Words to Live By – Sermon on Exodus 20:1-17

October 11, 2015


From Three Little Kittens, illustrated by Lilian Oblgado © 1974 by Random House, Inc.

When our boys were little, they loved to read books. Well, they loved to have us read books to them anyway. One of our favorites was a beautifully illustrated version of “The Three Little Kittens.” One of the kittens in this story wore a green plaid coat. This was the kitten who was never happy. Arms crossed, brow furrowed, the kitten in the green plaid coat looked stubborn and rebellious. Whenever one of our boys started to pout about something, we’d tell him, “you look like the kitten in the green plaid coat” and he’d know exactly what we meant.

I think, at some point or another in our lives, each of us might be the kitten in the green plaid coat. We rebel a little bit when we don’t get what we want. We pout. We cross our arms and frown, and refuse to be happy. We resist the rules. We dislike authority. That’s why we have trouble with the Ten Commandments. We see God’s rule for life as too restrictive. But God didn’t put these words into place to keep us from being happy. God has something else in mind for each of us. God’s plan is to be with us, to live life with us.

The Big Idea of the whole Bible is God’s declaration, “I want to come down and dwell with you. I want to live among the people I created specifically for that purpose.” Even though humans messed up that plan at the very beginning, God is still working to make it happen.

Through Abraham’s sons, God raised up a nation to show the world how to live with God. As God led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, he used his servant Moses to teach them God’s ways. Bit by bit, God revealed his plan for living among the people of Israel. That plan included land, law, and lordship, or “The three Ts: Terra, Torah, and Temple.” God offered his people a place to live, a rule for living, and a way to worship.

The land had been promised to Abraham centuries before. But the children of Israel were not ready yet to receive that land. In the meantime, as they wandered in the wilderness, God went with them in the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. Wherever the pillar went, the people followed. Whenever the pillar stopped, the people stopped.

The pillar identified wherever they were as the place they were supposed to be. It showed the people that God was present with them. But it also obscured their vision. They could not look at God in their sinful state and live. The cloud and flame prevented sinful humans from seeing God, at the same time it confirmed God’s presence among them.

In order for God to remain with people, the people had to change the way they behaved toward God and toward one another. God wants people to live in loving relationship that shows the world who God is. So he gave us the Ten Words to guide our behavior toward God and toward each other.

Then God spoke all these words: 
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. 
You 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. You 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, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 
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.
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your 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. For 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.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 
You shall not murder. 
You shall not commit adultery. 
You shall not steal. 
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 
You 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.” “Teachings” doesn’t sound nearly as strong as “Commandments” to our ears. 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. They were written in the same form as a treaty between an overlord and a vassal, or a stronger nation and a weaker one.

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 and the last six describing 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. (Kimberly Russaw)

When a treaty like this describes a situation in which one powerful nation controls the foreign affairs of a dependent one, that dependent nation is allowed 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. At the end of Moses’ life, he reminded Israel that there would be a price to pay for breaking God’s law. Moses told them, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19 )

Choose life. God’s commands are words to live by.

Apparently, ten rules were too many to remember. People kept breaking them. People still break them. So Jesus made it even simpler for us. Jesus summed up the Ten Commandments into two Great Commandments:

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 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 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.

As we dive into becoming more healthy and missional through the Healthy Church Initiative process, I keep thinking about ways we can re-focus our attention outward toward our neighbors, while we grow deeper in faith and our love of God. One of the things that keeps grabbing my attention is the way we use language in the church. It is so easy to fall into “church-speak” and use words that wouldn’t come up in our conversations outside these walls.

Even the mission statement of the United Methodist Church does this: We “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Well, what is a disciple, exactly? And what’s transformation all about, anyway? How do you explain this mission to someone who has never experienced church?

Take the word, “disciple.” In order to make disciples, we have to be disciples, but that’s hard to do if we don’t really know what a disciple is. A disciples is a student, someone who walks in the footsteps of a teacher, trying to be as much like that teacher as possible, a follower.

And what about that word, transformation? Isn’t it just a fancy word for complete change? What if we started talking about following Jesus to change the world? That’s a pretty amazing goal, when you think about it. Changing the world is a huge task. It’s one we can’t possibly complete, unless we are following Jesus, walking in his footsteps, trying to be as much like Jesus as we can possibly be.

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. In his poem, The Ten Words, Andrew King reminds us of God’s purpose behind the Ten Commandments. He writes,

(Exodus 20: 1-20)

This is a moment of new creation:
blast of a trumpet and fire and smoke
and the people gathered at the foot of a mountain,
Moses on the summit, receiving words:

words that are beacons, words that cast shadow,
words that are firesparks struck from stone,
words that are trumpet, calling to silence,
words that will echo through ages to come,

words that are the beating heart of a covenant,
words of requirement, words that are gift,
words that are bones in the body of a people,
words that are blood flowing into their veins,

words that are power, spoken to weakness,
words that are freedom because they are fence,
words that challenge us, words that summon us,
words that are song for a life-long dance,

words that are dwelling place, words of foundation,
words that are law, given in grace,
words that are signposts, words that are journey,
words that are a pathway pointing to peace.

This is a moment of new creation:
blast of a trumpet and fire and smoke
and we are the people at the foot of a mountain
and we have these words, and our heart for their home.
Copyright © 2014 by Andrew King

God wants to live among us. In the wilderness, he had the Israelites construct a tabernacle where his presence could remain in the midst of his people. Later, King Solomon would build a temple in Jerusalem to replace the tabernacle. Eventually, both the tabernacle and the temple would be destroyed, but God still wants to live among us. And for that to happen, God requires one thing more than a place to live and rules to live by.

God requires atonement for sin by the shedding of blood. Atonement is simply being made “at one” with God. The sin nature is the main thing that keeps us separated from God. Each one of us has a sin nature. At some point in our lives, we each are the kitten in the green plaid coat. greenplaidcloseup

The only way to overcome our sinfulness is through sacrifice. Jesus gave himself as that sacrifice for us, and his blood once and for all covers our sin (Hebrews 10:1-18), making us “at one” with God. With the blood of Jesus on the doorframe of your life, you are forgiven and given direct access into God’s presence.

We are the place where God dwells. We are the new tabernacle. The church is not a building, the church is us. It isn’t a place, it’s God living in us, as we “church” in the world. Paul writes, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? … For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)

How are we to be that? How are we to be the temple where God lives, so that the world can see who God is? It doesn’t take ten words to live by. “Love God, love each other” pretty much sums it up. Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, my followers,” Jesus says. That’s our job: follow Jesus to change the world. Let’s pray.

Lord Jesus, it’s so easy to get stuck in the rule book and forget the reason behind the rules, that you want us to love you and love each other. As we do that, the world sees what love is supposed to look like. Help us to keep churching to change the world, so that, bit by bit, person by person, your Kingdom can become a reality for all people everywhere. Start by changing us, O Lord. Help us to follow you so closely that we become covered in the dust you kick up ahead of us. We pray these things in your holy name, Amen.



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