“The Lord has need of it…” Mark 11:1-11

The longer I am a pastor, the more I see Holy Week as a lesson in learning how to hold on to things lightly.

          This is Palm Sunday and we traditionally begin with what we refer to as the “Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.”    

We begin this day by hearing this story of Jesus riding a donkey into the city, as people hail and acclaim him in kingly fashion. 

“Hosanna to the Son of David!” they shout, waving their palm branches and strewing the path with their garments and those branches.

          It is a very “kingly” kind of entry, reminiscent of conquering generals and rulers coming to claim their spoils after the siege of a city.

          There is a “new rule” coming.

          The whole scene is draped with images that seem to signal “We’ve really got something here!”  

          Here is the one who will drive out the Romans!

          Here is the one who will restore the Kingdom of Israel!

          Here is the one who will reclaim the Temple and restore it!

          Here is the one who will speak for the “little guy,” who identifies with the poor and the oppressed, finally come to set the world to rights!

          The expectation coming into Holy Week is one of the culmination of Jesus’ power and presence.   We are about to see Jesus come into what his whole ministry has been leading up to!  The procession dupes us into thinking that we know exactly how this will all play out.  

          The world could not be more wrong.

          The shouts of “Hosanna” from the sunlit entry will give way to howls of “Crucify Him” in the dark of night by the angry mobs.

          The apparent power of the crowds gathering to hail Jesus as King will give way to mobs in the darkness, coaxed on by shadowy “leaders” into ugly actions. 

The apparent promise of peace and Jesus dealing with the occupying Romans forces will evaporate into the meekness of his arrest, a mock trial by night, and the violence of state sanctioned execution for inciting an insurrection.

The Jesus of the triumphant ruler entering the city on a donkey becomes the Jesus of the cross.

The magnificent entry to hailing crowds evaporates into a lonely exit observed by only a few, and a hasty burial in a borrowed tomb.

          If the expectation we held tightly to of Jesus riding into Jerusalem as an earthly ruler come to claim his rightful throne and shake up the powers that be, then we learn in Holy Week to hold on to that image very lightly and to release it, for it will not last even a week.


There is tucked into this story from the beginning a comment that we often overlook.   It is one which should have seen as a clue as to the nature of Jesus’ ministry and purpose, and how things would play out.

I am struck this year by this little detail in the story.  It’s about the donkey.  From the very start of the story a promise is made that whatever it is that God requires from you will come back to you.

 If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back immediately.”

That’s the message from Jesus to any who questions what the disciples are doing in untying the donkey and taking it, and strangely enough, that seems to be enough!

They are allowed to take the animal.

We must assume that the animal makes its way back somehow, although we are never told about the return, just the promise and the reason.

“The Lord has need of it and will send it back immediately.”

That should have been our cue to understanding what Jesus was about more than the “pomp and circumstance” of the triumphal entry.

Throughout his ministry, his time in Galilee, Jesus had been lifted up time and again that what you give up to God, comes back to you.

“Those who lose their life for my sake, will save it.”

“What you give will come back to you, a goodly portion, shaken down, measured, and overflowing.”

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it will remain but a single grain, but if it dies, it will bear much fruit.”

“Sower went out to sow some seed…and it yielded back a harvest, some twenty fold, some sixty fold, some one hundred fold.”

What God requires of you, will come back to you.

This is the lesson that we find most difficult to learn.  

God does demand our very lives but does so with the promise that what God has need of will be returned.

We find that very difficult to believe or to trust.

And so, we hoard our lives, holding to them tightly, fearfully.

We look at the events of this world and find ourselves always expecting some earthly ‘return on our investment.’   When we think of giving things, (our lives included) to God, lurking in the back of the mind is the “if I do this I’ll bet God will….” Or “What will I get out of the deal?”

That mentality is not technically giving ourselves, but rather it is a form of usury, where we expect something in return. 

Usury is something that the scriptures warned against, because it fostered the honorific system of inequal obligation, someone always owing someone else something, that could be used to manipulate and control people.

“Owe no one anything except to Love each other….” Paul admonishes in Romans.

So then, how do you learn to let go of things, your life included?

How do you learn to let go of your expectations?  Of others and of yourself?

