Worship » Sermons » Upside-Down Law

Upside-Down Law

with Rev. Laura Sherwood

March 3, 2024

The rule of Christ both grounds us and frees us to experience fresh revelations from God, even when the world around us may have been turned upside down.

The Scripture

Psalm 19

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
    no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
    their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
    It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
    like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
    and makes its circuit to the other;
    nothing is deprived of its warmth.

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.

10 They are more precious than gold,
    than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
    than honey from the honeycomb.
11 By them your servant is warned;
    in keeping them there is great reward.
12 But who can discern their own errors?
    Forgive my hidden faults.
13 Keep your servant also from willful sins;
    may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless,
    innocent of great transgression.

14 May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
    be pleasing in your sight,
    Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

John 2:13-22

13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 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. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”[a]

18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”

19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.

Read the Full Text

Some years ago, I was in a meeting of local pastors from various denominations in the community where I served at the time.  Pastor Bob from the Church of God told us about something that had happened to him and a small study group that was meeting at a restaurant.  One of the members was on a restrictive diet and could only find one thing on the menu that he could have – a salad that was topped with pineapple pieces.

As it happened, he was allergic to pineapple and told the waitress that he wanted this salad but without the pineapple.  Her immediate reply was, “sorry, but we aren’t allowed to make substitutions.” This answer surprised him and he quickly pointed out that he wasn’t asking for a substitution, only for the last ingredient to be left off the salad.  The waitress thought for a moment then shook her head and said, “sorry, no substitutions.”

They went back and forth for a while longer while everyone at the table tried to make her understand that this really wasn’t a substitution, just leaving an ingredient out – and that since the dish wasn’t cooked or mixed, it really shouldn’t be a problem. They also explained that leaving the pineapple on for him to pick off himself wouldn’t work, because the juice from the pineapple would get into the rest of the salad and his allergy was so severe that he couldn’t risk it.  The answer always came back the same – “sorry, no substitutions.”

Finish reading

Finally, the pastor decided to step in and asked for the Manager to come over to the table.  He did, and Pastor Bob explained the whole situation to him – that they were just asking for one ingredient to be left off, not replaced with anything else and that there was really nothing else on the menu this poor man could order.  The manger listened intently, thought for a minute and finally said, “Sorry, no substitutions” and he walked away.

I don’t know if the group left or if they stayed and the guy just ate crackers but clearly this was one rule they were not going to get around. Those of us listening could not help but be amazed. We talked about how people can get so rigid about sticking to the rules that the original purpose – which is usually to help or serve people, can get completely lost, when the rule or law itself becomes more important than the reason for which it was written in the first place.

Archaic laws

I always like hearing about states and cities that have old laws on the books from 100 or more years ago that make absolutely no sense for modern life and are so obscure that it’s hard to imagine what the original purpose even was.  I had a friend from Lexington, Kentucky who told me that it is illegal to walk around downtown Lexington with an ice cream cone upside down in your pocket.  I heard about one in Nebraska, where it is actually against the law for bar owners to sell beer unless they are simultaneously brewing a kettle of soup. It’s fun just to think about what caused those laws to be written in the first place!

Laws in general can be tricky – they are made to protect people, their rights and freedoms while keeping them safe.  And yet, it can happen, especially as more time goes by, that the law itself becomes more important than its original purpose with harmful and even tragic results. The same is true for the Church.  Over the 1000’s of years that the Church has been in existence, some of the bloodiest and deadliest battles have been over preserving laws or traditions often at the cost of the people for whom the laws were made in the first place.

The “Real” Objection

The story today from John shows Jesus getting angry with the animal salesmen and money changers in the temple.  He gets so angry in fact that he fashions a whip and drives them all out – animals and people alike.  We may hear this story and right away feel that Jesus’ actions are understandable, that of course this kind of business should not be taking place at a house of worship.  But in fact these were common practices, established to help people follow the laws and requirements of worship.

