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The Freedom of Obedience

March 1, 2021

“Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1: 22-24).

In Jesus’ day, visitors to Jerusalem for the three pilgrim festivals (Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles) were required to pay a temple tax and to purchase an animal sacrifice.[1]  The currency with which these purchases were made could not bear an image of an earthly ruler, so the pilgrims had to use shekels, the Jewish currency.  Because they needed Roman currency for purchases outside of the temple, the pilgrims generally did not have shekels upon arrival at the temple.  The currency exchanges and merchants selling sacrificial animals were located on the temple grounds.  So far, so good.  

But because the temple leaders had a monopoly on the exchange rate and the cost of the animals, the money changers charged the pilgrims exorbitant fees to change the Roman money to shekels, and the merchants charged outrageous prices for the animals.  The practice of overcharging the pilgrims is what Jesus was protesting: “[I]n the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money.  So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables” (John 2: 14-15).[2]  

The money changers and merchants were engaged in unfair practices, which in effect, amounted to stealing from the pilgrims, a violation of the 7th commandment.  That was what Jesus was protesting.  He was protecting the common folk from the unfair practices of the powerful, in much the same way that consumer groups do today.

God gave the commandments to Moses for the same reason—to protect the people. Obeying God’s laws is liberating and opens the curtains to allow God’s light and radiance to shine into our lives.  David emphasizes the importance of the law, using several terms to describe it and extolling its virtues: “The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.  The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.  The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous.  They are more precious than gold . . . “ (Psalm 19:7-10).  David describes God’s commandments as perfect, trustworthy, wise, right, radiant, pure, eternal. God’s commandments give joy to the heart and light to the eyes. They are more precious than gold. 

God’s laws outrank the knowledge of men.  Paul warns that anyone who thinks highly of his or her intelligence has another thing coming: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’  Where is the wise person?  Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of the age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? . . . For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1: 18-20, 25). 

Rely on the strength and the power of God and the value of obedience to his laws when you travel through the darkest valleys of your life. 

 In 1941, eighteen months after the Nazi occupation of Norway, Lutheran Bishop Eivind Josef Berggrav, who become known for his unyielding resistance to the Nazi regime, preached a sermon in which he encouraged his flock to follow Jesus’ example who “learned obedience by the things which He suffered”: 

 “Obedience alone can free us. For obedience is not submission to a state of serfdom.  Obedience is not resignation, not at all a passive condition. Obedience is the inner act of freedom, a decision I take . . . The whole life of Jesus is an encouragement to us to believe trustfully in God. Rely upon His presence even when we cannot see Him. God is God even when the forces of evil are preponderant, whether in physical pain, in spiritual distress, or in the darkness of despair and desertion. By this faith in God, the soul can keep healthy despite all, and can retain its independence under all circumstances. In this faith, liberating obedience is formed.”[3]

Obedience to God’s commandments is liberating.  His commandments are eternal, and they are as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago when God gave them to Moses.  God gave Moses the commandments for several reasons: to ensure the well-being of God’s people, as a foundation for the laws of the nation of Israel, and to remind the people of their own sinfulness. 

 The law does not save us, but it is a gift from God to protect us.  It is the crucified Christ—God’s ultimate sacrificial gift to us–who saves us.  As you work your way through Lent to the foot of the cross, remember that both are precious gifts from the God who loves you and wants only the best for you. 

Remember that the crucified Christ is with you through the valleys of your lives and will never abandon you.  Call out to the one who has known earthly suffering and who is with you in your suffering and pain.  He will carry you through the valleys and into the arms of your heavenly Father.  You can count on it.

Prayer:  Lord, nourish us with your Word during this Lenten season.  Lead us to an understanding of and appreciation for your law, just as we thank and praise you for sending your Son to save us. Help us in our weakness to obey your commandments and fill our hearts with your loving kindness. We ask that you grant this in the name of the One you sent to save us, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] Animals brought by pilgrims over long distances were often rejected as imperfect, unworthy sacrifices.

[2] The Scripture texts for the Third Sunday in Lent are Exodus 20: 1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1: 18-31; John 2: 13-25.  .

[3] With God in the Darkness, from a sermon, “A Little While,” preached in Kristiansand Cathedral, November 1941, about 18 months after the Nazi occupation of Norway.

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