Promoting holiness and restraining sin - Exodus 20
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me tell you the apocryphal story of when God drew up five commandments which he wanted to give to the human race as a gift. The story goes that he handed over a stone tablet of 5 commandments to the Archangel Gabriel to see if there would be any people who would want them. So first of all Gabriel appeared to Pharaoh to ask whether he would like to have them. He said, No, he didn’t as he simply expected people to do what he commanded. Then Gabriel set off for Mesopotamia and its King, Hammurabi to see if he wanted the commandments. He too declined the offer saying he had a law of his own thank you very much. Well, feeling somewhat dejected and discouraged Gabriel thought he would give it one more try and so he found Moses, leader of the Hebrews and asked if he wanted God’s 5 commandments. Moses asked how much they cost. ‘Nothing’ replied Gabriel, they are free.’ ‘Free’, exclaimed Moses. ‘In that case I’ll take ten!’
I would imagine that even if people were not able to name them, most people would be aware that there is such a thing as the Ten Commandments. But what many people will not know is what they are and why they were given or even consider the possibility that they might have any abiding relevance for today.
Well this morning while we will not be able to look at the commandments in any detail I want us to think about some key features which are very striking.
In the first place there is what we can call the credibility of the commandments. By that I mean just what it is which gives them authority, why we should take them seriously. Part of their credibility comes from the setting in which they were given which is spelt out for us in the opening words of verse 2, ‘“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.’ Unlike the way so many people view religion today, the commandments were not given in order for people to get into God’s good books. They are not a means of salvation but the result of salvation. And this is so important. If you reverse that order you end up with a twisted and perverted view of God and how we are meant to relate to him; because then the law will be seen as primarily some sort of examination to decide who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ of God’s favour. Then in our minds God becomes a task master who dangles a carrot as a reward or a stick as a deterrent and so fear will be the dominant motivation. What is more, we will become incredibly proud creatures if we think we can keep the commandments and so God becomes beholden to us. The result is legalism. But that is not what we have here. The demands follow the deliverance; the law comes after the liberation. And this casts the commandments in different light entirely. For then they are seen as tokens of grace. You see, God has just liberated a rag tag motley group of people from slavery in Egypt. In part this was in order to keep a promise he had made to the ancestor of these people-Abraham, as well as fulfilling his plan to rescue people from all over the world by a special Saviour who would come from this group one day in the distant future- the Lord Jesus Christ. But they couldn’t remain a loose association; they needed to be forged into a nation. And crucial to that process is having laws stating what will and will not be permitted for the mutual flourishing of everyone. And so at the dawn of this nation’s coming into being, God kindly gives them his laws, and especially these core commands. He didn’t let them wait a few centuries so that they could find out what works by trial and error and so hurting themselves in the bargain. Out of the kindness of his heart he gave them a moral and legal framework which would simply be the best and which would enable the people to thrive as he wanted them to. I just love the way the writer G. K. Chesterton says how we should view God’s revealed commands. He says they act as walls. And if you left it there people would moan and talk about God being repressive, hemming us in, cramping our style, restricting our freedom and so on, who wants a wall around them? But Chesterton goes on to say, yes, they are walls, but they are the ‘walls of the playground’. That is a different picture altogether isn’t it? At the playground the walls not only prevent the children getting out and running onto the road and hurting themselves, they also prevent other folk getting in and hurting the children. And in this age of safeguarding we of all people should appreciate the value of walls- literal or metaphorical. And what happens within those walls? Well, the children have the freedom to be children- to dance and play. Similarly, the commandments are given to God’s children so that within their bounds they can enjoy life as it was meant to be enjoyed. And those who come along and say, ‘That commandment about not telling the truth- we can ditch it, because truth, like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we all have our own truth’; or who say ‘strike out about adultery, let’s have open relationships with whoever and whenever we want’- are like people we want to safeguard against because they are intent on taking down the walls of the playground, brick by brick until we are easy prey. Well, God cares too much about his children to let that happen- so we have his laws.
Ultimately of course, what gives these commandments their authority is their author, v 1 ‘God spoke all these words’. These are not just good advice, they are God’s announcements and so are non-negotiable. Sure, we have to be work out how the commandments apply in different situations, but the fact that we sometimes have to wrestle to make the right choices at least presumes that we are dealing with things given by God which we have to reckon with, there is a right way and a wrong way. If they were simply made up by Moses, then I guess we wouldn’t have to agonise over them- why should they have any more claim on our lives than any ancient law? Well, they matter because they are the words of God, and so an expression of who God is, therefore we have to take them seriously.