How do you learn to relinquish your need for power, trusting instead that the more you empower others the more power there will be to go around for the good of all?

How do you learn to let go of your need to always be “right?”   Or to always make the “right” decision?   Or to always be on the “winning” side of every equation?

How will you learn to do that?

In marching into Jerusalem Jesus was letting all of our rampant expectations gush before us, letting them all be made known and put on public display.  

This is the way we want it to be, the way we want you to be, Jesus.  Ruler in the way that the world would recognize and acting in the predictable ways of this world, perpetuating systems of obligation,  of “owed honor.”   The “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” and the whole lop sided system of obligation – only now, as you come as earthly king, make it work for us instead of them!

But all of that is turned upside down as Jesus from his first moments in Jerusalem begins to model how you let go of things.

You let go of the need to be in control.

You let go of the need to receive the adoration from crowds and from your own disciples.

You let go of the need to win every argument.

You let go of … well, in the end– life itself.

You die on a cross and you go from being the name that is on everyone’s lips at the start of the week, even the Greeks coming to see you, to becoming the stranger who is buried in Joseph of Arimethea’s tomb.

This is what Jesus models for us in this week called “Holy.”

He models that you can let go of it all because of the promise of God.

What God requires of you, God will give back to you… in three days time, or in what must have seemed “immediately” to one who is lying in the grave.

The donkey was the sign.  

It was not the sign we expected it to be, of triumph and exaltation in this life, but rather that something could be let go of for God to use, and a symbol of God’s trustworthiness.   That what you let go of would return again, because that is what was promised by Jesus.

So, in this week called Holy, watch and learn how to hold things lightly.

Learn to let go of your own expectations, for things do not always go as we would expect them to go.

Things go instead as God expects them to go, and God’s promise in the midst of all of this is that what you give that God needs, God will return to you.

Even and especially, life itself!

“Seeing Jesus” Jeremiah 31:31-24, John 12:20-33

What to say about a Gospel lesson that seems to jump from place to place?   

It is festival time in John’s Gospel, and Jesus has once again made the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem.

John then tells us that a group of “Greeks” (Probably diaspora Jews who have come to Jerusalem to observe the festival,) come seeking out Philip with an inquiry.  

          “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  

          Evidently word of Jesus and his teachings has made its way through the community far beyond Galilee and Judea, or maybe these Greek speaking Jews are hearing about Jesus in the midst of their own visits to the Temple and are determined to see for themselves what all the fuss is all about.   

In either case, curiosity about what this Rabbi from Nazareth and his teaching is being sought out by those outside the local community.

          Our expectation might be that Philip would just say, “well, come right over and let me introduce you.”  

          Philip was, after all, the Disciples who had first invited Nathaniel, introduced him to Jesus with the words “Come and See” back in the first chapter of John.  

          Surely, that is what we might expect.  Philp is rather in the “let me introduce you” business in John’s Gospel.

          But instead, what we get as the reader is a chain of questions and vignettes of moments, from Jesus that seem to jump from teaching to saying, from grain falling in the earth to die, to the voice booming from above of the Baptismal moment, and Jesus musing about being lifted up once again.

          Did the Greeks ever get to see Jesus?  Was that connection made?  

John never tells us.

          Similarly, in the reading from Jeremiah today, we get a promise of a new covenant from the Prophet.  One might expect then that when Jeremiah announces this “New Covenant,” the first thing he would do would be to lay out the terms, the conditions, and shape of this new covenant.

          That is not what happens.

          Instead, Jeremiah launches into a musing about the old covenant.

He talks about how this new one will not be like the old covenant of laws which you had to teach to one another, pass down to your children, or write down on tablets of stone. 

          No, this new covenant will be placed within and written on the heart, you will just “know.”

          “All shall know me from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord, and I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.”

          I wasn’t quite sure what to do with either of these passages of scripture until I watched a documentary on Audrey Hepburn the other night, and then it became clear to me just what each of these authors appears to be doing.

          How do you tell the story of a life and a relationship?

          You use images that evoke that life!   You use snapshots and memories that cause a response and reveal then the truth.

          In fact, I only have to say the name, “Audrey Hepburn” and already your mind is conjuring up some images.

