For the past couple of months we have been following the Exodus story, the central story of Jewish history about the deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt and bringing them through a 40 year journey in the wilderness to the Promised Land. We have remembered the night when the angel of death passed over the homes of the Hebrews and brought death to the homes of the Egyptians, resulting in Pharaoh allowing the people to go. We have remembered the miracle of crossing the sea on dry ground and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army as that sea came back together upon them. Standing on the far side of the sea was a clear moment of transition from slavery in Egypt to freedom and new life lying before them. We have remembered God providing water and manna, bread from heaven, to sustain his people on their journey. We have remembered the complaining of those same people and the frequent yearning for the “good old days” of slavery in Egypt. Now, three months after leaving Egypt, the company arrives at Mount Sinai. When God called Moses to this task, he told him that the sign of his presence would be that after bringing the people out he would worship him on this mountain.
Now, after all the mighty acts God has performed on behalf of the people to bring them out of slavery into a new life of freedom, something very different happens. God renews the covenant with the people, reminding them of all the mighty acts he has done on their behalf. He has Moses tell them, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” The people responded, “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do. So Yahweh presents them with the Ten Commandments.
There are a couple of ways to look at this. One is to say, “Okay, I knew there was going to be a catch somewhere. We are given our freedom, but now we get this list of rules we have to obey. What kind of freedom is that?”
The other way to look at it is much more positive. The Hebrew people had lived as slaves in Egypt for generations. They lived under Pharaoh’s law, and I’m sure it was harsh for slaves. They didn’t have a lot of choices to make.
Freedom brings its own challenges, and one of those challenges is where does my freedom end and yours begin? There were a large number of people traveling with Moses, and all you need is two people to have an argument, to get into a fight, to start blaming each other. Add a lot more people and you have things disappearing from tents, people sleeping in tents they are not supposed to be living in, rumors spreading about someone, and so forth. Any society desperately needs boundaries that are agreed upon to bring order out of chaos. So God is giving the people a great gift by giving them these basic guidelines for the living of their common life. It is for their good that he gives them, not to punish them in any way. And obedience is requested in response to all the wonderful things God has already done for the people.
In today’s Psalm, which we looked at in detail back in the spring, the Psalmist wrote, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.” Psalm 119 is a 176 verse song in praise of the law. It says, “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long. Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”
Through the wilderness Yahweh led the people in a vivid manner through a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. Beyond that Yahweh provides guidance for his people through the law, which provides light for the path and helps us know which way to go and which decisions to make.
The first four commandments have to do with our relationship with Yahweh. You shall not worship any other gods; you shall not make any idols to worship; you shall not make wrongful use of the name of Yahweh; and remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
The last six commandments have to do with our relationships with other human beings. The first of these has to do with our relationship with very specific human beings, our parents. Honor your father and mother. This was undoubtedly directed at adults regarding their continuing relationship with and care for their parents. It was assumed that younger children were under the authority of parents and were to show respect. In those days without pensions and social security and Medicare, older adults were very dependent upon their children for their care in later years. The Ten Commandments state that this is a primary obligation for each and every one of us. It states that as you obey this commandment your days will be long in the land that the Lord is giving you.
The other five commandments regulating human interactions are very general and very straightforward. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not lie. You shall not covet what your neighbor has.
The commandments address areas of the new community’s life in which it is vulnerable. They are general, and judicial consequences for disobedience are not usually spelled out. The motive for obedience is not fear of punishment so much as covenant partnership and respect for God. Not just respect, but thankfulness. These commands only truly have significance and power for people of faith who have a story with God.
When Jesus was asked what the greatest of the commandments was, he went to these two groupings of commandments in the Ten Commandments. He took all the “shall nots” and turned them into positive statements that covered it all. He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind; and the second is, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He said that all other laws derive from those two so if you keep those two foremost in your minds you will be okay.
John Calvin said that the Ten Commandments serve three purposes for Christians. First, in showing us how we are supposed to live before God and with our neighbors, they expose our sinfulness and need of God’s grace. Second, they remind the community that sin is never just individual but also corporate, social and institutional. And thirdly, they play the positive role of lighting the path and show us how to live as people who have been saved by God through Jesus Christ.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, pp. 77-78)
Calvin is right on the money here, and he shows us something of a cycle in the life of faith. When God reminded the people of his gracious and mighty acts for them and asked them to be obedient to his commandments, they said, “All that the Lord has commanded, we will do.” And of course we know how long that promise lasted, because we know how long our own promises last.
We could read the Ten Commandments right before we do the prayers of confession in worship, and we could probably put more meat on the bones of our personal confessions because they remind us how far short we fall. We could read the Ten Commandments after the assurance of pardon to remind us that having been forgiven and experienced God’s grace, this is the way God calls us to go forth and live.
Coming before communion, the Ten Commandments remind us how much we are in need of God’s grace, that on our own we will never be successful in perfect obedience to God’s commands. We need a Savior to do for us what we cannot do on our own. The good news, the Gospel, is that we have one. When it came down to it, God loved the world so much that he sent his Son, not to condemn us but to save us by giving his life on the cross for us while we were still undeserving sinners. He offers us at this table his body broken for us and his blood shed for the forgiveness of sins, the sealing of the new covenant of God’s grace. He is the light of the world. His light shines even in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey October 5, 2014 Central Presbyterian Church