You see, God within his own being is a God-in-relationship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And he has made us to be in relationship too- Husband and Wife, Mother and daughter, brother and sister, lawyer and client, doctor and patient, teacher and pupil and on and on. And for any relationship to work there have to be contractual arrangements we enter into. Well, these commandments are all to do with relationships: how we are to relate properly to God- commands 1-4; how we relate properly to each other- commands 5-10. But here the commandments are given by God himself who knows how we best operate because he has made us. Unfortunately, many people treat God’s commands like many men treat the assembly instructions which come with the new stereo, they are discarded and only consulted when and if we get stuck. No, far better to consult the instructions from the beginning which is what these people were meant to do.
Secondly, we have the clarity of the commandments. You read through these commandments and they don’t leave you in any doubt where you stand in relation to them. Not making an image of God out of anything is pretty clear isn’t it? Not misusing God’s name, either as a swear word, so debasing it, or as a cloak to hide behind by making a promise in God’s name but knowing you are not going to keep it, that’s clear. Not stealing is crystal, as is not murdering. You can’t accuse God of moral ambiguity can you? Again this is a sign of God’s kindness. Unclear commands are unhelpful and are potentially harmful. On the London underground it is helpful to have signs which say ‘Stand behind the yellow line when a train is approaching’. It would not be helpful if it said, ‘You might want to give some consideration to the yellow line during your time of waiting on the platform.’ What’s that supposed to mean? And yet, in the ancient world, of which these people were a part as a fledgling nation, that is exactly what the pagan gods were like. You never knew where you stood with them. Most nations believed there were several gods and different gods had different requirements and so there were some rules which applied on Tuesday but not on Wednesday and if you happen to mess up one of these rules even without your knowing, then chances are you were in deep trouble with some god or other! Let me read to you an actual prayer taken from one of the surrounding nations of Israel around this time: ‘The transgression I have committed I do not know; the sin I have done I do not know; the forbidden thing I have eaten I do not know; the prohibited place on which I have set foot I do not know; the god whom I know or do not know has oppressed me; Man is dumb; he knows nothing; Mankind, everyone that exists-what does he know? Whether he is committing sin or doing good, he does not even know.’ Can you imagine living in a world like that? It is terrifying and despairing. And yet that was the world in which many of Israel’s neighbours lived. It is like having a deranged parent, you are always walking on eggshells never knowing if today is the day they are going to flip and make your life a misery. But the real God isn’t like that, he is a good parent and so he makes his commands clear so that his people can know for sure if they have done something wrong and also what they can do about it if they have.
Let me say this: with the abandonment of the Judeo-Christian foundation of our society, of which the Ten Commandments are central, we have now fallen back into that pagan universe where uncertainty rules. When there were agreed fixed points in morality and ethics, then there was something you could refer to in order to determine whether a course of action was right or wrong. But with that being blown to smithereens, not least by what is called post-modernity, we are simply subject to various whims, not of pagan gods, but pagan voices- it is called political correctness- which is a form of tyranny. Think of what happened to Mr Sherlock Holmes himself- Benedict Cumberbatch -last year when he criticised the British film industry for not creating more opportunities for what he called ‘coloured’ actors. He was berated for making such an offensive remark, because he should have used the term ‘black’ and so he cried ‘mea culpa’ and declared himself an’ idiot’. Now we know there are dreadfully offensive terms people use to describe all sorts of ethnicities. But here no offense was intended, but more to the point he was legitimately unware that such an offense was possible. And this will always be the case when one group (you could read ‘god’) without any consultation or argumentation decides what is an offense and what isn’t. But objective morality frees us from such tyranny. God’s commands are clear and are you not glad that it is so?
Thirdly we have the comprehensiveness of the commandments. In this regard we might think of God’s commandments like maple syrup. Let me explain. Whenever Heather and I go to the United States, one of the things we love to have is an American breakfast made up of pancakes, crispy bacon and maple syrup. You have your pancakes stacked, interspersed with strips of bacon one degree below cremation level; then you take the maple syrup and you pour it everywhere so that it soaks into and covers everything. That is what God’s commandments do-they cover every area of life. In other words, the commandments of God claim all life for all of God. They claim your worship. So they confine the object of your worship- commandment 1. They control the manner of your worship-commandment 2 and they require reverence in you worship-commandment 3. There is a check for us already. Is the one we worship the God who is Triune, Father, through the Son by the Holy Spirit? If not (such that we only worship some vague ‘god’) then we are putting another ‘god’ in the place of the real God. And whatever claims to the contrary about their usefulness, commandment 2 rules out the use of statues and icons in worship. And as we come into a place like this each Sunday do you give any consideration to the fact that it is before God we are gathered and so requiring some measure of awe and respect on our part in our worship?
