I have to confess, dear congregation, that one of my first reactions to the texts for this week was a very human one: “Ah, the ten commandments… hmmm… rules… yaaaay.” All of you are probably much better Christians than me and didn’t have that kind of reaction, haha. But still, there is definitely something about reading the commandments that makes us brace ourselves to be reprimanded. We anticipate all those finger-wagging thou-shalt-nots almost as a kind of public scolding. And I mean, come on, we’re three weeks into Lent – we’ve already admitted that we are dust and we’ve heard the call to rend our hearts and to repent of our wicked ways and to return to God with fasting and weeping and mourning. At this point, reading the ten commandments almost seems like the lectionary is just rubbing our noses in how much we have fallen short.
But the truth is the commandments were never meant to be harsh or legalistic. They were actually given to us by God as a gift. The word “commandments” doesn’t quite fully capture the sense of what this text actually is. In fact, if you go back to the beginning of our first reading for today, you’ll notice that the reading doesn’t start out by saying, “Then God commanded the Israelites these laws,” or anything like that. What does it actually say?
That’s right, it says, “God spoke all these words.” These are sayings of God, or it might be more accurate to call them teachings of God, or guidance from God. And God makes the nature of these teachings very clear right from the beginning. What does God say first?
Yes! “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”! These are teachings given by a God who liberates God’s people, who sets them free to live life fully and freely. These teachings aren’t meant to draw rigid boundaries around what God’s people can or can’t do; rather, they are meant to teach God’s people the way that leads to life. Their purpose is to instruct, not to punish.
In our readings last week, we saw God make a covenant with Abraham and his descendants forever. These teachings or commandments we read today are instructions for how to live as people in a covenant relationship with God. And it’s worth noting that these instructions came to the people hundreds of years after God initially made the covenant with Abraham – so, you know, if this week has seemed like it’s dragged on forever, now you know why! It’s been centuries since last Sunday, haha. The commandments or teachings or whatever you want to call them aren’t some kind of user agreement for the covenant that we have to click “Accept” on. No. God says, I have set you free, I have claimed you as my own, and now I will teach you how to live life well. These teachings will help you to find the path of life.
It’s not surprising then that rules of life became very popular in Christianity a few centuries into the Christian movement. In the fourth century, the Roman emperor, Constantine, converted to Christianity, and almost overnight, Christianity became the religion of the empire. Suddenly, it was socially advantageous to be Christian, and to belong to the “right” church. And because so many people were suddenly calling themselves Christians, being a Christian came to mean pretty much whatever people wanted it to mean.
It’s no wonder then that this is the era in which Christian monasticism was born. Figures like St. Antony, Evagrius Ponticus, Daniel of Scetis, and many others left the cities and moved out into the deserts of Egypt to develop their own rules of life based on teachings like the ten commandments and the teachings of Christ. People flocked to the deserts in droves to sit at the feet of these desert monks and to learn from them the way of discipleship. And pretty soon monasteries sprang up, entire communities of people devoted to growing in relationship with God by adopting rules of life.
Something not many of you may know about me is that I am actually someone who, well, at least tries to live by a monastic rule of life. I am an oblate of St. Benedict, who was a monk living in Italy in the sixth century. An oblate is someone who belongs to a monastery, but who lives out their vocation in the world. And Benedict’s Rule of life was well known for synthesizing many of the previous rules and making them more accessible to people so that it would be – in his words – “nothing harsh and nothing burdensome.” I have spent years studying the Rule of Benedict and adapting my own rule of life according to its principles – and I wanted to share with you a little bit from the Prologue to Benedict’s Rule about why it is so meaningful:
Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you… Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love. Never swerving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom.
The purpose of these monastic rules, and the purpose of the commandments, isn’t to make life needlessly difficult. It is to root us firmly in loving relationship with God, and to help us always keep our eyes fixed on Christ. It is a way of helping us make sure that Christ is always at the center of our lives, because he is the one who gives us life.
This brings us to our gospel reading. You’ve got to love this story of Jesus marching into the temple and shaking things up. Can’t you just imagine the shocked faces of the moneychangers as he flips their tables, and sends coins and sheep and doves flying in every direction?
But the fantastic drama of Jesus’ entrance into the temple can kind of overshadow what he says next, which is something that is really, crucially important. When people ask him what the heck he thinks he’s doing, he answers them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” And when they say to him, what are you talking about, this temple has been under construction for 46 years, John clarifies that “he was speaking of the temple of his body,” and that “After 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.”
The reason that this is so important is that when John was writing this gospel for his community, around the end of the first century, the temple had actually been destroyed. It was gone. Ancient Jews and Christians were left reeling in the wake of this loss. I mean, just imagine how you all might feel if this building were to be burned to the ground, and then multiply that feeling by like a hundred. That is how the ancient Israelites felt. The very heart of their religious life, the dwelling place of God on earth, had been destroyed. The loss was devastating.
By identifying himself and his body with the temple, Jesus – through John – is reassuring the people that all is not lost, that their relationship with God has not ended. Even though it may seem like he is attacking the people in this story, his words about the temple are actually a message of hope for all those who would read it later. I am the dwelling place of God on earth, he says; I am the way, the truth, and the life. Follow me.
Jesus is inviting all of us into the way that the commandments open to us: a way that keeps Christ at the center – a path that leads to life, even through the valley of the shadow of death. This is the way of Lent – the way that leads us back to God. And it is as important to walk this path in the 21st century as it was in the first century. These are once more changing and challenging times for the church. Many of us long to see more people, especially young people, in our pews, and I’m pretty sure we’re all tired of wringing our hands about whether we’re meeting the budget. And more broadly, we live in a world that has increasingly parted ways with the values we hold dear – a world that rewards competition and consumerism, a world that prizes profit and progress over the wellbeing of people and creation, a world that values the right to own deadly weapons more highly than our children’s right to live free of fear, or to live at all. And much like in the fourth century, there are now so many ways to be Christian, so many conflicting voices claiming to know the truth about what it really means to follow Christ, that it can be hard to know which voices are speaking truth.
In the midst of all this turmoil and confusion, Jesus’ invitation remains the same: follow me. Keep your eyes on me. And the ancient wisdom of the commandments we read today issues the same invitation – to follow God on the path of life – because these commandments are, as Benedict wrote, “advice from a God who loves us.”
So let us not “be daunted by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation,” even when that road winds its way through a world that is sometimes disheartening and even threatening, but instead let us “progress in this way of life and in faith,” so that we may “run on the path of God’s commandments,” with “our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of [God’s] love.” Let us faithfully observe Christ’s teaching, and patiently share in Christ’s suffering, with the sure and certain hope that one day, we will share in his kingdom. Amen.