          Maybe it is the iconic “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” black dress and pearls, her standing there with her croissant and coffee looking through the window.

          Or, maybe when I say “Audrey Hepburn” the image that comes to your mind is the White Ascot Crown dress from “My Fair Lady”, or the street urchin flower girl with her “OWWWW!” before the transformation.

Or maybe the image that comes is one of her in black capri’s dancing crazily in “Funny Face”, or her in the Red dress gliding down the stairs in front of the statue of Nike, billowing her scarf like Nike’s wings above her as the photographer clicks away.

          Or Maybe your image is of the later Audrey Hepburn traveling around the world to promote the work of UNICEF and cradling starving children in her arms.

          But images will come, if you are given the right triggers to bring them to mind, and truth will be revealed as you ponder them.

          You will learn as you look at those images presented and as they are commented upon.  You begin to recognize some things you hadn’t thought of before.  

You see now that Audrey’s small frame and concern for starving children was born of the fact that she herself suffered from malnutrition as a child in Europe during WWII.

          You will learn that her greatest desire was to be a dancer, and so every image of her you see from that point on in movement becomes a moment of dance and poise in your eyes.

          As the documentary played out, my mind moved back to John’s Gospel and this moment, where the desire is to “see Jesus” comes.   

I think what John does in response to that desire to “see Jesus” is to begin to show us all these “moments” from the Jesus we have already met and seen as readers.  They become images that trigger our thoughts and conjure up in us a response.

          “The hour has come…”  Jesus says.

          “Unless a seed falls in the earth…”  Jesus says.

          “Bearing fruit…”

          “Whoever serves me must follow me…”

          “Father Glorify…”

          “The judgment of this world…”

          “When I am lifted up….”

          Like a series of photo images or film clips from a documentary, as Jesus says these phrases, images are conjured in your own mind as a reader of the Jesus that you have already met.  You have pictures forming of who he is, and of what it means to meet him, and where you see him.

          The images give you context of where to look for Jesus, where to “see” him yourself.

          You meet Jesus in your hour of trouble.

          You will meet him in the moments when life and death are in balance.  When death threatens or is staved off and a new lease on life is given.

          You meet Jesus when you recognize the good that comes from something. 

You see him in the fruit that is born from a task, in the word that is spoken in the right moment, in the action taken by someone toward you or someone else.  

“Jesus was in that!  I saw him!”

          You meet him in the service that you do, or in seeing the service that is done by others.

          You meet Jesus in the words and the phrases, in the blessings and the challenges, and in all the cross shaped intersections of life!

          You want to see Jesus?    Look around!

          In the same way, I think, Jeremiah weaves these comments about what the old covenant was like in order to reveal the new.

          We know what the old covenant was like.  We know its laws, its commandments, that had to be passed down, drilled into us, set up as reminders for us that never quite seemed to work or take hold.

          It was never the case that we didn’t know that we should honor our parents!  But living that out was another matter.

It was never the case that we didn’t know it was a bad thing to kill people or to do violence, and yet it persists.

It was not the case that we didn’t realize it was a bad thing to covet what other people had and scheme to get it, but somehow it became the way to “do business.” 

Lord knows we see daily reminders of what the breaking of those covenants look like in street violence, and in the actions of unjust political structures and in the global inequities and poverty that afflicts this world.

          What we really want to “see” is a covenant written on the heart, and not one that is just  “on the books” that we seem to delight in finding ways to skirt around with technicalities.

 What we really need is not a “technically I’m good” kind of world, — a “I didn’t really break any laws intentionally” kind of world — but rather a “deep down I know this is what God would want and this is what would be good for everyone” — kind of world.

          Isn’t that what we want to see?  

          Not better law enforcement, but people behaving in such a fashion that police aren’t put in situations where they need to intervene.

          Not abolishing rules and laws, but making them just and equitably applied, so that suspicion, and racism, and sexism and all the other “isms” out there that are born of broken covenant no longer are given opportunity to divide us and to destroy us.

          We wish to “see” the change, believe in the change, behold what such images would reveal of a God who will forgive iniquity and remember sin no more,

We want to see a God who comes to meet us in this world and who shows us how to live and how to serve and how to speak.

          A God who writes a new way to live upon our hearts and deep within us.

