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Sermon: The Ten Commandments

Sermon preached at Christ Church, MD in La Plata & at Wayside (Newburg), MD
on October 8, 2017
18th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22) Year A, RCL: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,
always acceptable to you, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

I wager to guess that no other document has been so influential to Western culture than the Ten Commandments. In Western civilization, the Decalogue has a position of inescapable significance. For Jews, Roman Catholics, and Protestants, this is the only formulation of religious principles that are held in common. In many Christian churches, knowledge of the Ten Commandments is a requirement for membership. The civil law of many lands has some root in this covenant law of God given to Israel at Sinai.

Scholars suggest that the Israelites were not the first, nor the only, people to have a written law. Other ancient law codes have been discovered for other civilizations such as the Sumerians, the Akkadians, and the Babylonians.

That there was no written law in Egypt could be explained by the status of the Pharaoh. He was considered a god, and therefore his spoken word at any given moment was law. Law, in ancient times, as well as today, served to regulate and control interpersonal relationships, to maintain the stability of community life, and to guarantee justice as justice was perceived. For Israel, the law bound together a heterogeneous group of slaves into a nation, a community that endures to present day. The law became the outward expression of the covenant, so we call it Covenant Law (Capital “C,” Capital “L”). Obedience to the law was Israel’s response to covenant. It was the outward and visible sign of their being a “kingdom of priests” and a “holy nation.”

The way the Ten Commandments are stated is rare, in fact, hardly found outside of Israel in the ancient world. The laws are in the form of absolutes, “You shall” or You shall not.” A more common expression of law was conditional: “If you do this and that, then I will do that or this.”

Eight of the ten commandments are expressed negatively. This is a second characteristic of their form. This has been partly responsible for criticism leveled against the Jewish and Christian faiths – that it is a way of life based on restrictions.

A third characteristic is that they are expressed in the second person singular form. In the old King James Version (KJV), the word is “thou,” preserving the singular form distinctly, which the modern form “you” does not. To be certain, this singular pronoun may be interpreted as speaking to Israel as a community, but what we need to heed is that there is an emphatic reminder, a probing call to everyone in community, to bear the responsibility of the law and to obey it.

A final characteristic is that the commandments concern our relationship with God and our relations with one another. The first four commandments deal primarily with our relationship with God. The remaining six deal with our relationships to each other. Both the vertical and horizontal relationships of life are included here. Implicitly, the law reminds us that neither relations can be ignored, and neither is to receive emphasis to the exclusion of the other.

The question of law and grace is usually raised when we come to consider the Ten Commandments. And, usually, behind our thinking about them is the question: “Are followers of Christ required to keep the Ten Commandments?”

To keep or not to keep the Ten Commandments does not settle the issue of grace. Yes, Christians are to keep these commandments, all of them, and this does not put law above grace. Though we are saved by Grace, and are not dependent upon works, the spirit of the Ten Commandments is binding on us all. Jesus said that He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17)

Well my friends, I am here to tell you that ‘God has a plan for your life.’ And it does not concern who you should marry, or when you should have kids, if at all, or what job you should have. And what God asks of you is that ‘Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.’

But we do have these commandments:
No other gods. * Don’t misuse God’s name. * No idol worship. * Keep the Sabbath. * Don’t kill, steal, or commit adultery. * Take care of the elderly. * Don’t use words to hurt other people. * Don’t covet your neighbor’s stuff.

The Ten Commandments are the basic picture of how you love God and love your neighbor. They give us a picture of the way free people are to live together.

There’s a well-known cover of The Saturday Evening Post that featured a painting by Norman Rockwell. It shows a woman buying her Thanksgiving turkey. The turkey is lying on the scale, the butcher is standing behind the counter, apron pulled tight over his huge belly, with a pencil tucked behind his ear. The customer, a lovely lady seemingly around 60 years of age, is watching the weigh-in. Each of them has a pleased look as if each knows a secret joke. There’s nothing unusual about a butcher and customer watching as a turkey is weighed, but the expression of their faces suggests something else is going on. Norman Rockwell lets us in on the joke by show us their hands. The butcher is pushing down on the scale with a big fat thumb. The woman is pushing up on the scale from the other side of the counter with a dainty forefinger. Neither is aware of what the other is doing.

