A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on October 2, 2011.
Exodus 20:1-21; Philippians 3:4b-14
They’ve been at this for about three months now. Actually, the word “about” doesn’t apply. It’s been exactly three months – from “that very day,” we are told – since the Israelites fled from their oppressive Egyptian overlords and have made their way to Mount Sinai. Three months.
Even though the Egyptian army was cut off at the pass – uh, the Red Sea – they can’t help but continue to look over their shoulders to see if anyone is coming. But gradually, day-by-day, their paranoia eases and they begin to settle into something of a routine… if “routine” is the right word for people who are on the move every single day.
And it’s not as if they’re used to it. What do they know about striking a camp? Who of them ever slept in a tent or ate a meal over an open fire? This has all been so new and different… and scary. But gradually, they’ve begun to adjust to the life of a nomadic people. Not that they have grown to like it, just that they’ve gotten somewhat used to it.
And now, the chosen people of God have entered the wilderness of Sinai three months to the day they fled Egypt. Long enough for them to be getting tired of the dust, the food, living in tents, putting up with undesirable neighbors, wondering what’s going to happen next. Three months is just about time for them to be getting really, really tired of this whole thing.
Let’s see if we can get a bit of perspective on their situation. Today is the first Sunday in October. So, three months ago would have been about the time we were preparing to celebrate our nation’s birthday. Seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it? We’ve been through a long, hot, dry summer and Labor Day, not to mention five Razorback football games already. Don’t worry, I’m not going to mention last week’s debacle against Alabama. Maybe yesterday’s thrilling victory over Texas A&M will get us feeling positive about our Hogs again.
The point is, three months can indeed seem like a long time, especially if you’re a Razorback fan… or, you’re following Moses, this self-styled emancipator of the Hebrew people. How they ever allowed him to get them into this mess they will never know. It is good to be out from underneath the heavy boot of the overbearing Egyptians, to be sure. But what has Moses gotten them into? That’s what they’d like to know.
By the way, where is Moses? Anybody seen Moses lately? Well, Moses has gone up to the mountain to parlay with God. It might be more accurate to say that Moses has gone up to listen to what God has to say. In some conversations one person does all the talking while the other person listens. That’s the way it is when you’re keeping company with the Almighty. It’s best to keep one’s mouth shut and just tune in.
But it’s worth it. Listen to what God has to say… “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought up to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”
“My treasured possession.” That’s what God called the Hebrews, “My treasured possession.” Or, as Gene Blagg’s Bible would put it (that’s the King James Version for the uninitiated), my “peculiar treasure.” Barbara Brown Taylor says that is “one of the sweetest phrases in all of Hebrew scripture.”1 My “peculiar treasure.” Who could argue with her?
All they have to do, these peculiar treasures, for that to continue to be true is to keep ten simple rules. Ten. That’s all. Just ten.
Really? Only ten? Let’s hear them…
No other gods. Well, that’s easy enough. After all, how many other gods could there be?
Don’t make any other gods. If you wonder about that one, see rule number one.
Don’t misuse God’s name. Even when we get really ticked off at somebody? Okay, we’ll do our best to abide by that one.
Keep the sabbath holy. Does that mean we can’t shop on Sunday? Perhaps a better way of looking at it is that we are to match the rhythm of our lives with God’s own rhythm. And if that means we don’t shop on Sunday, we don’t shop on Sunday, we rest. Since God rested, we ought to do the same.
Honor one’s parents, do not kill, do not commit adultery or steal, do not lie about one’s neighbor or yearn for a new BMW, the same model he has in his driveway. These sound like they have to do with relationships, don’t they? Relationships with God and with neighbor. If that’s what you were thinking, you would be right.
Ten. Count ’em. Ten. We should be able to do all that, shouldn’t we? It’s not like it’s rocket surgery. Just do what God wants. How hard could that be?
Let’s fast-forward to Jesus’ day. By that time, we learn that some people just naturally want to make a mountain out of a molehill. And for these legalistic types – and you’ll find them in every generation and every neighborhood – ten commandments aren’t enough. They have to have more. By the time Jesus came along there were no longer ten commandments. There were 613! And these had been minced and parsed, expanded and interpreted and explained until layer upon layer had been added unto them.