          As I watched the “Audrey” documentary the other night, watching image of her on top of image of her be lifted up and placed side by side to give meaning and understanding, I was struck by how the Gospels do this very thing.

          Images of Jesus are lifted up for us to see, to look at, and to behold.   Images to be seen in the context of our own lives and our own world.

          If we too, wish to “see Jesus” then we hold up the mirror to ourselves and to others.

          We behold our own image (for are we not made in the image of God?) and we judge that image, and test it!

We measure it against the image that God has now set before us in Christ Jesus, and the love that Jesus has placed within the heart, and then we work to correct that image that we see, bringing it into alignment with God’s desire for all people, God’s justice, God’s ways as they are revealed to us in Jesus.

          If you want to see Jesus, then begin to look like him, mirror his love, his actions, his words.

          If you want to receive this new covenant, then open your heart to the way of forgiveness and letting go of things.

          If you want to see Jesus, then look around and behold the things that remind you of what Jesus came to do, came to be, and came to live out.

Open your own heart to those things —  that Jesus’ ways may be re-written on your own heart for you to live out as well.

This is how the Christian community is to bear witness to Jesus and to the new covenant.  There are those who wish to see Jesus, and so he should be clearly visible in you!

In your words.

In your actions. In your decisions and in your daily life.  

“The People Loved Darkness” Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21

We do love our darkness, don’t we?

          The “hot topic” of the week has been the Oprah interview with Prince Harry and Meghan, where the darker side of Britain’s Royal Family was exposed for all to see, and we ate it up.

          17.3 million viewers tuned in.   It was so successful that they replayed the interview in its entirety all over again in prime time.

          We do love our darkness.   

          Click bait on the internet will have us hover over the “you won’t believe number 7” button, enticed by whatever tantalizing “tell all” is promised, (heavily interspersed with advertisements and purposefully slow loading so that you “accidentally” click on the wrong button and open a whole new screen.)    “Oh, look at that, I better check that out while I’m here…..”

          Something darker, something juicier and something more explicit is promised.

A bit more gossip to digest.

An image that is promised to astound.

“You won’t believe what the old west was REALLY like,” or “These pictures of the 60’s will tell a different story!”

It does not take much for us to feel drawn to the darker side of things.

For a long time, John’s judgement in this Gospel bothered me.   

John writes, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.”

John writes this right after the affirmation that God so loved the world that he sent his on son into it.

John writes this right after reminding us that Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but rather to save it.

After the most illuminating and uplifting verses in the scripture of the depth of God’s love for this world, John has to go and remind us of how much we love darkness!

How much we love to slink around avoiding the light! 

How much we love to hide things, to keep our secrets and to avoid exposure.

I never liked that part of John’s Gospel very much, but it unfortunately rings too true!   I recognize it in myself and in the things that capture my attention and threaten to suck me in.

I recognize it in my neighbor, in the actions of others.  Whether it is the propensity to go down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, or to question science, or repeat rumors, or to simply and baldly profess that a person “does not believe this” in regard to the pandemic, or to the vaccines, or people’s behaviors.

We do love our darkness!

We will choose it over light and truth if such light and truth threatens our deeply held and cherished beliefs or ideals. 

This is the truth about us.  

This is the “judgement.” 

So, I never really liked John pointing it out or rushing to it right after these verses of professing God’s covenant love.

Couldn’t John have just kind of “glossed over” that so that we could focus on the good stuff, the uplifting part?

But paired with the Hebrew scripture reading for this day, I begin to see this in a whole new light.

The Hebrew Scripture for this day is taken from the book of Numbers, and it tells the story of the wilderness wandering, and the truth about Israel in the wilderness.

They were bitter complainers.  They rather enjoyed pointing out the darkness in their experience.

In the reading for today the people of Israel have been complaining once again about, well, everything.  

There is no water.  

It is not a land fit for living or growing things out here in the wilderness.  There are no figs here.  

They question why Moses brought them out of Egypt to die here in the first place.  

They detest the food they are provided from God!  The Manna, and they have had their fill of quail.  

On and on the litany of complaints goes, slithering through the community if you will.

Now in response to all the complaints one more hardship appears in the wilderness.   Venomous serpents have appeared that bite and kill.

