Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Lent - March 19, 2006

Today’s first lesson is one of two places in the OT where the 10C are recorded.  They’re familiar.  If you were confirmed Lutheran at some point in time you probably had them all memorized, maybe you still do and even if you don’t you certainly recognize them when you hear them.  During confirmation you also probably memorized all the “what does this mean?” explanations concerning the commandments, however I’d be very surprised but impressed if you still remembered those.  The explanations are from Luther’s Small Catechism and what Luther had to say about the commandments still serves as thoughtful reflection on how they apply more concretely to our lives.  That’s why we continue to use the catechism along with the Bible as the core of our confirmation curriculum.

What Luther doesn’t get into in the catechism is the context in which the commandments were given to Moses.  Luther’s explanations are good and helpful, but I think the biblical context also has a lot to teach us as we reflect on the intent of the commandments and how they apply to us now in our own time and place.

Today’s lesson where Moses receives the 10C is part of the Exodus story where the people of Israel are delivered from slavery in Egypt, slavery to Pharaoh.  Moses climbs Mt. Sinai amidst thunder and lightning and earthquake, the sound of the trumpet, smoke issuing from the mountain and he hears the voice of God and he receives these commands written on two tablets of stone.  But all of this comes after the struggle with Pharaoh to get out of Egypt, after the plagues, after the crossing of the Red Sea, all that exodus stuff. 

At this point of time in the Exodus narrative, the Lord God has established himself with the people of Israel as the God who delivers.  He delivered them from slavery.  In response to the incessant murmuring and complaining of the people he also delivered manna, the bread from heaven. In response to more complaining, he delivered water from the rock.  Now, on Mt. Sinai, the God who delivers becomes the God who commands.  The question that is raised though is, why these commands, and why give them at this time?

What the Lord is doing as he gives Moses these commandments is to set up a system of governance defined by his, the Lord’s intention for his people.  Because of the “thou shalt not” wording of many of the commandments we can have a tendency to view them negatively, as prohibitions, all the stuff we’re not supposed to do.  Viewed that way though, it’s easy to miss the positive spirit of the commands.  At heart they are a positive expression of God’s good intentions for his people, his desire that they live well.  They’re not just a bunch of moralistic rules.  

The commandments are given at this particular time because the memory of Egypt and exodus is still fresh in the minds of the people and the Lord wants to contrast his intentions for them with the intentions of Pharaoh.  The intention is for a society that practices the Lord’s justice instead of Pharaoh’s injustice; a community that establishes neighborly well being instead of coercion, fear and exploitation which was the reality of Pharaoh’s Egypt.  Israel’s obedience to these commands will effectively bring every aspect of life under the direct rule of the Lord, Yahweh.  So in a sense this God who commands is still a God who delivers because now he is delivering the people from the rule of Pharaoh, and delivering them into his own life giving rule. 

You are probably familiar with classifying the first three commandments as having to do with our relationship with God and the other seven as having to do with our relationship with each other.  That certainly is a good and valid way to classify them.  But let me offer another way to think about these commandments and the nature of the God who commands, another line of interpretation for this text.

First of all, the first three commandments do have to do with God.  In the Bible the first three are you shall have no other gods; you shall not make any idols or graven images and you shall not take the Lord’s name in vain.  Luther, you perhaps remember, combines the first two so his numbering is a little different, but the content is the same and that’s what matters.  What these first commandments proclaim is a Holy God who is above any other claim to ultimate power, earthly or heavenly.  This God who commands is the ultimate power and he is an end and not a means.  He is an end to be worshiped and obeyed not a means to be used and exploited.

Your first response to that might be, of course, we know that.  But do we?  How many of us, at least at times, have kind of a vending machine attitude about God?  You know, put in your worship and prayers and good deeds and wait for God’s blessings to come pouring out.  The God who makes these commands isn’t like that.  He will not be captured, contained, manipulated or managed by anyone or anything for any purpose.  This is a God who is free to act and who most frequently is found to act in gracious, forgiving ways.  But that doesn’t exclude the possibility of other actions we may find less understandable.

Second, concerning the commandments that have to do with our relationships with each other, you shall not kill, steal, commit adultery, bear false witness or covet; all of them can be understood as setting limits, limits on how much any of us might acquire.  God’s intention is that there be a limit to the capacity of any member of the community to take what another must have in order to live.  With these commands, every person must act as a responsible member of the community having the needs of others in mind.  It’s not every man for himself.  In general, obedience to these commandments provides protection for the needs of the weakest members of society against the capacity of the strong to take what they want, simply because they are the strong which again was the reality of Pharaoh’s Egypt.  The way of God’s commands sets up something different.

Third, attention should be paid to the command regarding the Sabbath.  We most often think of this as the command to go to church, to worship and Luther does include that in his explanation; but biblically that necessity for worship is covered in the first three commandments.   The command on Sabbath is really an invitation to rest…and it’s not just an afterthought; it’s central.  It’s right in the middle, before all the thou shalt nots and there is more said about sabbath than about any other commandment.

This too is in contrast to Pharaoh’s Egypt where there was no rest for the people, only feverish productivity because there was never enough, always a need for more.  God’s intention is for the community to be involved in life that respects the needs of others and is not madly preoccupied with production and consumption.  It’s a community that knows a limit to such activity is necessary; not just desirable but necessary. It’s so necessary that it’s actually built into the order of creation which God proclaimed to be very good.  On the seventh day he rested.  There is a need to rest, and to trust that God will provide.    

These commands, given at this point in the exodus history are an announcement to the people that as they move into the land it is not to be business as usual as they had known it in Egypt, business as usual which many of them seemed to long for as they whined and complained to Moses.  This is a set of alternative commands which sets up the people of Israel as an alternative community, an alternative to the exploitative disorder of Egypt, disorder that Pharaoh and the powers that be convince them is order, the way things have to be.  But God says, No; there is another way.

We can be a lot like the people of Israel in that we too are easily convinced that exploitative disorder is order.  It’s easy to feel like we’re part of a system that is so large and powerful that as individuals we can’t change it so we might as well roll with it and use it to our advantage however we can.  But Lent especially, is a time to be confronted by texts like this one today.  It’s a time to hear the commandments as more than just moralistic do’s and don’ts.  It’s a time to try to consider the challenge they present to the settled, seemingly unchangeable order of the world.

It’s a time to consider that the commandments disclose the non-negotiable will of God that is at odds with the assumptions of a self-centered, individualistic society based on production and consumption, one which exploits those who are most vulnerable.  Lent is a time to return to the God of Mt. Sinai, the God who commands, the holy and life giving God who is also revealed in Jesus.

The commandments showed the people another way.  The prophets during the time of the exile showed the people another way.  Jesus showed the people another way.  As followers of this tradition, we must not despair because the world still looks more like Pharaoh’s Egypt than it does the Kingdom of God.  We keep coming back to these texts and the vision they offer, and in what ever ways we can, we obey and honor and trust and hope in this God.
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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