03/04/18 – A Covenantal Life


March 4, 2018
3rd Sunday in Lent
Ex.20:1-17, Ps.19; 1 Cor. 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones


Perhaps you have not thought much about why we read scripture texts during Lent, but if you have, the Ten Commandments may seem a bit out of place. But, look at it this way: the whole book of Exodus is a study in how people must live to stay in relationship with God. And, isn’t our relationship with God the whole point of Lent?

For the first two Sundays, our Old Testament readings were about covenant. The first Sunday we read about God’s covenant with Noah. The second week we read about God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah. Today, we read “The Ten Commandments.” Wait, that’s a covenant? It certainly is.

The idea that the Ten Commandments constitute a legal document is a foolish misinterpretation. It belongs in a place of worship, not on a courthouse wall. You may remember a little over ten years ago, the infamous Roy Moore, then the Alabama Chief Justice who had been removed from his office, incited a national furor over the Ten Commandments being displayed in the Alabama Courthouse. Moore commissioned a piece of granite with the Ten Commandments carved into the stone and placed it in the courthouse. When he was removed from office and the stone was removed from the courthouse, he drove the rock around the country on a flat-bed truck to incite support for his agenda.

The Bible tells us that God delivered these commandments, not as a rulebook for passing judgment, but as a description of the relationship between God and the people with whom God had joined in covenant. These are the terms of the divine-human covenant. Far less than a guide for behavior, these commandments are about identity – who God is and who we are as God’s people. The Ten Commandments are about how we relate to God and to “our neighbors.”

When we read about Jesus’ debates with the Jewish religious leaders over the authority of the law, it is important to remember that Jesus was not dismissing the Law but arguing against the misinterpretation and the misuse of the Law as either the proof of judgment or a checklist of behaviors that earn one God’s favor. When Jesus answered the lawyer’s question as to which was the greatest of the Commandments, he reduced the Ten Commandments to a description of the relationship we are meant to have with God and one another. For Jesus, the Greatest Commandment, also called the Love Commandment, defined living a covenantal life in the kingdom of God.

Rather than a restriction on human freedom, the Ten Commandments express the freedom God has given us to enjoy the fullness of life.  We are created; thus, the Commandments presuppose we will serve. By choosing to serve God, alone, as our highest authority, we are freed from serving other gods. The God who has given us freedom protects us from the gods that would enslave us.

The Apostle Paul frames the choice in terms of sin and death. In his letter to the Roman church, Paul writes, “The wages of sin is death.” (Rom 6:23) He is not talking about literal death, but rather that Sin is an agent by which its servants are plunged further into debt. What the Ten Commandments refer to as other gods will lead us away from the very source of life.

Paul sees sin as an individual choice. Yet, once we choose it, Sin takes choice away from us. Paul does not view humanity as being naturally sinful — we are not “rotten to the core.” As the Psalmist exhorts, Paul asserts that we “delight in God’s law,” meaning we really do want to do the right thing, but the agents of sin in the world sap our strength and override our desire to align our wills with God’s. Sin even deceives us into appearing to be the wise, rational or logical choice.

The news media headlines give us plenty of examples of sin. We see how the sin of greed takes its victims in its clutches and destroys everything it touches. There is the lie that we should be able to do whatever we want as long, or even if, our actions do not hurt others – as if any action does not affect others with or without our knowledge. We excel at being blind to that which we do not want to see. We see systematic sin that produces racial and ethnic stereotyping and a class system that kills hope before a child is even born. We see the power wealth yields to feed its own appetite and to create an income disparity that eats away at a political empire until its foundation crumbles. We see lust and anger that cloud one’s judgment and lead to destructive behavior… case in point the epidemic of violence in our society. In the opioid crisis, we see how addictions take over the will to live and turns the addict to self-destruction. We see how political ideologies and nationalism become gods that take control over ones that come to desire being served over service to others and to God. We observe how even one’s religious faith can be co-opted into a graven image of a god of our own creation. This is how Christian faith turns into an excuse for judgment and cruelty. Those are examples of Sin’s obvious victims. But there are many others, often that disguise themselves in virtue, that are equally destructive.

The agents of Sin are not just powerful, they are also endlessly creative in their methods of taking over our lives. Depression, self-loathing, holding onto hurt and anger that poisons one’s relationships with others, are examples of allowing sin to take over our lives. Naming and claiming the sin is not to pass judgment on ourselves, and certainly not on others, but to recognize Sin as a hostile power that destroys relationship. The work of Lent is to recognize these powers and to render them powerless over our lives.

By remaining faithful to the covenant, God has offered us the choice of relationship over alienation and peace over conflict. With Jesus, God incarnated the Ten Commandments. In Jesus, the world witnessed a human life lived in covenant as God desires all of us to live. When Jesus prepared the final Passover meal he would share with his disciples he told them: “This cup is the new covenant, sealed in my blood for the forgiveness of sins.” Freed from slavery to sin, we can have the relationship with God and one another that raises us to the fullness of life.

All power, honor and glory to our Triune God.



© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2018, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois