Counting Past Ten – Sermon on Exodus 20:1-17 Lent 3B

The school principal leaned through the classroom doorway
and caught the teacher’s eye.

“Could I have a word with you?”

It might mean any number of things.

Maybe the Board of Education had voted to give all teachers a raise.
Maybe there would be a fire drill in a few minutes,
or school was being dismissed early.
Maybe the principal wanted the teacher to take recess duty,
or serve on that new district-wide committee,
or turn in grades before the end of the day.

Maybe an angry parent had called.
Maybe contracts were not being renewed for next year.
Maybe someone had been taken by ambulance to the hospital.
Maybe someone had died.

“Could I have a word with you?” might mean anything at all.
It could be good news or bad news.
“A word” could be cause for anxiety or it could be a reason to rejoice.
It could be a word of warning or a word of promise.

As Moses met with God at the top of Mount Sinai, he must have considered all these possibilities. “Could I have a word with you?” God asked.
Whether Moses trembled with fear or shook with excitement, there was only one answer: “Yes, Lord.”

Then God spoke all these words: 2I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;3you shall have no other gods before me. 4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 8Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lordyour God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

12Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13You shall not murder.14You shall not commit adultery. 15You shall not steal. 16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. – Exodus 20:1-17

In Jewish tradition, this passage is not called “The Ten Commandments.” It’s called “The Ten Words” or “The Ten Teachings.” In our Bible study Wednesday night, people commented that “Teachings” doesn’t sound nearly as strong as “Commandments.” It just doesn’t have that same imperative ring. Yet these words form the cornerstone of Torah, or teachings of God for his chosen people.

Maybe we have come to think of these ten sayings as “commandments” because God presents these words in covenant language, and covenant language is legal language. So we think of the Ten Commandments as God’s Law. Certainly, by the time Jesus began his ministry, these saying were considered to be Law.

Kimberly Russaw writes that, in the Bible, “covenant is used for various legal agreements, including marriage, slavery, solemn friendship, and especially a treaty.”

According to Russaw, in the ancient Near East, there were basically two types of treaties: in one, the two parties are presumed equals, but in the suzerainty treaty, one party (the suzerain) is superior to the other (the vassal). Suzerainty treaties usually have the following elements:

  1. Identification of the suzerain, or overlord
  2. History of the relationship between this overlord and the vassal, or dependent
  3. Stipulations imposed upon the dependent, usually designed to show the dependent’s loyalty to the overlord
  4. Provision for depositing copies of the treaty in the temples of the principal gods of the two parties
  5. Divine witness to the treaty
  6. Blessings for observing the treaty and curses for violating it

The Ten Commandments begin with God identifying himself as the overlord, when he says: “I am the Lord your God.” Then God gives a brief history of his relationship with the Israelites, bringing them out of slavery in Egypt. The commandments that follow form the stipulations of the treaty, with the first four concerning the relationship between Israel and the Lord, as vassal to suzerain. Russaw writes, “The stipulations demand absolute loyalty (‘You shall have no other gods before me’) and specify the way the Lord is to be worshiped. The remaining six commandments are comparable to the stipulations that concern relationships among the vassals. Each Israelite is to respect his neighbor’s life, person, marriage, legal reputation, and property, as well as to care for members of the community when they age.”

The important thing to know about a suzerain treaty is that it often describes the relationship between two tribes or nations, when one is more powerful than the other. Suzerainty is a situation in which one powerful nation controls the foreign affairs of a dependent one, while allowing that dependent nation to govern its own internal affairs as long as it remains loyal to the stronger nation. In exchange for this loyalty, the more powerful country agrees to protect the weaker nation from invaders.

And this kind of treaty language is what God uses to create the covenant with Moses and the Israelites. God promises to protect them, if they will remain loyal to God, and govern their interactions with each other using God’s words as their guide. But God gives them the freedom to control their own affairs, as long as they stay loyal to God.

God shows them what the ideal arrangement would look like: not only would the children of Israel worship only God, but their dealings with one another would reflect the same loving protection they receive from God the Lord: they would honor their elders, be honest, and respect one another’s life, family, and property. But it’s up to them. They are free to govern themselves as they see fit, so long as they remain loyal to God and worship him alone.

Of course, there are consequences for their choices. Like any good treaty, there are blessings for those who keep it, and curses for those who break it. It didn’t take very long for the Israelites to fail at their end of the bargain.

