. Reminds me of my mother, giving me the same warnings over and again hoping they will sink in and take root.
So why is The Decalogue so prominently featured in our scriptures during Lent? Well, I have heard it said, and I have experienced it for myself, that Lent is the time for letting God get our attention, and God always gets my attention when I hear the Ten Commandments. However, that has not always been a good thing. Too often in my life I have been inclined to respond much like a teenager to these commandments when I hear them. I am inclined to hear God as a mean-spirited rule maker who thinks my life is unruly and destined for trouble, and he wants to put me in a harness. God truly comes across as a father, issuing commands which require my obedience, and making rules which lay obligations on me and veiled threats to make me responsible for breaking them. Well, right away I want to rear up. Because I resent limits and I bristle at anything which holds me responsible. After all, I know who I am. I know what I am doing. And before I know it, I have become a law unto myself. Rules don’t apply to me; and rules which do not apply to me cannot be broken, neither do they have consequences for my life or for any other life connected to mine.
Until, of course, we find ourselves faced with the awful consequences of something we have done or something we have not done. Until we realize the consequences of our action or inaction is intrinsically related to a rule of life meant to protect us from ourselves and to protect others from the law we have become unto ourself. That’s why God gives us people like parents and teachers and others who have authority to set the rules and give us boundaries for living this life in ways which keep us healthy, and vital, and moving in right directions toward the good we can become and the good we can do in the world. This is why God gave Moses to the people of
When we hear the Old Testament Lesson today, we remember why God gave his Ten Commandments to Moses. God’s children are being willful and unruly. They do not realize how much they need Moses’ rule and direction as they move through the wilderness toward the promised land, and they rebel every step of the way. Like so many teenagers I have known, and like so many people who revert to teenage acting out throughout their adult years, they cannot see their lives beyond their wants and needs in the present moment. The present has no consequence and the future is of no consequence. But God knows that any given moment of willfulness or rebellion can cause his children to lose the vision of the promised land and the abundant life which awaits them.
This is why Moses goes to the mountain. This is why he brings back the commandments. So that as God’s children wander in their wilderness they can stay focused on Gods promise to them. So they can stay focused in God’s vision for their future by living the best kind of life they can live with each other in every moment of the journey. And when we look at the Ten Commandments in this way we realize that these are not the rigid rules we thought they were, handed down by a mean-spirited God who wants to control us. In fact, they are handed down by a God who loves and cares about his children so much he does not want us to do stupid or irresponsible things to ourselves or to others. He does not want us to do anything which would hurt us or damage us, or cause us to be miserable throughout our life by our memory of them. So God gives us ten commandments, every one of which speaks to specific ways by which we bring harm to ourselves and to each other.
But what we often forget is that these commandments also speak to the ways we honor God and each other by a life lived differently from the life they indicate. The Ten Commandments are not negative imperatives or commands (this is the English teacher coming out in me), the Ten Commandments are negative indicatives, statements meant to indicate something of positive value or import. And when you really look at each of these negative indicatives each commandment seems to be a truth God has already set within us. We already know by observation if not by experience how behaving in such ways can hurt us or damage us. But sin always pulls us away from our best intentions. Sin will always prompt us to violate what we know to be right and good and what God wants for us; and our sinfulness will always do violence to ourselves and others. So, in the end, the Ten Commandments come to us as a way of liberating us from those things that do violence to our lives and which violate God’s good purposes for us in creation.
Jews have known throughout their history that far from being a heavy burden, The Law will always be liberating and life enhancing. The Law will always reflect the wisdom one gains from life experience. The Law will always lead to happiness. And that will continue to be true for followers of Christ, for Jesus himself said he came not to abolish the Law. Jesus knew that on this earth humankind needs to live under a rule of life. What Jesus came to do was to fulfill the Law. And that is just where we find him in John’s gospel account today.
Jesus’ cleansing of the
Well, therein lies the problem for us sinners. For it is our sinfulness which keeps us from paying attention to God. It is our own willfulness and rebelliousness which keeps us at a distance from God, and the only way we can bridge that distance is to surrender our self-centered life to God’s self-giving love. A love which wants the best for us and for those whose lives touch our own. A love which will not ever let us go, despite the ways we neglect God and even abuse him. A love which holds on to us, even when we try to push him away. A love which forgives us for the stupid and harmful things we do to ourselves and to each other. Most of all, God’s love is a love which restores us to him. It restores us to ourselves and to each other, no matter how far away we go from it.
This is an awesome covenant, isn’t it? Have you ever know such love as God’s love? There is no doubt we can come close to experiencing the kind of love God can give in human moments, but no human being can sustain such love or guarantee it as God can. But the curious thing about both God’s love and human love is that in order to have its effect, love must be shared. You must have it in order to give it, and you must be able to receive it in order to have it. And there is the rub with this final and lasting covenant. God’s love will not have its intended effect in us or in our world if we do not love him as he loves us.
All well and good. But nothing will change for us if God can’t get our attention. And nothing will change in us if we can’t find a way to surrender our willful and self-serving love to God. It is not for lack of God’s trying to get our attention. Our scripture lessons just for today indicate how God got Moses’ attention, and the attention of God’s children. We remember that God got Moses’ attention in thunder and lightning, and Moses got the attention of God’s wayward children by returning from an encounter with God holding two stone tablets writ by God. Jesus got the attention of
But getting our attention only begins the process of restoring us to relationship with God. We must also surrender our willful and rebellious hearts to love. God’s love. The only love which has our best interest at heart. And surrender we must if we hope to move out of our self-serving cycles of sin; if we ever hope to stop the harm and pain we cause ourselves and each other in this life; if we ever hope to end the violence of our sin in our world.
Just like the ten negative indicatives we find in the Ten Commandments, disciplines of Lent will allow God to get our attention. And just like Jesus’ cleansing of the