March 4, 2018

2018 March4

Lent 3 - Year B

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger


We are halfway through Lent, our time for fasting, almsgiving and prayer, our time to mimic Jesus’ time in the desert where He was tempted by Satan, our time to reconnect with God. How many of you think that Lent is a time to focus on our relationship with God?

<show of hands>

For years, I have been saying that the purpose of our fasting, almsgiving and prayer during Lent is to focus on deepening our relationship with God. BUT…

the Ash Wednesday Service –

the entry point into Lent – is NOT

about God!

If the Ash Wednesday Service – which is the literal preface to the Season of Lent – is NOT about God, then who is it about? Well, you may be surprised to know that the Ash Wednesday Service is about us.

The Service is an instruction manual on how to “do” Lent.

  • There is no praise of God.
  • There is no offering to God.
  • There is a whole bunch of telling God how we are flawed people.
  • And the bulk of the service is stating our faults, being instructed by the Presider how to remedy our faults, and the priest or bishop performing absolution, first by telling the people what God wants, and then by stating that God has granted the priest or bishop the authority to act on God’s behalf. In the normal Sunday absolution, the priest directs God to the people.

In general, in the Ash Wednesday Service, God is absent – sort of in the other room. The words of the priest and the people talk about God as if God isn’t there. And furthermore, even the definition of “Lent” on the Episcopal Church website does not say anything about a focus on God. The definition states how Lent was observed by the Early Christians, a little about how to observe Lent today, and some definitions of other Lent-related days.

While I find this a little unsettling, it balances well with this morning’s focus on God. There are moments in the Bible when I think that God is really self-centered, even to the point of being narcissistic. There are many scholarly – and not-so-scholarly articles – written about God the Narcissist. The 10 Commandments even provide insight into God’s ego. God’s own commentary as He instructs the Israelites includes:

“You shall not bow down to them

or worship idols; for I the Lord

your God am a jealous God.”

In today’s readings, it is not just the Old Testament that focuses on God. Jesus in the Gospels turning over the tables is not so much about what the people are doing in the temple. The scene is about Him: “He was speaking of the temple of His body,” about how He Himself will be destroyed and rise again. John’s version of the cleansing of the Temple differs from the telling of it in the other Gospels. It’s much more “me-focused”. First of all, Jesus speaks from His own authority, not quoting scripture like He does in the other accounts of this story. And secondly, Jesus’ body being raised on the 3rd day is an allusion to how Jewish institutions, the Jewish way of relating to God, will be replaced by Jesus. That’s pretty serious stuff.

But I think we need a little focus on God, and the beginning of the 10 Commandments does that in a pretty big way. The first 6 verses, comprising the first 2 Commandments, are spoken by God, referring to the Lord in 1st-person. After that, YHWH is referred to in 3rd-person. The writers and redactors were clearly intending the focus to be on God’s authority, in this opening, and then the remainder to be a form of teaching, or a catechism. So, let’s look at these first few Commandments.

Straight off, YHWH’s introduces Godself: “I am the Lord your God,” and as if the Israelites might have forgotten, He adds, “who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” This is followed up by what I see as a little bit of a threat: “You shall have no other gods but me.” There we have it: This is all about God. This authoritative opening demands the listener’s attention and loyalty.

We may think that monotheism would have been the norm since monotheism opens the Bible in Genesis 1: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” The works of God in Genesis indicate that there is one god, though there are hints of other gods throughout Genesis. The Israelites were surrounded by polytheism, and they themselves would not have thought polytheism to be odd. Actually, the idea of only one God was a bit weird. Having more than one god was sort of natural: One god for each aspect of this complex world. And here is where jealousy comes in. Worshiping God – or gods – was not simply an individual matter: the whole extended family shared in the worship or belief, and therefore shared the sin or worshiping a god other than YHWH, and therefore shared in any punishment that resulted.

The jealousy clause features more prominently in the next bit. The people are not to make or use images in worship. There are matters of interpretation here. Does this mean that these idols are other gods or YHWH? It’s thought that the idols refer to images of YHWH in particular, because the previous verse – you shall have no other gods but me – has already dismissed other gods. However, there is the use of the singular and the plural when referring to God. But let’s look at this from the perspective of a prohibition from making images of YHWH.