In the 22nd chapter of Matthew, we read how Jesus summed up the Ten Commandments into two Great Commandments. Beginning in verse 34 we read:

 

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40)

Love God. Love neighbor. The first four Commandments are all about how to love God, and the last six are all about how to love each other. As United Methodists, we draw on the wisdom and theology of John Wesley, who developed three general rules for discipleship. These “three simple rules” also reflect Christ’s command to love God, and love our neighbor.

First, Wesley said, “Do no harm, avoiding every kinds of evil.” All of the “thou shalt nots” in the ten commandments can be summed up here. Do no harm. Avoid evil.

Second, “do good.” To Wesley, doing good included caring for others in body and soul. This is the way we love our neighbor.

Third, “attend upon the ordinances of God.” These days, we often hear this third rule stated simply as “stay in love with God.” Wesley suggested we do this by engaging in public worship, searching Scripture, observing the Lord’s Supper, engaging in family and private prayer, and observing the spiritual practices of fasting or abstinence.

Growing deeper in love of God and neighbor may be all God had in mind, when he used the tip of his finger to spell out for Moses and the children of Israel this covenant of relationship in ten simple teachings. The Gospel Imperatives adopted by the Minnesota Conference of the UMC reflect this desire for loving relationship, as we seek to grow in our love for God and others, reach new people, and heal a broken world.

It’s important to remember that the commandments about loving God come first. The commandments about loving each other come second. Jesus identified the first and greatest commandment as loving God, and the second as loving neighbor. Our love for others grows out of our love for God.
But we have to love God first.

I mentioned to you last week that the Church Council is praying for God to show us God’s vision for our church. This week, the Staff-Parish Relations Committee completed my first official annual review. Part of that process included setting some goals for the coming year. If you subscribe to the SMART goal-setting strategy, you know that good goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. But to be a goal, it has to be something you haven’t already achieved, something that presents a challenge.

In business, the saying goes that if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. So there is a lot of measuring going on, and churches have also spent lots of time and ink counting and measuring, in the hope of improving ministry and growing churches.

But how do you measure the work of the Holy Spirit? How do you count the change that happens when someone experiences the love of God for the first time, because someone reached out and offered that love to them?

Church leadership consultant Carey Nieuwhof says we are measuring the wrong thing. He writes, “… church leaders are programmed to measure inputs, not outputs.
“We measure how many people showed up, what they gave, who they brought and even online traffic. But rarely do we measure outputs.” Nieuwhof wonders, “What if you developed ways to measure spiritual growth? Like how much time people spend with God personally each day reading scripture and praying? The stats are surprisingly low. According to a recent study, 57% of Americans” read the Bible only four times a year, or less.
Only 26% read it 4 times a week, or more.

What if we decided that here at First Church, we wanted to change that? What if we agreed to covenant together to increase participation in Bible study and prayer by 50% in the coming year, so that we could grow in our love for God?

This means that, if you are one of those people who reads the Bible four times a year, tops, you would make sure you read the Bible six times a year. If you currently spend 10 minutes a day reading the scripture passage listed in the Upper Room, and saying a short prayer, you would spend 15 minutes a day in study and prayer.

If you are one of the people who read the Bible more than four times a week, you might pick it up a couple more times, or decide to spend more time each day in God’s Word. And if you are one of those people who never, ever reads the Bible or prays – except in a crisis – you only have to read the Bible once a week to show 100% improvement!

Of course, the best way to hold ourselves accountable for such a goal is to read scripture and pray in small groups, where we can encourage one another, as we increase the time and attention we give to personal devotional practices.

But minutes per day of Bible reading and prayer aren’t the numbers that matter most. We can get as locked into legalism as the Israelites did, when they turned the Ten Commandments into rules that must be obeyed to avoid punishment, instead of words to live by as beloved children of God.

If we want to really count past ten, we should notice that, as our devotion to God’s Word increases, our spiritual strength increases. As we spend more time in prayer, we should notice that we can discern God’s voice more clearly, and more often. As we read and pray together, we should notice that our lives are bearing fruit, that we have greater peace and joy, that we become more patient and kind, that we are more faithful, more gentle, that goodness and self-control come more easily to us. As we count past ten, we may discover what God had in mind for us all along – that we truly, deeply, love the God who truly, deeply, loves us. Amen.

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