The Third Sunday in Lent
8 March 2015
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
Each lesson read today, in its own way, depicts the confrontation between truth and falsehood; between God’s view of reality as presented by the biblical writers and some distortion of that view—let’s call it an “ideology”—that has come to rule the beliefs and behavior of people. The popular use of the term “ideology” in modern times owes much to Marx who sought to unmask the deception and power at work in the ruling class’s dominant but twisted “story” about reality. The chemistry of ideology is fascinating: what will become a programmatic message is produced when “a number of propositions, which are never untrue, are used as the basis for asserting a number of other propositions, which are untrue.” Take a little truth, add a little untruth and, voilà, you have “a false consciousness or false understanding of reality.” The biblical writers, perhaps, described such things with less nuance than modern philosophers, but they knew when truth, as they understood it, was being taken for a ride. We’ve read from Exodus, the giving of the Law in Ten Commandments; we’ve read from Paul, who describes Christian existence as a struggle with that same Law; and we’ve read from St. John’s Gospel, where we see Jesus in prophetic, theatrical mode making a statement in a very central place in Jerusalem. In each case, a dominant, authoritative ideology, the projection of a false understanding of reality, was at work; and in each case the truth and reality as seen by God stands in opposition.
Now truth claims need to be negotiated carefully; we only ever get a grasp of a part of the whole of “truth,” and competing views of reality are not automatically wrong or false just because we hold to other versions of it. The diversity of theologies developed in the church down through the ages should be proof enough of this. Even so, there are some features of the multiple descriptions of reality that emerge time and time again, each time as a problem, calling for some explanation, or perhaps for an “explaining away.” And one of these is the preference for the visible and denial of the invisible.
That historic event on Mount Sinai was in many ways the moment in which Israel’s definition as the people of the only and sovereign God became complete. In Abraham, the people became a chosen people; at Sinai they received a responsibility in the form of the Law. It begins with a memory, the memory of an event just three months in the past, of God’s miraculous intervention through Moses to bring the people out from Egypt; this was also deliverance from an old identity, defined by slavery in Pharaoh’s house. Slaves had no identity of their own; they were the property of the master of the household; they were to worship the master’s gods; and serve the master so that his household would prosper. But what God announces to Moses is a new identity that supersedes old ones. At the core of this announcement is a competing view of reality, one in which invisibility challenges the ideology of visibility; God’s reality as the one and only Creator and Lord, whom humans cannot look upon, who speaks from heaven and must not be represented in the visualization of idols, as opposed to the false reality of the many visible gods of Egypt or of the nations that would forever surround Israel. And with this reality went a further intended view of reality: an intended new value system of responsibility encoded in this summary of the Law; an intended social reality comprised of two relationships, one of love and obedience to God, spilling over into another of service and sacrifice to other people; this authentic view of reality, all of this, was to be embraced by God’s people. The people responded to the thundering from Mount Sinai with great fear. But the history of Israel from that point on would reflect the constant struggle with the ideology, the myth of visibility; they would quickly turn to gods that can be seen. The Golden Calf incident, perpetrated by Aaron the High Priest (!), the burning desire to characterize God in visible, material and tangible form, which happens so bizarrely, while Moses is still on the mount receiving the Law, is a disturbing omen of what is to come. The book of Judges illustrates the seductive force of ideology, that false idolatrous view of reality. The prophets again and again would expose the falsehood of Jerusalem’s shallow piety, condemning its exploitation of the rural peasants, while it heaps up sacrifices to God in the Temple. The city and its Temple, which began as the city of David and the house of God, became symbolic of Judaism’s disgrace and its hypocrisy, whose leaders delight in the visible, multiplying sacrifices for all to see, but fail to do as God wished, oppressing those they have rendered invisible—widows, orphans—failing to practice justice. As one scholar has suggested, the widows, orphans and immigrants are always the “canaries” within Israel’s regimes.
