Text: Exodus 20:1-11
I’d like to start today by running a little experiment.
Listen to these two statements.
If I said, “YOU will read the whole Bible,” How would you interpret that?
Now, if I said, “you WILL read the whole Bible,” how would you interpret that?
Let’s do this in another way.
Scenario one: A mother is working with her child. The child is struggling with math and fearful for the upcoming test. The mother says, “You will not fail your math test.” How would you interpret those words?
Scenario two: A coach is talking to his star player. He struggles with math and is on the verge of being disqualified from the big game because of his grades. The coach says, “You will not fail this math test.” How would you interpret those words?
These are the exact same words, but the inflection of the words, and the story that surrounds the words dramatically changes how the words are interpreted.
Today we come to the second week in our series on the Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20:1-17. Last week Pastor Mark did an excellent job of introducing them to us. He reminded us that these are the words of a faithful God that can be summed up by Jesus’ words to Love God and Love our Neighbor.
Today we are going to look at the first section of the commandments that have to do with loving God, found in Exodus 20:1-11. This is often called the first table of the Law.
But, before we look closely at those, I need to say one more word about words.
There is something really interesting about the The Ten Commandments. The word “commandment” never appears in them. In fact, the Jews never called them the Ten Commandments.
Look at Exodus 20 verse 1 again. It says that God spoke these words. That’s it. words. The Hebrew word is dabar, and it can be translated as “word” or “promise.”
These are Ten Words
I want to give you four words to help us understand these ten words.
1. Words of Promise: the tone of the Law.
These are less words of commandment, and more words of agreement in covenant, and a vision of the future that the people will become. This is God’s dream for God’s people. Let’s go back to the opening experiment. If you believe that God is a God who seeks to set boundaries so that people who violate the boundaries can be punished, then you could easily read the words like this. “You WILL NOT have any other gods before me. You WILL NOT take my name in vain. You WILL keep the Sabbath day holy.”
But, if you believe that God is a loving parent who seeks to create life and health for all of creation, then you could easily read these in the tone of a promise and vision for what God’s children will become. You will have no other Gods. You will not speak my name in vain but accurately represent my nature to all people. You will rest and be in healthy community. That’s what this family is all about.
I want to make a huge theological move. The theme for this weekend is “God created community.” What tense is that? Past, present, or future? It is past tense. I think it would be more accurate to say that God creates community. God is always creating and inviting us into the promised and preferred future. You will be the community of God.
That leads to our second word.
2. Words of Freedom: The purpose of the Law.
Last week Pastor Mark pointed out that the Jewish tradition cites the first “commandment” (actually the first “word”) to be God’s self-description.
“I am The Lord who brought you out of slavery.”
God’s mission in the world is to give life and freedom to creation, to set us free from the bondage of sin that keeps us bogged down in fear and violence.
Let me ask you a question. When you got in the car to drive here today, what was going through your mind? You may have been thinking about all the things you have to do later today. You may have been singing along with your favorite song on the radio. You may have been praying that the sermon wasn’t lame.
My guess is that you were not thinking about whether you would make it here in one piece. When we get on the road and drive we have this amazing level of trust that when we go through a green light we will not get slammed into by a car coming the other direction. Why? Because people follow the rules of the road. Of course getting T-boned at an intersection happens, but it is the exception, not the rule.
Laws are given to create freedom, not fear and restriction. I believe that is the tone with which we should read these Ten Words.
God sets us free so that we can be free to love God and love others. The apostle Paul echoes this in his letter to the Galatians 5:1. He says we have been set free, not so that we can do whatever we want, but so that we can walk in the Spirit of God.
That leads us to our third word.
3. Words of Perspective: The focus of the Law.
Look at these two pictures. How do you think they might relate to each other? Turn to your neighbor and take a guess.
What is at the center of each picture. The first picture shows a time-lapse of the night sky. In the northern hemisphere there is a center point in the sky around which everything else rotates. This is the North Star, also called Polaris. Navigators use the North Star to get their bearings. It is the one fixed point in an ever-changing world.
We’ll get to the second picture in a minute.
First, let’s look at this picture. These are the gods of Egypt. All the ancient cultures had a theology in which the major forces of nature were thought to be gods. The sun, moon, stars, water, air, fire, death, etc. Humans knew that these forces impacted their lives and they worshipped them.
People generally took two approaches to the gods. (1) they felt powerless in light of the gods whims and had no control over their destiny. They worshipped the gods to beg for mercy. (2) they felt that the gods could be manipulated through proper incantations. In both cases, it was a matter of power and control.
The God who brought the Israelites out of slavery dreamed a vision for the people and said, “You will have no other gods before me.” You are not at the mercy of a bunch of powers that battle against each other. I am the one God who loves you and sets you free. Stay focused on me and I will be with you.
Let’s go back to our second picture. What is this little guy focused on?
Yep, his own belly. The gods in our world are the same as the ones in Egypt, but are very different in appearance. Today we believe that the powers that rule the universe are money and politics, and that each one of us are either in control of our own destiny, or at the mercy of the powers that rule our lives.
The Ten Words remind us today that God is not an impersonal force, but a loving God who sets us free in order for us to truly learn to love our neighbor, we have to realize that we are not the center of the universe.
I think this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you, and you will bear much fruit.” And also when he said to the Father, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”
It’s really a matter of focus. When we realize that this is God’s story and we are part of God’s that we can take our eyes off of our own self-protection and have the ability to love our neighbor.
If we don’t keep this focus then, quite literally, all Hell breaks loose. That’s what it’s talking about when it says God is a jealous God and the sins of the parents are visited on the next generations.
God is described as jealous God. That seems a little weird doesn’t it? Isn’t being jealous wrong? There is a difference between jealousy and envy. Envy is what you want what someone else has. That’s like coveting, and that is harmful. Jealousy is when you don’t want other people to have what you have. This is not always wrong.
I am a father, and when I think about my kids, I don’t want to share my kids with drugs. I don’t want to share my kids with violence. I don’t want my kids to become enslaved in sex trafficking. I am jealous of my children. Is that wrong? Of course not.
That is what God wants for us.
What happens when parents don’t honor God? Their children don’t learn about God’s love and don’t know that they were created for freedom. Then they grow up and raise their children without the love of God, and so on, until a whole generation doesn’t know the love of God and they live in fear of each other, and fight, and go to war which leads to famine, poverty, disease, and death.
We have been set free to love God and love our neighbor.
That leads us to the fourth word.
4. Words of Community: the scope of the Law.
The next two words say, “Don’t use my name in vain, and keep the Sabbath holy.” Does this mean don’t cuss and go to church every Sunday? I don’t think so. Those are good rules to follow, but I don’t think it is the full intent of these words.
Notice what is supposed to happen on the Sabbath. Everybody gets to rest: your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.
When we don’t put God first, when we use the Lord’s name in vain, it affects our children and breeds selfish, fearful, hateful people who create a hierarchy of power and abuse the people lower than them on the food chain. The Sabbath day is the great equalizer in which everyone gets to rest.
The Sabbath day is the ultimate picture of God’s promised and preferred future. God created life so that we could live together in harmony and peace and enjoy this amazing creation. These words of God are words of promise, of freedom, of perspective, and of community.
May we strive to walk in God’s ways this week, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.