A New Law

Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Third Sunday in Lent.

Exodus 20:1-17
Then God spoke all these words: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work–you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

***

There comes a time in every relationship when you have to have “the talk.”

You probably know the one. It’s that conversation—often, though not always, awkward—where you sit down with another person and sort out what the rules and expectations are for your behavior with each other.

Within romantic circles, it even has its own acronym: DTR. Define the relationship.

Romantic relationships aren’t the only ones who benefit from “the talk,” though. Generally, relationships—whether they’re romantic, parental, professional, whatever—benefit from everyone being on the same page when it comes to expectations. We do this with our youth when we take them to Montreat—creating behavioral covenants so they know what’s acceptable and what’s not—so that they can trust we won’t come down on them on a whim. For another example, a large part of what I do in premarital counseling is just asking people to set out their expectations for their marriage together clearly, and to work through where those expectations come into friction.

Ironically, talking through the rules of a relationship lets people be freer with each other. They don’t have to guard their every word and action, worrying whether it will be deemed acceptable by their date or their boss. As long as they stay within the boundaries, they know things will be okay. At their best—when they’re reasonable and enforced fairly—rules reduce anxiety.

After all, it’s only once you know the rules can you really relax and enjoy the game.

Our scripture this morning is perhaps the most famous of the entire Old Testament. It is so famous that it carries its own weight, seeming to rest on us like a mass of granite. I hear people talk of the Ten Commandments often as if they were the burden Christians must bear.

And occasionally, as if they are the burdens we need to force others to bear as well.

In all honesty, though, the Ten Commandments are really just God sitting down with Moses, as the representative of the Hebrew people, and defining the relationship.

This is the Bible’s very own DTR.

Remember, at this point in their history, the Hebrew people do not know God. Not really. Not personally. In the Exodus God has swept in like the proverbial knight on the white horse to rescue them from the tower, which is a really exciting way to start a relationship, but now they’ve been hanging out for a while, wandering around the desert, and God has bought them dinner a couple of times (manna, quail, water from a rock), and the time has come.

The time for “the talk.” Where is this going? What does this God expect them to do now? What can they expect from this God?

So-called dating experts will tell you that a Defining the Relationship talk should happen at three months in. I’m of the opinion that every relationship has its own timetable, but I do have to note that the Bible specifies that Moses goes up the mountain to talk to God exactly three days after the third-month anniversary of their exodus from Egypt. Make of that what you will.

So Moses goes up the mountain, and God talks. What we know as the Ten Commandments are referred to in Jewish circles as the “diverim,” the words. The talk.

In romantic situations, the big question is often this—are you going to see other people, or be exclusive?

That seems to be foremost on God’s mind, too—and God has clear ideas about how this is going to go down. I’m yours, God says. Entirely yours—so be entirely mine. Don’t play the field with other gods. Don’t make idols of other gods to worship. You won’t need anybody else. I will take care of you.

This itself is perhaps the most revolutionary thought ancient Israel had to offer the world. Most ancient religions boasted a plethora of different gods, and it took a lot of work and energy and time to figure out which one to worship, and how, and when, depending on what you wanted them to do for you. Worship was a matter of playing the odds and hoping you got lucky.

God sweeps all that work and worry away. I am the Lord you God—I freed you, fed you, stayed with you. I’ll always stay with you. You can stop chasing other gods now. I’ll be enough.

Once the biggie is out of the way, God turns to other expectations, both for the way the Hebrew people will treat God—honoring God’s name and God’s Sabbath—and how they’ll treat each other—respecting each other’s integrity, avoiding actions that break apart communities and relationships. These are not outrageous, capricious laws. We can pick apart the nuances of honoring and coveting, but as a broad sweep, these are really pretty manageable. Respect God. Respect neighbor.

Where Christians have often turned the Ten Commandments into a burden, the Jewish people received them as a gift. What they knew about God was that God had great power—power to split the sea and drown Pharaoh’s army, power to turn rocks into fountains and darken the sky—and that kind of power is not comfortable to live near. Now they know what’s expected of them. From these ten commandments, they can sort their way through almost any situation.

The Ten Commandments represent a radical shift in ancient legal practice. As best we can tell from the records we have, no other ancient near East culture produced a set of broad, simple rules like this. Kings and priests had laws, of course, but they were reactionary. The Code of Hammurabi, for example, written in Mesopotamia in the second millennium BCE, is a complex set of 180 rules responding to specific situations—the punishment for neglecting to pay taxes, or the fine for stealing your neighbor’s donkey. It appears that these laws were being created in real time to handle real situations—which means there was no way of knowing beforehand what the rules might be. People did what they wanted to do and prayed the king would be lenient—or wouldn’t find out at all.

God short-circuits this kind of game-playing, this never-knowing what’s okay and what’s not. For the first time in the ancient world, a people have a clear idea of what their God expects of them. They don’t have to worry. They don’t have to guess. They can rejoice, knowing they can trust God not to punish without cause, and knowing God trusts them to be able to live within these boundaries.

Now, the Bible is full of case law, too. But these Ten Commandments come first, and if you get those right, the rest fall into place. Don’t take from God what belongs to God—worship, honor, time. Don’t take from someone else what belongs to them—their life, their property, their spouse, their right to fair trial.

The Ten Commandments are a new kind of law for a new kind of community. A community based not on fear and anxiety but on joy and trust.

One of the other lectionary offerings this morning was Psalm 19, and I want to read you a bit of it, just to capture that joy that we too often miss when we talk about law:

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring forever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb. (Psalm 19:7-10)

The poets of ancient Israel rejoiced in the Law. They rejoiced in knowing where they stood in God’s eyes and God’s heart. God was theirs; God said so without hesitation. And they were God’s. It was their privilege to act like it.

Most people agree that relationships are easier after the DTR. I think the ancient Israelites would agree. Now they know who they are and whose they are. No more worrying about whether or not God is going to dump them for a different people. God is in this for the long haul.

The very long-haul, as it turns out. I said earlier that relationships are often most successful when everyone in them understands the rules. Clear expectations are one of the markers of a strong relationship.

The other is forgiveness.

Even with our best intentions, even with the rules laid out as clear as day, even with the DTR firmly in the rear-view mirror of our relationship with God, we still mess up. We blunder. We run afoul of God’s hopes for who we can be together. We take what belongs to God and give it to others, and take what belongs to others and, too often, we take it for ourselves.

And so God also forgives us—and not just at random, not just when God is in a good mood—but always. God made that part of the expectation for our life together too, when God stood at a table next to someone who was already planning to betray him and handed him a cup to drink from and said “this is my blood, shed for you and for the forgiveness of sins.”

God’s forgiveness is built into our relationship with God. We don’t have to be afraid.

Instead, what we can be is joyful—even during Lent. Joyful that we have a God who comes down out of the clouds to talk to us. Who agrees to be ours, and claims us as God’s own. Who shows us how simple it could be, to treat each other well, to create communities where we don’t have to fear each other, fear violence or loss. Joyful that we don’t have to waste a day worrying what on earth we could do to please the Lord our God.

Friends, we know what pleases God. Love God, love others.

God has laid God’s card on the table. The question for us is, are we all in?

Are we willing to define the relationship on our side, and say yes?

Yes, we belong to God.

Yes.

Yes.

Amen.

 

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