Covenant Through Relationship
Topic: Biblical Verse: John 2:13–22
The Third Sunday in Lent
March 7, 2021
“Covenant Through Relationship”
One of the big life lessons that we all need to learn is the importance of relationships. This may well be one of the big take-aways from the pandemic over this past year: how to remain in touch with people even when we can’t be physically present with one another. Phone calls, Facetime, Zoom, and good old-fashioned letter writing have helped us to stay connected. We have greatly missed the in-person aspect of relationships in our lives, and we look forward to having this back again. Whether we are extroverts or introverts, we all need that circle of people in our lives who are our go-to network of support and encouragement. This often includes family members, friends, neighbors, fellow believers, and others who are dear to us and there for us in time of need. In today’s Old Testament lesson (Exodus 20:1-17), we hear about God’s chosen people who are in a special, covenant relationship with the Lord God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt, and who now called them to reflect this special covenant status in their relationship with God as well as their relationship with one another. There at Mt. Sinai, God gives to his people what we call the Ten Commandments. In today’s Gospel lesson (John 2:13-22), we hear about how this special covenant relationship had deteriorated into buying and selling in the house of the Lord, so much so that those who were outside that covenant relationship but wanted to come into it and worship God could not. And so Jesus was compelled to cleanse and restore his Father’s house to be what it was intended to be: a house of prayer and worship. Our Lenten preaching series, “People of the Covenant,” continues today as we explore both Old Testament and Gospel lessons appointed for worship today under the theme, “Covenant Through Relationship.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
God already had a covenant relationship with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob of old, but their descendants were now slaves in Egypt. How was God going to make good on what he had promised? In Moses, God raised up a deliverer for his chosen people, and with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm God had delivered them from 400+ years of slavery in Egypt. Only after the tenth and final plague and the death of the firstborn of the Egyptians did Pharaoh finally allow the Hebrews to leave Egypt (Exodus 7-12). The power of Pharaoh was crushed as God miraculously opened the Red Sea for his people to pass through on dry ground, but then God caused those same waters to close back over Pharaoh and his army who had gone in after the Hebrews (Exodus 14). The Exodus is the defining event and God’s mighty act of deliverance in the Old Testament. Only after God had acted in behalf of his people to deliver them did he then spell out how they were to be in relationship with one another. That is the covenant at Mt. Sinai, and it begins with God reminding his people: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Lest they forget, God had to remind his people of all that he had done for them. And how easy it is for us today to forget all that God has done for us! When we feel like God has forgotten his promises, not listening to our cries, slow to provide deliverance, let us remember all that God has already done for us and give thanks to the Lord.
The giving of the covenant at Sinai took place after God had already delivered his people. As Dr. Harry Wendt of Crossways! reminds us, the 10 Commandments about relationship with God and relationship with our neighbor do not affect our relationship with God, but reflect this relationship. However these commandments are numbered, and different denominations number them differently, the point is not about our keeping them to cause God to love us. God already loves us – this is already a present reality! No matter how hard we try, our poor efforts to keep God’s commandments could never make God accept and love us. It does not depend on us, but it depends on what God in Christ has already done for us. It is Christ Jesus who has kept all of God’s commandments perfectly for us because we could not. It is Christ Jesus who is that new Moses – our great Deliverer – who has done all of this for us.
Fast forward some 1500 years from Mt. Sinai to the temple in Jerusalem. It is here, at the very heart of God’s covenant people, that Jesus does some spring housecleaning. John places the cleansing of the temple at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, rather than toward the end of his ministry as Matthew (21:12-17), Mark (11:15-19), and Luke (19:45-48) record it. The worship space of God’s covenant people allowed for non-Jewish worshipers, Gentiles, to participate. There was a designated space for them that was not in the temple proper. The problem was that this space had been taken over as a marketplace for buying and selling sacrificial animals used in worship: oxen, sheep pigeons (John 2:14-15). Coins used to purchase these things needed to offer sacrifices bore the image of the Roman emperor, which was considered idolatry, and so had to be exchanged for the temple shekel. All of this pushed actual worship away from the very place where it was intended to take place, and this incensed Jesus. All of this provoked in him a holy and righteous anger as he lashed out at those engaged in all of this: “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade” (John 2:16). Action accompanied Jesus’ words as he made a whip of cords, likely from the very cords that would have been used to tie the animals for sacrifice, and drove them out of the temple. We often picture Jesus as humble, meek, and mild, but not here! Here, Jesus is infuriated by what God’s covenant people had done to God’s own house. What about us today? Paul the apostle tells us that we are God’s own temple, and that God’s Spirit dwells in us (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). What would Jesus want to drive out from our hearts today in order to reclaim us? What would he want to cleanse from the temple of our hearts? What would he cast out from our lives in order to restore us to be the dwelling place of God’s own Spirit? We can only pray with the psalmist: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit with me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me” (Psalm 51:10-11).
All of the sacrifices that took place on the altar of the temple at Jerusalem pointed toward the once-for-all sacrifice of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). The only Passion prediction that Jesus makes in John’s Gospel is found here: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). Of course, there was confusion over this since Jesus was standing right there in the temple precincts. “But he was speaking of temple of his body” (John 2:21). The ultimate restoration of God’s covenant with his people would come with the crucifixion of the temple of Jesus’ body on the tree of the cross. It is through the blood of the new covenant – the cleansing blood of Jesus – that we have been redeemed and restored to a right relationship with our heavenly Father. This is the message that we proclaim to the world now and until that great and final day, as Paul begins today’s Epistle lesson: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). In that shed blood of Jesus at the cross, there is power for living today as God’s covenant people in relationship with God and with one another.
May those closing words of the Gospel lesson be said of each one of us as God’s covenant people today: “When therefore he [Jesus] 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” (John 2:22). May God make it so for Jesus’ sake. Amen.