Covenant, Promise, Presence: A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

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Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
5 March 2018 + Lent 3B
John 2.13-22; Exodus 20.1-17



What does this mean?

I can still hear those words as if I were hearing them in my childhood confirmation classroom. “What does this mean?” “We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.” An almost robotic response.

The words from Luther’s Small Catechism have been emblazoned on the hearts and minds of Lutheran confirmation students everywhere, as surely as the Ten Commandments were first given to the ancient Israelites at Mt. Sinai many years ago.

Newly brought out of slavery from the land of Egypt, the people of Israel, God’s chosen ones, hear these new “commandments” read to them in the context of the covenant-promise between God and Israel, a marker of national and religious identity already established in the covenant made with Abraham we heard last week, and a moment that would define their relationship with God from that point on.

These “commandments,” however, are not exactly a set of laws or legal codes but are intimately tied to that covenant-promise. It’s unfortunate that Luther’s Catechism misses what our Jewish siblings actually observe as the first commandment: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The commandments begin with a word of good news! The law is rooted in gospel. And the you here is singular: These words are a reminder that God has liberated each person of Israel, that God has redeemed each one of us.

Rooted first in God’s action, the Ten Commandments are ultimately given as a model for living in community, with God and with each other. As later summarized in the version that appears in Deuteronomy, the Ten Commandments boil down to this: love God and love your neighbor. It’s a vision of God’s shalom, to borrow from Dr. Menn’s sermon last Wednesday, God’s peace, God’s wholeness. It’s a vision of being in an intimate relationship with God and with each other.


Fast forward to the time of Jesus, to the scene we encounter in John’s gospel, and we get a very different picture. We see religious practice not driven by love of God and neighbor for its own sake but co-opted by a sacrificial system made oppressive by corrupt temple practices by those in authority.

In three out of four gospels, we get an idea of what that corruption looked like. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus accuses the money changers and vendors of making the temple into a “den of robbers,” exploiting the people with price gouging and dishonest transactions. But in John, there’s no reason given. Jesus walks in, takes one look around, and promptly makes a whip to drive everyone out with a stern warning: Take these things out of here! Instead of targeting individual practice, Jesus condemns the whole system.

Then, in an allusion to the passion events still to come, Jesus makes the bold assertion: My body is the real temple, the real place you can meet God. Access to God is not comprised of complex rules and regulations and systems that have corrupted and only exacerbate the problem. Access to God is here and now! God is made known in the very presence of Jesus, the Word made flesh who makes his dwelling among us. Here, in Jesus, is the place where God and humanity meet. Get these other things out of here! What you need is here. As if to say: I AM.


While neither we as Christians nor our Jewish siblings today have any firsthand notion of temple-based worship, we do know something of what it’s like to get bogged down in things that distract or deter us from being in relationship with God.

We who seek ordination and consecration in this church as pastors and deacons know something of what it’s like to jump through hoops, feeling like we’re always having to “prove” our call to ministry, from entrance to approval. And the hoop-jumping continues in the paperwork, interviews, and evaluations of CPE, MIC, internship, assignment, and first call.

For we who are LGBTQIA+ or persons of color or living with disabilities, proving ourselves is made even more difficult by the systemic hurdles of homophobia and transphobia, sexism, racism, ableism, the list goes on.

The stress of midterm exams and papers, the hours spent preparing for qualifying exams and writing theses and dissertations, the time-consuming labor of sorting through CVs and interviewing faculty candidates, the minutiae of managing academic administration and accreditation and comprehensive campaigns…

It’s not difficult to get bogged down and burned out in the midst of carrying out our vocations, making us feel like our relationship with the One who called us here is distant, at best. Instead of temple vendors, cattle, sheep, doves, and money changers swarming all around, the demands of academic and administrative hoops to jump through absorb much of our time.


During Lent, a traditional time for “giving up,” we are invited into disciplines and practices that are meant to foster a mindset of repentance, of turning around, of refocusing and reorienting. This season, I found myself returning to Quaker writer and theologian Richard Foster who has written one of my favorite pieces on the spiritual practice of simplicity. Foster offers some very practical marks of what simplicity looks like:

Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status.
Develop a habit of giving things away.
Learn to enjoy things without owning them.
Develop a deeper appreciation for the creation.
Reject anything the breeds the oppression of others.

I have come to value the practice of simplicity as Foster describes it, though of course these things are easier said than done. But simplicity as a practice is an intentional invitation to declutter and remove those things which distract or harm us and to refocus on that which is life-giving, to enter anew into the intimate relationship with our Creator which they invite us to and so desperately want with us.


When I took a class on preaching the gospel of John last semester, one of the questions we asked after hearing a colleague preach was: What is the image of abundant life in this text? John’s gospel is indeed one of abundance, beginning right away with Jesus’s first miracle of turning water into wine at Cana and including such other signs as the feeding of the five thousand. There is explicit abundance in these stories, but there is abundance in more subtle places too. Jesus’s act of cleansing the temple is an act of  practicing simplicity — a clearing away of distractions, in order that we might experience God’s presence without obstruction. There is abundance here, and it is abundance in simplicity.

And while there is no allusion to the Ten Commandments in this story, it shouldn’t be lost on us that the gospel writer sets this event in the context of Passover — a festival with its roots in the exodus from Egypt, the journey through the wilderness, and the covenant at Sinai. Maybe it’s pure speculation, but I’d like to imagine that maybe, just maybe, Jesus had this in mind, pointing his people back to the covenant, back to all the words which God spoke, beginning with a reminder of their liberation and redemption.

