Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on The Third Sunday in Lent, 2018.
We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. No matter how much we try to control of the world around us—the things and the people in our orbit—none of it will bring salvation. No matter how much we try to control the world inside us—the emotions, thoughts, and desires in our heart—none of that controlling will bring salvation. Our Collect pours ice-water over any kind of pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps mentality. It rejects entirely any idea that we can earn grace. We are entirely dependent upon God for everything.
Our total dependence upon God is a baptismal theme, indeed a core principle of leading a baptismal life. That doctrine has been illuminated in our imagination through our meditations on the Flood of Noah and the Binding of Isaac. Noah and his family depended completely on God for everything during that trial—that the size of the ark would be large enough, that its design would hold up against the torrent of waters, that there would be a world to inhabit after the waters receded, indeed that there would be any existence whatsoever. Isaac and Abraham his father depended completely on God as well—that He would provide a lamb for sacrifice, to be sure, but also for their strength and resilience, their perseverance.
In both stories, trust figures prominently. Without trust in God, neither of those stories ever happens, and if at any point during those trials, trust falters, everything goes to waste—order would collapse on the ark and chaos would ensue; Isaac and Abraham give into temptation, and run away from God’s will, and salvation history is completely different as a result. Trust, then—trust in God—is a perfect Lenten meditation. Do we trust God? Do I trust God? Do I trust that He has me—has us—in His hands? Do we trust that He holds the Parish of Tazewell County within His Providence?
The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers at their business. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade.”
How we order our lives is a reflection of the degree to which we trust God and His Church. What we truly believe we demonstrate in our deeds and words—what we truly believe we live out. Jesus has come into the Temple and has finds it profaned. And so what does He do when He finds the Temple in this condition? He denounces it. There is an ancient and honored tradition of prophets denouncing the profanation of the Temple. He is not denouncing it because it is fundamentally bad or needs to be destroyed. No religious Jew would ever dream of wishing destruction upon the Temple. And for the same reason, He is not denouncing it because He wants to somehow replace it with something entirely new.
Jesus is a devout Jewish man. And He is a purist. He demands that the Temple be what God made it originally to be: a house of prayer, and prayer alone. Worship had gotten mucked up with other activities, and the focus was lost. The theological term for this is idolatry. Idolatry is giving the most importance to something else beside God and our relationship with Him. Jesus in His denunciation alludes to the prophet Jeremiah and the seventh chapter of his book. For Jeremiah and for Jesus, the matter is quite blunt: any violation of the Ten Commandments is an act of idolatry, and so any act of idolatry turns God’s house into a den of robbers, and house of trade.
Now, creating idols is what the flesh does. This is what Saint Paul teaches in his Epistle to the Romans. We need to remind ourselves that “flesh” is a symbol or image that is complex in its biblical meaning. Flesh, when spoken of negatively as Saint Paul does today, refers to the attitude we take in thinking that we can accomplish happiness or holy living by ourselves. Flesh refers to that which is unaware of God’s power and complete control of all things. The flesh believes it is in control, not God. The flesh is ravenous for anything that will perpetuate this delusion. For Paul, the flesh and the Spirit are mortal enemies: they fight within us.
Yet at Baptism, the flesh is given a term limit. Its power is buried into the death of Christ, that we can be reborn into the Holy Spirit and walk in newness of life—walk in a new creation as Noah and his family found when the left the ark and found a world that in all ways was full of grace. All things were bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small. All things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all. This is tremendous theology, a profound confession of the doctrine of creation. And it is a genuinely baptismal insight that emerges when one willingly offers himself or herself to God as a living sacrifice, like Isaac, like Noah. And the engine of that sacrifice is truly accepting that we have no control inwardly or outwardly. The engine is making total dependence upon God our primary prayer.