That’s still true today. I am told – I have to be told since I’ve not yet been there – that there are hotels in Jerusalem that have Shabbat elevators. Shabbat is the Hebrew word for “sabbath.” So what is a Shabbat elevator? It is one that stops automatically on every floor. That way, on the sabbath it is not required to push the button directing the elevator to a certain floor. Why? Because, according to the law, pushing an elevator button constitutes work.
But even with just ten we’re still in big trouble, aren’t we? Just reading the Ten Commandments once again reveals that when it comes to living anything close to a godly life, we’re simply out of our league. And we have God to remind us of that. “I am the Lord your God,” Yahweh says to the befuddled Israelites, “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2). “And don’t you forget it.”
We’re okay with most of the rules God gave Moses. We can pretty much check off the ones we’ve managed to… well, manage. Take the last one for example, the one about coveting your neighbor’s stuff. While we might admire our neighbor’s house, and more especially his new BMW, we don’t necessarily covet them. Every time I tend to look with envy on someone else’s nicer belongings, like when I cross the Arkansas River on I-430 and see those houses built up on the side of the hill overlooking the river, I am comforted by the fact that I don’t have to pay taxes on one of them. But still, it would be nice to be able to afford those taxes, wouldn’t it?
And we get a dispensation with the way that final commandment is illustrated. After all, how many of us have coveted our neighbor’s male or female slave? Or our neighbor’s ox or his donkey? So all in all, when it comes to the tenth and final commandment, we’re good to go.
The ninth commandment tells us not to bear false witness against our neighbor. Ooh, now things are getting a bit dodgy. Does that mean we should never criticize or pass on something negative we have heard about someone else?
You shall not steal. It’s getting better, isn’t it? Haven’t had my hand in someone else’s till in a long time, if ever.
You shall not commit adultery. Let’s leave that one alone, shall we? Surely, there’s no one here who has done that (raised eyebrows).
You shall not kill. Nope, haven’t done that either.
Honor your father and mother. Good, good, things are looking up. That’s not hard to do at all.
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. We’ve already covered that one, haven’t we?
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. What exactly is meant by that? Even when that jerk cuts me off on I-630? Is that what it means?
It all comes across as a kind of test, doesn’t it? Except, that’s not the way it is at all. In truth, the Ten Commandments are God’s gift to his chosen people so they might act and live and behave in chosen ways.2
You can imagine, then, that Jesus had something to say about all this. It was on the sabbath that he healed a man with a withered hand because he thought it was better to do good on the sabbath than to refrain from pushing elevator buttons. He was accused of allowing his disciples to eat grain openly, grinding the grain in their hands so as to separate the wheat from the chaff – which, of course, was considered to be work – because he thought sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath. The religious authorities took issue with just about everything he did, and in most respects, their problems with him had to do with what they considered to be his breaking the law, especially the sabbath law.
According to Mark’s gospel, it took them no time to begin plotting with the Herodians about “how to destroy him.” John Killinger says, “The entire conflict that led to the crucifixion, in other words, began over Jesus’ attitude toward the Sabbath. He staked his whole life and ministry on a liberal, generous understanding of the commandments. God had not given the Jewish people a bitter medicine to swallow with reluctance; God had given them a prescription for joy and grace.”3
And here’s the way Jesus framed it…
I am the LORD thy God… thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Jesus said, “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.”
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain.
Jesus said, “Do not swear but let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’ Anything more than that comes from the evil one.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Jesus said, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.”
Honor thy father and thy mother.
Jesus said, “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Thou shalt not kill.
Jesus said, “If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment. So when you come to worship, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave and first be reconciled.”
Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Jesus said, “Everyone who looks at another with disrespect has already committed adultery in their heart.”
Thou shalt not steal.
Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.”
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
Jesus said, “With the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”
Thou shalt not covet.
Jesus said,“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. But strive first for the kingdom of God.”
And Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; but to fulfill them… For whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
I guess, when it comes to the commandments of God, it all depends on how great you want to be in the kingdom. Or, perhaps we should think of how chosen we would like to be. Either way, it sounds like grace to me.
Lord, we are grateful for these commandments you have given us. May they guide us each day as we seek to be your people, and may Jesus define them for us in such a way that we follow him in your kingdom. Amen.
1Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1995), p. 44.
3John Killinger, To My People With Love: The Ten Commandments for Today (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988), p. 129.