Prohibiting or allowing images of God is not a done deal. Back in Old Testament times, to worship YHWH with an idol or image was inconceivable. It meant that you were worshiping another god. Remember that God’s messages came in the form of other objects: a bush, a voice from the clouds, etc. So, even if you claim to be worshiping YHWH with idols, you are not genuinely worshiping YHWH.

In the Middle Ages, the Iconoclast Controversy was one element of the separation of the Church in the East (now the Orthodox Church) and the Church in the West (the Church in Rome). Using mostly New Testament texts, rather than this one, the West rejected the use of icons in worship. The Eastern Church utilizes icons still today. During the Reformation, religious art, windows and statuary were demolished by the Protestants, because it was idolatrous to have images of God. The depiction of Jesus in film and on television was a source of controversy throughout most of the 20C. And today, Muslims, whose Allah is the YHWH of Judaism and God the Father of Christianity, forbid images of God. Conservatives Jews forbid the mention of God, even in written form.

During Lent, we cover up the images of Jesus and the Cross. Perhaps that emphasizes this disconnect that we find in our introduction to Lent via the Ash Wednesday Service and our need for nurturing our relationship with God through Christ.

Then we get to the 4th Commandment and discover that it, too, is about God, and not about the people, necessarily. “The seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God;” The sabbath is a dedication to YHWH by abstaining from work, not for the need for people to rest. That which we do on the other days is for our benefit, or human purposes. And the sabbath is to be observed by every individual in the community without exception – Israelite or foreigner.

Interestingly, the Jewish observance of the sabbath led to the creation of the 40hr work week with a two-day weekend. There were notions of it in Roman times. Jews were the only people who had a mandated day off, and provisions were made for them. In the United States in 1908, the first five-day workweek was instituted by a New England cotton mill so that Jewish workers would not have to work on the Sabbath. The unions at the Ford Factory followed suit in 1929, and the Department of Labor standardized the weekend and 40hr workweek in 1940. So, if anyone tells you that the 10 Commandments are irrelevant, suggest that they give up their weekends.

So, today’s readings are all about

God, when only 18 days ago, our

introduction to the Season of

Lent focused on us as flawed


The 10 Commandments define the simplest expression of the relationship between Israel and YHWH. But YHWH must be put first. The arrangement of this covenant makes clear that humanity is not the focus, but God is. One might suggest that we are God’s play-things by virtue of Creation, and that God is fickle. While that might be true on some level, I will save that for another sermon. It could also be surmised that God is overly-demanding of humanity and insists on everything being about Him – God with narcissistic personality disorder.

When we relate it back to the Ash Wednesday Service, there is something very profound in the contrast between the God-focused Commandments and the human-focused Lent. I asked a learned literary scholar to review the Ash Wednesday Service and tell me who is the focus of it. Even though I asked her to ignore the sermon, its presence, and the presence of the scripture readings, influenced her review. That resulted in the profound relationship between God and humanity being drawn out. Dr Alison Preston wrote of the Ash Wednesday Service:

“This sense of being on the outside and being invited in continued…with the Invitation to a Holy Lent, as it says it was originally a time of devotion for those who wanted to join the church or to be reconciled after falling away. To me, this invitation and inclusion continues with the Litany of Penitence.”

Relating today’s readings with the Ash Wednesday Service, we discover inclusion and reconciliation. The 10 Commandments are not just all about God, and the Ash Wednesday Service is not just all about humanity. They are both about God’s relationship with humanity. Through both, God cares for humanity and wants to be in relationship with us. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians makes it clear that we are of utmost concern to God:

“For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.”

That wisdom of God came to us as Jesus Christ because we didn’t fully connect with a remote God. Through Jesus Christ, we now understand the deep love and care that God had for us, because God walked among us, gave His body to be destroyed and raised it up so that sin and death are conquered, and the eternal life that is promised to us is an everlasting relationship with God, who includes even those who have no voice, and with whom there is always an open door for reconciliation.

YHWH, the God of Israel, established an everlasting relationship with humanity at the very moment of Creation.

What is remarkable is that God

still wants to be in such a close

relationship with humanity

despite our need to observe a

Holy Lent.

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