Pastor Dave Clark’s sermon: The God Who Commands
Exodus 20:1-17 October 5, 2014
The Israelites had been wandering in the desert for a long time. They were learning what it means to really trust God but that trust was hard learned. There was a definite pattern: at the first hint of adversity they turned on each other, their leadership and God. Eventually Yahweh saved them and they trusted in God only until the next crisis. But instead of remembering that God had always been there for them, they just gave up again.
After a while, old Moses climbed the Mountain to receive further instructions from God about how to live in covenant. Yahweh reminds the people of God’s amazing deeds on their behalf. “I brought you out of Egypt; I heard your cries when you were slaves. I was the one who got you out even though you doubted me. I was the one who parted the sea for you to escape. I am the one who gave you food to eat and water to drink even though you all were just a bunch of doubting, whiny babies. Therefore you are going to do some things that are going to help you to remember always who to trust and how to get along with each other.”
It reminds me of my mother’s rants when I’d get into mischief, “David Clark, I didn’t raise you to be like that. I carried you in my womb for nine months, and then you thanked me by weighing 11 lbs when you were born. Then you had colic the first four months of life, screaming all night long every night. I changed your diapers, fed you, work two jobs to help provide for you but I didn’t go through all that just to have you turn out to act like that. We are going back to the manager and you are going to do the right thing.”
The Ten Commandments are like that. God’s bringing the people out of Egypt was like giving birth to an eleven hundred pound baby that had colic, and grew into a bunch of whiners. When you hear the commandments you can hear God warming up “I didn’t bring you out of Egypt to forget me and to treat each other like dirt. I saved you from oppression, and being mistreated, therefore I don’t want you to mistreat others. I keep coming to your rescue, even though you keep forgetting about me and doubting me. Therefore, I want to you build some things into your life that will help you remember who you are and how I expect you to behave as my children.
So, God came up with the list. Tradition tells us that the ten were written on two tablets. On the first tablet were four commandments that dealt with how you show love to God and the second tablet had six commandments that related to how you treat your neighbor. Jesus summarized the first tablet, Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind; the second tablet he summarized as Love your neighbor as yourself.
Most people today say that they believe the world today would be better off if everyone just obeyed the Ten Commandments. In fact, a recent poll indicated that 85% of the people feel that way. But my question is, how many people really know the ten. This is a church, so our odds should be better than the general population. Raise your hand if you can name all ten in order.
Sometimes the Ten Commandments become something of a political football. Politicians insist on public displays of the commandments but often when pressed, they can’t correctly name more than three or four of them. It screams of hypocrisy and it’s no wonder that so many don’t give these commandments a second thought. I don’t know about public displays; what I do know is that people of faith ought to have these down and pass them on by living them.
I remember Indianola Vacation Bible School with inner city kids who’d been learning about the Exodus story. I dressed up like Moses, and asked them if they knew the Ten Commandments. After an uncomfortable silence, one kid chirped up, “Don’t lie.” Then other kids chimed in: “Don’t drink and drive; don’t do crack; if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all; don’t run with scissors.”
It sounded better than trying to explain adultery, plus their list seemed more relevant to their lives right. These kids were expressing were things that someone who loves them told them to help them in their lives. They are things not given as arbitrary rules to make life miserable, but they were things that were to help them lead good and safe and joyous lives. So it is with God’s Ten Commandments. They are not about rules that squeeze all of the joy from your life. God wanted us to live with some boundaries that are good for us; so we will know where to turn in our lives everyday for life and to get along with our neighbor.
We usually hear them as a list of what not to do. In Sunday school we get the condensed version that comes across legalistically, but they can be read expansively, so that you are challenged to consider how the commandment may apply to all sorts of real situations. Let’s give it a try.
The first command: have no other God’s before me is usually condensed into: don’t go to another religion. But we can think about it in a more expansive way. When wake up in the morning and you think about what is going to get you through the day, think about God first. Don’t think it is going to be your assets, your network, your charm or craftiness or brain are going to get you through. Remember that there is a God, which saves you from having to do the job by yourself, and rely on God’s grace to help through the day.
The second command do not worship idols gets taken too literally so we think it doesn’t have much to do with us. After all, you probably don’t pray to little wood or stone carvings. But the command is more expansive. Don’t worship your buildings, your inventions. Don’t set in stone your graven images of what you think God can and can’t do–of whom Yahweh can and cannot accept.
I grew up learning that the third command: do not use God’s name in vain, meant there was one swear word that was off limits. The Hebrew word for vain is also the word for vapor. Don’t invoke God in meaningless ways that have no substance. Don’t think up what you want and then invoke God’s name to justify it. Try to get yourself on God’s side rather than invoking God’s name as justification for your side and try not do things like using the 10 Commandments as a political football.
The fourth commandment keep the Sabbath holy isn’t really about “blue laws” that keep businesses closed on Sunday. It reminds us of the beauty of creation and says don’t be so busy that you miss it, and fail to enjoy it. Don’t think that you are better than God who worked six days and rested the seventh. The world didn’t stop spinning when God took a day off, it probably won’t quit spinning if you take a day off either. Don’t get caught up in what day of the week your Sabbath comes, just spend 1/7th of your life goofing off, celebrating the fact of your life.
What if honoring your parents means more than just obeying them when you are a child? What would it mean to honor them, even if they have already passed on? Hear it this way: I am the God who worked through your mothers and fathers in the faith to help them build this faith that got them through; THEREFORE honor your parents, embrace their spirit of going out and taking chances for the future by giving yourself to enhancing its ministries at this critical time in our society, when neither kids nor adults seem to know the Ten Commandments.
Yahweh says: I am the God who has given you the sacred gift of life: THEREFORE, do not murder. Because ancient people settled scores by murdering, this command invites people to find new ways to settle differences. You probably aren’t fixin’ to kill someone but the commandment can still apply to you: don’t model retaliation when you are wronged, but show ways of forgiveness and conflict resolution not escalation.
God has given sexuality and intimacy as beautiful gifts: THEREFORE, do not commit adultery. Don’t trivialize sexuality without regard to its consequences for other people. Approach sexuality from the stand point of honoring the whole person and his or her whole network of relationships.
God has promised to provide for you, THEREFORE, do not steal. Don’t steal from someone’s dignity by whittling them down, don’t steal time from God, and don’t steal from employers in the office supply room or time by goofing off when you are supposed to be working. Don’t forget to give something back as a sign that you appreciate what you’ve been given and trust I will provide.
The ninth commandment: do not lie goes beyond outright deception. Don’t take the easy way out to make yourself look good. God set you free, telling the truth will set you free from the tangled web. So don’t bother trying to live a life where you are always putting on a mask—pretending to be someone you aren’t. Isn’t that much more of a temptation than to offer a vacuous compliment?
God has given you so many blessings: day, family, friends, church, THEREFORE do not covet. My friend, Bill Cotton says it means “don’t fondle other people’s things in your mind or spend your time obsessing about what you don’t have.” Instead spend your time thinking about what you do have– a God who loves you and has given a Messiah for your forgiveness even when you forget and break the commandments. May you see the commandments in new and interesting, spiritual growing kinds of ways. Amen.
Iowa Pastor David Clark is now senior pastor of Redlands United Church of Christ, Redlands, CA.