(Exodus 20:1-17, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22)
(watch here: http://youtu.be/edtn4TEe_EA)
13The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
Why do we have laws? Perhaps some of us have asked ourselves this question at some point in our lives. Not soon after asking, we invariably try to envision a world without laws. What would our world look like without laws? It doesn’t take too much imagination to foresee a complete mess. Our world would be a disaster. Everyone would be fighting with everyone else. Everyone would live in fear. Life expectancy would be short, cruel, and brutish. Every day would be a struggle for survival as we try to meet our daily physical needs of food, water, and shelter. There would be little to no love in the world. No one would have time for love—everyone would be considered an enemy. We’d only fight and die without laws.
So we return to the question: why do we have laws? When we try to envision a world without laws, the answer becomes quite apparent. We have laws to create order and order allows us to live better lives. Laws enable us to work well with each other which in turn prolongs our lives. Laws enable love to enter into our relationships with each other and keeps us from living in constant fear of each other. Laws enable us to consider some people friends instead of enemies. You see, laws are good things. Laws serve to help us, not hurt us. Of course, anyone who has ever been on the wrong side of the law would argue quite the contrary. For them, the law only seems to be hurting them. The law seems to be what’s punishing them for their behavior. Without the law, they’d be able to do whatever they want to do, whenever they want to do it. And yes, without the law, they would be able to do whatever it is they want to do, whenever they want to do it. But what if everyone could do whatever they want to do, whenever they want to do it? Again, it would be complete anarchy. Those on the wrong side of the law would quickly realize that no one could do anything they wanted to do. They’d quickly realize that there are laws beneath laws. Man’s laws are just the tip of the iceberg. God has laws that govern the universe that are much more profound than man’s laws.
Our readings for this week help us to reflect on just how profound God’s laws are. Century after century, we have created a plethora of laws that help govern us and keep us from descending into lawless anarchy. Each of us wants to live lives free of fear. Each of us wants love in our lives. We don’t want short, cruel, brutish lives. We want long, fruitful, love-filled lives and laws help us to achieve these types of lives. Underneath all of our laws there exists God’s laws, the simplest and most perfect laws of them all. Our reading from Exodus exposes us to God’s laws. They are ten relatively straightforward laws that God gave to Moses to give to the freed slaves of Israel at Mount Sinai. It’s amazing to think that God’s laws, the bedrock of all of our laws, can be condensed into Ten Commandments! But like us, God wants us ALL to live long, fruitful, love-filled lives and keeps His decrees as simple as possible. God’s ten laws DO keep us from descending into anarchy!
The evangelist Fred Brown used three images to describe the purpose of the law. First he likened it to a dentist’s little mirror, which he sticks into the patient’s mouth. With the mirror he can detect any cavities. But he doesn’t drill with it or use it to pull teeth. It can show him the decayed area or other abnormality, but it can’t provide the solution. Brown then drew another analogy. He said that the law is also like a flashlight. If suddenly at night the lights go out, you use it to guide you down the darkened basement stairs to the electrical box. When you point it toward the fuses, it helps you see the one that is burned out. But after you’ve removed the bad fuse, you don’t try to insert the flashlight in its place. You put in a new fuse to restore the electricity. In his third image, Brown likened the law to a plumbline. When a builder wants to check his work, he uses a weighted string to see if it’s true to the vertical. But if he finds that he has made a mistake, he doesn’t use the plumbline to correct it. He gets out his hammer and saw.
What Brown’s three images help to reveal is that the law points out the problem of sin; it doesn’t provide a solution. Laws do more than keep us from doing whatever we want, whenever we want to. Laws expose our sinful nature. When we commit sins, we’re not helping ourselves or anyone else. Indeed, we’re hurting ourselves and others! God doesn’t want us to hurt ourselves and others. God wants us to live in harmony with each other. God wants us to build each other up. God wants us to love each other and Him. The Ten Commandments are designed for this purpose. This is why Jesus declared that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our hearts, all our minds, and all our souls. Then we are to love each other as we love ourselves. Sin keeps us from fulfilling these two primary commandments. Which is why we need the law—to enable us to love God and each other.
In our psalm, David sings praise for God’s law: “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes.” David could see how the law is a gift to us. David could see how the law exposes sin as a force of destruction. David could see how the law keeps us from descending into complete anarchy.
Moses and David gave us God’s law and praise of it but they couldn’t keep us from finding ways to live outside of the law. Just look at our reading from the book of John. People thought they could turn the house of God into a marketplace. They were selling cattle, sheep, and doves to the people gathering for worship. Perhaps they thought that any gathering of people was an event to sell their wares. After all, there was no law that prevented them from selling goods in a place of worship. People find ways to live outside the law. Yet Jesus stormed the temple and cast out the vendors. On what grounds did he have for throwing them out? What laws had they broken? We have to keep in mind the difference between the laws of men and God’s laws. The laws of men only go so far. Like Brown’s three images, they only point out our sinful nature. They don’t correct our sinful natures. Only faith can correct our sinful natures. Faith is the tool we use to correct the decayed teeth, burnt lightbulbs, and mismeasured buildings. Faith enables us to love God with all our hearts, minds, and souls. Faith enables us to love each other as ourselves.
What the people in the temple failed to realize was that, though there was no law preventing them from selling their goods, they were preventing worshippers from fully nurturing and sustaining their lives of faith. They were preventing worshippers from giving God and each other their full love. There was no law that mandated a life of faith. There isn’t a law today that mandates a life of faith. How could it be enforced? Faith is intangible, elusive, unlimited. The laws of men are limited. But God’s laws are greater than our laws. God’s laws affect all people in all places at all times. God’s laws universally help all people.
Our laws speak to a certain people in a certain place at a certain time. They change over time and adapt to different people, places, and times. Just look at all the obsolete laws that exist out there. In Lexington, Ky., there is an ordinance forbidding anyone to carry an ice-cream cone in his pocket. In Waterloo, Ne., barbers are forbidden to eat onions between seven a.m. and seven p.m. In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, it is against the law to eat peanuts in church or to use tomatoes in making clam chowder. In Kansas, an old law states that you cannot eat snakes on Sunday or rattlesnake meat in public. In Nicholas County, W. Va., no member of the clergy is allowed to tell jokes or humorous stories from the pulpit during a church service. We can see that our laws speak to specific people in specific places at specific times. All of these laws had purposes in certain situations but they don’t apply in all situations. Not like God’s laws.
We can find ways to live outside of our laws. Certain laws don’t exist or are altogether obsolete. Even the laws that do exist and are relevant to us can be broken. Our overcrowded prisons and jailhouses are a testament to this fact. God’s laws can be broken too. God allows us to sin and live with the consequences of it. Even more, God forgives us when we break His laws. God gives us these 6 weeks of Lent to reflect on our sinful nature much the same way that the law does. God sends us a Savior who takes our sin and frees us from bondage to it. Both the Savior and the law are gifts to us. In the weeks ahead, let us nurture our faith in both these gifts and know that we are…only as strong as faith.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.