Some are even blaming those snakes on God!  

The Israelites cry out to Moses for God to do something, and God does. 

God does not however take away the snakes.  

God instead forces the people to look at a bronze snake set upon a pole.  “If you are bitten, look up at it, and you will live.”

It is a curious way to address a problem if you think of it medically or practically, but through the eyes of metaphor, it takes on a different light.

The snakes in their midst are the manifestation of all the people’s complaints, all the bites and venom of their comments and attitudes.   If you want to be rid of that poison in your midst, you must look upon it, see it, and acknowledge it!

We do love our darkness, and God knows that about us!  So, God encourages the people, encourages us to take a good look at that love of darkness in ourselves and to acknowledge it, and then God shows us something else.

God comes to us, even and especially in the midst of our love of darkness.

God does not abandon, or throw up God’s hands and walk away, or even just leave us in our complaint and our suffering. 

God says “look at it….and you will live.”

I have often read that and thought of my own walks in desert places.  Snakes as a rule avoid you.   So, as long as you are on the path and not poking around where snakes like to hang out, you’re probably going to be fine.

 But, a funny thing happens if some puts a sign up warning you about snakes.  You start to look for them!

Finding them and thinking you will rid yourself of their danger you poke a them with a stick and that is when you get bit.

Maybe this story is as much about where the people go poking as it is about anything else.

When you begin to see the snakes and the venom in the midst of the community as Israel’s own poking and complaining, then the command to lift your eyes and look at the serpent on the pole begins to make sense. 

Get your eyes off those things, and live!

Now fast forward to John’s Gospel.

This is the same metaphor that John puts forth about Jesus as well.  John prefaces both God’s saving intention and our love of darkness in the need for the Son of Man to be lifted up just as the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness. 

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

We do love our darkness!  John knows that and so as John tells the story of Jesus, he does not shy away from that love of darkness but rather emphasizes just what it is that God does to people who love darkness.

Jesus shows up in the midst of such love of darkness!

When there is no wine at the wedding feast and the party is looking bleak, then it is that Jesus shows up to turn the spoiled celebration into a moment when the best is brought out, taking people’s minds away from what is ruined and turning them toward what is promised.  The story goes from “they have to wine” to “you have saved the best for last!”

When Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, (when it is darkest) and wants to know about the secret of his teaching, Jesus instead talks about being born again and entering life anew.   The story goes from slinking around after dark to get the inside scoop to exposing the actions of humans.

When the woman is at the well in the darkest moment of her life in terms of community and acceptance, then it is that Jesus greets her and offers her living water.   The story goes from all the secrets she has tried to keep to “let me show you a man who told me everything about me!”

When Lazarus is four days dead in the tomb, grief is at its peak, the future is cut off for Mary and Martha, and all is darkness of wailing and mourning.   Then it is that Jesus has the tomb opened and calls into the darkness to bring forth Lazarus to life.  The story goes from “if only you had been here, Lord” to “unbind him and let him go!”

In each case, you have to face the darkness before the light will come.

In each case, you have to look into the face of the consequence of your actions, or the bitterness in your own heart, or the injustice of the moment before new life is possible.

“Look at it.. and you will live.”

And so, when Jesus comes and offers us life, Jesus knows full well our love of darkness, and our fascination with the click-bait of this world, and our desire to slink in the shadows and our own desire to keep our secrets.

Jesus knows, God knows, and meets us in the midst of our preoccupation with the darkness to offer us life and light in the very midst of it.

 It is a curious thing, after all, and makes no sense medically or practically to point to a crucifixion, a symbol of the penalty of death, as the moment when life is offered. 

Except as a metaphor of the length to which God will go, to die on a cross, in order to reach us in our darkness.

In the old west hangings were social events.

You can find pictures of lynchings in the U.S. where the whites are standing around smiling.

We’ll tune in to watch an interview that tears apart families and institutions and engage in “reality” T.V. that promises us the thrills of embarrassment, humiliation, and the ruin of lives of others —  all for the sake of its “entertainment” value.

We do love our darkness, this is true!

But in spite of it, or maybe because of it, God comes to us in the midst of such love of darkness, drawing our eyes away from the poison around us to look at something else.

