Loving God is a hard act

Sunday 23rd March 2003
Year B, The Third Sunday of Lent
St. George's, Hurstpierpoint
Deuteronomy 5:6-21
John 2:13-17

How do you reply when somebody asks you why you are digging the garden, making a sailing ship out of thousands of glued matchsticks or studying an obscure branch of history or geography? Are you defensive, or do you say that you are doing it because that is what you enjoy, even though it has no measurable material benefit; that you are, in short, doing what you are doing for its own sake, for what it is. Some of us can only indulge - there is an interesting word - in such activity as hobbies. We are forced for most of our lives to do things not for their own sake but for the sake of the money, peace and quiet, compromise; for what the hard heads call necessity, as if self-fulfilment is not necessary, is only an indulgence.

Today's Readings deal with that apparent opposition between things that we are supposed to do for their mundane value and those things we might do for their own sake. First, there are the Ten Commandments from the Book of Exodus, though the text might have been taken equally from Deuteronomy; surely these are full of practical sense about how to keep society stable. Then there is a reading from St. Paul (which isn't part of our Service today) in his First Letter to the Corinthians, which explains, picturesquely, that God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom; it is a discussion about the value of philosophy and the way we decide about the meaning of life. And thirdly, there is the familiar story in St. John's Gospel of Jesus overturning the tables of the traders in The Temple, one of the sharpest encounters between God and Mammon anywhere in The Bible.

The Ten Commandments stand at the very centre of the relationship between God and his chosen people; they are law but they do not depend for their force upon lawyers; and they are the basis for the great summation of Jesus. We tend to be so bound up with the ethics of the last six commandments, with the practical side of things, with the things that keep society from falling to pieces, that we too easily forget that priority is given in the Old Testament texts, and in Jesus' re-formulation, to the requirement that we should love God. It may be more difficult to be ethical if you are an atheist because you lack that support, that underpinning of hope, which our relationship with a loving God provides, but there are plenty of atheists against murder, adultery, theft, perjury and covetousness. What marks out God's faithful people is our exercise of will in choosing to love God, to enter the relationship he offers. And because of this relationship, we have an obligation that goes further than sticking to a set of negative statements - of thou shalt nots - because they have been transformed by Jesus who says that we must love our neighbour as ourself as a daily living component of loving God with a love that has no limits, a love, in other words, that goes beyond the question: "What for?". It's a hard act!

What makes that act possible, tenable and ultimately justified, as St. Paul points out, is The Cross. The message of The Cross is foolishness, he says, to those who live a transient life on earth and then die; but for us who are seeking salvation, it shows the power of God.

In the sequence of our lives, in The Church's Year, we live the story of the life of Jesus in a compressed form, with a sweet beginning in Bethlehem, a bitter disappointment at Calvary and a triumph on the Day of Resurrection; but the meaning of the three, of The Incarnation, The Passion and The Resurrection should be alive in us simultaneously so that as we go through the trials and sorrows of Lent we know what it is for. It is not a gratuitous, self indulgent kind of sorrow, it is not an exercise in the dynamics of self denial, but it is the sorrow of the incomplete; of the incomplete story that we are living through which will take us to Calvary and to The Tomb; but, much more importantly, the incompleteness in ourselves as modern witnesses of The Cross.

It is a tough act to love our neighbour as ourself, and perhaps in Lent we make it just a little tougher by emphasising the hardship of the Christian Life; but all this is made bearable, even the Good Friday to which we look forward with trepidation, by the reality, of the re-affirmation, the re-living, the re-enlivening, of the Resurrection to which Sunday, the day of the Resurrection, turns us back each week, even in Lent.

And it is the Resurrection, not surprisingly, that provides us with our ultimate focus. So when we consider the account in St. John's Gospel of how Jesus entered The Temple and overturned the tables of the traders, does the reality of the Resurrection force us to look past a widely drawn conclusion that this is a powerfully graphical illustration of Jesus' concern for social justice. I have heard the incident cited countless times in political discussions to justify the plundering of the rich for the benefit of the poor as if Jesus were a forerunner of Robin Hood. Jesus had a great deal to say about the poor and about social justice but this isn't one such instance. The central point of what Jesus is saying is that His Father's House must be properly respected.

We have, then, come back to the beginning of our passage in Exodus, to the worship of God as the root from which everything else grows. Interestingly, the part of The Temple which Jesus symbolically cleansed, the courtyard where the trading went on, was the Outer Court, the only part of the Jewish Temple open to Gentiles; and this brings out another layer in today's three Readings. In Exodus there were many outward signs of the power of God descending on what tradition identifies as Mount Sinai; there is thunder and lightning, there are minor earthquakes and even trumpets blowing. In John, after Jesus has overturned the tables of the traders, the Jews ask Him for a sign of authority; and in Corinthians, Paul says how the Jews are always seeking signs but, he adds darkly, the Greeks are always in search of earthly wisdom. But we are, Paul says, to look beyond the Old Covenant of God with His Chosen People to a New Covenant embracing all people, Jews and Gentiles.

What kind of signs are we looking for? Are we really content to live our Christian lives with the same earthly fortune, the same prospects, the same hardships, as our Godless neighbours? Do we not frequently inwardly echo the complaint of the Psalmist that the wicked thrive while the faithful suffer? How often do we compare our modest lot as followers of The Truth with those 'fat cats' who only care about earthly wealth, who only do things for the sake of power, money or self-importance? This is the snare of the story of Jesus in The Temple; we are too easily distracted towards that very envy and covetousness which The Commandments forbid and we are diverted by the ethics of financial and social justice - important though they are - away from their underpinning which is the Love Of God.

We have no need of signs because the consolation of The Love Of God, realised in human form in Jesus Christ, is so overwhelming that human fortune, human wisdom, count for nothing against it. When Jesus was asked for a sign He met the request infinitely by promising His Passion and Resurrection. Against these, against the fulfilment of God's promise before time began and beyond when it will cease, why should we cling to the scruples of earthly fairness? If there is an unfairness at all on this earth it is that we do not all equally recognise, and in recognising enjoy, the Love Of God and the promise of everlasting life. Yet it is not enough to think of that unfairness as if God had tossed dice to decide who should know and love Him and who must soldier on, faithful to an earthly ethic, without supernatural support. It is not enough because we are charged as Christians to share; not just to share an earthly ethic, not just to join together to relieve poverty, not just to seek peace, although these are necessary missionary works, but to share our faith and experience of the Love Of God through His Son and with the strength of The Holy Spirit.

It is a hard act, this love of God. In spite of The Cross and the Resurrection, of the massive assurance we receive from such a transforming promise kept, we are tempted to look for signs, we are tempted to complain about earthly unfairness; and perhaps above all we are tempted to think of the arrangement we have made with God as an insurance policy; if we behave well on this earth we will be guaranteed our place in Heaven. That, in the end, is another form of human wisdom, another piece, as Paul might have put it, of Greek wisdom, the wisdom of the negotiator, the haggler, the fixer.

But after the Resurrection there is no point in bargaining, this is not a supernatural stock exchange. The love we show of our own free will to God must reflect, literally reflect, the selflessness of the love He has shown to us. It is love for its own sake.

In the words of the 17th Century hymn which we will sing in a moment:

My God, I love Thee; not because I hope for Heaven thereby, Nor yet because who love Thee not Are lost eternally ... Not from the hope of gaining aught, Not seeking a reward; But as Thyself has loved me, O ever-loving Lord. So Would I love Thee, Dearest Lord,

And in Thy Praise will sing; Solely because Thou art my God,

And my most loving King.

Kevin Carey