As most of you know by now, I’ve been preaching through the Old Testament during this season of the Christian year called “Ordinary Time,” the time between Pentecost and the start of Advent. When I sat down to plan which texts I was going to preach, I began by writing down a list of passages, then cross-checking those with some other lists of things in books and online, and then checking what I’ve already preached on. I smooshed some together to see if I could cram two passages into one day, I made cuts, I added things back – all in all, it was a difficult process. Not backbreaking labor, I’ll admit. It was a challenge – though a fun one.
Anyway, many passages came and went, but there were a few that were on the tip of my pen when I started the initial list that survived every draft and revision. As you might have been able to guess, this passage, from Exodus 20, was one of those passages. It seems awfully hard to preach the Old Testament without preaching on the Ten Commandments, doesn’t it? It’s a central passage, it’s something we all know about, and it’s representative of something more.
Now, the very first assignment in my preaching class in seminary was the Ten Commandments, so I’m no stranger to covering it. In an ideal world, with unlimited Sundays and nothing else I wanted to accomplish, I might’ve actually split it up into discreet chunks, so we could spend a little more time in each commandment, or in groups of just a couple, because there is a challenge in trying to summarize all ten into one cohesive message. That’s particularly difficult on a day like today, when I’m trying to communicate not only the words of Scripture, but also the context of the story of God’s people in which the Ten Commandments happen. It’s really important to understanding God’s relationship with humanity that we know that part.
Thankfully, many of us here have seen The Ten Commandments. I don’t mean a statue of them, or the physical words; I mean the movie, with Charlton Heston. It’s a beautiful dramatization of God’s gift of these commandments. But what I think is often hardest for us to accept is just the very fact that these commandments are supposed to be seen as a gift.
For so many of us as kids, rules are something meant to kill fun, or to stifle our ability to enjoy ourselves. Rules are in place to make things worse, it seems, rather than better. That’s often true as adults, too. Lines are frustrating, so wouldn’t it be easier just to skip them? Speed limits can be an irritant when we’re in a rush, so why not exceed them? Of course, some rules are unjust and merit our disobedience. Most of the time, though, rules are a minor annoyance that we’re willing to live with, sure. Still most of us also don’t go around looking to add rules to life.
But think about it; that’s what the Ten Commandments passage is about. As you’ll remember from the last couple weeks, we’ve been following Moses. Moses was a boy who was very nearly killed by Pharaoh, only to be rescued by Pharaoh’s own daughter, raised in Pharaoh’s own house, who committed murder, who fled Egypt, who came back, who freed his people, and who led them out of their slavery in Egypt. Before we even get to the Ten Commandments, Moses’ journey has been more exciting than most of our lives. And even at this point already, we have about as much information about Moses’ life as we do about any other person in the Bible, including Jesus. When you consider we’re only halfway through the first of four long books of the Bible devoted to the story of Moses, it really puts things in perspective.
Anyway, Moses has been leading the people, who are wandering toward the promised land. It will, in the end, take them 40 years to get there. Now, this has been made fun of in many comic strips and sermons. Even walking, even with a lot to carry, this shouldn’t be more than a year’s journey. So, presumably, every once in a while, the Hebrew people just set up long-term camp.
I like to imagine that this story takes place in one of those times of settlement. The Hebrews are stopped on their journey, and Moses is called up the mountain by God for instruction. Now, let’s think from the perspective of the people. They had, previously, lived under Egypt and its laws. Now, they were free – which sounds great. But with that newfound freedom came, quite literally, lawlessness. There weren’t any laws or rules to govern their behavior. Without laws, and on a looooong road trip, tempers would flare up – it’s inevitable. In spite of the inevitability of those tempers flaring up, the only law they had was common sense – and, as we all know, once people start fighting, common sense stops being common.