When John and the church that grew up around him produced the Fourth Gospel, the Temple was no more. And Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple was the premonition of that disaster. John has moved this decisive event far forward in his rendition of the Jesus story. In the first three Gospels, it is the last great piece of the prophetic Messianic theater, and it seals Jesus’ fate. In John, however, the head-to-head duel of the Messiah with established Judaism (which John symbolizes in his term “the Jews”) is the main theme from the opening chapter. And to find this temple cleansing in chapter 2 is not really surprising. Jesus is depicted, through an Old Testament resonance, as being “consumed with zeal for God’s house.” This event, so carefully choreographed, is nothing less than another instance of truth confronting the false ideology of the visible. The OT prophets caricatured the excesses of the corrupt Temple worship—feeble human attempts to manipulate God—by depicting God as sickened by the incessant “bleating of sheep and goats,” the sad, ineffectual attempts of the corrupt religious and political leadership to court God’s favor. In Jesus’ day, the Temple, rebuilt after the return from exile, expanded and corrupted by Herod, was a circus. Its main courts and outer precincts played host to the performances of those who sought to be seen (visibly) as pious, part of God’s special elect. So, it had come to be, in John’s language, an emporium of false piety; a place where wealthy people could come and make visible their purchase of the best animals for sacrifice; where they could be seen to make large offerings; where their supposed faithfulness to the God of the covenant could be operationalized, quantified by the visible acts they made. Jesus stepped into this charade, interrupting custom, overturning tables, disrupting the game of religion. He fashioned a whip out of chords, and most dramatically opposed, refused, rejected the ideology of power linked to the visible. He enacted God’s complete rejection of the religious status quo. When the Jewish leadership asked him “what does this action of yours signify?” he turned from the visible, tangible Temple, built of stones, and its capacity to signify God’s presence with his people to a human death (Messiah’s own) and resurrection. The Jews’ response is fixated on the visible—“it took forty-six years to build this temple, and you would raise it up in three days”—but the apostles later, with the eyes of faith, saw through the visible to the invisible: the invisible truth testified to by an empty tomb, and they understood that Jesus had spoken not about rebuilding a building but rather about his three-day reconstruction out of death into eternal life.
In Lent we allow ourselves to be gray people, neither black nor white, daubed with ashes, which signify our vulnerability and for this period to make it our defining human feature; we limp along with Jesus on his trek to Golgotha, and we anticipate life beyond the unimaginable death of God. In all of this, it is in fact St. Paul’s navigation of our present conundrum—Christian existence imagined as a struggle between the desire to obey God and our predisposition to disobey; or as a looking into a mirror and seeing in our present only a foggy semblance of what will be. Paul sparred with several competing ideologies at once: the Roman ideology of power and conquest; the Judaizing-Christian ideology of “Jewish” preference over non-Jewish believers; but one of the most pernicious was what we would call today the Christian triumphalists, especially in Corinth, who imagined themselves “complete,” who despised weakness and downgraded suffering as having nothing to do with life in the Spirit. In answer to this misperception of Christian reality, Paul dwells on invisibility as a keynote of authentic Christian existence. Listen as I embellish, just slightly, an important Pauline observation from the very next chapter of Romans:
“We ourselves, we Christians, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as daughters and sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is visible is not hope. For who hopes for what is visible? But if we hope for what is invisible, we wait for it with patience.”
Elsewhere he says:
because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, under erasure, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
This is how Paul describes us and locates us in this story of faith. All around us we are tempted with the visible; an ideology which declares, without hesitation and no small amount of arrogance and certainty, that “what you see is what you get.” This visible, this tangible lures us in so many ways to accept less of authentic reality than we ought to accept, to settle for what can only ever be called average; we are urged to swap what is eternal for that which, if Paul’s counter-message is on the right track, is momentary, fleeting, and in the process of being erased. The prevailing ideology says, “if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.” The Gospel says, “what is seen, visible, is transient; the things unseen are eternal.” Which message is right? When the darkness and gloom of Lent lifts, and the ashes are washed away, resurrection, the promise of life out of death constrains us to keep walking forward. And we return to that promise in a big way each year on Easter, and in a systematic and regular way each week. Why? So that together we can look through the visible remembrances of our worship, with its symbols, colors that are portals back into the story of redemption; and we gaze in faith into darkness, the dim mirror, the fog of our incompleteness and uncertainty and the misty puzzle of our waiting. Together we cling to the truth of God that human imagination cannot fully grasp, and human speech cannot fully express. The visible all around us clamors with its false promises of contentment, claiming to be “the here-and-now real”; but the calling of the church is to be Christ, shining what light we can, in this darkness, to trundle on into the invisible in hope, redeeming the here-and-now in view of the invisible promise of what is yet to come. Amen.
© 2015 Philip H. Towner