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Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20.1-17)

February 28, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Sometimes the audio version of the sermon varies more significantly from the written version than other times.  This was one such case where the delivered sermon really focused in a different direction only touched on in the manuscript below.  I am leaving the written version below because it has some significant content, but for the Sunday sermon, please listen to the audio.  ~rma

**NOTE: audio version begins with interviews at the Arboretum (shopping center), asking people if they can name the Ten Commandments.

Today we continue trying to take a realistic look at the human condition, part of the opportunity and challenge of Lent.  We looked at the notion of original sin and sins of omission last week.  Today we will look at the Ten Commandments, most often thought of as sins of commission, since so many are framed as “thou shalt not’s” or actions from which we must refrain.

Remember, too, we talked about the different views people carry toward sin.  Many folks believe that as long as they refrain from the “big ones” then God will grade on a curve.  You’ll notice how many people on the video remembered “thou shalt not murder” but not a lot of others.  Many think, “If I’m just better than the next guy – than Tiger, than Sanford, than a serial killer – then that’s probably good enough for God.”  But last week we began to see a more realistic depiction of the human condition: we are so permeated by sin, our own and that of fallen humanity, that we are dead spiritually and no more than dust and ashes, here for a while and gone.  That is the sobering reminder of Lent.

So today we are going to consider the Ten Commandments and how we fare with them.  Is it the case that we score well, having not murdered anyone, come to church with some frequency, and been more or less respectful to our parents?  Having considered the Ten Commandments, what will our view of the human condition be?  Remember that the purpose of all this study is not to grind you into dust or cause shame and guilt, but to see more clearly our great need for God’s intervention.

Introduction to the Ten Commandments

Please turn to Exodus 20, but before we look at the Ten Commandments, I want to mention several things by way of introduction.  As you may have seen in the video, there is great confusion about the Commandments, even among people who are Christian.  So let me speak to three points: Which ten is it?  Are they still binding with the New Testament, grace, and all?  And what is the scope of the commandments?

Which ten?  This is mainly just for information, and to unravel a bit of persistent confusion that’s out there.  Basically, different faith communities organize the commandments differently.  Look at verses 4-7.  Most protestants (that’s us) do the following: 1) no other gods; 2) no idols – don’t make them; don’t worship them; 3) do not take God’s name in vain.  What further confuses this organization is that some Protestants put “don’t make idols” with the first commandment and some with the second.  The predominant Protestant position, though, puts all the idol language in vv. 5-7 together in the second commandment.  The Catholic and Lutheran church does something different: 1) no other God’s includes no idols (all of vv. 4-7); 2) do not take God’s name in vain.  This would leave you short, right?  No; Catholics and Lutherans sub-divide the last one as 9) do not covet your neighbor’s wife; and 10) do not covet your neighbor’s possessions.  Interesting, eh?  Now you know.  I’m not sure it really matters in terms of the point of the commandments.  Each verse and part is important, whichever commandment it gets assigned to.  Each tradition still honors all the same verses.

Are the Ten Commandments binding on Christians?  By that I mean to ask whether this Old Testament Law still applies in after the writing of the New Testament and the coming of Christ.  We don’t still prohibit the eating of pork, do we?  The short answer is that Jesus said he didn’t come to do away with the Law, but to fulfill it.  We can look to him to see how he points people back to the heart of the Law, to the reasons for the ceremonial and purity laws, now fulfilled in him, and the moral Law, applied even more deeply as described in his teaching in Matthew 5-7.  We’ll look at that passage, the “Sermon on the Mount,” next week.

And that leads to the question about the scope of these commandments.  If you make it through life without killing someone, have you kept the sixth commandment against murder?  Is there more to it than that?  Yes, I believe there is!  A couple of years ago, we spent several months of Wednesday night Bible study looking at each commandment.  Using the scripture study and questions found in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and Jesus’ teaching on the commandments, we asked of each commandment, “What does it prohibit?  What does it require?  And what are the implications in the heart, for motivation and thought, before even considering action?”  We do not have the time today to look at each commandment and ask all those questions, but I do still have that study or could point you in the right direction if you want to think more deeply about the Commandments.  During the course of that study I found that I struggled with or broke every commandment in some way on a regular basis.  It was humbling, but also helped me realize all the more my dependence on God’s help and grace.
Covenant Document

With all that introduction out of the way, what then do I want to focus on?  I realize that most often we look at the Ten Commandments as a list and consider each one as a self-contained unit.  But the Commandments function as a whole, as a legal and moral whole.  Formally, they are presented as a covenant document. 

We’ve talked about the covenant before.  There are several in the Bible, but at heart each is God graciously reaching out toward humanity and offering to intervene and help in the human condition.  So God promises Noah never to send another flood – God makes a covenant.  God promises Abraham that he will give him land, children, and blessing – God’s initiative and God’s name on the line.  God promises David that he will establish his throne forever.  Those are covenants.  Human beings are a part, but God is the initiator and the faithful covenant-keeper.  After the slavery of Abraham’s descendants in Egypt, and God’s rescuing of them through Moses, God re-establishes the Abrahamic covenant with Israel and gives them the Law, including the Ten Commandments. 

