Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 7 March 2021.
• First Reading: Exodus 20: 1-17 (The Ten Commandments)
• Psalm 19
• Epistle: 1 Corinthians 1: 18-25 (The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God)
• Gospel: John 2: 13-22 (The cleansing of the Temple)
It was once the fashion, and it may still be in favour, for theologians to speak of the transcendence and the immanence of God. Long words for saying that being transcendent, God was beyond our reach and certainly our knowledge. The fullness of His nature was utterly beyond any kind of approach that we might make or any understanding that we might bring.
The immanence of God was also a long word for saying that God was intimately close to us – was in our breathing and seeing, our hearing and our senses. He was and is there before we ever come to feel or to trust our own senses.
Neither approach, however, has much to say about Jesus Christ. It is almost as if Jesus spoils the party by being both personal in Himself and personal to us, and yet beyond total comprehension because He is God, made flesh but always in complete communion with God.
The fun to be had in speculating on these concepts is endless and can definitely serve to undermine the simple life of faith and prayer that is given to the faithful believer.
In this sense we therefore have to start again. The Ten Commandments are given to us as the basis for a simple but holy life. ‘Do this and you will live.’ If obeyed they provide the basis for a wholesome personal and community life. The trouble is that in today’s culture, it is possible to justify wholesale abrogation of all of them, and certainly the primacy of the first four commandments concerning the place of God in the community disappeared long ago.
But then our lessons have far more to teach us, and Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth sets about establishing a rational basis for believing in Jesus.
In this he starts with God and not with his own observations, perceptions or feelings. In his reasoning Paul does not put himself front and centre of the process but rather as its servant. Paul starts with God, and staying with God was always going to conclude with God.
His approach is one of personal faith in and commitment to the God of his fathers and the Father of Jesus Christ. This is his starting point and the foundation of all that follows.
God does not have to be proved, but He does have to be trusted. And so the transcendence of God is resolved by the birth in human flesh of His Son, Jesus Christ. We do not need to have complete knowledge of God because He has given to us, in Jesus who is the image of God, what is comprehensible to our eyes and ears, to our minds and understanding.
To dwell on the transcendence of God as an excuse for avoiding the direct and personal teaching of Jesus is to perform a massive exercise in escapism and evasion.
And so what God has said and done in Jesus Christ is there for all to hear and receive.
This was too much for the religious and the intellectuals of the time. The simplicity of Jesus was too direct and the manner of His death were too insulting to the Jews and too absurd to the Greeks to make any impression.
And yet the power of God was there to be seen and known, personally. In raising Jesus from the dead, here was a sign to beat all signs for the Jews and an explanation and a wisdom to surpass all other intellectuals for the Greeks.
The concept was too much – and for many it still is. But it is also extremely personal. Instead of mighty acts of power, such as defeating great armies or building cities or issuing laws, Jesus’ acts of power consisted on changing water into wine at a wedding reception, raising the dead, healing the deaf and dumb, the blind and the cripples, and restoring lepers and the demonically tormented to society.
Each of them a personal story of blessing and renewal. And then these were topped off with the authority to forgive sins.
That indeed was and is a scandal in any society that relies on personal condemnation to maintain social cohesion.
And so John opens his account of Jesus’ ministry with the cleansing of the Temple. Yes, I know that the other gospels place this event at the beginning of Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem, and this is not the time or place to explore that mystery.
But in doing so, Jesus was pointing unapologetically and uncompromisingly towards His own death on the cross. If His first mighty sign was changing the water into wine, and showing the magnificence of God’s provision for His people, then this event, reported straight afterwards, points to Jesus’ personal and intimate commitment to God’s mystery in restoring the human race to Himself.
He would do it in the pain and the stripes inflicted on Jesus, in the nails pinning Him to the cross and the slow asphyxiation that followed.
This was the wisdom of God in action, taking to Himself what we could never offer. It would be followed by the power of God in raising Jesus from the dead.
As we reflect on these things we also worship God, especially as we affirm that the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory are His forever – and far beyond the speculations of those who demand to see signs or to discover wisdom.
For this is a glory far beyond the scope of any amount of art or science.