Read the text - Exodus 20:1-20
Rules of Engagement
Our lives are shaped by rules and laws – are they not? From the time we are very young we learn to live within rules. “Don’t run in the hall; always look both ways; don’t talk to strangers.” These are important rules. These rules keep our children safe, even if sometimes our children don’t like some of the rules. But even as adults we live under rules and laws. These are important for our society and for us as well. They keep our communities structured and safe. I think it is safe to say that we as a whole have great respect for the law and for the rules of community. And all we have to do is look at the banking/housing crisis from 2008 (of which we are still feeling the effects) to see what kind of pain and anarchy can occur when we either ignore or circumvent the rules or when there are not enough rules to properly guide and regulate. We would think that our own sense of morality and concern for others would be enough to keep us in line, but then the old sins of greed and power are pretty powerful stuff. We have been reminded of something which has been a part of the human experience for a long time, going all the way back to the 10 commandments: society needs to be shaped by law for the benefit of all. But sometimes we may even look to the law to provide more than it can possibly deliver, we may look to the law for salvation.
Now, I wish that life was as simple as follow the rules and you will be healthy and happy, but it is simply not true. But yet this is indicative of a general perception of the 10 commandments as being sort-of like a GPS or MapQuest to heaven. IF you keep these commandments THEN life will be better and you will be close to God. But that is to misunderstand the 10 commandments and to try to push them into a box into which they are not designed to fit. These 10 commandments are NOT just a set of rules and regulations. And, more importantly, they are decidedly NOT conditions for acceptance by God.
So then what are they? The 10 commandments are first and foremost a GIFT of God to us. They set forth as a gift the way for us to be in relation with God and with others. They show us the way to unity with God and others. Additionally each commandment contains not only a negative law (Thou shalt not…) - but each also contains a promise - a promise of life in unity with God and others, a promise of peace or Shalom or complete well-being which comes to us when we treat others with respect, and we love others as we love ourselves. The 10 commandments are both a GIFT and a PROMISE.
The law is a gift to us to teach us the way to be in community with God and with others. As we love God, and treat our neighbor as ourselves, God brings us closer to each other and we move towards a more intimate relationship with God as well. This then is the promise. God’s love for us is overwhelming, but we so often turn our backs so that we can do our own thing. God has given us a series of gifts to solidify the Covenant: the rainbow, the law and the cross of Jesus. All of these are a fulfillment of God’s promise of love and grace to us and a gift to help us move closer to one another and, thus at the same time, move closer to God.
Now, at this point I would love to now dive into a detailed exposition of each of the 10 commandments. So, since there isn’t be time to deal with all 10 I am going to focus on only one – the first one. “You shall have no other gods before.” Luther in his Large Catechism writes: “Everything proceeds from the force of the 1st commandment … where the heart is right with God and this commandment is kept, fulfillment of the others will follow of its own accord.”
YOU SHALL HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE YOU! Well that's pretty clear cut, right. And its not particularly difficult either, is it? In our sophisticated society we've done away with all those pagan gods and goddesses. We don't have pantheons of gods that watch over the ins and outs of various dimensions of our society, do we? So why bother with this one, we can just check it off and move on to the next. Not so quick. Let’s look at it a little closer. In response to the question, "what does it mean for us" Luther writes in the Small Catechism - We are to fear, love and trust God above anything else. And the key word here is ANYTHING.
Do we worship other gods in our sophisticated and advanced society? Do we worship power or wisdom or reason or sex or violence or success? You bet we do, and in this we are no different from those ancient societies - except that we're just not as honest and are better at deceiving ourselves. A god is something which promises to bring happiness and fulfillment and salvation and in which we place our infinite trust. All we need to do is to take a look around at the internet, newspapers, magazines, movies and TV to see the various gods and goddesses at work. Power, sex, violence and war, reason and wisdom, success, money, winning are all popular deities in our society.
The 1st commandment challenges us, as Christians to consider which God or gods claim our ultimate loyalty and infinite trust. Do we stand at the altar of success or wealth? There is nothing intrinsically wrong with success and wealth. Unless finding success or acquiring wealth has become the most important thing in our lives, and we sacrifice just about anything for these goals. What is your ultimate priority in life? What commands your ultimate and infinite trust and devotion?
Or do we worship the one true God - the God of the covenant; the God that grants life and grace and love unconditionally? The God who is, through our lord and savior Jesus the Christ, always present with us throughout all things. Other gods promise much but in the end simply do not deliver. For other gods are liars - they will not save us, they cannot bring us the things they promise. The God of the covenant - the God and Father of our lord and savior Jesus the Christ will never abandon us, always loves us and will always keep and fulfill promises made. This one God calls us to reach out in love and grace; to accept the gifts and promises that God gives to us and to respond by reaching out in kind to others. God calls us to take seriously the words of the ten commandments, not just because we're supposed to, but because in this way we experience God's promises to us and we can bring these promises to others.
Finally, God calls us to continually struggle against the gods of our society, and to know that forgiveness is always available when we stumble.
Above is the sermon I preached on Lent 4, 2009 at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church (with some of the illustrations cut out). The audio from my sermon for Lent 4 - March 11, 2012, preached at Peace Lutheran Church in Steeleville, is posted in the "media" section of: http://wartburgparish.com/
The recent sermon is very different than the 2009 text.