Sunday, October 07, 2018

Direction—a sermon on the Ten commandments

Rev. Teri Peterson
St. John’s
Exodus 19:3-8; 20:1-17 (NIV)
7 October 2018, NL1-5, Forward in Faith 5

Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, ‘This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.’
So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the Lord had commanded him to speak. The people all responded together, ‘We will do everything the Lord has said.’ So Moses brought their answer back to the Lord.

And God spoke all these words:
‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
‘You shall have no other gods before me.
‘You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
‘Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
‘Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
‘You shall not murder.
‘You shall not commit adultery.
‘You shall not steal.
‘You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.
‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.’


This past week was the 62nd anniversary of the premiere of the film The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston as Moses. There was a period when that was all some people knew about the story—they couldn’t name the commandments, exactly, but they had an image of Moses and of God that came from the movie. Today, I suspect the average person has even less to go on, as the movie hasn’t held up very well, not to mention that it takes some fairly significant liberties with the story of God and God’s people, leaving both in a fairly unflattering light.

We have been prone to thinking of the Commandments as a list of rules that have to be followed in order to be good enough for God. Since so many of them are phrased in the negative—thou shalt not—we end up with an image of an angry God who spoils all our fun and has nothing but “no” to say to us. The movie doesn’t help, as it makes God sound like a bitter old man just waiting to be disappointed by people who can never live up to his expectations.

But the story itself, if we read it carefully, has none of that at all. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

God heard the cries of the Israelites when they were enslaved...God saw the injustice there, and rescued them from it. And not just took them out of the situation, but made it impossible for their oppressors to do it to anyone else, either. God has been leading them, day and night, as a pillar of fire and cloud. God feeds them every day with manna and quail, God gave them water to drink even in the middle of the desert, and God spoke face to face with Moses and taught him how to be their leader. For all their faults and confusion and whining, the Israelites have one of the most up-close-and-personal experiences of God that anyone could ever ask for. 

And now, as they stand at the foot of Mount Sinai, God reminds them of their true destination. Notice that it doesn’t say “I brought you out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.” We always think that was the destination—that they were being moved, albeit very slowly—from one place to another. But in fact the destination of the exodus was never about the geographic location. God reminds the people that the destination of their journey out of slavery is “to me.” “I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself,” says God.

This is really the whole of the story we read in the Bible, from “in the beginning” to “amen” and even continuing on to today. God is constantly bringing us toward God. That is always the goal, the end point—not a place, but a relationship. Not a physical space, however much we might love our buildings and our locations. God is interested in literally being with us, wherever we find ourselves on the earth, and so God is continually moving us closer and closer. Out of darkness, into light. Out of isolation, into community. Out of despair, into hope. Out of fear, into faith. From the moment when God created us in the divine image, through the prophets, and most perfectly in Christ—as Paul writes, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself.” Bringing us close, again and again.

This movement God makes doesn’t depend on us, either. Notice that the people were brought out of Egypt, to God, long before God asks anything of them. And before God speaks any commands, the people join in the conversation and commit to a partnership with God, working together to create the new reality that God has shown them. The vision is so compelling—a vision of ongoing relationship, of being treasured by the One who created all things and is over all the earth—that even before the people have seen the map, they sign up for the journey. Because though they do not know what place they are going toward, they know who they are going with, and that is enough for them to go forward in faith.

This doesn’t sound like a story of an angry God shouting his disappointment at people. I’m not really sure why that is always the image we seem to create, when the story really shows us a God who loves us so much that we are constantly being brought closer and closer, even—or maybe especially—when we have behaved in ways that cause God pain. God was even willing to become one of us, to suffer with us, to bring us into a closer relationship that changes how we live.

That is, I think, what the commandments are for. They show us the direction we are meant to go, as we continue to be a community in relationship with God. Because we are a people already called out, our way of life is different. The commandments created a people who were visibly different from those around them, a community that organised its life together in a particular way, a way that was often at odds with the usual economic, political, and cultural systems of the world. Not so they could earn God’s favour, but because they had already experienced it and so they lived differently. 

Remember God’s promise to Abraham? That we would be blessed in order to be a blessing. That’s the direction the commandments point as well. When we follow that map, we also demonstrate to the world a visibly different way of life that offers direction to others who long for this relationship, this covenant community where we work together with God to create a new world. 
A world where we don’t have to be fractured and compartmentalised, with different loyalties for each day of the week and each aspect of our lives—we can organise every sphere of our lives around one loyalty, to our One God. 
A world where we don’t have to exploit, or misuse, or distort reality for our personal gain, or allow our acquisitive desires to direct our behaviour—instead we are free to work for the flourishing of all, to stand up in opposition to those who would try to exploit, distort, and oppress, and to care for those the world sets aside, ensuring labourers and immigrants and the poor and the elderly and the young are treated justly. 
A world where people see and remember to whom we all truly belong.

I think one of the most fascinating things about this story, and something we would usually not notice because of how the regular lectionary divides up scripture, is that the Israelites agree to join this covenant before they know what the terms are really going to be. They have enough of a relationship with God that they are ready to follow God’s will, to walk and live God’s way, before they actually know what that is going to entail. All they know is that the direction of God’s liberation is always “to myself,” and that so far their experience of God has been unending faithfulness. That is enough for them to give their assent, even when the specifics of what God wants them to do next are still unspoken.

That is truly going forward in faith—trusting the relationship we already have with God so we are willing to do whatever it takes to keep going that direction, even when we don’t yet know exactly what God is going to ask of us. I think most of the time we pray for God’s guidance, and we ask for God to reveal the way, and we say we are willing to follow God’s will....but only if we already know what it is. Until we see the map, we’re not going anywhere. But this story suggests that a large part of getting to know God’s will is already being willing to do it even before we have seen it. Because it is only after the people have said “we will do it” that they hear the description of what their community is going to look like going forward.

I wonder if there is still a lesson there for us, as a church, and as the Church of Scotland. I suspect that when we as a Church decide to go forward in faith rather than fear, the way will become clear. I don’t know what way that will be, but I do know it will be designed for God’s glory, it will lead us into ever deeper relationship, and it will demonstrate the kingdom of God, a kingdom of abundance and grace, to a world that desperately needs good news. Not good news linked to a particular location or building, but to a particular God, who is always bringing us to themself.

May it be so. Amen.

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