3rd Sunday in Lent
The Old Testament Readings in Lent provide five stories of God’s dealings with His friends. But…this is a very different sort of friendship. It’s a friendship established by the promise of God, no exemptions. But friendship with God grows by a grace which happens in the midst of suffering, by a power that emerge in the midst of weakness. Friendship with God is a resurrection from the dead.
God’s promise is there in each story in Lent so that there can be no doubt about His friendship. On the 1st Sunday, Abraham, the original friend of God, learns that God will provide as He promised. Last Sunday, Abraham and Sarah get new names as further signs of God’s friendly intentions. Today it’s the Decalogue, the 10 Commandments, another manifestation of the God, who in grace, rescues His people from their slavery. Next week, more rescue, as the Lord redeems His people from those fiery serpents.
But there is another dimension of this friendship with God that also stands out in these weekly stories. No amount of familiarity with the saga of Abraham’s test can dull the fact that Abraham gets his instruction in the First Commandment as his knife is poised over the child of the promise, his innocent son, Isaac.
Similarly, Abraham and Sarah’s new names implying descendants as numerous as the stars, only serve to highlight the fact that they have no children whatsoever! The commandments are given to a people in the grip of such a fear that it drives them to idolatry with the golden calf. And next week, those snakes from which the Lord delivers His people are sent by the Lord Himself in judgment because of His people’s non-stop griping.
What kind of God is this? Like an eagerly interested friend, He insists upon bestowing Himself freely, unconditionally, nothing held back. But then when the suffering begins, apparently He holds back, and He allows those whom He loves to follow, what seems for all the world to be, a self-guided tour of misery.
Lent is about Heaven and Earth coming together. One of the hardest lessons for us to learn about the Old Testament is that when the ancient Jews spoke about heaven they did not mean some place far off up in the sky. They meant God’s sphere of reality. Heaven is where God lives, and fulfills His purposes.
The point is that in the Old Testament, God’s sphere and our sphere intersect. They overlap. They intertwine. And, in the messianic kingdom, they merge. That’s the Jewish root of how we speak about Holy Baptism and the Holy Communion.
Now, if you were to ask a 1st Century Jew where heaven and earth meet, he would have said immediately, “Why, the temple in Jerusalem.” As the Psalmist declares, “God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved!” And if you asked that person, “What if you can’t get to the temple?” He would have answered, “The Law. Keep Torah and it’s like being at the temple”…where heaven and earth meet.
It was at Mount Sinai that God gave Israel the Law and the Tabernacle, which, under King Solomon, became the Temple. At Sinai God said to Moses, “Out of all nations you will be My treasured possession. Although the whole earth is Mine, you will be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” It is the same promise God first spoke to Abraham about 400 years earlier. “You will be My people. I will be your God.”
And in that promise God declared, “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” And He spoke the 10 Words, the Decalogue, which would shape the people He brought out of Egypt. His people. His holy nation.
And Moses would say of this Law, “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us when we pray to Him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you?” Holy God. Holy People. Holy Law.
Ah…but the holy people did not always choose the holy way. The Torah—God’s Law, Testimonies, Statutes, Commandments, Fear, Judgments, all those synonyms in Psalm 19—the Law was the place where heaven and earth met together, God and His people. But the people rent asunder what God had joined together.
So the Tabernacle was also given at Sinai. The Tabernacle was the place where heaven and earth met together. What God’s Law and Promise united and what the people rent asunder was restored at the tabernacle by the sacrifices of blood. The unholy became holy once again. It was the Tent of Meeting, the meeting of heaven and earth, God and His holy nation.
Then…in the fullness of time…the One greater than Moses appeared. The One greater than the Tabernacle, greater than the Temple! The Chosen One. The Holy One.
Jesus is now the place where heaven and earth meet. Jesus is the Decalogue made flesh. Jesus is the Temple made flesh, then destroyed and raised up again in three days. Jesus is the place where the Holy God makes a holy people out of the unholy. Jesus is the place where people who have chosen many things except the one thing, in Him we become God’s chosen people. Law and Promise, Temple and Sacrifice, heaven and earth, it all meets together in Jesus.
So…what does this mean? Martin Luther describes in his blunt way those who confuse Law and Temple and Christ…he calls them swine and dogs. Ah, but he was speaking in his bluntness especially to us who bear the name Lutheran; to us, who can talk mighty big about grace and faith. We are the ones most susceptible to being the Schweinhund!
Luther said the swine are like those in the temple courts, turning the temple into a den of thieves. “Oh it doesn’t matter what you do or how you live your life, just so long as you believe in God!” And faith becomes an excuse to indulge all sorts of swinish behaviors.
The dogs, in Luther’s estimation, are those who react to the swine by snapping and growling with the teeth of the Law. “Oh faith is great,” they snarl, “but you still have to follow the rules.” And those dogs love to pile up the rules, making faith an excuse to bite and devour one another.
The swine figure that Jesus’ cross did away with the Law and the Temple. The dogs figure that Jesus’ cross creates a new Law and a new Temple. But as Luther often said, you don’t correct one mistake by taking up its opposite, or looking for a middle way between the two, the perfect a Schweinhund!
Jesus is the meeting place for the swine and God, for the person who uses faith as an excuse to sin. Because Jesus calls sin sin. He forgives and says, “Go and sin no more.”
Jesus is the meeting place for the dogs and God, for the one who barks and barks and barks about rules. Jesus muzzles those teeth. He takes the bite into His own flesh, becomes the crucified Law, and says, “Peace, be still.”
So we Schweinhünde find here with the Ten Commandments, as in the other stories of Lent, we find both Good Friday and Easter. There is Easter in the Commandments, because the Decalogue describes exactly what the new life looks like—loving God with heart and soul and mind, loving our neighbor as ourselves—the life of the saints of God in Christ, who has made us new.
But at the same time there is Good Friday in the Commandments. They show us our sin and they condemn us. Each of the 10 is like a nail of the cross piercing us with its demands of what our sinful nature ought to do, but does not do very well at all; what our sinful nature ought not to do, but still finds a way.
So we Lutherans, if we are true to our name, we neither do away with the Law of God, nor do we turn it into a Christian slavery. We are neither swine nor dog nor Schweinhund. We always look upon the commandments in Christ. In Christ. As Luther teaches us in the Catechism, “We fear and love God.” For only in Jesus do we see both, fear and love, sin and grace, judgment and pardon, cross and resurrection, they all meet together in Jesus. That’s what the Commandments give us!
And we too are in Christ with all of our tensions and contradictions. And in Christ, like Abraham of old, we too grow in our friendship with God by the grace of Jesus Christ which lifts us from our sin, by the strength of Jesus Christ that comes to us in our weakness. But above all, we grow in our friendship with God because out from our death, crucified with Christ as we are by all the nails of God’s Decalogue…out from our death with Christ there emerges in us the life of Christ. In us! Oh…friendship with God is quite the friendship!