Monday, February 26, 2018

Preacher's Study - Lent 3B

The Preacher’s Study

Third Sunday of Lent, Year B

John W.B. Hill

Exodus 20:1-17;
Psalm 19;
1 Corinthians 1:18-25;
John 2:13-22.

The unfolding revelation of God’s covenant partnership with humanity develops from simple beginnings as a covenant with all flesh (Genesis 9 – first Sunday of Lent), into a more personal covenant with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants (Genesis 17 – second Sunday of Lent), and now into a nation-defining covenant revealed through Moses (Exodus 20).  This new dimension finally raises the question, What will it look like for us to dwell within a covenant partnership with God? 

One of the most illuminating ways to hear these ‘ten words’ is to hear the first and last commandments as ‘bookends’ to the other eight — one positive, the other negative, but otherwise saying one thing: “Choose this day whom you will serve!” (Joshua 24: 15)  Will we live for God, desiring above all to fulfil God’s will for the world (#1)? Or will we live for our own self-advancement, always driven by our envy of those who have what we desire, or by our resentment of those who are obstacles to our desire (#10)?

In this light, it will be important to hear today’s gospel for its radical critique of the Temple.  It is generally thought that in Jesus’ day the business oversight of the Temple establishment was good, and Jesus was unlikely to be concerned about specific abuses within its financial practices.  What he attacked was nothing less than the very phenomenon of the Temple and its sacrificial system, much as Jeremiah had done (see Jeremiah 7: 1-14, scripture that Jesus actually quoted, according to the synoptic accounts of this episode).  In effect, God’s covenant people have made the Jerusalem Temple into an idol — a very dangerous thing to do, according to the second commandment!  As Cynthia Ozick, a contemporary Jewish author, has observed, “There are no innocent idols.  Every idol suppresses human pity.  That is what it is made for.”[1]

This may be the sharpest challenge to anyone who aspires to be a disciple of Jesus.  A Temple, a Church, or indeed any religious institution can become an end in itself, and therefore a method of ‘pinning down’ the Ineffable Mystery, replacing the Holy One with a manageable idol.  Jesus came to fulfill the law, not to sanctify its abuses.

In the lectionary for Year B, Mark’s version of the gospel and John’s version are interwoven to illumine one another, and today’s episode is especially intriguing in that respect.  Why has John moved this episode from the last week of Jesus’ life (according to Mark’s version) to the beginning of his ministry?  In Mark, this is the ‘last straw’ which triggers the arrest of Jesus (Mark 11: 18); in John, his arrest is triggered by the raising of Lazarus (John 11: 46-53), and so the Outrage in the Temple (it is no mere ‘cleansing’) is presented as the defining episode of Jesus’ mission from the beginning.

John takes this liberty because his entire portrait of Jesus is drawn expressly from the perspective of the Paschal Mystery.  He therefore combines into one both Jesus’ action in the Temple (which, in Mark, comes before his arrest) and Jesus’ saying, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up” (which, in Mark, comes after his arrest); he then observes, “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered...and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”  It is by finding in Jesus’ words and actions the fulfilment of scripture that we will recognize what he was really up to.

So Jesus did not come to prop up our religious institutions, but to build the temple of his body.  And the sign he gave to those who asked for one was the impending destruction of his body — which would then be raised from the dead as the company of his disciples.  That is how God’s law will come to its fulfilment in us; that is an acceptable form of temple, a ‘holy place’ where God’s presence can be known.

That doesn’t sound like much of a plan for temple-building, however; as Paul observes in today’s second reading, it sounds like foolishness!  But “in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom;” so “God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe...we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

Last Sunday Jesus told us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  That is really all we can recommend to those who are seeking meaning for their life!  But it is enough.  All around us, the majestic temples we have built are crumbling; this fragile temple of Christ’s body is the one that will endure.

John W. B. Hill is an Anglican presbyter living in Toronto, Canada. He is a Council member of APLM, chair of Liturgy Canada, and author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice.

“Cleaning the Temple,” by Alexander Smirnov.

“Bible lithograph, Moses with the Ten Commandments,” by Reuven Rubin (1972), available for purchase at

[1]Notes Toward a Meditation on “Forgiveness”, in Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower, page 205.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Preacher's Study - Lent 2B

The Preacher’s Study

Second Sunday of Lent, Year B

John W.B. Hill

Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16;
Psalm 22: 23-31 (BCP/BAS 22: 22-30);
Romans 4: 13-25;
Mark 8: 31-38 or Mark 9: 2-9.

