The Third Sunday in Lent (3B)
Exodus 20:1-17 and John 2:13-25
March 8, 2015
Rev'd Duane E. Peters
In 1982 my Greek Drama professor invited me to attend a lecture given by Sir Kenneth Dover at the University of Toronto. My professor, Dr Robert Fowler, now Henry Overton Wills Professor of Greek at Bristol, had just completed his D. Phil. from Oxford, and Dover had been one of his examiners. Dover was considered the finest Greek scholar of his generation, and Fowler figured it would be good for me to hear one of the luminaries of ancient Greek studies. So I went with him and listened to the lecture. Afterward he introduced me to Dover, and I was duly impressed. He was learned, eloquent, and well-mannered, everything you would expect of an Oxford man of that age.
Dover seemed to have led a life of almost oppressive decorum. He received a knighthood in 1977. He was past president of the British Academy when I met him, Chancellor of St. Andrews University, and President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford from 1976 to 1986. But it wasn't always smooth sailing. During his tenure as President of Corpus Christi College, Dover was engaged in a protracted dispute with the college librarian and a Fellow in History, Trevor Henry Aston, who suffered from manic depression. His mental illness coupled with bouts of heavy drinking led to inappropriate outbursts at meetings, quarrelling, abusive language, and drunken displays in the quad. In short, his erratic behaviour was an embarrassment to the College and to Dover. What does one do with a librarian and Fellow whose behaviour threatens the reputation of the College? One possibility is to kill him. In his autobiography Sir Kenneth wrote, “It was clear to me now that Trevor and the college must somehow be separated. My problem was one which I feel compelled to define with brutal candour: how to kill him without getting into trouble. I had no qualms about causing the death of a fellow from whose nonexistence the college would benefit, but I balked at the prospect of misleading a coroner's jury...[and]consulting a lawyer to see if [I] would be legally at risk if [I] ignored a suicide call.” Aston was found dead in his rooms on 17 October 1985 after an overdose. Prior to his death Dover had received a call from a mutual friend informing him that Aston sounded like he was contemplating suicide. After consulting his doctor, Dover and the physician decided to do nothing. Although Dover had consulted a lawyer and had put pressure on Aston, he later contended that Aston's suicide resulted from the fact that his wife had filed for divorce. In view of his penchant for honesty, I think we have to give Dover the benefit of the doubt. At this point, the most we can say is that he was contemplating assisting Aston with his suicide. At the very least his statements are chilling, and it is easy to understand why his relationship with many of his colleagues soured after the event.
I mention this because Dover was an atheist. That's why he had no qualms about causing the death of a Fellow. And it is important that we realize the seriousness of the situation we now find ourselves in. Thoughts and ideas have consequences. There are consequences for belief and unbelief, in this world and the next. And this example is not an isolated incident. In his book The End of Faith the popular atheist Sam Harris said, “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.” In other words, the Christian faith is so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing it. Shades of Mao Tse-tung, Josef Stalin, and Pol Pot! Those three atheists together killed more people in the 20th century than had been killed in the previous 19 combined. It is no accident. If you remember, after Adam and Eve fell into sin, one of the first things that happened was Cain killed Abel. Adam and Eve rebelled against God. Their sin resulted in death and murder. Thus, it should not surprise us that atheists have such an easy relationship with death. They live in the kingdom of death, the kingdom of sin, death, and the devil. And we need to remember that this is a serious matter. As St. Paul says, “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” When you hear people espouse this stuff on the radio and TV, it is not just a case of boys will be boys, or people have silly ideas. There is evil at work in the world.
And it is getting worse, or at least, some people are starting to recognize evil for what it is. The philosopher Justin McBrayer said he was surprised to discover the public schools were teaching children that it is not true that it is wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests. As a professor of philosophy he knew that most university-aged students did not believe in moral facts, but he didn't know where that attitude came from until he entered his son's second grade classroom, and discovered that they were taught such things were just opinions. In other words, it is merely an opinion that it is wrong to kill people for fun. But this is nothing new. Allan Bloom had already pointed this out in 1987.