If you look at the Ten Commandments as a whole, you can see the way they describe an order to life – a pattern of living in obedience to and relationship with God.  And it is that ordered life, which would also be understood in Scripture as a blessed life, that is in view for all who would trust God.
A God-ordered Life

The first three commandments describe a God-ordered life with God alone as priority, vision, and worthy of worship, love, and service.  They speak of God alone in the highest place, the place of worship, love, service, and obedience.  Nothing is to take God’s place or even compete.  It is the supreme and sole priority of God in our lives that orders all the rest of life.  So these commandments speak to idolatry and worship, to obedience and disobedience, to service and to selfishness. 

The fourth commandment (Sabbath) describes a God-ordered life in terms of work, rest, and time.  Often you will hear the commandments sub-divided into the first four about God and the last six about human relationship.  But the Sabbath commandment bridges between.  Most importantly, it speaks not just of one day in seven, but of all seven days.  It marks out our time as all belonging to God, subject to the commandments already given.  And part of ordering our life under God is to not to over- or under-prioritize work, rest, or the balance between the two.  Issues of work, recreation, family time, personal time, exercise, health, rest, and worship are all addressed in this commandment.  It is a prime example of how the Commandments bring order and structure to our view of time and life.

The fifth commandment (parents) describes a God-ordered life in terms of home and family.  So submitting our lives to God’s leadership and worship not only affect our use of time, but also our relationships.  The commandment to honor parents is more than respecting mom and dad.  It requires something of children, but also of parents.  It gets at all of family life, from respect to obedience to communication to how parents and children should relate throughout life.

The sixth through ninth commandments describe a God-ordered life in terms of our neighbors, not taking from them selfishly, but loving them selflessly.  Murder, adultery, stealing, and lying all take from those around us.  Their inherent selfishness breaks the first commandments and the community implications breech what Jesus will later call “love of neighbor.”  In these commandments, we see that God’s design for humanity is not just individual and internal, but societal and missional.  Indeed, you do see in the Ten Commandments what will be lifted up clearly in the New Testament, that the greatest commandments are love of God and love of neighbor. 

The tenth commandment uniquely points towards a New Testament perspective, where we must even guard our interior thoughts, guarding against temptation and the sinful attitudes that lead to sinful actions.  This aspect of the Ten Commandments is often overlooked; we think of the Ten as major crimes or sins of commission.  But here we see that continued longing for what we don’t have is itself sin.  Is this not Adam and Eve’s original sin in the Garden?

So I wanted to give you a broad enough overview to see the effect of the Ten Commandments taken as a whole.  What God holds up to us in these Commandments is a picture life ordered according to God’s wisdom, justice, and love.  I have compared the Law before to a parent’s rules for children.  You may play in the yard, but not in the street.  It is not only the rule, it offers safety, security, and in the extreme, even life over injury or death.  So also, the Ten Commandments are not rules to hamper us, but rules to set us free.
Out of Whack

I can’t see how anyone who spends any degree of time considering these commandments and being honest can conclude anything other than, “My life is out of whack!”  Remember this clearly: keeping or breaking the Ten Commandments isn’t about salvation.  Breaking them doesn’t take you out of consideration; keeping them doesn’t purchase you a ticket to Heaven.  Rather, they form a description of what a God-ordered and blessed life looks like.  To the extent that we experience that, we begin to get a sense of how good God’s word and will are for us.  To the extent that we fall short and live in disarray, we realize just what was lost in the Garden.

Like children, we may well be frustrated by the limitations imposed by the Commandments.  But as we grow in faith and trust in God, the Law-giver, we may see how life-giving and life-protecting the Commandments are.  Even as we see our failings and as we break the Commandments, we are offered the opportunity to rediscover God’s wisdom and love toward us. 
Need for Help

As you take an honest and realistic look at your life and the human condition in the light of the Ten Commandments, you should feel challenged to look at the way your life is ordered.  From the first through the tenth, the Commandments challenge us to ask what God’s place is in our lives.  We are challenged about how we use our time and treat our family.  We are confronted and challenged about how we treat our neighbors (reminded by Jesus that neighbor includes our enemies!).  And we are not let off the hook with externals only, but are challenged even at the point of inward desires.

And here’s the fine point I need to make one more time.  These are not rules by which we can measure and ask, “Am I good enough?”  That’s the value of considering this passage in conjunction with last week’s teaching on original sin.  The answer is that I am dead in sin – dead in sin.  The Ten Commandments are already an example of God coming after us, to breathe life and hope into us – to offer us boundaries and a home and a place of safety in a fallen world where we are already at play in the street.  God is already initiating His rescue plan.  So our attentiveness to the Commandments at once shows us how lost we are and how God is already coming to find us through His Word.

God’s Law cannot save from death, but for those living in the ashes between Eden and the end, the Commandments offer a temporary shelter in the present world, with all the hope of a God who is coming to save us from death itself.  Amen.

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