Homily delivered by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson
at the Church of the Intercession, NYC

Sunday, March 4, 2018
Texts:  Exodus 20:1-17, John 2:13-22

Today’s Collect neatly sums up our human condition:

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul.

This is a polite, formal, somewhat churchy way of saying something very simple: Help!!! We’re lousy at taking care of ourselves, God! Help! We don’t have any power even to stay in our right minds and keep our bodies running. Help! Our bodies, our minds, even our very souls are in constant danger of attack. Help!

In some ways, all of salvation history is the story of God’s ways of answering this very ancient cry for help. The Bible is our record of the many ways that God has tried to help us, and the many ways we have rejected God’s attempts to help us. So you might think that our readings today would directly address this cry for help. They do, but it can be hard to see exactly how. Today I want to look at the reading from Exodus and our gospel from John – but I want to look at them through the prism of another reading, one that isn’t included in our scriptures for today: the story of the Golden Calf, which bridges the two and which provides a key to understanding them both.

The reading from Exodus is very well known – it’s the Ten Commandments. Remember that Moses climbs up and down Mt. Sinai several times to receive all the law directly from God. The centerpiece of this law is of course the Ten Commandments, the ones on which all 613 other commandments are based. These days there are many Christians who say that we have somehow grown past the law – just turn on the television and watch some televangelists. This is nonsense – the idea that the grace of God somehow has transformed our human nature into something better than it was in Moses’ day is delusional. We human beings need laws, we need to be told what’s right and what’s wrong and what’s more, there need to be consequences if you break laws, or they will be completely ineffective.

It is human nature to try to take advantage of our fellows, it is human nature to be jealous of the position and possessions of others, it is human nature to set up gods of our own making, to wallow in pride, to disrespect anyone including our parents if we feel they are limiting us, and so on. All we need to do is look at our own society and see what happens if we don’t have enough constraints on the behavior of both individuals and corporations (like some energy companies or banks) and it is abundantly obvious that we humans need to be compelled to behave in ways that don’t harm others. The Ten Commandments are God’s way of providing us this very necessary help. So God gives them to Moses to bring down to the nation of Israel.

But what was happening at the bottom of the mountain while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments on the top of the mountain was something awful – the episode that we call the Golden Calf. The new nation of Israel was breaking all of the Ten Commandments as they were being given to Moses in an epic orgy at the base of Sinai.

How bad was the sinning that was happening? This wasn’t just some minor debauchery; Jewish tradition says that it involved at least one murder (of someone who tried to stop the whole thing), along with the more obvious idolatry and adultery. We need look no further than the example of Aaron, Moses’ brother, the man who was Israel’s first and greatest “kohen gadol” or High Priest. Here’s how the Bible describes the events that lead up to the orgy:

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’

But when Moses descends the mountain and confronts Aaron about what’s happening, here’s what Aaron tells Moses:

Aaron said, ‘Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. They said to me, “Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So I said to them, “Whoever has gold, take it off ”; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!’

This is how pervasive sin is, this is how hard it is for even the best of us, like Aaron, who was a great, great man, to remain faithful to the Ten Commandments – not only did he sin in encouraging Israel to return to the pagan religion of Egypt, but when asked about it he lies like a bandit. I repeat: this was Aaron talking. 

What is clearly needed for such weakness are not only laws, but the means of atonement, the ability to repent and be purified so that those of us who have sinned – which is all of us – can once again be made fit to come into the presence of the Lord. That is what the Temple was for – it had one purpose, atonement. Remember that the Temple was not a synagogue, the two are not at all the same thing, even though Jews today use the two terms interchangeably, historically they had very different functions. Synagogues are where you went to hear and discuss scripture, but the Temple was where you went three times a year to make atonement for sins and come into the presence of the Lord.

This brings us to our gospel reading today, Jesus in the Temple. Now remember that Jesus, too, was all about atonement – from John the Baptist’s message to repent because the kingdom of God had come near, to Jesus’ own exhortation to repent and believe in the Good News, the import of Jesus’ own message is of one piece with the purpose of the Temple: be ready to come into God’s presence. The difference was the new urgency to Jesus’ message, because God – Jesus – had already arrived. 

Therefore the question presented by today’s gospel is: why was Jesus so angry at the Temple? This is a very misunderstood story, and sermons about it often focus on the fact that there was a marketplace at the Temple, which wasn’t the problem – in the ancient world there was always a marketplace within any temple complex, there was nothing at all wrong with that. There was also nothing wrong with having moneychangers in the Temple market, because the Temple only took it’s own currency, no one else’s, and Jews arrived from all over the world carrying money that was no good at the Temple. They needed to purchase means of ritual atonement – sheep, bulls, doves, and so on – and they \needed the right currency to do so. So what was the problem?

The problem was that what had happened to the nation of Israel was the equivalent of The Golden Calf in Moses’ day: that the people had come to mistake the means of restoration, the leadership tasked with leading the nation in the ways of God, for God. In some ways, this was inevitable – any means of atonement that didn’t require a change of heart, only of behavior, was bound to fail. And fail it had. By the time of Jesus’, the High Priesthood was for sale by Rome to the highest bidder, Jews were colluding with Romans to defraud the nation, and for the many, the meaning behind the atonement rituals of the Temple had been reduced to shadow play and empty gesture. When Jesus called the Temple “a den of thieves,” he wasn’t referring to muggers, he was accusing not just the moneychangers but the entire Temple complex; and he was accusing them of robbing peoples’ souls by emphasizing the what you do for atonement instead of why you do it.

As Moses smashed the tablets of the Ten Commandments to shock Israel back to their senses, so Jesus smashed the tables in the Temple to shock the Jews of his day back to theirs. This was a deliberately provocative act – and a premeditated one, this wasn’t a spur of the moment temper tantrum – and Jesus knew that what he was doing would set off the chain of events that could – and eventually did – lead to his death.

Which brings us back to atonement, the purpose of the shock of Jesus’ angry outburst. In this Lenten season, and particularly during Holy Week, we will hear a great deal about Jesus’ death atoning for our sins. We must be careful here, because if we’re not we can accuse God of human sacrifice, of sending his own son to his death, something that was clearly anathema to the God of Israel. But that is not what happened here. Jesus was sent to his death not by God but by us, by every one of us who ever danced around the Golden Calf, by every one of us who ever mistook our own gods for God. 

God gave us his only son because only divinity could stand such a thing, only God could take on so great a weight of human failing, and only God could heal such sinfulness. The atonement that Jesus offers us on the cross does not remove our sinful nature – that will remain until the end of days – rather it makes it not count in the eyes of God. When God sees us after our restoration in atonement, he sees our image reflected back to him, cleansed and undimmed by sin. That is what allows us to come into the presence of God even though we remain sinners.

This Lent, let us not only mourn our sins but be grateful for our salvation. We will always stand between the two poles of egregious sin on the one hand and unimaginable glory on the other. It is because of the gift of Jesus that we can say that the Golden Calf has finally been destroyed, if we accept the gift of salvation given to us by God’s Son Jesus. 

And please remember that the hands of the one who offers us this gift have nail holes in them.