These practices had become especially necessary for people who traveled from different regions to worship during high holy days.  In this case, it was for the festival of the Passover. This is why Jesus’ own disciples anxiously questioned him about what he was doing; they were shocked and confused by his actions.

At this time and for hundreds of years Temple or Church law required animal sacrifice, so people needed a way to buy live animals.  Church law also forbade the use of state money for offerings because it had images of the emperor. Money changers were essential so that people could offer money with no graven images. Now, there is evidence to suggest that Jesus was angry because the salesmen and money changers were taking advantage and cheating people by charging way too much, and what was worse doing it in the name of religion and to people they knew could ill afford the excess. While that may have been a part of Jesus’ angry action, his main objection was to the practices themselves.

These practices had become so important, that their original purpose – helping people to worship God with their lives – had become secondary.  It had become more important to follow these old laws than it was to worship God with a right spirit; it was more important to sacrifice the right kind and number of animals than it was to worship God by feeding the hungry. It had become more important to offer the right kind of money in the temple than it was to give generously from your whole life – no matter what kind of money you had.

Jesus was not necessarily saying the Church laws themselves were bad, but he was giving the people a big wake-up call – to make them realize that their religious and spiritual life had become more about impressing each other by following traditional law than it was about worshipping God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength.

The rule of Christ grounds us even the world is upside down

As one commentary put it, “Jesus challenges a religious system so embedded in its own rules and practices that it is no longer open to a fresh revelation from God…” (NIB) Jesus reminds them that God’s laws were meant to set them free to worship and to work for justice, not to lock them up in rules and patterns that would lose their meaning as life changed and time moved on.  This is not just Jesus’ message to the Church of the first century, this is Jesus’ message to the Church of today. He is speaking right to the heart of how we worship God – that no matter what traditions and rules we follow, as good as they may be, they can never be more important than the rule of following Christ.

Christ is the first and the last measure of all the laws established to promote and encourage true and sincere worship of the living and eternal God. This message is a challenge not just to those of us in our own churches and denominations, but it is also a challenge for how we are supposed to work across church and denominational lines especially as the world around us changes even to the point of being turned upside down.

Encouragement and Challenge of ongoing changes and new ideas

In the time since Covid, the church  in all places has experienced an acceleration of trends that challenge many things about how we have traditionally gathered for church life – even turned things upside down for us.  A major example is that gathering in person is no longer a given for worship, classes, and even meetings because we now easily gather on-line no matter where we are physically.  This has been disorientating to many of us and yet it gives us an opportunity to pause and consider the core purposes of worship, classes, meetings, and other events of Church life.

An illustration of this just happened on Tuesday for our quarterly meeting of the Presbytery of Chicago.  Since covid times, the Presbytery has been meeting online.  After we were able to meet in person again, we have alternated in-person and on-line meetings.  However, this often means losing attendance of voting members who may not be able to come to an in-person meeting and therefore risk one of the core purposes of Presbytery which is to represent all the member churches in its actions and voting.

Tuesday was the first meeting in this era that allowed on-line attendees to vote through a polling system.  I attended in person, and I have to tell you that it gave me a sense of being connected to a greater body when we took time to hear the results of the online polling for every vote.  I know that there was a lot of extra work to make this happen on Tuesday and I’m sure there were glitches and frustrations. Yet I think we’re going to continue to work with it because it gives us a fresh perspective on how we can be grounded in our core purpose in today’s reality.  I will ask our Session here to consider how we might reflect on similar dynamics for congregational meetings.

The Laws of God were meant to set us free

As we all continue to explore changes and challenges to our lives of faith, the message of today’s scripture is an encouragement to us to examine anything that may be concerning or discomforting and really look at the reason – are we concerned because it isn’t the way it used to be or because it doesn’t align with the core purpose of following Christ? If we can help each other do this kind of reflection we might find ourselves freer to experience God through each other’s lives, and more and more open to a fresh revelation from God, in whose name we worship and pray. Amen.