St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 23rd August 2015
Reading – Exodus 20:1-21
Today we are coming to the end of our sermon series in Exodus. So far over the summer we have covered in chapters 1-19 the story of the Israelites’ remarkable deliverance, and if we were to plough right on to the end of the book we would – some time round about Christmas – eventually reach chapter 40. But in many ways the Ten Commandments are a good place to stop, at least for the time being. Because what we are doing this morning is looking at the very heart of the book of Exodus, which sums up so many of the themes we have explored so far, and which prepares the way for so many of the other laws set out in the following chapters.
Now in some ways the Ten Commandments are not that unique. About the time they were given, plenty of other law codes were being put down in writing across the Middle East. Several of them have been recovered and translated by archaeologists over the past century, and a few of their rules bear more than a striking similarity to some of the commandments we find right here in the Bible.
Yet what I find fascinating is that, while those other law codes were essentially lost in the mists of time, the Ten Commandments have remained an essential part of our culture even up to the present day, some 3500 years later. You can hear them quoted in literature, and television programmes, and in songs. You can see them up on the walls of ancient churches, and United States courthouses. You can even watch an Oscar-winning film about them by Cecil B. de Mille made in 1956. The Ten Commandments have over the centuries exerted a huge influence in the arts, in the law, and in education.
But for all that the Ten Commandments are widely known, I would suggest that actually very few people really understand why the Lord gave them to the Israelites and how He meant them to be used. They are widely seen as part of Old Testament religion, a list of rules and regulations to be followed, given by a God who demands dull and dutiful obedience. And I want to show today that actually such an understanding is very far indeed from the truth.
So how do we correctly approach the Ten Commandments? Well, the key is to remember the exact point at which the Israelites first received them. They have experienced the Passover; God has led them through the Red Sea; they have journeyed across the desert and now they are at the mountain of God, Mount Sinai, some three months after their rescue from the Egyptian armies.
And why is that so important? Well, in life, there are essentially two reasons why we might do something for someone else – work and love. We go out to work, not usually because it’s the most enjoyable thing we want to do, but because we know that at the end of the week we are going to get paid. We put up with the long hours, the angry customers, the annoying boss because we know that we will at some point or other be rewarded for our labours.
But after work, when we take our best friend or partner out for a meal, we are more than happy to pay in full for the table at the restaurant. We don’t ask for anything back, or expect them to share the bill at the end of the evening. We gladly put up with the expense, because we love that other person, and we want to do anything to show that love.
How does that relate to the Ten Commandments? Very simply, that the Lord gave them to the Israelites after they were rescued from Egypt, not before. He didn’t tell them that if they tried really hard to follow His commandments, He might one day come and rescue them. No, He saved them out of His love and His mercy, and gave the Israelites these commandments to show how they might respond to His love – not by trying to earn His favour but simply by being willing to live as He intended.
That’s why right at the beginning of the chapter, the Lord says these words, in verse 2: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. He wants the Israelites before they start thinking about how to carry out God’s commandments to remember just how much the Lord has done for them.
Now for us, none of us have been literally rescued from the land of Egypt or the land of slavery. But as believers we have been rescued from the power of sin, and the penalty of death, through the love and mercy the Lord has shown to us in Jesus Christ. So how are the Ten Commandments relevant to us? Not as a list of rules and regulations, but as a response to the love of God. After all, if we have truly grasped just how much the Lord has done for us, then we should be willing to give Him our whole lives in gratitude and joy. We should delight in seeking His will and take pleasure in following His commands.
So perhaps before we look at the Ten Commandments in any more detail, we ought to stop and ask: how much do we really delight in obeying God’s word? In Psalm 119, the psalmist prays:
33 Teach me, O Lord, to follow your decrees; then I will keep them to the end. 34 Give me understanding, and I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart. 35 Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight.
Could we, I wonder, pray that same kind of prayer? As we wake up each morning to face the new day? As we make plans for the future about where we live, what we do, where we go? I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. What is your response to the deliverance Jesus Christ has won for you?
The Ten Commandments are all about a response to the Lord’s love for us. And because love is at the heart of these commandments we should not be surprised to discover their focus is primarily about relationships. Because, you see, the evidence that we have been touched and changed by the love of God is to be found primarily in the way we relate to Him and to our neighbour. So if we are serious about following the two greatest commandments to Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength (Mark 12:30) and to Love your neighbour as yourself (Mark 12:31), then we should turn to the Ten Commandments to show us how to do this.
So what do the Ten Commandments teach us about loving the Lord our God? Well, the answers are to be found in the first four commandments. We are not to have other gods. We are not to worship idols. We are not to take the Lord’s name in vain. We are to allow proper time for rest and for worship to the Lord our God.
Now I expect many of us are very familiar with these commandments, and we may assume they are fairly easy to follow. But it only takes a moment’s reflection to realise that they represent a call to live a life which is radically different from those around us.
After all, in today’s world, all gods are seen as equal and you are encouraged to choose whichever one most suits you. It could be Yahweh, it could be Allah, it could be Vishnu, whatever works for you. The idea that one God is greater than any other is seen as arrogant and outdated, a sign of prejudice and intolerance.