These texts offer us the same thing. Whatever the baggage we carry with us into this space today that weighs us down, Jesus strips all that away and offers us the divine presence and promise in his very self.

I also remember hearing way back at my seminary sampler visit five years ago of LSTC’s mission statement: “to form visionary leaders to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ.” In the midst of our work here, no matter what else weighs on us, distracts us, burdens us, stresses us out, this is what are we are here to do, as God’s own redeemed people, loved beyond our wildest imagining.

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A Good Ol’ Fashioned Sermon about the Radical Nature of God’s Grace (on the 15th anniversary of 9/11)

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Augustana Lutheran Church
11 September 2016 + Lectionary 24C
Exodus 32.7-14



Liturgical whiplash. It’s the result of a hearing a bizarre pairing of seemingly disparate jonathanedwards04lectionary texts. On the one hand, there’s the angry vengeful God ready to smite the Israelites in Exodus—and yet, it’s precisely that kind of rash judgment toward “sinners” that Jesus calls out in his twin parables in Luke.

At first glance, God’s angry tirade against the Israelites reads rather harshly. God even opens by distancing Godself from them: “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt…” God says to Moses. As if to say: Not my circus, not my monkeys. And God’s decision: consume them and bring their existence as a people to an end.

It seems rather excessive, and even out of character, for the God who heard the groaning of the Israelite slaves in Egypt and liberated them from their oppressors.

The medieval French rabbi Rashi offers some help here. His commentary on these few verses proposes that God’s insistence to be “let alone” is actually a subtle hint to Moses to do just the opposite—suggesting that if Moses intercedes on behalf of the Israelites, God will not destroy them. [1]

And Moses does just that. He starts by  boldly turning God’s words right back on God: “your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt.” But that’s only the beginning of Moses’s reminder to God of God’s relationship with God’s people.

Remember Abraham… Remember your covenant promise. Remember how Abraham, too, once pleaded with you to save a whole city from destruction.

Remember Isaac… the long-awaited son you promised to Sarah.

Remember Israel… Remember how Jacob wrestled with you and became Israel, the one who strives with God.

Remember Israel… The children of Jacob, who multiplied and grew exceedingly strong in the land of Egypt, who were enslaved and oppressed, and whose cries God heard.

But wait — Surely God doesn’t need reminders of the history of God’s people and their long relationship, right? I suspect Moses’s plea is less a reminder for God—and more a reminder for Israel and for us.

In keeping with Rashi’s observation, another commentator claims that the whole conversation between God and Moses is a divine setup. Just as Abraham’s bargaining with God to save Sodom allowed him “to measure and remeasure the height, depth, and width of the divine bias toward mercy,” so too does Moses’s plea remind us of that same mercy. [2]

In other words, we might ask: Did God ever really plan to destroy Israel?

The incident of the golden calf could easily have been told in one sentence: Israel screwed up, but God forgave them anyway. But that doesn’t make for a very compelling or interesting story. Instead, we read a fiery exchange between God and Moses. It calls out the gravity of Israel’s sin, but in the process, it also makes God’s grace and readiness to forgive all the more profound.

It’s a reminder of God’s covenant faithfulness for a people lost in the wilderness and, centuries later, for a people exiled from their homeland. It’s a reminder for anyone who finds themselves separated from God, or when it feels like the divine is nowhere to be found. Perhaps in the midst of national or global tragedies, or on the anniversary of one like today.

IMG_8688.PNGEven so, the end of a divine tirade is an unusual place to find grace. But grace is nothing if not “unexpected and mysterious,” as the hymn begins.

Southern Gothic writer and devout Catholic Flannery O’Connor acutely understood the nature of grace. The characters in her stories are often grotesque, deeply flawed, and unlikable human beings, and her stories typically leave me scratching my head and needing to re-read them to glean whatever could be O’Connor’s point in telling such deeply disturbing tales.

Her point, though, offers keen insights into the nature of grace. “There is a moment of grace in most of the stories,” she says of her work. But elsewhere she qualifies, “This notion that grace is healing omits the fact that before it heals, it cuts.” [3]

That’s why in O’Connor’s stories, profound moments of grace are often embedded in deeply disturbing moments of suffering—the latter moments shock us so that grace moments are made all the more surprising.

So it is with the Israelites. These are a people who have been on the brink of hopelessness over and over again. Under oppression and slavery in Egypt. At the bank of the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army rapidly closing in on them. At the base of Sinai after Moses, their leader, has by all accounts disappeared.

No wonder they demanded that Aaron make them the golden calf. It’s out of their fear that they erected something to remind them of a godlike presence. It wasn’t so much an idol as an image of the God they hoped against hope hadn’t abandoned them.

And so the story of a seemingly vengeful God that opens the door to a reminder of God’s long history of covenant faithfulness, of liberation from bondage, of grace upon grace.

A grace that overflows, even and especially in the messiness of life. A grace that welcomes tax collectors and sinners. A grace that intentionally seeks us out, time and time again. A grace that always precedes and stands at the ready to embrace us.


[1] http://www.sefaria.org/Exodus.32?lang=en&p2=Rashi_on_Exodus.32.12&lang2=en

[2] Marilyn McCord Adams, “Exodus 32:7-14: Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Year C Additional Essays (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 3.

[3] Quoted by Tod Worner, “The Mean Grace of Flannery O’Connor,” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/acatholicthinker/2013/10/the-mean-grace-of-flannery-oconnor/.