This is the text of the message I prepared for Moe-Newborough Uniting Church for Sunday 8th October 2017. It was a communion Sunday and was also my first time preaching to this congregation.
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19:7-13; Philippians 3:4b-11
So, the ten commandments eh? You’d think that would be a straightforward task for a preacher: it’s all there in black and white. God quite clearly says what is expected of Christians and Jews, so the sermon for today is read that, live with obedience, and move on. Case closed, thanks for listening, let’s sing another hymn.
But I really don’t think it’s that simple, and here’s why. The way I read it the primary purpose of the Ten Commandments, according to the narrative of Exodus, was to introduce the Israelite people to the God who had delivered them from slavery. So, rather than being a set of rules without a context, (common-sense as those rules are for the most part), the commandments inform Israel of the best way to relate towards and behave in the presence of God, and each other. Rather than primarily being a legal code framed for punishment of offenders these commandments are boundary markers for healthy communities. They are words spoken personally by God (Exodus 20:1) and they speak of who God is with respect to the Israelites. The LORD, whose self-spoken name is YHWH, is their God and the one who delivered them from slavery. There is no doubt that this God is same one who spoke with Moses and sent Moses to Pharaoh. This is the same God who sent the plagues, opened the sea, sent the manna and quail, and provided water at Horeb. “I AM” the One who is with you, says God, the one who has always been with you. In other words, “it’s me”, and “it’s been me, only me, all along”. With that introduction make God then sets out the expectations of ongoing relationship.
So, let’s briefly run through those expectations:
- Sole allegiance. Exodus 20:3 assumes the existence of other gods, but the Israelites are to belong to YHWH alone.
- Related to the sole allegiance thing The LORD God is not to be imagined in physical form. There are to be no religious statues like the ones seen in Egypt or the ones to be seen in Canaan, not even statues of YHWH. The LORD is the creator and not a creation: the nature of God is that God has no form or shape so to imagine a form or shape for God, even for the express purpose of worship of God is to lessen God’s dignity. You may not pretend that God is something that God is not; it’s impolite.
- Related to the true nature of God, The LORD is not to be spoken of as if God were something different to what God is. In the same way that you must not give God a shape that isn’t God’s, don’t give God a voice that isn’t God’s.
- Imagine life in the model of God. As Christians, we might think of discipleship as following the Way of Jesus, living and acting as Jesus did, even pausing to consider “WWJD” if that’s your thing. Well Israel’s God expects the same. Follow God by acting like God; and the primary way of this is to rest on every seventh day. Slaves do not get a day of rest, but Israel are no longer slaves so let them model the life of God. Sabbath-keeping is therefore about freedom and discipleship.
- Five to Nine inclusive are about showing respect and care for other Israelites, the other followers of The LORD. Love and don’t disrespect the value of all parents; love and don’t kill anyone; love and don’t disrespect the humanity of all peers; love and don’t steal from anyone; love and don’t lie in court. These are great, common-sense rules for society, but to read them in the context of the way of life for a worshipping community dedicated to the God who has saved them from a disrespectful community adds a layer of importance. Don’t be like the Egyptians, be like The LORD.
And lastly, guard your attitudes as well as your actions. No only “do not” act thoughtlessly or maliciously, but “do not even think” along those lines. Jesus echoed this in the Sermon on the Mount, didn’t he? Jesus was not original in saying that, the intent was there all along.
The Psalmist, writing perhaps five hundred years after the Exodus event describes the way in which the ordinances of God revive the soul and light the fires of learning (Psalm 19:7). The wisdom of Torah, the profound instructions of God bring joy and light, the advice and intention of God is to be sought and held precious (Psalm 19:10). The Ten Commandments are in no way “The Ten Suggestions”, God expects them to be adhered to, but the heart of the instruction of God is that this code offers an impenetrable barrier against the thoughts of the unwise. Think like God, not like the foolish polytheists and their slave-making ways. Torah is a guiding light for the weary disciple and a reminder when you are falling apart of how to act toward other people and toward God. The commentary I used this week refer to omission regarding Psalm 19:12-13: the law is not a stick to beat you with but a reminder amidst times of human frailty not to forget God’s expectation that you will be nice to people and humble to God.
In the section of Paul’s letter to Philippi set for us this morning we are made to understand that there is no doubt that Paul was very Jewish (Philippians 3:4b-6). Paul makes his credentials as a Jew and a scholar very clear: even so he considers such knowledge a loss if it does not connect with the wisdom of Jesus Christ. Paul is not saying that knowledge of the law is loss; he is rightly proud of his knowledge of Torah and I imagine he would agree with all which was said about the Law in Psalm 19. No, what Paul is saying is that if your scholarship, your knowledge of Torah, does not point you to Jesus then your scholarship is useless. (But if your scholarship leads you to Jesus then it is priceless.) To pursue scholarship for the sake of righteousness, i.e. salvation, is pointless: being an academic cannot save you, even if it does help you be a good Jew. (So long as you are a good Jew of course, and not a scholarly snob.) In simple terms Paul says that the advantage of a working knowledge and understanding the ten commandments is that it helps you to understand what Jesus did so that you can follow in his Way. I hope you can see that this is a development on the Jewish understanding already presented; that the law itself is not enough but the law as a pointer toward God for relationship and discipleship of God, and a life of better fit in the community of faith is what it is all about. If you’re going to be clever, great, but make sure your cleverness leads you to be humble before God and kind to your friends and to strangers. Faith as Paul describes it in Philippians 3:9 is assent to articles of belief; you might say “I have faith in the resurrection because I believe it actually happened and that it is meaningful for salvation from sin”, but faith as described by Paul is also openness to God’s activity.
So, what do we need to know? What is the simple message for you to hear and then “case closed, thanks for listening, let’s sing another hymn?” Well the message is pretty much the same: live with obedience and move on. And here’s how to do it: study the Bible and other Christian texts and know what God expects of you as a disciple. Follow the text and follow the Way of the Lord. More specifically, be like Paul and know the Bible so well that you will have what you need to rebut the arguments of the legalists and the know-it-alls. Paul really did know it all, he tells us as much and his detractors acknowledge his learning, and Paul says love is all you need.
Love God, love other people. Get to it.