Today in the Spirit: Lent 3B

By

As we walk in the lenten season with the Son of God incarnate, the church exposes us to instances in the Gospel narratives in which Jesus comes into conflict with the religious establishment of his day and the spiritual powers of darkness which have perverted the revelation of the law. On Sundays in Years A and B of Lent, we are often in the Gospel of John, particularly the passages which highlight conflict. In Lent 3B, from the assigned Gospel reading of John 2:13-22, we hear what appears to be a cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem early in Jesus’ ministry (as opposed to the Synoptics which recount only a similar later incident). The conflict arises when the Jewish leaders ask Jesus, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” And Jesus answers, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 

The church assigns the Ten Commandments as an OT reading in the lectionary only here and in Pentecost, Proper 4, both in Year B. This week, we have the version in Exodus 20:1-21 given as part of the narrative in Exodus of the people of Israel coming out of Egypt and arriving at Mount Sinai. This reading, followed by the appointed portion of the Psalter from Psalm 19:7-14, with its celebration of the goodness of the law (The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple), sets up a contrast in the minds of the worshiper between the purity of the law in its delivery by God and the perversion of it as seen in the temple scene in the Gospel reading. 

Sponsored

In the assigned NT reading from Romans 7:12-25, we find Paul giving assent to the goodness of the law in itself (So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good) but concluding through the testimony of his own experience how the law cannot deliver human beings from the curse of sin. Rather he finds the law producing death in me through what is good, and so revealing the need for a Redeemer. The assigned Collect will serve to introduce the restlessness of both Paul in Romans and Jesus in John, and in ourselves as Christians caught now in the world: “Heavenly Father, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”   

The Collect

Heavenly Father, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you: Look with compassion upon the heartfelt desires of your servants, and purify our disordered affections, that we may behold your eternal glory in the face of Christ Jesus; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Who Brought You Out of the Land of Egypt (Exodus 20:1-21)

1 And God spoke all these words, saying,
2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
3 “You shall have no other gods before me.

Commentators make much of the fact that the form of the Ten Commandments resembles ancient Near Eastern treaties between imperial overlords and vassal states of the day. Fair enough. What is unique here, of course, is that it is not any human king or commander laying down the terms of his association with Israel, but the LORD your God. YHWH becomes to Israel a combination of cosmic, holy being, like a god would be to a pagan community but more, and a worldly conqueror whose influence over a vanquished people would be all too concrete.

So how does this heavenly Overlord present himself to his people materially in their world? Not as One who has conquered Israel, as One who has delivered them: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” There are a vast array of commands from Jesus Christ and his apostles which come across to us as directives in the NT much the same way as the Ten Commandments in the OT. Devotionally, we must remember that all biblical commands are coming to us from the mouth of the God who is present with us and who has delivered us from our own house of slavery.

See how in 1 Peter, the Apostle couches his directives in the goodness of the Lord. much like YHWH does in giving the commandments: So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good (2:1-3, and cf. 3:18-25). Here, picking up on many of the themes from the Decalogue, Peter will appeal for obedience based on the good character and merciful actions of  the One who gives the commands. 

Today, in the Spirit, noting the pattern of God’s call to obey his commands based on his acts of mercy toward me, I will more gladly submit.   

My Words and My Thoughts (Psalm 19:7-14)

12 Who can discern his errors?
    Declare me innocent from hidden faults.
13 Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins;
    let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless,
    and innocent of great transgression.
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
    be acceptable in your sight,
    O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

Or, May my words and my thoughts be acceptable in your sight (14, NET). The word acceptable (or pleasing NIV) is OT language associated with making the right sacrificial offerings before the LORD (see Leviticus 1:3-4). But “David” at the end of this psalm, in view of the stunning revelation of God he finds in both nature (1-6) and in the law (7-11), prays for approval from YHWH that is both outward and inward, as if to say: “Not just my words, LORD, but my thoughts also, let them be found pure in your sight.”