Author T. Cecil Myers, in his book “Thunder on the Mountain” (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1965), says of this Rockwell painting, “Both the butcher and the lovely lady would resent being called thieves. The lovely lady would never rob a bank or steal a car. The butcher would be indignant if anyone accused him of stealing; and if a customer gave him a bad check, he would call the police, but neither saw anything wrong with a little deception that would make a few cents for one or save a few cents for the other.”

Norman Rockwell gave us a picture of how we seek to live, trying to manipulate life for our advantage. And that, I suggest, is what the Ten Commandments are all about – they remind us that there are eternal laws in the universe by which we must live if life is going to come out God’s way.

The issues addressed in the Ten Commandments are acts that are wrong, but not because the Ten Commandments say so. God said they were wrong because the moral law of the universe won’t support killing and stealing and committing adultery. It doesn’t matter in what period of history we live, it’s still wrong to steal – wrong whether we do it by shoplifting or cheating on our income tax or failing to give our employer a full day’s work or by manipulating a stock market sale.

It is still wrong to kill, whether it is done by the outrageous suicide bombing of an innocent population at worship in a Shiite shrine in a remote village in Pakistan, or a man with a ridiculous arsenal of weapons outfitted with bump stocks that rained gunfire down upon a country music festival in Las Vegas, killing fifty-eight and wounding hundreds of others in a matter of minutes. We may or may not know the “reasons” for such killings – but they are still wrong. Wrong. Not God’s plan or purpose for humanity. God save us!

It’s still wrong to commit adultery, though that seems to have become one of the more socially acceptable sins of our day. It heralds the tearing apart of the entire family structure and thus impairs the fabric of our culture.

It is still wrong to bear false witness against our neighbor, whether in deliberate lie, or in the sweet morsel of innuendo that makes malicious gossip destructive of someone’s character. Did you ever consider gossip to be breaking a commandment?

Again, the moral law of the universe won’t support killing and stealing and adultery and deception. And “You shall have no other gods before me.” “You shall not make for yourself a carved image.” “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” “Honor your father and your mother,.” and “You shall not covet your neighbor’s [stuff];”

Okay. I think we get it. I hope we all know it.

Then there is that passage which follows immediately after the Ten Commandments, Verses 18-20, which speak of thunder and lightning, the trumpet and the mountain smoking that cause the people to cower back in fear and trembling. The Lord told them they are not to come too close. I doubt if God needed to give that instruction. They wanted to stand afar off and they asked that Moses, not God, to speak to them. The people were not being stupid – the Hebrew word for ‘fear’ can also mean Awe. The Israelites were in awe for their lives.

There is a lesson in this for us. The Israelites knew that hearing the voice of God required that they obey Him. It is an awesome thing to hear the voice of God, and that voice comes to us. It comes through written word, the Holy Scriptures; it comes through direct revelation; it comes through worship; it comes through preaching (I hope); it comes in imagination as we meditate with the Lord. It’s not enough to hear the word – in fact, there is a sense in which we have not heard the word unless we live it.

I know that voice that can come to us, for I believe it was the Holy Spirit stirring in me, prompting me to speak aloud the very words of Call, “God, are you calling me to be a priest in your church?” I thought then, as I do still now, think that God was crazy in calling me to the ordained ministry. But I choose to be obedient. And I said, “Yes!” And I continue each new day to step out in faith, trying to adhere to the covenantal promises in the Ten Commandment.

In one of the things I listen to for sermon prep called Sermon Brainwave, one seminary professor recalled words attributed to Jon D. Levenson, a professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University. He said, ‘At the Red Sea, God took Israel out of Egypt; At Sinai, God took Egypt out of Israel.’

In his book, Sinai & Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible, Levenson wrote, (quote) “In short, Sinai demands that the Torah (the law of God as revealed to Moses and recorded in the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures) be taken with radical seriousness. But alongside the burden of choice lies a balm that soothes the pain of decision. The balm is the history of redemption, which grounds the commandments and insures that this would-be king is a gracious and loving lord and that to choose to obey him is not a leap into the absurd. The balm is the surprising love of YHWH for Israel, of a passionate groom for his bride, a love ever fresh and never dulled by the frustrations of a stormy courtship. Mount Sinai is the intersection of love and law, of gift and demand, the link between a past together and a future together.” (unquote)

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, I am here to tell you that ‘God has a plan for your life!’ And it does not concern who you should marry, or when you should have kids, if at all, or what job you should have. What God asks of you, simply, is what Jesus himself told us to do: ‘Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.’