Sunday, March 4, 2018

Lent 3

Readings: Exodus 20:1-17, 1 Corinthians 2:22-25; John 2:13-25

Paul says in our second reading
that Jews demand signs
and Greeks look for wisdom.
As a first-century Jew,
Paul saw the world divided up
pretty neatly into Jews and Greeks—
those who were heirs of God’s covenant
and those who were not.
Jews, heirs to God’s covenant,
looked for the saving power of God to appear,
restoring Israel to its former strength and prosperity.
Greeks, lovers of wisdom,
looked for knowledge
that could help them lead the good life,
one that would lead to happiness.

We today don’t typically
divide the world up between Jews and Greeks,
but it seems to me that it is still true
that people are looking basically
for two different things from religion:
some—those who demand “signs”—
seek manifestations of divine power,
hoping that they can tap into that divine power,
can use God’s power in their lives
to make those lives better;
others—those who look for “wisdom”—
seek a knowledge of how the world works
and, particularly, how one leads a good life
so as to attain happiness for oneself and others.
To put it slightly differently,
when it comes to religion,
some seek supernatural power
and some seek ethical insight,
some seek magic
and some seek morality.

The seeker of magic might feel drawn
to the setting of our Gospel reading:
the grand Temple built in Jerusalem by Solomon
and rebuilt by king Herod,
the dwelling place of the divine presence,
where God’s favor could be bought painlessly,
for the price of an ox or a sheep or a dove.
Within Israel itself,
this magical approach to religion
was criticized by the prophets,
who decried those who came to offer sacrifice
and neglected justice for the widow,
the orphan,
and the stranger.
Yet the magical mindset is powerful
and the temptation persists to turn God
into a cosmic vending machine
of painless prosperity.

The seeker of morality,
on the other hand,
might feel drawn
to the scene depicted in our first reading:
the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai.
Rather than painless prosperity,
moralists pursue a path of strenuous effort
to transform their world and themselves,
and construct God’s kingdom of justice and peace.
Ignoring the fact that God’s Law
is revealed to Israel amidst signs and wonders,
dark cloud and thunder,
to a people who stand in fear and trembling,
the seeker of moral wisdom
sees God’s agenda clearly laid out,
only awaiting our implementation,
looking to us to tend to the widow,
the orphan,
the stranger.
There is nothing magical,
or even particularly mysterious,
about it.

You can see these two approaches to religion
in the different ways
people approach the disciplines of Lent.
The seeker after magic sees it
as a time to win God’s favor,
through giving things up, or taking things on—
offering small sacrifices in hope of great blessings.
The seeker after morality approaches Lent
as a time for moral improvement
through giving up bad habits
and seeking more strenuously
to make ourselves and our world better.

But Paul seems to suggest
that being a Christian
is about neither magical power
nor moral wisdom
but about Jesus Christ crucified,
a stumbling block of weakness
to those who seek divine power
and a foolish waste
to those who seek clear moral guidance.
The magical mindset is repulsed by the notion
that God offers, not painless prosperity now,
but new life that is found only
on the far side of the agony of the cross.
The moralist scoffs at the foolishly wasted life
of one who could have done so much good in the world
if only he had acted more prudently, more wisely.
People seek either magic or morality,
but Jesus offers us neither.

Or, rather, he offers us both,
but in a form we can only recognize
if we embrace the logic of cross and resurrection:
“Destroy this temple
and in three days I will raise it up.”
As Paul tells us,
the weakness of the cross is the power of God;
the foolishness of the cross is the wisdom of God.
The sacrifice that defies all cost-benefit analysis,
the giving of our lives to a cause
whose outcome we cannot control,
the pouring out of our very selves
into the abyss of divine love,
this is true power and wisdom,
this is the true meaning of Lent
and of the entire Christian life.

People are not wrong when they seek in faith
for supernatural power and ethical wisdom,
for magic and morality.
But the message that we as Christians
are called to bear to the world,
is a message of magical weakness
and moral foolishness,
the message of the Temple
destroyed by human hands
but rebuilt by God,
the message of Jesus Christ
crucified and risen for us
and for our salvation.
Let us seek signs.
Let us seek wisdom.
But let us never seek them anywhere
save in the cross of Jesus,
the sure foundation of our hope.