a sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Lent
Today, we tend to think of the Ten Commandments as the basis for God’s law and punishment. But what if they are something else entirely?
Today is the third Sunday in Lent, and I’ve decided to give you all a little pop-quiz. Ready?
First, in the Garden of Eden, what was the creature who tempted Eve? The bible doesn’t say it was a “snake.” The bible says “serpent.” The image we have in our minds is a snake.
Second, what kind of animal swallowed Jonah? The bible doesn’t say it was a whale. It says it was a big fish. But we’ve carried around this image of a whale in our brains for so long, that we can’t really imagine it any other way.
Third, in the book of Exodus, from which we just read a few minutes ago, Moses went up the mountain to talk with God. What he have when he came back down?
If you said “commandments,” you’re in good company. But they aren’t called Commandments in the bible. All it says is “God spoke all these words.” And they are beautiful words. But because God spoke them, and because we all have the same image in our heads when we hear them, we immediately go to the word “commandments.” For most of us, the image we recall comes not from the bible, but from Cecil B. Demille’s movie, The Ten Commandments. Charleton Heston climbs a mountain wearing a robe and the finger of God carves the commandments out of the stone right before our very eyes. The music is quite dramatic, and the voice of God is very stern and moody.
Of course, Cecil B. Demille was a great movie maker. He was also an Episcopalian and the son of a priest. But he wasn’t a bible scholar. So what if we looked at the Ten Commandments a little differently. What if, instead of looking at them as laws which, if we break any one of them we run the risk of being zapped dead on the spot by God, we looked this from a different point of view.
Two weeks ago, we heard about God’s covenant with Noah and all creation. God promised to never again destroy all life on the earth. Last week, we heard about God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants. God promised to make Abraham’s descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven. In both of these covenants, God gives a life-sustaining promise to those who are faithful. Today, we hear about God’s covenant with Moses and the slaves of Egypt. After God led them out of bondage, he forms them into the nation of Israel. And God makes a covenant with them: You will be my people and I will be your God. Then, as a sign of this covenant, God gives them a set of ten principals to live by, what we might call them a rule of life.
Now a rule of life is very different from a legal code. Laws tend to be very specific and work by coercion – if someone breaks this law, then the punishment will be that. But a rule of life is more like a set of intentional spiritual practices, focused on helping a person live in community and ultimately achieve a state of holiness. Two familiar rules of life are the Rule of St. Benedict and the Rule of Ignatius, both of which outline the daily practices for living a monastic community.
Rules of life are very common with people who are living in close community. Firemen have a rule of life of sorts that define who does what job, how many days they have to live at the fire station and how much time they have for their families. Soldiers and sailors have a rule of life when they are deployed that teaches basic things like hygiene, honor, and following orders. Even astronauts have a rule of life for the time they are in outer space.
The Ten Commandments are a rule of life that was given by God to teach the Israelites, former slaves, how to live in freedom. It teaches them what living in community with each other and with God looks like. There are no consequences spelled out if we violate any of the Commandments. God doesn’t say, “If you don’t do this, I’ll do that.” Instead, God lays out a set of rules, spiritual practices, for the Israelites to live by as his chosen people.
Now, another question – what is the first commandment? (You can even look at your notes.)
The first commandment is a statement about who God is in relation to us:
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery.
In this covenant, God teaches us what it means to live in freedom. Live this way, God says, and you will no longer be slaves. You will be my people. Live some other way, and you will enslave yourselves to all sorts of false gods and idols.
- Don’t enslave yourself, God says, by worshipping graven images, such as birds, or snakes, or fish. And don’t worship any modern idols, such as money, fame or power. These things are not God. Instead, worship the living God, the one who freed you from bondage in the first place.
- Don’t enslave yourself by slapping the name of God things that don’t deserve it. Don’t use God’s name carelessly or cheaply, trying to sell whatever snake oil you’re peddling whether it’s a product, or a person, or an idea. And avoid demigods who use God’s name to sell you such an idea. Instead, remember that God is greater than any person, any thought, any idea. Live as free people who hold that the name of God itself is holy.
- Don’t enslave yourself by working all the time. You were made for more than that. Instead, work enough to live and take time off for worship, for family, for recreation.
- Don’t enslave yourself by spending your time being bitter at your parents for a childhood you wish you had. Instead, free yourself from your imperfect parents, and respect the fact that they gave you life in the first place. It is yours to live as you choose.
- Don’t enslave yourself by taking another life unjustly, or debase yourself through lust, or cheapen yourself by stealing. You are a child of God; you are better than that.
- Don’t enslave yourself by telling lies. Tell the truth, and the truth will keep you free.
- Don’t enslave yourself by wasting your life, envying the toys that the other guy has. That just makes you small and mean. Instead, live in the freedom of simple living.
Of course, as Christians we look to Jesus for our rule of life. So what does he say about all this? Jesus was well acquainted with The Ten Commandments. In fact, he simplified the rule for us this way:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
God gave us The Ten Commandments not to coerce or punish us, but to be a rule of life to make us free. We follow these rules not because we are afraid of the consequences if we don’t – God has already freed us through Jesus Christ – but because they define who we are as God’s people. How we live in relationship with God and each other as God’s chosen people and how we are to live in God’s kingdom on earth, all depends on these ten rules of life.
Thanks be to God.