What about not worshippings idols? On the surface, that hardly seems to apply to us. In the West we do not generally go round bowing down to wooden images of fish or animals, or looking to the stars for guidance. Well, that may be true, but we still have idols – they just have different names. We have the idols of Success, of the Perfect Relationship, of the Ideal Family, and how the media love to promote and to market these idols! Taking up your cross, and counting all things loss, are seen as the acts of dangerous extremists who refuse to conform to today’s culture.
And what about taking the Lord’s name in vain? There is the story of a little boy who was told that the Son of God was called Jesus. He thought for a moment and then asked, “Why did God name His Son after a swearword?” We live in an age where the name of the Lord simply provides the opportunity to express strong emotion, without any sense of worship and awe.
As part of this general move away from honouring the Lord, we should also not be surprised that any idea of there being a special day of rest has long gone by the board. We live in the interconnected digital age where the world is constantly busy, day in, day out, and we are judged by our busyness. Holding a Sabbath to the Lord our God sounds like a throwback to a bygone age, and it certainly seems to have no place in today’s society.
And if it is hard for us to uphold the first four commandments, then try to imagine what it must be like for children and for our grandchildren as they grow up. They are not taught much about the Ten Commandments at school, at least in a way that’s relevant to their lives. They are under enormous pressure to conform to the way everyone else behaves and they are confronted with an aggressive youth culture which recognises no God and few moral absolutes.
That is why the fifth commandment to honour your father and your mother is so important. But hear clearly what this commandment is about. It is not about blindly obeying your parents and doing whatever they happen to ask you, whether it is of the Lord or not. It is about recognising the central role parents have in teaching and training the young people in their care. They are the ones who have been given the God-given responsibility to teach their children about the love of God, and how to show that love in a living relationship with the Lord, and in right relationships with other people. It’s for this reason this commandment is at the very heart of the Lord’s instructions to the Israelites. It is affirming and honouring the unique and utterly crucial role parents have within the life of God’s people.
And because parents have such a crucial role, particularly in the world which does not know the Lord, and does not want to know the Lord, this fifth commandment also asks questions of us as a church. Trying to bring up children to live different, distinctive lives is, after all, no easy calling. So what can we do as a church to affirm the role that parents play? How willing are we to invest the time, the resources and the energy to developing, sustaining and resourcing our work with children and young people? If we want to see the next generation coming to know and to love the Lord, then perhaps this commandment should consider us to assess our priorities and ask how much we are prepared to sacrifice for the sake of their future – and the future of the church.
Now with this command to honour our father and our mother, the focus of the Ten Commandments then moves to our relationships with other people. Of all the commandments, numbers 6-8, and possibly 9, are probably the easiest to keep, at least at one level. Few of us have murdered anyone or committed adultery or stolen anything, and we probably haven’t given false testimony against our neighbour.
But before we move on, let’s take a moment to pause and recall what we have said about the Ten Commandments so far. We have said that they represent a response to God’s saving love for us. They are designed to show us the right way to relate to the Lord and to other people. We have seen there are four commandments about proper worship of the Lord, and four commandments about proper behaviour towards other people, and in the middle the key commandment about honouring your father and mother. All the way through, however, the focus is on relationships. And, of course, in any relationship it’s not just what you do that counts. It’s also the attitude of the heart.
That’s why the last commandment turns from the things we do to the things we think. Now we may well say we have not coveted our neighbour’s wife, let alone their manservant or maidservant, or their ox or their donkey. But have we ever looked at someone’s home and thought, “I wonder what it would be like to live there?” Or seen someone’s lifestyle and thought, “Wouldn’t it be good to be able to live like that?” One way or another, in one form or another, we have thought like that from time to time. We have wanted things we haven’t got, we have envied those who have had more than us, we have done things perhaps we were later ashamed of to get some personal advantage for ourselves.
And this is where the Ten Commandments become difficult for us. Because we all know what our hearts are like. We may have the most honourable intentions about serving the Lord and serving other people. But the truth is, we do have other gods, whether we consciously worship them or not. We do have impure thoughts about other people and we do want to do things which are not right for us. And the heart of the problem is the human heart.
Listen to what Jesus says in our gospel reading, in Mark 7:20-23:
20 He went on: “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean’. 21 For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean’.”
Brothers and sisters, that’s us He’s describing. It’s why ultimately we can never hope to keep the Ten Commandments in our own strength. Our response to the love of God will always remain inadequate. There will always be so much more we can do to improve our relationship with the Lord and with other people.
But remember the point I made at the beginning of this sermon. When were the Ten Commandments given? Before or after the Israelites left Egypt? That’s right – they were given three months after they crossed the Red Sea. So as we think about the Ten Commandments and how they apply to us today, we need to start by remembering there is one who has perfectly obeyed these commandments and who has already paid the price for all our sin and disobedience.
It’s for this reason our response to God’s word today should not be to commit ourselves to a dead religion of rules and regulations as we try desperately to keep them through our own effort. Our response should be to go back to the cross, to thank God for Jesus’ perfect obedience and perfect sacrifice. And we stand before the cross with renewed gratitude and such thankful hearts, we should pray more and more for the gift of the Holy Spirit so we can become more like Him, and live more obedient lives that reflect His glory.
And what does that mean in practice? Well, let me finish by reading these words from Romans 6, verses 11-14:
11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. 13 Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. 14 For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.
So today let’s live as those who are under grace, and offer our lives to Jesus who has brought us from death to life. For His glory’s sake. Amen.