In the first reading last Sunday we heard about the covenant God made with every living creature; this Sunday we hear about the covenant God made with Abram and Sarai. 

According to Elie Wiesel, ‘God made man because he loves stories.’  On the strength of these readings from Genesis, we might add that God made human beings because God loves being in committed covenant partnerships.  The covenant partnership with Abram and Sarai is one through which “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord” (Psalm 22:27).

And now the Lord extends this covenant partnership to all who accept baptism, and for the same purpose: that we who “share the faith of Abraham...the father of us all” (Romans 4:16) may share the awesome life-work of revealing to the world its true destiny. 

When Abram is told of this awesome burden of meaning that his life will now bear, he falls on his face before God.  It is too much.  But God changes the names of Abram and Sarai, for God knows them better than they know themselves; God knows why he created them!  In the ancient Church (and even sometimes today) the gift of baptism included the gift of a new name, for God knows who and what we are better than we know ourselves.

Likewise, the name ‘Jesus’ (‘Yeshua’), given to him when he was circumcised as an inheritor of the promise to Abraham and Sarah, means ‘Yahweh saves’.  But exactly how will this ‘Yeshua’ be the agent of God’s salvation? 

Much like our own day, first century Judea (and therefore Galilee, too) was divided between the rich and the poor, and in great danger of descending into violence and destruction.  The prophet from Nazareth mounted the stage in this agonised moment of Israel’s history, announcing that the kingdom of God was at hand, and performing wonderful signs of God’s merciful presence, but he was met with the desperate hopelessness of the poor and the callous resistance of the tradition of the elders.                                                 

This Sunday’s gospel text (whichever one is chosen — the end of chapter 8, or the beginning of chapter 9) is a revealing glimpse into the turmoil in which Jesus found himself, facing the seeming futility of his mission. 

In chapter 7, he had simply walked away from his Galilean endeavours and left the country; by the time he returned, he had apparently faced up to the terrible reality that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected...and be killed, and after three days rise again” (the first option for the gospel reading).  This seems to have been the great turning point in his eager response to God’s call, for it was immediately after this that he experienced the most profound affirmation, being “transfigured before [his disciples]...his clothes dazzling white...”, and knowing the companionship and support of Moses and Elijah (the second option for the gospel reading).

What then is the meaning of this claim that he ‘must undergo great suffering...’?  What is this necessity?  However we interpret it, we must not resort to theories of divine complicity; we must find our answers within the story itself.  The only complicity on God’s part was sharing his Beloved with us even though the risks were so immense.

Jesus’ mission thus far has met more obstruction than anything else; now he accepts that the resistance and violence he faces can only be overcome by enduring and absorbing the violence as an innocent victim — by a self-sacrifice that exposes the violence in all its futility and awaits God’s transcending creativity. 

That was something Abraham had learned, in some small way: “when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb,” he believed in the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4: 19, 17).  Abraham could never have imagined how this kind of faith would one day triumph over all the powers of darkness, but it was enough that he trusted God, for it is the same God who triumphed supremely through the humble obedience of Jesus.

But this final and ultimate victory must be won again and again, through the same humble obedience of his disciples.  His once-for-all-time triumph over evil does not magically transport us into a parallel universe of peace and security.  For the world is still blind to what God has done in Christ, blinded by Satan who still tempts us to hope that there is a better way, just as Peter tempted Jesus.  Only the continuing faithful witness of Jesus’ disciples can break the spell. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

An African-American spiritual perfectly captures the spirit of this faithful discipleship:

I tol’ Jesus it would be all right
if he change my name, change my name

Jesus tol’ me I would have to live humble
if he change my name, change my name

Jesus tol’ me that the world would be ‘gainst me
if he change my name, change my name

But I tol’ Jesus it would be all right
if he change my name, change my name

John W. B. Hill is an Anglican presbyter living in Toronto, Canada. He is a Council member of APLM, chair of Liturgy Canada, and author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice.

“Clothed in Light, Abraham and Sarah,” by Sax Berlin, available at

"Transfiguration," by Lewis Bowman, available at