As we mature in Christ, do we not find this same dissatisfaction with a presentation of our lives before God that shows in outward purity only? When we are immature—or perhaps as soon as the honeymoon in our new relationship with the Lord is over—we begin to measure our spirituality in terms of things like regular church attendance, consistency in morning devotions, and tithing. It is not long, however, before that awful feeling of being found out for what is underneath our jackets rises in our consciences. We realize to our horror as David does in another psalm: O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar (Psalm 139:1-2).

The monk Macarius of Egypt (d. 392 AD), referring to our inner lives as “a path that is not walked on,” writes dramatically: Woe to the path that is not walked on, or along which the voices of men are not heard, for then it becomes the haunt of wild animals. Woe to the soul if the Lord does not walk within it to banish with his voice the spiritual beasts of sin.”

Today, by your Spirit who strengthens me in my inner being so Christ may dwell in [my] heart by faith (Ephesians 3:16-17), I join David in his prayer for my words and my thoughts to be made acceptable before the Father God. 

I Am Unspiritual (Romans 7:12-25)

12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 

Or, We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin (14, NIV, and cf. NET). The translation unspiritual for the Greek adjective sarkinos (lit. “fleshly” or “of the flesh”) makes for a compelling contrast with the Greek word pneumatikos (meaning spiritual). The English words–spiritual and unspiritual–fit together as opposites much like the Greek words do. 

Moreover, devotionally, the term unspiritual here confronts head-on a phenomenon we face often now in discussions with unconverted friends and family members, specifically those who insist they are “spiritual, not religious.” This is the post-modern individual’s way of deflecting the force of claims religions make, especially Christianity, concerning the way to God and the ways of life under God.

So what shall we do with Paul’s saying that prior to his conversion he was unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin? It is a matter of discernment to know just what to say to people we meet at any given moment. For ourselves, we need to be sure that, biblically, to be spiritual means to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who comes to us through faith in Christ, who has conquered sin on the cross. Biblically, anything other than that is unspiritual.

Today, Holy Spirit, we pray for our unconverted loved ones fooled into thinking they live in the Spirit when they do not. Give them the gift of conviction of sin like you gave to Paul, and lead them to faith in Christ. 

I Will Raise It Up (John 2:13-22)

13 The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. 15 And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16 And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

18 So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

In this passage, John the Evangelist tells his readers, so there can be no mistake, that Jesus’ reference to the temple in this passage was to his body (21). We must conclude, therefore, that when Jesus spoke the words, in three days I will raise [this temple] up, he was saying that he would raise his own body. This is highly unusual. I cannot find any other references in the NT to Jesus raising himself from the dead. Regarding the Resurrection, the wording is always either: active future, [the Son of Man] will rise again (Mark 8:31); or passive future as by the agency of another (God the Father), that he will be raised (Matthew 16:21, 1 Corinthians 15:12-15). 

We cannot make too much of this. Much of Jesus’ language in this text is rhetorical for the benefit of his debate with the unbelieving Jewish leaders. Nevertheless, devotionally, to us, as Christ’s followers to be able to add to our understanding that Jesus raised himself from the dead increases our sense of wonder over the incarnation of Jesus. If it can be said that Christ is active as God even in his resurrection, then he is certainly so throughout his incarnate life and ministry. Though certainly, mysteriously, limited by time and space in taking human form, he at no point surrendered his divine agency–his causative position as God–in the world. 

John, of course, introduces Jesus just this way one chapter earlier in the Gospel prologue: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (1:14). Today, in the Spirit, pondering the very idea that Jesus is participating in doing the impossible with his own body, we confess, yes and amen, we have seen his glory and renew our determination to follow him.

Today in the Spirit

Reflections and related content, sent straight to your inbox.

Published on

February 25, 2024

Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

View more from Geoff Little

Comments

Please comment with both clarity and charity!

Subscribe to Comments
Notify of

1 Comment
Oldest
Newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments