Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17)

Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

You must have no other gods before me.

Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth.

Do not use the Lord your God’s name as if it were of no significance; the Lord won’t forgive anyone who uses his name that way.

Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. Six days you may work and do all your tasks, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. 11 Because the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

12 Honor your father and your mother so that your life will be long on the fertile land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 Do not kill.

14 Do not commit adultery.

15 Do not steal.

16 Do not testify falsely against your neighbor.

17 Do not desire your neighbor’s house. Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.

The Ten Commandments.  What comes to mind when you think of the Ten Commandments?  Rules?  Law? Judgment?  Charlton Heston with a bad spray-on tan?

I was thinking about how to get a handle on the Ten Commandments in preaching them today.  My first thought was that maybe we could spend 10 minutes on each one.  No?

Don’t worry, I’m not going to give you a quiz on them, either.  In a recent poll of South Carolinians, 79% affirmed the Ten Commandments as important.  However, only 11% could correctly name three or more of them.  We’re going to look at the Ten Commandments today, we’ve already read what they are, so we will spend our time looking at why they are important and how they relate to the life of faith.  May we pray.

When you go shopping and read the list of ingredients on the label, you know that the ingredients are listed in order of how much of each is in the product.  Whatever comes first – there’s more of that than anything else.  I looked at a can of peaches in our pantry, and do you know what the first ingredient listed was?  Peaches!  And I thought, “Oh, good!”  It hadn’t really crossed my mind up until that point that in a can of peaches, there could be more of something else than there were peaches, but it’s possible.  I don’t know that I’d buy a can of peaches that had something other than “peaches” as the first ingredient!

But in the life of faith, how often are we content to leave out the first ingredient?  The Ten Commandments are God’s household rules for God’s people, a recipe for peace and love and joy and hope, a guideline for our relationship with God and our relationships with others.  If followed, they can help bring about the kingdom of God in us and through us.

So, when it comes to the Ten Commandments, why are we content to leave the first ingredient off the list?  I’m not talking about the first commandment, I’m talking about what comes before the commandments even start.  We leave out God.  We forget that the Ten Commandments are given in the context of a very specific relationship – a covenant relationship between God and God’s people.  God says, “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, therefore . . .” and THEN God gives the Commandments themselves.

Before we have done anything, God is gracious and acting on our behalf from his heart of love.  The people don’t earn God’s favor by following the Ten Commandments, God liberates them from slavery in Egypt before they have done a thing.

The covenant relationship with God comes first, then the rules for how that relationship will flourish.  No doubt, in all our relationships, we have rules in place to protect the relationship, to help it grow and thrive and be as healthy as possible.  My wife and I have the rule of “no electronic devices during dinner” – which means no phones, tablets, or laptops.  That rule is in place so we put the outside world, our work, other distractions aside in order to focus that time on each other.

I’m guessing we all have rules like that in our relationships.  Go from house to house, and I’m willing to bet that we all probably have some rules that are similar, almost universal, but we also have rules that are very different.  Those rules are specific to a particular family or situation, perhaps. 

If I heard it once growing up, I heard it a thousand times: “As long as you live under my roof . . . you’ll live under my rules.”  There’s a recognition in that statement that different households may have different rules, but in our house, our family, there was a specific way we were expected to live and treat each other, regardless of what the neighbors were doing.

Likewise, when God gave the Ten Commandments, he gave them as household rules for his covenant people.  They are rules given in the context of a relationship; to the family of faith, God gives the Ten Commandments to outline the best of our relationship toward God and one another, that we might live peaceably and full of God’s love.

Growing up, I don’t remember my parents trying to enforce our household rules on the neighbors.  The rules were for our house, our family, but the families next door, across the street, and down the block weren’t expected to conform their behavior to our rules.  Why?  Because the rules of our household didn’t apply to them.  They weren’t living under our roof, so we had no expectation that they would live under our rules.

The rules only make sense in the context of the relationship.  The covenant relationship with God is the first ingredient, it is what forms us as a family, a household of faith.  Without the relationship, the rules make no sense.

It reminds me of the little girl whose mother told her, “Clean your room.”  Some time later, the mother came to check on the progress, and she said, “Did you clean your room?”

The little girl said, “Mom, I’ve been thinking about what you said.  When you said those words, ‘Clean your room, I figured they were important.  So, I memorized those words.  I dissected them.  I formed a study group to talk about them.  What did you mean by ‘clean,’ anyway?

“I made this little sign, you can see it says, ‘Clean your room,’ and I hung it up here on the wall.  I made a sign for the neighbors, too, and everyone else on our street.  What a world it would be if everyone knew the words you have spoken, and they were posted everywhere!”