A serpent on a pole.

A savior on a Cross.

A promise that death does not have the final say in things, and that no matter how dark the moment seems, Jesus knows darkness deeper and came out of it triumphant that you might live as well.

We do love our darkness, but God is in the light business, and the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.

That is the promise. That is the good news this day, and every day.   

“Covenant Embodied” Genesis 20:1-22, John 2:13-22

I have a photograph in my office of a cliff face from Arches National Park.   I took it because of the beautiful sunset taking place behind it.  I saw the bright orange, blue and purples of the sky and clouds outlined dramatically and snapped the picture. 

          It wasn’t until much later, after having it framed and hanging in my office wall that I began to see it from a different perspective.   The cliff face had this gaped opening, and a smaller wind eroded opening in just the right place, so that if you rotated the picture ninety degrees,— it appears for all the world to be the outline of a very angry, open mouthed man with a beady little eye.

          Once you see it, you really can’t unsee it.

          It changes the whole perspective on the image and what the image evokes.

Such is the case with the scripture passages for today.   I am afraid that I am going to change the way you look at them, and once you begin to see them in that new light, you likely will not be able to “unsee” it.

So, you have been warned.

          In the passage from Exodus we have the giving of the ten commandments, which I’ll bet you have pretty much always viewed through the lens of the old Cecil B. DeMille movie, Moses coming down from the mountain with a set of rules given by God, written down on tablets of stone.

          Thou shall….

          Thou shall not….

          Keep the rules, keep the laws, and things will go well for you.  

          Break the commandments and God becomes displeased, maybe even punishes, and it’s all right there in stone for you to see.

          Except…. The words are not written on stone tablets at first.

They are spoken!

          “Then God spoke all these words.”  

The writer of Exodus gives us a picture in this first account of God speaking the commandments as a mirror of the creative act back in the book of Genesis.   

God says, and it is to be so!

Just as God had said, “let there be light, and there was light…”  

So, in the giving of the commandments, God is calling forth the power of the word to create community.   

“I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods!  That is the mark of this community!

“Honor your father and mother!”  – That is the mark of this community, who you are to be.

“Do not kill!”

“Do not Covet.”

Each commandment spoken in turn is a creative act to bring forth a new reality, a new creation of how this community is to be.

          It is not with stone tablets and the rules written down that God creates, it is with relationship with and in God’s people that God shapes and fashions.  This voice of God calling for people to embody this promise, this covenant is terrifying.

          If you read on in Exodus, verses 18 and following, you get the full picture of God’s original intention, which was to speak directly to the people.

          When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 

From the smoke and mist and thundering of God speaking directly to the people comes a clarion call for God’s people to embody this relationship in the way that we are to relate to God and to treat one another. 

          There are no stone tablets as the story is first told.

          There is NOTHING to look at except relationship itself, either with God or with one another, which is precisely what makes this so unsettling!  

          No graven images, nothing to point to but the relationship.

          If you do make an altar at all, (Exodus 20:21 and following will go on to state) it is to be made of unworked stones, whatever YOU find laying around and that you can gather up and work together on to assemble. 

An altar is not to be made of worked stones with chisel and hammer, lest you point to and begin to look at something that you have crafted or fashioned.  No, the altar that is acceptable is one that you all have labored on together as a community, as a people living together, from whatever stones you find already laying around.

          It appears from the very beginning that the covenant at Sinai was to be about people and not about things.  Not things you could point to, or put in a box, or things to be housed as in a temple.

          Throughout the book of Exodus, God “tabernacles” – tents with God’s people.  

God is contained not in inanimate objects, but as a living presence, in smoke and fire, in breath, in word, and in action.

So then, how do you know if you are keeping the commandments?   You will know by the shape of the community and the quality of the relationships that exist!

You will know if you are keeping the commandments if there is (for instance) families being held together in honor!

You will know if you are keeping the commandment if there are no murders happening!

You will know if you are keeping the commandments if no one is coveting one another’s stuff.

The commandments were to be embodied by people in word and action.

No wonder people objected!  

Where do you find any “fudge room” in a covenant like that?   It is like God is always there, looking over your shoulder.   It’s a terrifying prospect, being held accountable like this!