Also the commandments claim your work- commandment 4. Notice it is a command to work as well as a prohibition of work. The word ‘Sabbath’ simply means ‘to cease’. Cease from what? Your previous activities. So there is to be one day out of seven which is not taken up by our normal work. One of the main aims of this prohibition, again like a wall around a playground, is to help us prevent work becoming an idol, whereby instead of working to live, we live to work. If ever there was a commandment today for the mental and physical well- being of individuals and families- surely this is it.
What is more, they claim your relationships- commandments 5-9-covering the area of family, sex, property and truth. Now it could well be that the fifth commandment is the basis for all other social relations as it is to do with the proper ordering of society, that there is some kind of hierarchy of authority going on. It is not a free for all, any more than the Trinity is a free for all, with God the Father doing what he wants over here and the Son doing what he wants over there. No, there is this glad submission. And so it is to be with us. And of course there is a reverse effect on the family when these commands are ignored. You know, it was claimed by many that the kind of liberalisation of the abortion laws which began in 1967, would have the effect of lowering our value of children arguing that abuse in the womb can lead to a general to abuse outside it- for why stop there? Sadly don’t we see that now going on? Similarly with liberal attitudes towards sex. The former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks has written ‘Today in the West we have a series of societies in which almost half the children are born outside marriage, where people are marrying later or not at all, where close to half the marriages end in divorce.. Why should this matter? [he asks] Because children pay the price. When stable marriages cease to be the norm, children are more likely to live in poverty, and a significant minority be abused, sexually assaulted, abandoned, intimidated or neglected.’ You see the commandments are like a finely spun garment, once you start unpicking one, the others soon unravel as does the society which is to be based upon them.
But then the commandments claim you heart- commandment number ten. And of course it is in the heart we make our choices as to whether or not we keep the other commandments. We would not steal if there were not things in our hearts we secretly cherished. We wouldn’t engage in sex outside marriage, if there was not that desire to have another woman or man- which is not rightly ours. We wouldn’t be so keen on choosing to ignore bits of the Bible if we didn’t want a god of whom we could make demands but who would demand nothing of us. The linchpin commandment is really commandment ten. And it is here that we all fall miserably. And on realising this we experience something quite dreadful, we discover that the commandments which were meant for our flourishing as human beings made in God’s image, designed to enhance relationships with God and each other, because of our sinful hearts become something else – an indictment. You see, superficially we might scan the first 9 commandments and say, ‘Yes, I have kept those- I don’t have a statue of Zeus in my bedroom, I haven’t killed anybody, I haven’t robbed a bank, I haven’t slept with anybody.’ But then you hit the tenth commandment and you are skewered- because the one thing which we may not have thought of as being a sin- desiring things which aren’t yours- is the one thing we are all guilty of. This was the Apostle Paul’s experience as he relates it in Romans 7, ‘What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” … I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.’ And when you come to that point and see the commandments as being not only helps to live a holy life, but indictments which point us to the need for a holy Saviour, then we experience what I call the crisis of the commandments which we see in the reaction of the people, vv18ff, ‘When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance 19 and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” Yes, the appearance of the smoke, the sound of the lightening and the darkness instilled fear, but it was the idea that God speaks to them which chilled them to the bone. And that is what God had been doing of course- v 1 ‘God spoke these words’. And they stood condemned already. And so it provoked a crisis and the need for a mediator- someone like Moses to stand between them and God. And you know what, that is exactly what we need too, and it is exactly what God has provided- a mediator, and his name is Jesus. ‘You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm … But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. …You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.(Hebrews 12:18-24). Jesus blood washes away your sin of covetousness and Jesus Spirit starts to enable you to keep the commandments. But if you are not yet a Christian here this morning you are still at the foot of Mount Sinai and that is not a healthy place to be. So whatever your conscience accuses you of, whatever sin is blighting your life, come to Jesus now for pardon and peace.
 Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership, (2011) p 166 cf Jill Kirby, Broken Hearts: Family Decline and Consequences for Society (2005)
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