The mother said, “That’s all very interesting, but I can’t help but notice that you still haven’t cleaned your room.”

Friends, when it comes to the Ten Commandments, we’re supposed to do them.  Not just memorize them.  Not put them up everywhere.  We’re supposed to do them.  Not to worry about whether or not other people seem to know them or are paying attention to them.

How would you respond to a neighbor who wanted to impose their rules on your family?  When we take our household rules and start telling our neighbors they have to live by them, we do the same thing.  When we take the rules of our faith and start telling people outside our faith that they have to live by them, we demonstrate our lack of understanding that the Ten Commandments are given in the context of a relationship with God, in order to give God’s people guidance for how to live as God’s covenant people.

Outside that relationship, the rules make no sense.

We don’t follow the Ten Commandments out of a sense of duty or obligation.  We follow them out of a heartfelt love for God, a desire to please God, a desire to conduct ourselves in a way that honors God and allows God’s love to be seen and experienced through us.

The directions for living we find in the commandments are intended to be put into practice in real life to make that life more whole, more peaceful, more joyful. When we live this way, we are allowing the life and love of God to flow through us, healing the broken and wounded world around us.

God’s rules, God’s laws, God’s commands, God’s words to us are promises to us.  Every command from God is a covered promise.  In the case of the Ten Commandments, they stand as God’s promise to us to bring about the kingdom of God in and through us.

The first four commandments deal directly with our relationship with God.  The last six deal directly with our relationships with others. You can see the logic at play when Jesus would later summarize God’s law as “love God and love your neighbor;” in the context of a loving, covenant relationship with God, following the Ten Commandments does exactly that.

But, they work in total.  They are not stand-alone items in a cafeteria line we may pick and choose at our pleasure.  Not “hey, I got seven out of ten, not too shabby!”  Like ingredients in a recipe – leave just one out, and the whole thing doesn’t come out right.

And if we leave out the most important ingredient, the first ingredient, a covenant relationship with God, then the Ten Commandments make no sense.  When we enforce our rules without extending the benefit of a relationship, we place a burden on others rather than a blessing.

Friends, we’ve seen a lot of energy expended by people of faith to post and promote and protect the Ten Commandments.  Our efforts would be much more fruitful if we would simply follow them.  Others may not, and that’s between them and God.  Joshua, who led the Hebrew people after the death of Moses, said, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).

There’s an implicit understanding there that you and your house may not.  We don’t have an ounce of control over what other people do.  I’ve been in meetings or counseling sessions or just church in general where someone is not behaving as they should.  Exasperated, someone else will inevitably turn to me and say, “Can’t you make them behave!  If you think that’s how it works, you’ve grossly overestimated my power.  I can’t make anybody do anything, and nor do I want to.  I don’t want people to do the right thing because I made them do it.  I want people to do the right thing because they want to do it.

We don’t have an ounce of control over what other people do.  We can fret and moan about what other people are doing, or we can devote our energy into what we know we’re supposed to be doing.  You and your house may not follow the Ten Commandments.  But, as people of faith, as ones who are in that covenant relationship with God, we will.  We are responsible for our own behavior, our own attitudes, our own choices.

We follow the Ten Commandments out of our love for God.  The relationship comes first, and the rules for the relationship follow.  If other people do not love God, making them follow the Ten Commandments will not make them love God.  We recognize the Ten Commandments as the household rules given by God to his covenant people.  If we want people to follow our household rules, the best plan of action is to invite them to be part of our household, with both the benefits as well as the responsibilities.

And so, rather than posting the Ten Commandments, we are living them, rather than writing them in stone, they are written upon our hearts.  The hope would be that we live out our faith in such a way that other people come to want what we have.  The hope would be that our faith is so robust, so infectious, so seasoned with God’s love and grace that everyone around us looks at us and says, “I’ll have what they’re having.”  Living our faith in such a way naturally invites others to experience and enjoy a relationship with God, and not just the rules.

I love the Ten Commandments.  But I don’t love them for their own sake; I love them because I love the God who gave them.  I recognize that when I follow them, they invite me into better relationship with God and others as I live as one of God’s people in the world.

The Ten Commandments are not prefaced with an order: “Here are ten rules – OBEY THEM!” – but with a breathtaking announcement of life-giving freedom: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

The Ten Commandments are not merely a set of rules; they’re the seeds of a relationship.  We follow them to live for and show our love for the One who gave us life in the first place, and who continues to make it worth living.

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