You may also be surprised to learn that the Education Act of Ontario, Chapter E.2, Part X, 264 (1)(c) says the duty of a teacher in Ontario is “to inculcate by precept and example respect for religion and the principles of Judaeo-Christian morality and the highest regard for truth, justice, loyalty, love of country, humanity, benevolence, sobriety, industry, frugality, purity, temperance, and all other virtues.” I hardly think the province's new sex education curriculum seeks to “inculcate respect for the principles of Judaeo-Christian morality and the highest regard for purity and all other virtues.” How is the poor teacher who is required to teach the curriculum supposed to inculcate by precept respect for Christian morality?
The Judaeo-Christian precepts the Education Act of Ontario speaks of are found in our Old Testament Reading, the Ten Commandments. But if you have no respect for God, then the Ten Commandments become nothing more than someone's opinion, which is exactly what people have told me over the years when I quoted the Word of God to them. But it is not God's opinion; it is God's Law. And if it is God's Law, you ignore it at your peril.
There are only two options in this life. Either you love God and hate evil, or you love evil and hate God. Either you are a Christian, or you are an unbeliever. Luther said when we keep the Ten Commandments, we show that we fear and love God. The Book of Proverbs says “To fear God is to hate evil.” Anyone who does not hate evil is vulnerable to evil. But we live in an age when evil is not only promoted, but praised. And if we do not put on the full armour of God, we will fall before the assaults of evil. We must hold on to Christ, then, and His Word and Sacraments, if we are to be saved.
The Fall into sin wrought havoc in God's creation. Men made in the image of God were now evil. That's why Jesus did not trust the men talking to Him in the Temple and in Jerusalem.
Jesus knows what is in the hearts of men. He told us. In Mark 7:21 Jesus said, “From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.” That's what is going on in the hearts of human beings. In fact, in our day, it is no longer restricted to the heart. It has all come out, and it all defiles. Sin runs rampant. We sin because we are sinners. The fall into sin has left us with sinful and defiled hearts, hearts that would lead us to hell if God had not intervened.
Rebellious man cannot presume to appear before God, much less wrangle with Him (Roehrs). God must take the initiative. God must come to man. Just as God took the initiative and rescued His people from slavery in Egypt, and then spoke to His terrified people on Mount Sinai, so God took the initiative and became a man to rescue us from slavery to sin, death, and the devil. It was all God's doing.
The Son of God became a man and made His body your temple. The Temple was the place where sacrifice was offered to atone for your sin. The body of Jesus, nailed to the cross, is the place where the sin of the world is atoned for, your sin and mine.
Jesus spoke of a new Temple, the Temple of His body. And this is the good news for us. In this Temple, the Temple of His body, Jesus made atonement for all sin. Jesus took what is in man and carried it to the cross. He took the evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness and made satisfaction for them there. He is the victim and the priest, the Temple and the sacrifice. In His own body He made satisfaction for your sins. And the body given into death on the cross for your sins and raised for your forgiveness on Easter Sunday, He gives to you now for your forgiveness in the Holy Supper. His sacrifice brings your forgiveness.
The temple authorities asked Jesus for a sign to justify His actions. Pretty nervy for sinners to demand a sign from God in the midst of their sin. But Jesus, who leaves no believing petition unanswered, refused as always the sign which will satisfy the demand of the unrepentant. He answered them with a riddle which was also a call to repentance. The sneer with which they answered His call to repentance makes it clear that Jesus knew what was in their hearts when He refused their demand for a sign. No sign would be given that evil generation except the sign of Jonah, the sign of the Temple of His body raised on the third day. He came to His own, and His own received Him not. His own people rejected Him. But as many as received Him, who believed in His
name, He gave power to become the children of God.
The Psalmist says, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (51:16). That is the language of repentance. Jesus came to the Temple to call His people to repentance. He showed them their sin and pointed them to His death and resurrection for forgiveness. In His death and resurrection, Jesus said, “I forgive you.” He is present here again today with His forgiveness for you to receive. He is here delivering the fruits of His sacrifice through the preached and sacramental Gospel. He offers His body and blood for your forgiveness. That is His sacrifice for us. It is all here as His gift for you.
Jesus is here with His gifts because He knows what you need for your salvation. You need His forgiveness. Knowing that, He died for you. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Now you know that because Jesus was put to death for your sins and raised for your forgiveness, because Jesus died and rose for you, when death destroys your body, Jesus will raise it up again on the Last Day. Amen.