So God has called Moses up the mountain to give a gift. Now, keep in mind that no one has done anything for God yet. There isn’t a worship service to thank God, there hasn’t been a hymn written, there hasn’t been anything formal to this point. God has freed the people from slavery, ended the Egyptian chase, saved their children and livestock, even when the Egyptians’ were killed. God has given, and given, and given. And after all that giving… God gives again. Only this time, God doesn’t give a miracle or a political movement – instead, God gives rules. God’s gift, in this instance, is order. Rules bring order out of chaos. Parents create rules for kids, not to punish, but to give structure, to help, to save. And God is always interested in saving us.
So, like a loving parent, God chooses to give these rules: I alone am God, and you should honor me; don’t make up new gods to replace me in your hearts; use my name well; rest to protect yourselves and honor me; honor your father and mother; don’t murder; don’t break faith with your spouse; don’t steal; don’t tell lies; don’t desire what belongs to someone else. There are many other laws that God gives, but these ten are a system. They’re a lot easier to remember than the total 613 of them, and they cover the basics.
These ten are rules for behavior. The Greatest Commandment, to love God and neighbor, is what’s most important; at the same time, though, it’s hardly a system of law for a people in a lawless state; it’s just not enough information for them. And as Moses descends from the mountain 12 chapters later, he finds that lawless state.
Moses has gotten these rules, and comes down to find that the people have been breaking these laws Moses was just given. The people have melted their gold jewelry to make a Golden Calf, an idol they could worship in place of the true and living God who saved them. Now, on the one hand, they were breaking a law against idols, but on the other, they hadn’t heard that law yet. And while I think history proves them wrong, to some extent, you can empathize with them. It certainly seemed like God had abandoned them. God called Moses up the mountain days ago, and nothing had been heard since.
Similarly for us today, we find our faith challenged when God is silent. But even when God is silent, we make a mistake if we seek our meaning in other things. The Hebrews make a mistake here; they aren’t finding God, so they decide to worship something else. Only, God isn’t a set of car keys; you don’t just go grab the spare when you can’t find God. God has gotten us through rough times before, and will again! In fact, so often, like the Hebrews, we give up on God right when God is trying desperately to reach out to us.
Think about the story again. Literally the moment God is giving the people a gift, they are turning their backs on God. How often have we been guilty of the same? We ask where God is, instead of being secure in the knowledge that God is with us, even if we can’t see it. As followers of Jesus, we must remember that God is here with us, even when God far away. Sometimes, the times we feel abandoned are the times God is closest to us, even though we may not realize it at the time.
Part of the reason that happens is that we don’t usually know what we need. We usually think we need one thing, only to find that what we really needed was something else entirely. In this story, the Hebrew people are sure that what they need is someone to worship whom they can see, so that a god can be part of their lives every day. In fact, they need the God whom no one can see, because the true God alone is the one giving them the rules to live by; rules that do make God a part of their lives every day.
For me, this story resonates because we do need rules to govern us, even if we know that Christ forgives sins. That conundrum of how to deal with forgiveness has been debated by Christians for millenia. But I would say this: knowing that we are forgiven also means knowing when we commit sin; only with the Law do we know that. At the same time, the Law gives us something to shoot for. While these Ten Commandments are just ten of the 613 Laws in the first five books of the Old Testament, in many ways, they stand for all the rest by being the foundation of so many others.
We need to know when we do wrong. We need to shoot for something to keep. Even if we keep all ten of these, there are ways we let God down, with our thoughts, with our actions, with our treatment of others. The point is not to be perfect; the point is that God wants us to have a target, and we should be shooting for that, correcting each other when we mess up, and thanking God for not giving up on us, even when we can’t be as faithful.
So this day, let us remember that God is here for us; sometimes by giving us rules that are hard (or even impossible) to follow; that even when we don’t like those rules, they are here to help us. Let us remember that God is ever there for us; sometimes it seems God is silent, yet when things settle down, God is always right there to help us again. Brothers and sisters, God is here for us. We are God’s, and God loves us. Amen.