So, the people reject the concept.

“You talk to God for us Moses, if we hear that voice again, we’ll just die!”

So it is that the tablets of stone took the place of the expectation to live the words.

You can quibble with things fashioned in stone, after all.

You can be offended if the stone tablets aren’t properly displayed or cared for, or if they are overlooked, or if they are not given what you determine to be due prominence in your eyes.  

“The Ten Commandment are important!   They should be on display for everyone to see!”

You can even make that kind of insist argument while not actually keeping the words in your heart or in your practice.

This was the concern from the beginning for God, one referred to in the time of the prophets with a sense of longing.  The Commandments were to be a guide for life, something embodied and internalized by the people, by the community.  Something that one day would be written, (as Jeremiah says) “on the heart.”

Fast forward now to the story from the Gospel of John of Jesus cleansing the temple.  

John’s telling of this story differs from Matthew, Mark and Luke in two important ways.  

First of all, it happens early in Jesus’ ministry, the very first time he visits the Temple in John’s Gospel.  

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this event is cast as the “last straw.”   Jesus goes to Jerusalem at the end of his life and ministry and in upsetting the tables in the Temple, triggers the events of his arrest, trial and crucifixion.

He just went one step too far!

But in John, this scene happens early in the story and it is not a “last straw” event but rather a critique upon the Temple system.  

“Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”  Jesus demands, driving animals out of the Temple court and turning over the tables where commerce was transacted.

The Temple was (in fact) the main economic engine for Jerusalem.  Wealth from the diaspora Jewish communities poured into Jerusalem particularly at festival time, when the annual dues, offerings and tithes would be brought in.   

Pilgrims as well poured into Jerusalem during the festivals to perform obligations and sacrifices, and they had to eat, sleep, stay, and get supplies for the journey back home.  

Festival time was the “Black Friday” and the “In-Season” of the first century world in Jerusalem all rolled into one.

This is the moment Jesus picks, not to question the sincerity of those coming with their offerings, but rather to bring into question the way the whole system itself is set up –from animals herded into the outer courts to money exchanges and caged birds. 

Is this what the Temple has become?   A marketplace instead of the place for relationship with God and with one another?  

Is this where we put our attention?  In the things and the commerce and the structures instead of on relationships and people?

And this is the second difference from the synoptics account, for in John’s gospel the matter of a sign comes into play.

“What sign can you show us for doing this?” the Temple authorities ask after all the ruckus.

If you are going to critique the system, then show us a better way, a reason for the disruption, and here Jesus re-introduces the experience from Exodus again, where God’s desire was for an embodied covenant.

“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”

The Temple authorities are thinking of stones worked by craftsmen.   “Forty six years we’ve been working on this building, and you would raise it up in three days?”

“But Jesus was speaking of the Temple of his body.”

Not a covenant of stones and commerce and things, but an embodied relationship once again.

 How do you know that Jesus is the divine Word that is in our midst?   Well, you will know it by what he embodies, which is always about relationship.

So, when Jesus turns water into wine, the first of the signs, he embodies that life can be abundant. 

The sign is set, and all the signs that follow are Jesus embodying again the presence of God in this world, as it had been envisioned from Sinai.   

          God speaking directly to us!

          To a woman by a well, to a royal official who needs healing, to those who are hungry, to those who grieve having lost their brother Lazarus.

Jesus is God living in the flesh, embodied in the actions and words of those whom he had saved with a mighty arm and an outstretched hand leading them out of bondage of slavery.

          Once you see it, you can’t unsee it!  

          God has always been speaking words to create a living relationship within us, we are the ones who insist on “things” and in pointing to “things”  — lest we be terrified by finding out we are speaking directly to God, and God is speaking directly to us!

          “What is the sign you will show us for doing this?”

          “Go ahead, destroy this body and see if it stops God!”   In three days time it will rise again!”

          Once you see it, you can’t unsee it! 

          Covenant with God has never been about “things”… not land, not descendants, not even a nation.

          Covenant has always been about God coming in to live with us in the here and now, embodied in us and in our neighbor.

God is with us, and we are to see that so that we live our lives in relationship with God and with one another in ways bring a blessing to each other.

          It is that simple.           It is that hard